Kentucky Route Zero, and the Dangers of Episodic Gaming
August 08, 2016

As much as I enjoyed Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero, I couldn’t but feel like there was something missing while I was playing it. The latest installment of Cardboard Computer’s low-key adventure game was released out of the blue last month after a two-year wait since the previous chapter. Just think about that for a second. An episodic game sold in installments went two whole years in between episodes. Back then, Donald Drumpf was still a joke in a “ha-ha” way, and not in an “oh fuck, he could actually become president this is horrific” sort of way. As memories fade, the basic emotions are what lasts the longest. I remember liking Kentucky Route Zero quite a bit. I remember appreciating its dreamlike Americana and that it had some sort of open world. I remember liking the game’s art style, full of sharp shapes and desaturated colors. I remember that one guy had a dog. But that’s about it. For a game that is so overtly focused on the small details and thoughts that go into creating a personality rather than a simple straightforward plot, an inability to recall what any of the various characters have done is a real blow to Kentucky Route Zero as a whole.

The episode begins on a boat, which makes sense given that the game often moves at a pace similar to a barge free-floating in the water, completely ambivalent about where or when it starts to drift somewhere. There are a lot of characters to keep track of (almost too many), and some of them have things they need to do, but they generally have the vibe of “eh, we’ll get there when we get there”. The switch to watercraft also comes with a switch in game structure. Since you’re never in control of the boat, Act IV becomes a more linear experience. You can choose whether to stop at a few locations here and there, but it still feels quite restrictive overall.

While traveling along the river, one member of your boat crew, Will, will take up a narrator-like role to describe surreal tales that may or may not have happened on the Zero that the player can help create through dialogue trees. These stories are told through inelegant walls of text that you just have to sit and read for a few minutes at a time. It’s not difficult to become bored during these moments.

Still, I was able to enjoy elements of Act IV. The magical reality of this world is immediately entrancing. The conversations between characters are unique both in content and framing. There’s a scene viewed through the lens of a security camera, while two new characters talk about their lives and watch recordings of your group passing through the place. A scene where Cate and Ezra pick mushrooms has you controlling both sides of their conversations, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a game before. A trip through an underground bat sanctuary is simultaneously unnerving and beautiful. The variety of the characters, the conversations they have, and where they have them keeps the game interesting despite the lack of forward momentum in the story.

The things I liked about Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero made the two-year wait and the faults of my memory all the more frustrating. There simply aren’t many like Kentucky Route Zero, and there was a clear moment near the end of Act IV that was supposed to be emotionally affecting, but it just didn’t do anything for me. Here’s hoping the wait for Act V is a slightly shorter span of time. But I’ll probably have to go back to the beginning before I see the end of this story.

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pickhut pickhut - August 10, 2016 (03:57 AM)
Oh wow, didn't know there was a huge gap between the acts, especially for Act IV. I almost bought this game several times throughout the last few years... I think I would have been really irritated waiting for those last two acts.

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