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Review: Kentucky Route Zero: Act I

Do you know what the illicit result of a one-night stand involving Eric Chahi, Neil Gaiman and David Lynch would be? Kentucky Route Zero; that’s what it would be, and if you can’t picture that fabulous union, I don’t know if we can be friends any more.

Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Cardboard Computer
Platforms: PC
Website: kentuckyroutezero.com

If I were desperate to, I could put Kentucky Route Zero in a box labelled “point-and-click adventure”, but not without first hacking it up with a machete and running it through a meat grinder. That’s because it’s decidedly non-genre – and it’s not, strictly speaking, a game. (Those who have read my latest column are welcome to roll their eyes.)

Now savvy: you’re not here to plug away at Goldbergian puzzles and try to fit toasted sandwiches into pixel-sized holes and whatnot, okay? You’re here to poke about and watch and listen. This is pure narrative, beautifully delivered, and with nothing getting in the way.

The story of this first act of five involves a sort of shaggy-dog hunt for the entrance to a secret freeway that twists beneath the face of Kentucky. Though the episode is pretty short, it lights up the beginnings of a slow, backcountry burn through a landscape that is a soft-focus kind of surreal. Everything, everything in it broods over a sense of weight and import.

Up front, Kentucky Route Zero (which, incidentally, has the best name of this geological epoch) paints a hyper-stylised world that feels immediately iconic; assisted by some properly superb sound, it slips past like a tranquilised trance, cosy and ominous. It all wraps a core of characters who glow jewel-bright thanks to writing delivered in a style that is both jaunty and opiated, and a plot that grasps with soft sinuous fingers, eventually tipping you out exactly when you’re desperate for it to continue.

Splendidly, much of the experience will pass you by if you don’t root about, exploring map-view back roads in a delivery truck that presumably runs on an endless supply of Kentucky moonshine. Find the right wrong turn and you’ll come across one of a good few diversionary scenes that play out mainly in a Twine-like text box.

These miniature arcs lead nowhere, develop nothing, and yet feel perfectly fitting because they conjure the same indecipherable upwelling of feeling created by finding a love letter written by somebody long dead, or seeing a child’s drawing on the wall of an abandoned office building.

Indeed, some of the real skill of this storytelling comes through in the fragrant distortion of ordinary things, in the aggregated sense of countless personal apocalypses striking through a landscape that has been carpet-bombed with economic hardship. The story carries a languid brand of uncanny, much of which is unveiled in the dialogue.

About that dialogue. It’s quite something. At each step of a conversation you’re given the option not so much to shape the world as to shape your character. And no, I don’t mean in the age-old choice between Boy Scout, pathological neuter and demonic Satan spawn. These are real things to say, not split among moral kingdoms; there are socially scripted options that make you feel bad and boring for picking them, and there are options that mark a breathless geography of thought and loss and loneliness. Some options forge ahead with the inimitable logic of dreams.

Something you’ll notice early on is that you can strike up a conversation with your dog. She (or he – whichever you decide) doesn’t talk back, but serves as a silent listener for characters to bounce their thoughts against. It’s a fabulous touch, and it gives the story that extra bit of heft. Man, that dog.

Really, in every way, Kentucky Route Zero is a deeply important departure, and one of a very few marking the infiltration of real literature into the realm of video games. I’m probably getting a bit ahead of myself here, seeing that this is only the first episode of a five-part series, but I’m confident this journey is only going to get better. And stranger.

Fair warning: at $7 for about two to three hours’ play (or $25 for all five episodes, as they come out), it is a bit on the expensive side. My opinion? Totally worth it.

Go find out for yourself, already.

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