It took almost nine full years for indie developer Cardboard Computer to finish Kentucky Route Zero. After completing Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition on Nintendo Switch within a 10-hour playthrough, I’m overwhelmed by the densely mind-bending journey I experienced.
Chances are you’ve heard about or have been recommended Kentucky Route Zero in the past decade but still don’t fully understand what it’s about. There’s a reason for this, as the game is not just abstract and minimalist with its visuals, but also its core storytelling concepts. And it just works so, so well.
Kentucky Route Zero is a thoughtful exploration into the decay of Americana
The game has multiple protagonists across its five acts and interludes, but the one you play the most is a delivery driver named Conway. His current delivery has him searching for an address on 5 Dogwood Drive. On his journey that has him encountering facets of magical realism in rural Kentucky, he meets many who end up helping him make this delivery. There’s a woman named Shannon whose cousin disappeared and mysteriously showed up on the television, a child who lost his family named Ezra, and also a dog that the player chooses to name either Homer, Blue, or nothing at all.
Instead of spelling out character personalities and backstories, Kentucky Route Zero is more interested in providing poetic dialogue that ignites specific moods such as loneliness, hope, and grief. Dialogue choices help you to shape their personalities in slight ways at times.
While the game is pitched as a point-and-click adventure game, don’t expect the multifaceted puzzles that are found in something from Double Fine. There are still similarities to adventure games, with a great deal of walking around and examining the environment, but I found Kentucky Route Zero to be more similar to a visual novel. There’s very little voice acting, and I ended up spending most of my time reading. In this sense, playing the game on Nintendo Switch Lite felt especially fitting.
However, I made sure to try Kentucky Route Zero on the base Nintendo Switch model’s docked mode as well. Overall, from the controls to the performance in both modes, Kentucky Route Zero runs as well as I could hope on Nintendo Switch. The text is the appropriate size to remain readable, and the striking visuals retain their charm on a small or big screen. The only negative is that the analogue sticks on the Joy-Con have little travel compared to those of other controllers. This made the segments where I had control over the camera slightly unwieldy. However, this is at no fault of the game and didn’t hinder the experience since there aren’t any requirements for precision at any point.
Stellar visuals and well-executed sound design sell the experience
Screenshots of Kentucky Route Zero may look like out-of-context cinematics. In reality, they are indeed what the game can look like at any given moment. Part of the enjoyment I found with Kentucky Route Zero was being unaware as to how the game would present itself from moment to moment. At one point, my group was enjoying music in a roofless neon-lit bar and the camera shifted perspectives as lyrics were visualized in the moonlit sky. A major highlight was an entire hour-long sequence that ended up being a single revolving shot.
The way that sound is constructed was another aspect I found engrossing. Playing Kentucky Route Zero with headphones is a must to fully appreciate the soundtrack and audio design. The ambient sounds produced a mood that fully immersed me in the narrative, and the music selection contained relaxing folk music and cerebral arrangements that were heavy on the use of synthesizers. At each opportunity, it provided the exact otherworldly tone that was needed for the otherwise Lynchian narrative.
Most importantly, Kentucky Route Zero weaves an edifying tale that’s ultimately about hope
I expected prior to starting Act V of Kentucky Route Zero that I would be met with a sprawling and satisfying final chapter to one of the most thought-provoking pieces of storytelling I have ever consumed. I thought there would be answers to the questions that continuously showed up and assumed that there would be closure to characters I ended up caring for deeply. Instead, when I finally reached “THE END,” I was left with emptiness.
It was a profound emptiness, a type that I’ve never felt before from playing a video game. Kentucky Route Zero didn’t give me much; it instead showed me parts of myself I had never seen before. Considering how Kentucky Route Zero was tackling its themes — capitalism, loss, and regret — I don’t feel as if these feelings are misplaced. There’s one moment in the third act where I had to create a song. As I went line by line, I subconsciously crafted lyrics that were soberingly personal. In the face of themes and moments such as these, the game left me with an intoxicating feeling of hope from its concepts of change and community.
Even though I took every opportunity to explore each set piece and exhaust dialogue options, I still feel that I only scratched the surface of what’s contained in Kentucky Route Zero. This invites replayability (with the Act selection screen even being portrayed as a circle), but I’m not going to jumping back into this game anytime soon. The choices that developers Cardboard Computer forced me to make, even when they were more subtle, were ones that were reflective of my own character in meaningful ways. They were choices that forced me to discover more about myself, and it left me exhausted — in a good way.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is an overall landmark effort in the realm of video games. It explores various facets of the medium’s abilities with storytelling and evocatively shifts its gameplay and gorgeous visuals to keep things interesting. Paying dividends if you decide to input your own personality, it’s a work of art that I can’t recommend enough.
A review code was provided by the publisher.