Getting to grips with Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, which literally brings its fictions to life.
While only being two acts into its promised five, Kentucky Route Zero has shown itself to be a game interested in taking a sledgehammer to typical videogame narrative. Playing like a mixture of Mammoth Cave and Silent Hill, set to a bluegrass soundtrack as directed by Bertolt Brecht, there really is nothing else quite like it. It’s a fascinating, episodic, point-and-click adventure game with the main focus being its ethereal atmosphere.
The game puts you in the shoes of Conway, an antique salesman whose history and personality are effectively left blank. It is down to you to fill them through the choices offered by the written dialogue. The main plot simply involves Conway having to deliver an unknown package to an address on ‘Dogwood Drive’. To do this, you must take the Kentucky Route Zero, a seemingly endless highway not bound by any physical laws. From there, the game delves into a hauntingly wondrous trip through old Americana, jumping from one fantastical, mind-bending scene to another.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game with a unique vision and the developers, Tamas Kemenczy and Jake Elliot of Cardboard Computer, seem to want to convey it in any way possible… no matter how strange.
A certain aspect that has turned a few heads recently is the game’s rather baffling side-products. Cardboard Computer, between releasing new acts for the game, have taken to creating supplementary mini-games that seem to tie in not only with the story of the main game, but also with real-life happenings. Maybe.
The first of these mini-games was a ‘virtual exhibition’ known as ‘Limits and Demonstrations’, which features in-game representations of the art of a late, apparently long-forgotten, conceptual artist called Lula Chamberlain (who is also featured as a character in the main game). Now this is weird enough, creating an interactive, posthumous exhibition which acts as an extension of the game, but it gets weirder.
The thing is Lula Chamberlain might not exist. Almost everything written about her has treated her like a real life person. There are pictures of her etc., but these articles only started appearing after Limits and Demonstrations was released. Also, there is no documentation of her works that I could find outside Limits and Demonstrations (which incidentally was an exhibit at a real arts exhibition).
More recently they released another mini game called ‘The Entertainment’, which places you in the shoes of an actor playing the non-speaking part of a bar-fly at a student production. This mini-game, unlike Limits and Demonstrations, is in first-person. This means you are free to scan the scene, reading stage directions as you passively watch the main actors converse in front of you. You can also turn around and directly face the audience, being met with text boxes dictating their future mediocre reviews of the production. As you set your gaze across the stage you come face to face with a rather familiar face, Lula Chamberlain. She is detailed in the stage directions as the set designer of the production. Not only that, but the play featured in the game has now been released as an actual real life fucking play, attributed to original playwright Lem Doolittle who also maybe/probably doesn’t exist. Maybe.
Why would the developers go to this much effort? Kentucky Route Zero seems to be blurring the lines between reality and the game more effectively than any other I’ve seen, and it’s fascinating to witness. The content of the game itself is already enough to spark interesting discussion, but this is something else.
At the very beginning of the game there is a scene that features three people playing a board game. While arguing over the rules, one of the characters says, “This game looks like a tragedy…” When I spoke with Jake Elliot, he related this scene to being “like a chorus in Greek or Elizabethan theatre”. Both Limits and The Entertainment feel like a chorus themselves, a commentary or narration on the main game. In what way they compliment the game remains unclear, and with the story less than half finished it’s hard to tell how they will.
Seeing how non-typical the game is so far it seems redundant to try and second guess what will happen, it’s like trying to predict what hapens in Eraserhead. However, there is a suggestion that a character called ‘Junebug’ will be introduced. She was metioned in passing in The Entertainment, and is featured in the original 2011 trailer. The other character in that trailer ‘Ezra’ having already been introduced.
Kentucky Route Zero feels like something big, something special, giving us glimpses of a strange meta brilliance, but never the full picture. Whether it will ever give us the full picture is doubtful. With the third act surely on the horizon, but with no confirmed release date, you will have to wait in order to experience whatever the game has to offer next. One thing is for certain though and that is that Kentucky Route Zero is going to keep on surprising.
Link to the game on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/231200