Just a quick re-introduction: I’m Alex Higgins. I make computer games in my free time, and in addition to writing about games and keeping a personal development log for my blog, Sassy Echidna Software, I intend to regularly contribute to Beta Fish! I’ll mostly be writing indie game reviews for this column, Radical Plaything, but I may also be writing some game-making tutorials in the near future, in addition to writing on various other topics.
For my first review, I’ll be taking a look at the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, an episodic, theatrical, point-and-click adventure by Cardboard Computer that will eventually be released in five acts. At first, I was reluctant to recommend a game of which only a fifth was released, but from the tiny morsel that Cardboard Computer’s released, I can already tell that, when it’s finished, KRZ is really going to be something special. The game’s opening act is one of the most atmospheric and original gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Act I of Kentucky Route Zero opens with the first of the game’s protagonists, Conway, driving up to a gas station in a truck filled with antiques to be delivered. He asks the proprietor for directions to his destination, but the he tells Conway that the only way to reach the destination is to find and travel the fabled Route Zero, and thus the magical-realistic adventure begins.
Although the game is fundamentally a point-and-click adventure, KRZ departs from most of the usual expectations of the genre. First off, there is no puzzle solving in the game at all. Instead, KRZ consists exclusively of exploration, investigation, and conversation. Of those three elements, the game’s dialogue system is most distinctive. One of the game’s strongest influences is theater, and the game’s conversations reflect this – the player is essentially given the role of an improvisational actor. While most games with dialogue trees are geared toward providing the player a choice of distinct actions in response to certain situations, like in Mass Effect, the dialogue trees in KRZ are not only more focused on providing the player with instead with a choice of attitudes toward a situation, but also allow the player to determine the context of the game world itself. For example, through conversation, the player determines things such as the gender and name of Conway’s dog, whether or not he was actually harmed by falling rocks, and other elements. The player isn’t merely responding to the game world using their character as an avatar, but instead shaping the world as an a third party separate from that character. Although nearly every dialogue choice in Kentucky Route Zero seems inconsequential to the story as a whole, contributing to style rather than the chain of events, it has been confirmed that the choices you make in the first act will result in unexpected consequences in the subsequent acts. I’m certainly looking forward to witnessing this.
As interesting as the dialogue system is, one of Kentucky Route Zero’s greatest strengths is its atmosphere. The game looks pretty good in the screenshots, but it’s absolutely stunning in motion. The way that the perspective changes as the camera moves, the way that the light is cast on the game world, and the sheer expressiveness of the character animation is amazing. The game’s soundscape is nothing to laugh at either. Words don’t do the game justice, so I highly recommend taking a look at the trailer.
Finally, there’s the game’s story. This is much harder to reflect upon, only being the first act of a complete work, but it shows much promise. Although I don’t have a firm grasp upon either of the game’s principal characters and I have very little idea as to the direction that the story’s headed, a very solid foundation has been laid down. The quality of the writing, which is at times delightfully poetic, leads me to believe that the story is in good hands.
If you want to play through a deep, atmospheric, gorgeous, well-written, and highly original interactive story and are willing to wait for months at a time for each subsequent act to be released, look no further than Kentucky Route Zero. While the first act is, for obvious reasons, disappointingly short (I completed it in a single sitting), the game as a whole shows incredible promise. There’s really nothing like it, so take a look at it here.
Do you have thoughts on Kentucky Route Zero? Are there any Indie Games (current or from the past) that you’d like me to review? Feel free to leave a comment!