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Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. read more

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world

Author: Benjamin Price

Category: Guide

Understand how the game Kentucky Route Zero sees itself, the world and you. Try something a little different as you're taken down a surreal world of a delivery driver and come out the other side wondering if you'll ever be the same again. Whilst a strange and daunting one, understand that different is good and this guide is here to help you get the best out of your time playing it.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world
You’re Conway, at least right now, a truck driver working as a delivery man for an antique shop. You’re hired to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive. You’re told it’s on the Zero. Yet in a time where roads were built all across America, does the name itself suggest that this route was there long before humans started building routes? That this route has evolved or adapted into a world of humans? Possibly.

Nothing is ever made clear in Kentucky Route Zero, deliberately so. So what should you do to get the best experience?

Emulation of Theatre

Understand that Kentucky Route Zero is the closet adaptation of theatre in a video game. Rather than  simply putting us in a theatre or making the characters wear outlandish costumes, KTZ instead captures the very essence of theatre by using a bunch of its techniques and combining them very well with game techniques.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. Beyond Woods
As you walk through levels characters disappear and reappear, showing the passage of time. Scenes are held together on ambiance alone as pieces of set are each given their specific sounds. Background music speaks to something far deeper than just a game OST, but instead is actually a part of the world. Exploring levels are akin to stages, with set pieces the characters interact with.

Decisions will only matter to you

It’s important to note that you do have a series of choices and from those you can make a decision. Yet there is also no complete dialogue exploration. No splitting story paths. No “Paragon” or “Renegade” options. KTZ allows you to take control the flow of the dialogue, or the people you talk to, or the things you look at, yet it never lets you completely change characters, or kick out characters or suddenly explore a completely open world.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. Decisions decisions
The story instead is personal. It’s your playthrough. No one elses. This can be seen best in the very first act where you are given a choice to name your dog. You could give him no name at all if you picked. And in the end, it had no impact on the story. But it’s your dog, and whenever you call for it, you’ll call for it by the name you picked.

Try both sides of the coin

You’re often given the option in KTZ to keep things on or turn things off. It’s in the majority of players natural instincts to keep things turned on, beaten into us by horror games that we must have some music, or some light, or some dialogue going all the time. KTZ itself has this option, you can fill the stage with as much light, sound and dialogue as there is to exhaust in its amazingly crafted scenes.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. What does the darkness hold?The true experience however comes from when you allow the scene to unravel with as little as possible, cause after all not all is as it seems in KTZ. If we’re constantly shining a light on the backgrounds, or constantly have the radio on or speaking all the time; the other world never comes out. It speaks absolutely wonders when a world opens up when you switch everything off, the history of the world speaks through the dark pathways, or the silence allowing the music of the past to come forwards.

Understanding the Art

KTZ is a game heavily influenced by eras. It is, in essence, one of the first games to do true artist referencing. It’s designed with references from the Great Depression and Great Recession.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. The decaying American dream
It has references to modern architecture, most of its scenes are designed like stages and take reference from plays such as “Death of a Salesman” and film directors like David Lynch.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. Theatre InspirationKentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. The story of those lost
It uses the landscapes of Mammoth Cave National Park as backdrops and plot.

Kentucky Route Zero – Understanding this surreal world. Underneath the great mountain range
It's creating its own world.

Kentucky Route Zero is doing what most gaming isn’t doing, it’s referencing reality and making art out of it. Whilst most games create fantasy world, or look towards possible dystopian futures, or give us the same grey, dry screens over and over again; KTZ seeks to do its own thing and be treated like proper art. To be wholly unique and to talk about things that gaming barely ever talks about.

The reality of KTZ - It's what you make of it

This isn't a story like you usually experience. We're not saving the world, getting revenge, or desperately trying to survive. We're just trying to deliver a package, but even that will probably get lost along the way. You could just click your way through it and not think about any of the answers the characters have given. Or any of the choices you have made. But give it a little more than that, give it a proper sit down and time to play. It's a story about living, about experiencing, about there not being any solid answers. It's by no means an easy game.

It’s a tough sell. Many people who watch movies, or play games or read don’t come in to be challenged or to specifically think. Yet in a world of the same assets being used again and again and again, of sequels being pumped out continuously, of live service games where no point is made but to keep players playing.

I think we should all take a moment to appreciate Kentucky Route Zero. It’s not just a game, it’s an experience.

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