Way back in the good old days, when a "lootbox" was just where Renaissance Fair performers stored their musical instruments, we used to debate over whether video games are an art form. These days, it's generally agreed that they are, albeit in the sense that architecture is an art form; you know, your average AAA game is like a newly-constructed skyscraper: imposing, functional, and full of people I need to murder. But there aren't many games that are akin to the experience of, say, walking around an art museum; of slowly gliding through silent, mostly empty rooms, standing in front of an installation and inspecting it with a finger to your chin as you think to yourself, "Hmm, I am bored out of my fucking skull! I hope that attractive cloakroom attendant is watching and thinking what a cool and sexy intellectual I must be, because I would desperately rather be playing Crash Bandicoot."
But now, that experience has been faithfully recreated by Kentucky Route Zero, an episodic game that recently concluded with its fifth chapter. Surprised to see someone still doing the episodic game thing, since Telltale Games choked to death on its own officially-licensed farts, but this one started in 2013, so I guess that lines up. This also means that the game took longer to finish than the Second World War and, had it been any more boring, might have had a similar body count. Kentucky Route Zero might be best classified as a point-and-click adventure, although "adventure" implies things like puzzles and challenge and adversity, so it might more accurately use the phrase "point-and-click sequence". Your interactivity is limited to dialogue choices that ultimately don't change much and moving around to get to the next one, so not a lot of gameplay to work with, but I have a job to do, so by Jacob's Cream Crackers, I'm going to damn well try to whine about it!
I wouldn't recommend using a controller like I did, because the arty cameras and clashing of gears between 2D and 3D movement mean that the direction you move in when you press the analog stick is a matter left to the whims of fate. "Oh, come on, Yahtzee. Clearly, this game is a project created by artists with a specific vision, rather than one of you video game insider types who want to put everything in classifiable boxes; you stopping in here demanding intuitive movement and boss fights is like marching into a high-class restaurant and loudly demanding to know where the children's ball pit is." Fine!
In Kentucky Route Zero, you play Conway, an aging truck driver in an aging truck on a job to deliver antiques from a shop that's about to close down. Is that enough elements establishing the theme of entropy yet, viewers?! What if we also give the truck driver a bad leg and a t-shirt with "Everything Fucking Dies" on the front in big letters? Struggling to find an address that doesn't seem to exist, Conway is directed by various mysterious figures to the Route Zero, a mysterious world of underground tunnels and secret back roads where dwelleth a forgotten vein of Middle America.
What follows is a melancholy odyssey reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland if it were directed by David Lynch, and if all the talking doorknobs and shit were replaced with struggling small business owners, passively trying to muddle along in a world that is leaving them behind, as an insidious, all-pervading company slowly eats their support out from under them, a company that I suspect might be a metaphor for death. That's going off the fact that it appears to be entirely staffed with skeletons, but I'm no literary analyst; maybe it's a metaphor for how difficult it is to find a good osteopath these days.
Conway himself takes a backseat as the game becomes a sequence of introductions to new characters and the little islands in the darkness that are the glimpses into their lives. Considering how long it's taken for all the episodes to come out, one might reasonably wonder what was taking so long, 'cos I could list a few things that they certainly didn't need much time for: gameplay design, voice acting, probably not graphics either, considering that a lot of it consists of stark gradients against blackness and the characters are simple, faceless figures that look like they could be recreated by a bored schoolboy artfully folding his sandwich wrappers.
No, I think the writing is where the time went, and in fairness, there's a hell of a lot of it. Conway's party gradually fills up with quirky characters: a TV repairwoman, an android synth-pop duo, a little boy who's best friends with a giant eagle and constantly wears a suit for no established reason, possibly to avoid being mistaken for a tasty worm. And they all have unique personalities, viewpoints, and interactions with the many unique individuals they meet on their journey, although some of those blur together a bit; in the fourth chapter, you're all on a boat, and suddenly, there's this theremin player on the squad, and I honestly couldn't remember if she'd been properly introduced or just turned up in the background like mildew in the shower. And then Chapter V introduces a whole town full of new characters, and the already-faint sliver of shit that I currently give for these peoples' lives has to be divided even further, and nobody's getting a full dingleberry!
I admire Kentucky Route Zero more than I like it. I admire the thoughtful writing and the creativity behind its ideas; I also admire people who know how to survive in the wild by chewing tree bark for nutrients, but I wouldn't consider it a recommendation of the lifestyle, and I have trouble recommending any game that puts me to fucking sleep.
I suppose there's no hope of getting out of this without sounding like a jaded video game insider with an attention span so worn down to the nub I can barely focus long enough to navigate the straw in my Capri Sun into my drooling mouth, but Kentucky Route Zero wouldn't even let me into the third chapter until I watched an entire three-act play. Not a fun play, like that one with the horse where Harry Potter gets his knob out; a pretentious student play, where three characters sit unmoving in a diner verbally skating around the fucking point for 20 minutes. It would even fucking pause if I wasn't directing the camera at whoever's turn it was to speak, ensuring there was no escape and forcing me to become an instrument to my own torment, the way my mum used to glue thumbtacks to the palms of my hands before I went to bed. Didn't fucking stop me, Mum! Just means I get awkward stiffies when I go to OfficeMax now!
I can't help comparing Kentucky Route Zero to another game I tried this week: a free demo on Steam called Star Fetchers: Pilot. A very amateurish-looking side-on hack-and-slash with art that looks like MS Paint slipped on a turd and skidded through a French window, but with a deliberate punk sensibility and humor that brought to mind Suda51's best works, and a unique core mechanic based around clicking and dragging the end of your sword with the mouse that's more like coloring-in than combat, but has the interesting raw, experimental feel of, say, Sexy Hiking. All in all, it was a million times less polished and a million times more interesting, and you know what? If Star Fetchers tried to make a point about the disenfranchisement of America's forgotten underclass, which it arguably does, I'd be a lot more likely to listen; call me a philistine, but gameplay and challenge can actually be a useful tool for pacing a story, and going without is like a film going without proper editing, or getting thrown out of OfficeMax before you could climax over the Tipp-Ex.
- Epitome of class: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I mean The Godfather's a great movie and all but it's just crying out for a mid boss or two
- And at first I only played it 'cos I misread it as "Star Felchers"