Of all the video games to come out of the blossoming in the independent development scene over the past decade, none breach the old preconceptions of how a game looks, feels, or plays like Kentucky Route Zero. Developed by Cardboard Computer, the game began to unfold with the release of its first “act” in 2013, and it’s now hitting the end of that road, with the fifth and final act due out today after a long delay. Consistently praised as one of the greatest games ever, now is the prime time to play it for yourself.
It’s easy to describe KRZ but difficult to satisfyingly convey what experiencing it is like. The basic format is familiar even to the layperson. It’s a point-and-click adventure just like the popular computer games of the ’90s. But it’s far more elusive to elucidate the presentation, style, and above all else the singular mood of the game. The designers took inspiration from magical realism, Southern Gothic, Tennessee Williams, David Lynch, the history of computer programming, and much more — an unusual collage of touchstones for a young art form generally consumed with self-references. Keeping that in mind might give you a better picture, but it’s still no substitute for playing the thing itself, as KRZ uses those forebears as a foundation for its own interests rather than merely imitating them.
The plot follows a host of characters traveling “The Zero,” which runs through a fantastical version of Mammoth Cave National Park, as they encounter a variety of surreal places and situations. A deliveryman encounters ghosts playing a board game in the basement of a gas station. There’s a boy whose brother is a gargantuan eagle. A tugboat shaped like a woolly mammoth traverses an underground river. The game wraps you in such sideways logic, full of dreamlike dialogue. (“The password is … uh … damn. I usually just feel it out. ‘Muscle memory,’ you know?”) It’s in these aspects that the game’s Lynchian and magical realist influences are most apparent. How it truly absorbs you, though, is in its continual experimentation with interaction.
In nearly all games, the fundamental relationship is that the player inputs whatever number of actions needed to make the game move the story along from one point to another. This is a format that is being broken and toyed with more and more as the medium evolves, and KRZ tackles it by making the player highly conscious of their role. Cardboard Computer took heavy inspiration from stagecraft when designing the game. Characters acting against zoomed-out tableau are a staple of the point-and-click adventure genre, and here the game turns its locations almost into dioramas. It is not new to remove the fourth wall on an interior to let the player in, nor to even let them also see the exterior and heighten that dollhouse effect, but KRZ goes further by continually shaking up that presentation. One sequence in Act IV is presented entirely from the point of view of various security cameras observing the characters in a sinister research facility, making palpable their unease and emphasizing their status as subjects of a bizarre experiment.
Kentucky Route Zero has an incredibly dense script, with even minor interactions featuring multiple possible variations, based on the many dialogue choices granted to the player. Many games present illusions of choice while railroading the player onto one story; this one instead lets you play out the story with whatever feeling you choose to approach it. A prime example of this is a showstopper musical sequence in Act III, in which you get to pick the lyrics of the song being sung. The melody is the same, but what it means is entirely in your hands. That’s an experience few games have been able to conjure.
Kentucky Route Zero Act V, as well as the TV Edition (the full version of the game for consoles), are now available for various platforms.