If the past few years of having this blog have taught me anything about my gaming habits, it’s that I tend to blast through games as quickly as possible just to get to the next in an ever-expanding backlog of titles I’ve convinced myself I absolutely must play. Without such a “gaming ethic”, I never would have been able to get through the 70+ titles I have each of the past two years. As a result, everything feels a little rushed, and I often wonder if I am truly appreciating the marvelous works unfolding before me.
For the grand console launch of Kentucky Route Zero back in January, I decided to change all that. This is a game that had been lovingly released in small drops of 5 episodes and 4 interludes over the course of 7 years. If people had been waiting this long to see it comes to its conclusion, I could afford the 8-10 hour adventure more than the standard 3-5 days of my attention such a title would normally reserve. In the end, I spent over 6 weeks marveling at the striking dream-like vignettes floating before me, and I found myself with a deep appreciation for having let the game flow naturally like it was intended to.
Kentucky Route Zero starts simple enough, as you’re an old truck driver set to make his final delivery if only you can find a way to the peculiar address. Over the course of the five ensuing episodes, it becomes clear that whether or not you actually make the delivery is beyond the point. Much like my decided upon method of playing this grand, yet subdued adventure, the journey taken was what mattered. Along the way, I met countless odd folks, used unconventional means of navigation, visited a bureaucratic government office where an entire floor was occupied by bears, and enjoyed the occasional bluegrass serenade out of nowhere. Mysteries were uncovered, yet many were left to the imagination, and every decision I made etched a permanent mark into the record of the game where all dialogue tree decisions are final and binding, meaning I was helping to craft an adventure all my own.
Seemingly every other screen was a visual wonder that made me pause and exclaim “wow, what will they think of next”. Eventually there were so many characters that I could control or talk to that I no longer remembered who half of them were (especially if a week passed between play sessions), but none of that mattered. I was surely going to speak to everyone laid out in front of me to gleam every tiny detail about this strange world built up from the economic anxiety of the 2008 recession.
A major factor in why this lackadaisical approach works so well for the game is because of just how varied the gameplay is from chapter to chapter. One minute you might be navigating a Zork-inspired text-based computer game only to find yourself shortly thereafter making your way through a telephone tree for important information, watching a play unfold, piloting an oversized Eagle, or, in the game’s finest moment, choosing the lyrics to a hauntingly beautiful performance at an over-indebted bar. Even the final act comes at you from an entirely fresh perspective; that is, it takes place by controlling a previously unseen cat. You truly do never know what is coming next and not once did I lose the wide-eyed optimism that the game would continue to deliver poignant and wholly unique moments to me.
Now, several weeks out from having finished the game, I can look back fondly on my time traipsing through the surreal landscape of Kentucky Route Zero and highly recommend everyone else takes the same journey, which, given how the world has changed in those ensuing weeks, likely will feel more poignant than ever. I’m just glad I was able to take the time to sit back and enjoy it before going stir crazy in my house likely would’ve led me to power through it just like everything else. This visual poem is truly best savored not devoured.