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Mood Pieces: Kentucky Route Zero – Point and Click Goes Lynch

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This instalment of Mood Pieces is about Kentucky Route Zero, which combines vaguely Lynchian magical realism, beautiful visuals and evocative soundscapes with point and click style gameplay. The game is out on Steam for PC and Mac.

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Talking about the more traditional types of games, ie. excluding interactive fiction, a big chunk of the more interesting game based storytelling has been coming from point and click adventures and their ilk. When I heard about Kentucky Route Zero from a friend, it sounded like something that might be exactly up my alley. I bought the game this month and finished the first two acts last night (I meant to play 400 Days, but Telltale had once again show stopping technical problems with their launch, which is starting to get a bit old). Boy, was my initial gut feeling right.

Kentucky Route Zero saw daylight as a Kickstarter project, gathering a budget of $8,583. Not exactly a whopping sum of money to develop a game with, but the money was well spent. The game is episodic, and it will contain five acts in total. At the time of writing this, acts one and two are out.

The protagonist of the game is a delivery truck driver Conway, who’s trying to find his way to 5 Dogwood Drive. The only way to reach it seems to be the eponymous Kentucky Route Zero, a secret highway that runs – at times literally – underground. The voyage is populated by a plethora of weird characters, and it’s pretty much clear right from the beginning that we have taken one step to the left from the logic of the everyday world.

Although Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click game, it’s not really puzzley as such. You don’t need to twist monkeys into wrenches or jump through other such elaborate hoops. Kentucky Route Zero is more of an exercise in game-based experimental storytelling, something to be experienced. It’s definitely a game, though, not a walk’em up in the vein of Dear Esther.

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The gameplay and the flow of Kentucky Route Zero combines traditional graphical locations, exploring the wider world in a map of some some sort, and text based environments that work with the logic of a choose your adventure type of interactive fiction. The graphical style and design of the locations are impeccable. The characters and the environment are highly stylised, minimalist and very beautiful. The simple graphics, which don’t use three polygons if two will suffice, lend a distant, dreamlike and suitably unreal atmosphere to the game. Minimalism doesn’t equal sparsity – the environments are rife with details that really bring the game world to life.

The text based sections of the game are an interesting piece of game writing, but what makes them really work is the soundscape of the game. A lot of thought has gone to creating the ambient sounds of the locations, which conspire to bring an another layer of atmosphere to the text. None of the dialogue in the game is spoken, it’s all in text, but there are some human sounds that really pop up from the background in their sudden intimacy amongst the surreal and slightly oppressive game world. There is also music, both an electronic score and bluegrass stuff, which work splendidly together in creating the atmosphere.

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Although Conway is the “hero” of the game, not everything is seen from his viewpoint. He’s rather the character whose story we are following through the eyes and perspectives of other people. In the dialogue the player often gets to choose the comments for everyone present, sometimes even after the fact, in reported speech of the encounter. Part of the function of the dialogue is defining the story and parts of the game world. Who is Conway, what is his past, what are his regrets and reactions… This may sound confusing, but it works beautifully together.

Kentucky Route Zero rewards exploration. Riding the back roads and exploring the nooks of the locations you run into weird characters and events, pieces of music and snippets of  stories. It bears pointing out that where Kentucky Route Zero excels is that everything in the world feels natural and meaningful, there are no “oh, look what a quirky thing we came up with just to be quirky” moments.

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Although there are only two acts out so far, Kentucky Route Zero is already a beautiful work of game design. If you are into the whole “games as art” argument, this is a game for you, no matter on which side of the issue you stand. The slight feel of clunkiness in the game mechanics melts away fast, and the changing styles of gameplay keeps things moving. I can’t wait for the next act to come out, and meanwhile I think I should replay these two – I think there’s a lot that I missed on the first trip down Kentucky Route Zero.

The game is available on Steam for Mac and PC. Follow the developers on Facebook and Twitter.

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