Each day that goes on, the number of strange products in the fields related to entertainment, especially fiction, movies, and video games, is rising. The trend of moving toward the unnormal in our industry soared from 2014 onward and the number of successful products and the scale of their victory in winning a vast audience (Don’t Starve, Disco Asylum, Hollow Knight, Ori, Little Nightmares, and a lot more indie and AA franchises) prove that the store is receiving such creations with open arms and the taste on the side of the customers has changed and gamers are more willing and able to digest the like of these works.
Today, we are about to discuss an indie game that has stepped into the same vein but has brought with it so much personality and fresh touch to this almost-old road of oddities. Kentucky Route Zero is a work of postmodern art that has taken the toil to introduce modernist aspects into the realm of video games. The endeavor is not a noble act, but the manner in which the developer delivered the piece, with the air of a play and very classic one (in five acts) though, with everything turned on its head, the final cocktail proved to be among the best digital beverages of the past couple of years because the game’s first act was published near 2014 and it was in development until very recently when the complete five-act version was finally announced in 2020 as the TV Edition available for almost all platforms.
Kentucky Route Zero opens with the story of a truck driver (his face resembles Samuel Beckett) who works for an antique shop and is charged with delivery to road Zero. The problem and the core of the story (if one can pin a core) is that he does not know where is Zero or how to get to it, thus, he is lost and is on his way to ask for the help of anyone and everyone who populates the game, each lost in their own manner yet seeming to know more than the protagonist (even this term is not applicable here because Kentucky Route Zero allows the player to control many of the people who come into contact with the driver).
The main quest is then finding Zero. The player is supposed to drive the truck to different locations along and around Highway 66 and ask around for Zero. Entering each location is equal to a scene in each act, and regarding the open nature of the map, the number of the acts in each scene can vary according to players’ choices, an element that adds to the value of the replayability of the product, hand in hand with the brevity of encounters and acts. However, in the first playthrough, you might probably stick to the so-called preferred storyline; the path that is achievable through examining the notes and directions derived from different sources and conversations.
Character names are mostly derived from true modern artists and writers of 20th century America: Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Josef Conrad, and probably a lot more which I have either not known or don’t remember now (I know there were many at the King Cave in Act III). There is also a number of their poems in the game. Kentucky Route Zero is a work of art about modernism, though in a very postmodern manner that claims to be in the vein of magic realism but let us go and add a ‘historical’ to that term. However, the terms of history and temporality are bent in this video game and there are some instances of anachronism that will 100 percent make you question the when and where of the scenes, yet are too subtle to let you loose and lose interest in the overall advance of the plot (if you could call it a plot).
The art style is yet another helping feature to this castle of oddities. The drawings and characters are familiar, it is not as if never before has one seen such pictures, yet the details and animations are very much personalized to align with the character of the work in the whole that the scenes will probably linger in your mind for a very long time. Using mostly solid colors, with a focus on dark and light and wise utilization of perspective and depth of field have done wonders to the overall visual experience of Kentucky Route Zero, so much that you would inevitably pause from time to time, only to enjoy what you are seeing on the screen (or even in order to find out what to do or where to go).
The soundtracks and effects are also present (or absent as needed) to complement the experience to the most. There are some very strange, queer, and at the same time enjoyable electronic pieces in the game which are the work of the developers. There are scenes where the only thing you (may) hear is the ambient of lights or far traffic; in contrast, there are moments like when the bikers start performing the bar which is so magical that I had to search for a poem to describe it:
I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open
And above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.
Rita Dove 1980
Kentucky Route Zero has a score of 91 on Metacritic (equal to Cyberpunk 2077!) and is among the top 10 best games for Xbox One. It was also an early nominee for an award in the Steam Awards of 2020. Apart from all these achievements, the game is a deep and wonderful work of postmodern digital art that is highly recommendable to all those who prefer something fresh and refreshing in the overpopulated market of similarly tasteless products. Go to your preferred store for your favorite platform/console and get the game right away.