Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition review. Road to nowhere
I’ll be honest – my opinion of Kentucky Route Zero was extremely negative. For some reason that I myself don’t understand, I thought the game was a pretentious quest with convoluted puzzles and a rather dull story, with the only bright spot being the funny dog in a straw hat.
This cognitive bias did not dissipate even after release: I missed the moderate hype around the project and continued to consider Kentucky Route Zero as something not worthy of my attention. Only after friends told me about the game did I start to be interested in it: I like magical realism and stories written in the logic of dreams.
However, I don’t remember about Kentucky Route Zero, and the game’s name continued to linger unfinished in my backlog. The opportunity to familiarize myself with the project came at the end of this summer: TV Edition was released on the PS5, which, although it introduces some changes, allows for the convenience of playing the game on a large screen.
And that’s what I ended up doing. After all, I like closing unfinished business.
At the center of the game’s plot is a not-so-young courier named Conway, who works at an antique shop on the brink of closing. As is often the case in such stories, Conway receives a Last Delivery: he needs to deliver something valuable to 5 Dogwood Drive, which is located on the mysterious Zero Highway. Problems with the delivery begin for Conway right away. Firstly, this address seems to not exist and never did. Secondly, every unfortunate fellow he meets along the way not only doesn’t know how to get there, but also seems to aim to turn Conway’s already difficult journey into a convoluted loop without purpose or meaning.
Or…is it just an illusion?
At first glance, the plot of Kentucky Route Zero appears to be a series of weakly connected vignettes and interludes, often not directly related to the main character. Events here intertwine in time and space, mixing and unraveling time and time again, without fully understanding any of the plot lines. Developers emphasize this feature separately: all five episodes of the game can be played in any order, and the adventure can even be started with the formally final fifth act. Non-chronological progression will not greatly hinder the understanding of the heroes’ adventures.
There is no “anchor of normality” in the story that allows you to pick out real events and keep them separate from the strange things happening. The plot descends into the twilight zone as soon as Conway arrives at the gas station. Strange musicians in the bushes; mysterious people playing cards in the basement; a museum of unimaginable exhibits, secret tourist spots in Kentucky that no road leads to and no ordinary directory knows about – all of this is instantly dumped on Conway like a phantasmagorical snowball that isn’t even worth trying to decipher. You’ll just waste your time.
The only way to enjoy the world of Kentucky Route Zero is to simply accept the local logic as given, without expending effort to deconstruct the story. On the contrary, the game expects you to accept its rules and let the script carry you on waves of adventure. Of course, you can try to play KR0 in a “boring” format, reducing all conversations to a tedious discussion of that Zero Road. But then you risk depriving yourself of most of the fun of the game. It’s much more interesting to ask the cashier about loneliness, go to the musicians’ concert, or try to get a job in the bar hidden in the basement of a ruined church.
It’s difficult to explain the plot of the game. However, if you have watched anything by David Lynch, Ari Aster, or Charlie Kaufman; or have read Mark Danielewski’s legendary “House of Leaves,” you can roughly imagine what to expect from Kentucky Route Zero. It is by no means a horror or thriller (although some moments may cause something like anxiety). At its core, it is a story of a broken person’s mistakes, torn to shreds and hidden in different corners of the plot.
It’s interesting to follow, but despite my overall love for this style, some scenes seemed vastly different in quality to me. For example, I would contrast the stunning scene in the bar with the drawn-out episode in the port, which frankly made me bored. However, your adventure may unfold differently.
Under the weight of the “dream logic,” Kentucky Route Zero not only splits reality, but at some point, the narrative begins to break apart into pieces, and long flashback footnotes appear in dialogues, as if written by David Foster Wallace. The focus of the plot often revolves not around Conway himself, but on secondary (and sometimes completely anecdotal) characters.
The story and dialogues here are the main value, and they are written mostly well and vividly. However, it is difficult to praise anything else in the game, because there simply isn’t anything else here. The graphics are highly conditional: the backgrounds are practically unmarked, and the characters do not even have faces and other details – only outlines, which often turn into silhouettes shrouded in darkness. There is hardly any voice acting here: throughout the game, you will encounter a few voiced dialogues and musical themes, and mainly enjoy soft ambient sound (however, the sound design here is truly wonderful). There is no inventory, cinematics, and even gameplay is limited to choosing dialogue lines and transitions to points of interest.
This is, of course, an artistic concept: Kentucky Route Zero stimulates your imagination, making it work several times harder against the backdrop of an information hunger. However, there are still impressive scenes here: the picture on the TV can flow into a pastoral landscape with peacefully grazing horses, and during a song performance, the bar around the heroes can smoothly dissolve, revealing the night sky with bright stars.
I think that Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t need any other gameplay. More complex interaction with the world here would only distract and interfere with enjoying the story. Perhaps the most complex and elaborated element of the project’s gameplay is driving a truck between points of interest. In order to get to the right places, you will not only have to read the itinerary, but also follow directions of varying degrees of strangeness (such as driving counterclockwise).
Until the status of a bold experiment “for its own” the game still falls short: either the authors did not have enough money for it, or the courage. Probably, the second is still to blame: the status of “fanciful and abstract” carries too great risks. Now it’s just a good arthouse adventure with a low entry threshold. If you can endure the lack of gameplay and love to read, then at least trying Kentucky Route Zero is definitely worth it.
And perhaps it’s still worth passing by if you are not attracted to magical realism and incomprehensible stories, the meaning of which you have to dig into. Kentucky Route Zero is an absurd theatrical performance that will only bring pleasure with full immersion. Otherwise, everything you see will simply seem like unfunny nonsense and leave behind a bunch of questions that no one really intended to answer. Because the meaning of this story is not in the ending, but in the participation in it. In general, if you are one of these people, it’s better to stay away from the game.
And what about the rest?… the rest will eventually find themselves on a dusty road in Kentucky behind the wheel of a truck full of empty bottles. You’ll come up at a gas station, whose hospitable owner has no idea how to write poetry. You’ll meet a girl who knows how to fix radios, whose younger sister eventually becomes older than her. You’ll find yourself in a cave in front of a moldy computer, which stores the Perfect Algorithm in its memory. You’ll visit a citadel of bureaucracy, where no one is responsible for anything and no one knows anything. You’ll get drunk in a bar where it’s not customary to pay bills, and the bartender speaks in one-liners from action movies (or was it all a theatrical rehearsal?).
You’ll float on a ship, fly on an eagle, and listen to the stories of many broken but interesting people.
Or none of this will happen. You won’t listen to anyone. You won’t end up anywhere. You won’t meet anyone. Maybe you’ll be lucky to quickly get on the Zero Road and deliver the order to the client. It’s up to you, it’s your adventure.
The main thing is that you have somewhere to go.
P.S. Honestly, I don’t know what interesting can be said about the PS5 version. There’s nothing to break and nothing to test. The game looks the same as on other platforms, runs smoothly, and loads quickly. However, I would like to see fewer “staircases” – apparently, the developers decided not to bother optimizing assets for 4K resolution. Forgivable, but still a little disappointing.