It all started with just $ 8,583. So much money was collected by two game developers in January 2011 via crowdfunding to produce a point-and-click adventure "across a highway in Kentucky and the people who drive it". Kentucky Route Zero was the game. Originally it was supposed to appear in five episodes five months apart. But the targeted two years ended up being seven: the first act appeared in 2013, the fifth and final act at the end of January this year.
The delay did no harm to KentuckyRoute Zero , on the contrary: now that the narrative is over, the size of this unusual video game becomes apparent. Kentucky Route Zero is not only one of the most important games of the past decade, it is also a lesson in slow gaming : it is a game that has grown with its meanwhile three creators as well as with its players. And it managed to stay timelessly up to date.
The story begins with Conway, a run-down antique truck driver who needs a last shipment to the Kentucky hinterland. But the delivery address is not on a map, and Conway's first stop takes him to a gas station in the middle of nowhere. There he learns that he has to take the mysterious Route Zero to get to his destination. Together with his straw hat-wearing dog, Conway goes on a search.
No puzzles, no cut scenes
The search forms the narrative framework for the following five acts and about eight to ten hours of playing time, including four interactive intermediate sequences. In the style of classic adventures, players click from scene to scene, to things and through dialogues. There are no puzzles in Kentucky Route Zero , no "combine X with Y", no mini-games, no film sequences. Here it is primarily conversations that raise questions and that each player can answer and interpret differently.
This is what sets Kentucky Route Zero apart from most other adventures. A year before it came out, TheWalking Dead was a highly acclaimed game that also focused on story and character development: every decision there had an impact on the course of the story. The players literally made decisions about life and death and were repeatedly advised of this (with on-screen instructions such as "this person will remember it"). Things are different with KentuckyRoute Zero : While the players can always make decisions that will be taken up at a later point in time, even decide which characters to follow and which not, the effects often remain unclear and open to interpretation.
This is so intentional, say the developers in an interview with the gaming website Polygon : The players should not work strategically towards a desired goal. In many video games, immersion arises by creating the feeling that the players have sovereignty over the characters and can create the story according to their preferences. Kentucky Route Zero, on the other hand, follows classic theater in this respect (the division into nudes and individual scenes, which are each announced in large letters, fits in): the characters are actors, the appearance of which the players can control to a certain extent, but who still follow a given script. Whether Conway initially baptizes his dog Blue, Homer or not at all does not change the outcome of the game. And there are no morally right or wrong decisions.
Kentucky Route Zero is big theater because it breaks with many conventions of the genre. While the aging Conway takes center stage at the beginning of the game, more characters will soon be added: The electrician Shannon, the boy Ezra abandoned by his parents, whose best friend is a giant eagle. The android musicians Junebug and Johnny as well as the ferry captain Will, who likes scratch cards and plays the organ.
Their voices and perspectives overlap as the game progresses (there is no speech, the game consists almost entirely of text), dialogues and inner monologues alternate, so that the players keep changing from the outside to the inside perspective. Finally, they only take part in the final act from the perspective of a black cat, so they are just listeners. This change from small to large, from Conway's thoughts about a group of game characters to the outside view of an entire community, is enchanting.