Kentucky Route Zero is unlike anything else. It’s quiet, subtle and often frustrating. It deals in metaphors and imagery that’s obtuse and deliberately vague. You won’t know what’s going on half the time, but that’s OK, because the real beauty of the game is in your journey and the connections you make.
Kentucky Route Zero is structured around truck driver Conway and his quest to make a delivery. Along the way Conway encounters a colourful cast of characters, like musicians Junebug and Johnny, and a young boy who believes his brother is an eagle named Julian. Everybody in Kentucky Route Zero has a story, and the game gets deeper the more you learn about its characters.
Conway starts alone, travelling down bare and minimalist roads. His map is mostly absent, filled with thin, white lines and black, dreary space. It reflects the true horror of the sparse Kentucky landscape Conway must traverse, and the way the roads can twist reality.
Each act in Kentucky Route Zero is another step in Conway’s long journey. There’s plenty of strangeness along the way.
After injuring his leg in a collapsing mine, Conway receives a transplant of a glowing, skeletal leg. It feels alien to him, but he presses on. On the highway he meets other people, and they join his quest.
Conway’s group discovers an entire city in the underground, and find themselves in a magical forest. They encounter a woolly mammoth on a boat. The journey gets weirder. Later, Conway is haunted by glowing skeleton men, who call out to him in ways he can’t describe.
One particularly memorable scene takes place in Act III, when Conway and his crew stop in at a local bar. While Conway’s friends relax, Johnny and Junebug perform this track.
Relying so heavily on music and sound for meaningful storytelling is part of what makes Kentucky Route Zero so special. Not just with Junebug and Johnny’s atmospheric and haunting track, but throughout the entire journey. Mostly, the game relies on diegetic sound — the crackle of radios a nd televisions, the sound of crickets, an idling truck. Conway’s journey is a quiet one, and the soundtrack reflects that.
Music is a rarity in Kentucky Route Zero. It heightens the strange odyssey that the game takes you (and Conway) on, creating a strange sense of desolation and emptiness that illustrates the weight of every forward step Conway takes.
Kentucky Route Zero‘s story is buoyed by both its music and its prose. It’s a minimalist game, painting a picture for players through subtle visual clues instead of direct exposition. The quiet roads of Kentucky are rendered in with a stark black and white contrast, while future locations like the magic forest and city beneath the mountain are more vivid and colourful.
When Junebug and Johnny perform “Too Late To Love You”, their music erupts the roof, showing the bar in the brilliant white light of the moon. With its focus on simplicity, Kentucky Route Zero injects meaning and emotion into every story beat.
Kentucky Route Zero‘s story has layers that are complex to parse. Because it prioritises the relationship between prose and music over visual detail, players are required to pick up more subtle clues to understand the weight and emotion behind the story. The pain and confusion from Conway’s leg, for example, shimmers out of sync in a staticky white, against the plain creams and blues of his body.
When Conway’s leg is replaced by a glowing skeleton limb, his confusion and pain is represented wonderfully through the use of dissonant colours. While Conway’s body is rendered in plain blues and creams, his strange leg is a vivid, staticky white that continually shimmers and moves out of sync with his body.
It becomes a representative not just of Conway’s pain, but of the strangeness of Kentucky Route Zero and its denizens. In many ways, the Kentucky highways take on their own persona in the game, becoming an alien force that presses in on Conway and his group, alienating them from their reality and their relationships.
But despite the weirdness of their journey, and the way the roads lead them astray — into mountains and forest paths — what remains strong is the connection between Conway and the strangers he meets. At its core, Kentucky Route Zero is about human connections and how they can light up even the darkest spaces. Conway begins the story as a loner, but through these connections the audience understands him and his journey.
The end of Conway’s journey, with Act V’s release in January, was cathartic. It was impossible to know what his future looked like when he first picked up the package destined for Dogwood Drive in 2013. But between the glowing skeleton men and impossible appearances of wooly mammoths, it’s fair to say he’s been on one hell of a trip.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game I’d love to experience all over again. What began as a quiet drive transformed, quickly but subtly, into a deep dive into the human soul and the value of true connections. Conway’s journey across Kentucky, and its final end, will stay with me for a long time yet.