I’m both early and late to this party: Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, but it’s an episodic game and 4 of 5 episodes are out. The last one should be out, oh, any day now.

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On a magic realist tour, always stop for the music

It’s a weird little game, though if you started with Grim Fandango, threw in some García Marquez, and marinated it in Southern Gothic, you’d end up about here. It’s mostly text adventure, but it makes effective use of some evocative, beautiful visuals. It largely tells a tale rather than letting you shape it, but your choices affect your experience immensely. And everything, from tone to which character is the protagonist, is subject to change.

The basics: you start out playing a truck driver named Conway, who gets lost trying to deliver a shipment of antiques. He stops off at a gas station and learns that the address he’s looking for is more or less in neverland– it’s on the titular Route Zero, an underground highway that you can’t get to by normal means. He’s sent on an increasingly bizarre quest to find the entrance to this highway.

Along the way he picks up a very motley crew of other strange loners: Shannon, a girl he finds in an abandoned mine; a boy named Ezra who hangs with a giant eagle and whose parents have disappeared; Junebug and Johnnie, traveling musicians who happen to be robots, though no one is gauche enough to hassle them about it; Cate, who runs a tugboat along an underground river and also serves as a midwife. We end up learning quite a lot about each of them and their predicaments.

A lot of fantasy is empowerment fantasy. Not here. Magic realism is a sort of inversion of Samuel Beckett: ultimately the universe is bleak and tragic, but damn if we aren’t going to have some fun along the way. The story of KRZ is full of terrible things: a flooded mine, unscrupulous corporations, infuriating bureaucracies, debt, decay, and medical emergencies. Against all this, there’s only friendship, kindness, and music. The story hints that Conway has a tendency to look for escape in a bottle. But there’s other kinds of escape, even if only momentary, like the sudden dizzying pans or zooms in KRZ’s visuals where you realize that the flat-seeming images are really 3-D modeled.

There are a lot of references to other works… let’s just say that very few of the names in the story are random. It’s not intrusive, though, just a nod to fellow travelers.

I mentioned Grim Fandango as being closest to what KRZ is like as a game.  You don’t really have the puzzles, however, or the hope of a happy ending. (We’ll see. I hope at least someone in the story gets one.) You make choices, almost always by choosing a line of dialog.

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OK, not a fascinating choice, but it’s the only screenshot I had that showed choices.

I’ll warn you right now: it seems like your choices don’t impact the overall story at all. (But we’ll see when Act 5 comes out.) You get about the same story in the same order no matter what you do. And yet the choices aren’t meaningless; they’re a low-key form of roleplaying. You can choose to be distanced, or empathetic. You can intensely pursue your quest goals, or you can accept digressions.  You can define some of the characters’ pasts and how they feel about them.

In some ways the game, without redefining the basic idea of a dialog tree, makes it work better than almost any other game. The big Bethesda and Bioware games almost always give you three basic options: be nasty, be helpful, or don’t get involved. The choices here may not be highly consequential, but they’re generally all reasonable, at least.

The story opens out quite a bit in Act 4, where you’re travelling on Cate’s tugboat, making various stops. At each one you choose which character you want to follow. So here you can really only get half the story, though apparently (I haven’t tried replaying it) you get hints of what happened in the other branch.

Oh, a warning that might avoid some surprised swearing: the game has three save slots, but it doesn’t remember which one you used last. I thought it hadn’t saved my progress at one point, but it had– I just had to choose the right save slot.

Will you like it? Well, if your idea of a game is “shoot all the things”, maybe not. I think it has its longueurs; on the other hand, I’m eager to see how it all comes together in Act 5. For the most part it’s aiming at a particular strain of melancholy, leavened by some comedy and bemused folksiness (none of the characters quite knows what’s going on, though some are less troubled by this than others). Mostly it hits its marks.

Sometimes it’d be nice if it really gave into the weirdness, gave you some of the exhilaration of parts of (say) Edith Finch. But that would probably spoil the quieter bits, which you’d rush through to get to the set pieces. This is a game where some strangers bonding over mushroom hunting (next to an underground river), or deciding whether or not to talk to the dog in the straw hat, are as important as pursuing Conway’s increasingly unlikely delivery.

 

 

 

 

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