Kentucky Route Zero’s development has finally drawn to a close, almost eight years after its first act was released. The complete collection, Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition, closes the curtain on its story of small town surrealism. As a Kentuckian I can agree that its rural setting has that sort of timeless quality about it. However, despite the ample praise heaped upon its first four acts over the years, as a newcomer to Cardboard Adventure’s “magic realist” game I feel this setting is almost entirely wasted on it.
While I’ve heard of Kentucky Route Zero, playing the TV Edition on the Nintendo Switch (it’s also available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC) was the first time I got my hands on it. As such, I experienced it a little differently than most fans have. Instead of getting the whole thing piecemeal with a year or two (or four in the case of Act V) between episodes, I got the whole damn pie at once. But my first time with KRZ wasn’t as delicious as that sounds.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review | My Old Kentucky Home
I live in Kentucky. I grew up here. I’ve been down Dixie Highway (31W) over a thousand times, from Louisville, down through West Point, Radcliff, and Elizabethtown, and still further south. I haven’t spent a ton of time in the area between Glasgow and Bowling Green where the game predominantly takes place, but I know it fairly well.
Regardless of the fact that one of the developers is from Elizabethtown, as far as I can tell, the area was only really used because of Mammoth Cave National Park. I totally get that. Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system that’s ever been discovered. There is something inherently mysterious about caves, especially when there’s 415 miles of them all linked together. However, like almost every piece of media ever created about Kentucky, KRZ just concentrates on the fact that our commonwealth is known for caves, coal mining, bourbon, horses, and bluegrass music.
I don’t harbor any great love for my state, but it does wear thin when works go out of their way to feature Kentucky only to focus on stereotypically Kentuckian topics. Maybe it’s the fact that every time I tell someone I’m from here they say something about the Kentucky Derby that makes me a bit raw. Regardless, Kentucky Route Zero underutilized the setting and makes us seem like we’re all depressed, poor, banjo-picking, coal miners who just can’t wait to drink us some bourbon whiskey back home on our horse farm.
There’s plenty of interesting stories that could be told using Kentucky as a backdrop. For one, if you really wanted to go with the coal miner aspect, the horrific downward spiral of communities in Eastern Kentucky as coal mines close, leaving thousands out of work, would be something great to examine. Or, you could take a look at the divide in culture between Western and Eastern Kentucky. Instead, Kentucky Route Zero is a story that could have been told with any backdrop.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review | Surrealism as a substitute for substance
Of course, when I say Kentucky Route Zero is telling a story, I use the term loosely. Instead, the whole thing comes off as some rambling fever dream which uses surrealism as a substitute for substance. You play as Conway, a delivery man who is attempting to find 5 Dogwood Drive so he can drop off a load of antiques. This evolves into some sort of examination of the nature of debt, the meaning of family, and Route Zero itself.
You move Conway through his travels with the left analog stick, and interact with your environment when a prompt pops up. Its camera remains in a wide zoom overlooking each scene, and as there are no camera controls, you can’t manually zoom in and out. So, if your vision isn’t great (mine isn’t), it can be tough to play.
This was especially true in scenes that were dark or that had wide camera angles. In one location in particular I completely lost sight of my character and just had to move the stick back and forth until they eventually walked where I could see them. Aside from this, it looks good and runs well on the Switch, and its vague, somewhat geometric art style calls forth the surrealistic setting. The lighting is also very well done and highlights the mood of each scene.
The titular Kentucky route is a mysterious, surreal, pathway that acts as some sort of limbo for the lost spaces of the world. The idea is interesting, but the execution is odd. You don’t actually spend a lot of time on Route Zero, and the idea of it being some sort of pathway that connects lost places is only flitted upon now and then.
For the most part, you listen to people ramble in a semi-sensical way about this or that. The vague impetus pushing Conway forward, delivering his antiques, seems nonsensical as supernatural things are constantly occurring around him and his entourage. Of course, none of this is addressed, and the game doesn’t attempt to make any sort of rules as to how any of this far out stuff works. In this way it’s a bit like Twin Peaks, but unlike that masterpiece series there’s no great imperative to push the story along.
