I was afraid to write about this because I am always worried about spoiling this kind of stuff. So if you are going to play this game or you haven’t finished it, I’d rather you do that first before reading this, because I don’t really think there is a way to talk about this without spoiling any of it. Please go do so. If you have absolutely no intentions of finishing or playing this game, or you’ve already finished it, feel free to continue on.
There will be no spoiler tags.
So, again, be sure that if you want to play without spoilers, stop here.
A lot of games have less than 50% of owners playing it. Kentucky Route Zero is like 10-20%. I feel bad because I think gamers tend to underestimate how good writing, literally the words, juxtaposition, and everything else, can be so strong. Kentucky Route Zero takes that and structures it around an interactive, choice-making medium in such a way that doesn’t take away from the way words evoke feeling and meaning just because you can see actions or make choices. Its strength still feels as powerful as any traditional writing. It truly is a visual novel.
I went into Kentucky Route Zero thinking it was overhyped. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a classic adventure/point and click style game, although admittedly this game doesn’t really have puzzles. So I went in not knowing what to expect. Which…is no surprise because I tend to go blindly into games, because I like that. Immediately I love the simplistic style in the graphics. It makes things feel vague and mysterious. You can’t see any of the character’s faces. They’re just blank. Movement can sometimes feel sluggish. You spend a lot of time just looking.
The way the game presents itself is like myth and folklore. But not in the manner of viral videos or YouTubers talking about stuff. It’s like the normal everyday life of the belief. Everything feels all matter of fact. The perspective of the characters isn’t in shock. It’s a different cultural structure. It reminds me of how my family still works with balances of elements in Feng Shui. They just kind of exist and we exist within that sphere. Or one that is a little strange is that there are raccoon spirits in the households. If someone talks about them, there is no surprise if it is the spirit that caused something. There’s no unbelief. There is even an ancestral chart for the different spirits that have passed through the household. To be clear, this is not a Chinese thing, it is just lore from the family.
And saying that something happened by the raccoon spirits is not ignorance, it’s living within the in between of what is real and our mythos. Whether or not the scenes we experience in Kentucky Route Zero are real, take place in the afterlife, or are folklore, is not important. What’s important is that they happened and were felt.
There is a section about halfway through the series where you go on a trippy river called the Echo. On the Echo I notice a theme where everyone who lives there or hangs out there often becomes wanderers. They tend to forget why they travelled on the Echo. They end up drifting everywhere. There are so many stories that you can listen to and experience on this river. Before long on the Echo, I too forgot what I was there for. I became enveloped in the unique lifestyle of living in this place that resides in between the lines. Sure, we could say that it was the fact that this river winds for what feels like forever, but the presentation and experience was quite interesting.
One of my favorite moments was in a mostly empty store. The only thing showing you what is happening is text and audio. There are no graphics to describe these scenes. You can hear the hum of these machines that hold liquid in them. When you approach it the audio changes to represent that. And when you reach into one of the containers your mind wanders. The audio softens to represent that as well. It’s simple, and feels obvious, but reading text and feeling that audio is a fantastic experience. It’s not so far that it’s video gamey. It leans much further into the literature side of things, while also not being an audio book.
It is also perhaps the minimalist style that also makes room for the written word. Each graphical effect and gameplay element doing their duty, which is to tell a story through feelings, emotions, and words. There is so much reading here. And that is not a bad thing. I think it tends to drive gamers away, but they’re missing out. I love that so many of the characters are not there for you. You might be playing the main character, but the other characters don’t really care. I love that there is so much dialogue that is not necessary. The only necessity is if you want to take a look at these people in this world.
Speaking of taking a look, I think one of my favorite parts are the little micro episode things in between each normal episode. There is one where it’s just a phone and a phone number. You call the number and it’s an information service for tourism along the Zero. I spent a VERY, VERY long time listening to this phone. I even leaned my head against something on my shoulder as if I had the phone in real life and was listening to it for long periods of time. I suppose if I was not clear, this is an old wired phone. Maybe it helps that it looks so much like the one my family had while growing up.
Listening to this information recording talk about the different parts of the Zero as it’s a whole entire world unknown to us is so fascinating. And then there’s the fact that it always leaves something to the imagination. There’s always a little more mystery than can be exposed. There’s always a little something more to the mythos. It gives the feeling of how small we are in a world of myth and reality.
Here’s another in-between episode that I loved. I mean, these episodes still take place in the world of Kentucky Route Zero, so it’s not like we’re wasting time on these, but I believe they are optional. There is one where you watch this play in this very small theatre. If you look around you can also read how the play came to be and stories around the actors and audience’s reactions. There’s a surreal experience of learning such in depth material about something that you’re in the process of watching. It feels so personal that I can’t help but feel a weird relationship between the actors and also the actors as people. It’s that strange feeling of reaching into the depths of a world we know so little about, and in the end, it’s still about people.
I tried to be spoilery but I still kind of failed. Ha! I think I enjoy Kentucky Route Zero because it reminds me of the life I live. My life is full of mythos, not for the sake of fun or role playing, but because that’s how it is. I think I resonate with Kentucky Route Zero because it captures folklore very well. I also love it because it feels very sentimental: here, feelings are more important than facts.
Which brings me to my last point. I started this blog to talk about good game design, but I find myself lately talking about things in sentimentality. I am a very emotional person, what can I say? However, this usually doesn’t make good writing. I apologize for this, as I have decided to continue on this sentimental route. I will still talk as if talking to a friend. I’m not here to write an essay, even in my deep dives. I obviously still talk about game design, but ultimately this is a website about praising games, and that tends to bring along with it a lot of sentiment. So thank you for reading if you do.
Kentucky Route Zero is a very sentimental game. I don’t want people playing it if they’re not going to like it. I am worried people will think it will be a tremendous waste of time, but I feel that those who do resonate with it will have one of the best experiences in gaming. Ever.
Kentucky Route Zero is #9 on the ULTRA.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next time.