I know that it sounds cliched, but it is the truth – there are no games I have seen or played that is exactly like this. If I were to have a crack at explaining it: It’s a Magical Realist Americana novela, masquerading as a point and click game. It’s also one of my favourite games of this year.
For those not in the know, KRZ originally started as an episodic experiment in 2013, rolled out each month by a small team of three first time developers. As they saw that the project was growing arms and legs and becoming harder to contain, they took their time in developing the later chapters, filling in the blanks with smaller pieces but taking longer to fit everything together. Seven years on, five chapters and five interludes later, KRZ has finally been completed and released for consoles and PC.
At first glance, the game operates with the typical mechanics of a point and click game; with one thumbstick selecting points of interest and the other guiding the selected character. Outside of the format, the game evades linearity and conventional choices whenever it can, and that weirdness makes it so captivating. Unlike some other games of its ilk, the choices you make are less to provide agency and create drastic changes in the storyline, but more to personalise your experience of the plot and to add texture – it feels like you are adjusting the tones of the colours in a painting. That uniqueness extends to other aspects.
Let’s talk about the story, for one.
At the start you play a grizzled delivery driver called Conway, who is tasked with one last antique delivery job. The only problem is, the address is elusive and vague, forcing you to trek across a variety of vistas, meeting a large cast of characters and incrementally exploring the world of Kentucky Route Zero. Also, this game gives no f*cks about taking the longest route possible to get there, opening up interesting stories that enrich the text. You meet a young boy whose big brother is a giant eagle that carries people across a massive lake, for example; you meet academics scraping off moss in a computer inside a cave and you can ride on a boat powered by a mechanical mammoth. This is delightfully unconventional.
This all culminates into making the game feel like a hazy, sleep-deprived dream. How much of is it hallucinations and realism? As the game deepens, the characters you control become larger and larger and it becomes less about Conway and more about how his story is a small piece of a colourful mosaic. There are periods where both sides of a conversation are chosen by you and it creates an impression of you being a director in a theatre play and less of a player. It feels voyeuristic, like you are listening in to conversations and shouting acting notes to change the mood of the performance. Oftentimes the game take queues from theatric productions, blending outside and inside “sets” until it becomes difficult to differentiate.
This all makes Kentucky Route Zero a genuinely stunning game to play, with sections that look like art-pieces and with symbolism that is bold and imaginative. Its atmosphere is so thick and chewy, like you can physically reach in and pull apart the layers with your hands.
Each one of the game’s chapters examines the sacrifices and hardships of working class Americans, their suffocating debt and also, maybe the banking crisis of 2008? It’s a story that is particularly bleak but also transfixing. It’s like a ghost story of the death of the American Dream, where no one is aware that success is out of reach and that they are simply trying to make it another day in one piece. The soundtrack, composed and performed by Ben Babbit is oftentimes reworked interpretations of dustbowl blues oldies, layering them into Greek Choruses that float halfway between us and the “stage” where the characters play. Even though he is often the sole singer and creator in the game, he is creative in stretching the variety when he can. Warping and modulating to thicken harmonies and pitching his voice occasionally to make him sound like a woman.
Some of the songs featured are genuinely emotional and play a big part of the story, with quite a few I refuse to spoil (in the faint hope that I haven’t lost you by now).
The issue with this game falls down to a few things. I think the game requires a lot of patience and time to not only invest in the game, but to decode the themes of the story and what it is trying to say. The interludes take even bigger swings in a bite-sized format and I think some are more successful than others – I feel some people will want to skip them entirely. It is very unlike a game in that it borrows from other mediums, which again will lose some casual gamers who want to switch off their minds and just play. But for those that do invest their time, and peel back the layers, I feel they will be rewarded with a rich piece of art.