Kentucky Route Zero‘s biggest fault is it lacks a Laura Palmer to drive it forward. Instead, people flit in and out of the picture, playing their role as if on a stage, and imparting some vague story of love or loss that could be mistaken as a moral. The plodding pace prevented me from continuing the suspension of disbelief, which is murder for a title that focuses so heavily on fabulism. The game never develops much of a hook, and its mysteries are too ill-defined and sporadically-examined to pique much interest.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review | If Wishes Were Horses: A Love Story
When it comes down to it, I suppose Kentucky Route Zero is primarily about debt and the toll it takes on society. However, the story behind the game was obviously inspired by The Great Recession of 2008. Twelve years later, looking with more pragmatic eyes, those days were just a (large) dip in the relative prosperity the United States had enjoyed for decades before. (I know this is a huge simplification of this topic, just bear with me or this review will end up being novella-sized.)
Now that the economy has largely recovered from those admittedly unsure days, the message behind Kentucky Route Zero comes off as a bit too dystopian. As in most anti-capitalist works, especially in the video game world, KRZ focuses entirely on the problem and not at all on the solution past a naive hand wave. Hell, even a treatise on socialism or communism would have been welcome just to give some sort of catharsis to the constant hand-wringing about predatory business practices.
Works like KRZ always feel incredibly shortsighted to me, because the US has experienced at least one recession every decade (except for the 1910s) since the beginning of the 20th century. The game really feels like it wants to be some sort of modern day Grapes of Wrath or Harlan County, USA. However, its surrealism keeps it from being grounded enough to have anywhere close to the impact of those two iconic titles. In this aspect, playing Kentucky Route Zero made me feel like I was some sort of discount Dorothea Lange taking thousands of photos trying to capture a poignant moment of “those poor southerners” and then realizing that the lens cap was on the whole time.
Kentucky Route Zero is political, but it’s political in the same way an 8th grade mock election is. I remember in the 2000 elections we had a whole deal in history class where we studied Bush and Gore and their platforms. Then we all voted by raising our hands. I was one of two people who voted for Gore, but I just did it to be contrary because everyone else voted for Bush. That’s kinda how this game feels. It’s just rubbing against the grain because it wants to say it doesn’t like the status quo. However, it does nothing of meaning to offer an alternative, which gives it as much meaning as me voting for Al Gore by raising my hand in an 8th grade classroom.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review | The importance of provocation
All the above being said, the plot isn’t broken in Kentucky Route Zero. I guess it ends up making sense in the context of its own world. Obviously, a lot of people find it to be completely enchanting, and I sincerely wish I could have gotten that amount of enjoyment out of it, but I didn’t.
I will say there is something unique about Kentucky Route Zero‘s presentation. I can objectively see why it may be charming to some people. I’m a fairly pragmatic person; I like stories to establish the rules and abide by them, and I have very little use for things that wax poetic. KRZ is not one of those games.
The most important thing about Kentucky Route Zero is that it does provoke a response in people. I obviously didn’t like it. But, it did get me to think a lot about why I didn’t. That’s more than I can say for many games I’ve played over the last decade. It’s the kind of title that gets under your skin, either in a good or bad way, and makes you want to unwrap and understand it.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Review | A coffee table game
Regardless of my personal feelings about Kentucky Route Zero, it is proof of gaming’s power as a medium. While it does strike me as “art for art’s sake,” I can’t say that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m not going to be someone who gatekeeps whether or not a game should have a deep and personal meaning to someone, even if I got nothing out of it myself.
Kentucky Route Zero is a coffee table book of a game. I don’t feel like you’re really supposed to try and take it all in as a whole. Instead, KRZ, with it’s myriad of references and views, seems like it’s supposed to be taken a piece at a time. Some players are sure to absolutely love that, while others, like me, would prefer something more grounded.
I don’t like Kentucky Route Zero, but I’m glad it exists.