Concerned with feel, atmosphere, and placing you into its spaces as a witness, the game mostly ditches puzzles and roadblocks to realign your focus and alter the level on which you engage with it. You’re not there to solve or beat it, though you remain intensely involved regardless. This approach works wonders for what was a decade-spanning project, packed with the fears of an increasingly unstable time, pulling its distinct aesthetic and direction from eras of theatrical stagecraft and architecture, beginning with a giant, metallic horse buried up to its neck.
It offers a world and narrative composed of seemingly disparate encounters and choices that coalesce to create a genuine attachment with the player. This goes beyond the obvious, prestige-grabbing allusions to other art and patronising decision-making often hailed as great video game storytelling. What you instead get is a tale that becomes increasingly personal precisely because it does not draw attention to the fact that you, the player, are key.
Here, I was constantly aware of time and my in- game spending of it, recalling a number of recent works’ focus on the minutiae of their protagonist’s strained existence and, typically, eventual devastating crawl towards oblivion.
The simple act of hopping back into Conway’s van presents you with the quandary of whether to immediately move on from that moment, that place, these characters, in a way that suggests the forward thrust of life in an otherwise (to begin with) purgatorial vision of the United States. It taps into our initial fear of experiences fading from us, then of not being able to forget.
And yet, despite the appealing alien believability of its blue-collar US, the dream-world dismantling of scenery and theatrical nature of its best sequences lend it additional life and poignancy. Our world is inextricably linked with that of these characters’; it’s a place where people appear to confuse small pieces of our fiction for their reality. It’s playful in rare ways that constantly surprise, amuse, or wisely obfuscate what may otherwise have been a straight sequence. Lines can be picked apart endlessly, but their impact couldn’t be clearer in the moment.
Cardboard Computer’s work here goes so hard against the grain of video game excess as to feel quite radical. There is much worth recalling, and it is smartly distilled and precise in its delivery. You also won’t be forced to travel its byways, side alleys, and pit stops if you don’t wish to do so, but you’d be missing out on scenes of strangeness, quiet unease, and even occasional levity: Kentucky Route Zero’s is a world well worth plunging yourself into.
It’s a sprawling epic where political and cultural observations are concerned, too. Over its decade-long stroll to completion, the game has often had its finger on the pulse of an America that has forever been horrid for most, yet would continue to morph in distressing ways that now seem so obvious.
This is a living nightmare drenched in dream-like gloss, where the working class fight an endless battle to assert their basic humanity; suffering the shame, uncertainty, and pain of it all on a daily basis while still believing in the small strides they make. We have to keep going in this system, there’s surely always a way; it’s the only one we know, if we even do.
The further you progress through the acts, the more challenging and then crushing the material grows, though it’s smart to preface its finale with what is essentially an extended respite for its characters. It’s seldom easy, with its run-down world’s inhabitants struggling to find eventual solace among the rubble, yet there is beauty and fleeting relief to be found everywhere, in the strangest of places and people.
With its tale now concluded, it’s clear that the individual strands of Kentucky Route Zero come together to form a coherent, affecting whole. It’s a one-off experience that chooses its influences wisely, never staying in one place long enough to be comfortably labelled. Dipping back into Cardboard Computer’s creation throughout the years has repeatedly reignited my interest in video games during times when I’ve felt my passion wane. It’s obviously somewhat conflicting to finally see it come to an end. But what an end it is.
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