Posted: December 28, 2013
Kentucky Route Zero is best described as an interactive visual novel, along the lines of Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP.
There is a huge amount of talent being demonstrated here, and primarily for that reason I'm ultimately going to give this game the thumbs up.
Unlike related games such as the marginally more successful The Walking Dead, however, it left me with little real feeling of player agency.
Sure, there is some flexibility to move around and experience different absurdist vignettes between story-arc set pieces, however for the most part these don't pretend to influence the narrative progression in any observable way.
The game doesn't demonstrate any noticeable sense of self-awareness about this either, like in The Stanley Parable.
Ultimately, the best comparison I can draw is to meditative extended video-clips, such as Baraka and Powaqqatsi, in that this game is a thing that exists primarily to be watched and admired.
As a meditation to be watched and admired, this game succeeds admirably.
The block colour/silhouette style is gorgeous; the audio sparse and evocative; and the melancholy dialogue intelligent, mature and well written.
The setting is whimsical and dream-like, with absurdist elements, and the pacing and tone works well in the context.
I'm on the fence, however, about whether I think that Kentucky Route Zero is any good as a game.
As I would define a 'game', player agency seems to me a defining characteristic. Agency might be via micro-decisions, such as what to shoot in a linear FPS, stat progression trees and character customisation in an RPG, or varying strategic and tactical choices influenced by the randomness of procedural generation. It is the perception of player agency, even if only a perception, that adds a level of immersion that allows one to be drawn into a story and personally invest in it.
In Kentucky Route Zero, while the player moves various protagonists around the screen and clicks dialogue choices, these rarely have any noticeable influence on the story other than exposition.
I therefore find myself drawing comparisons with other, more established, non-interactive media, such as graphic novels, literature and film that are more reliant on narrative and where examples of mature, quality story lines are plentiful.
How, then, does this game compare to great film, great literature, or a great graphic novel? On that basis Kentucky Route Zero can reasonably claim to be good, I think, but not quite great.
Ultimately, if I want to be taken for a ride I actually get better immersion from letting a story wash over me while reading or watching a movie. At Kentucky Route Zero's pace, the interaction can tend to break immersion rather than enhances it.
It does seem to me, however, that there may be a tendency for those well aware of the woeful absence of genuinely intelligent, complex and mature themes in most games to be a tad overenthusiastic when they find a game that does take a decent stab at these, even if it fails on virtually every other measure by which we normally assess computer games (Rock Paper Shotgun 2013 GOTY, I'm looking at you).
Having said that, after now playing through Episode III, I feel compelled to add that for the first third of this installment the game genuinely transcends its limitations to become something truly sublime. It is therefore even more of a disappointment when the remaining two thirds of the same episode drops the ball a little on several levels. Nonetheless, there is certainly potential for masterpiece if the game's best form can be recaptured for the remaining episodes.
Having now played through Episode III after decent break from the release of Episode II, it is also worth adding that the game doesn't hold up at all well to extended pauses between episodes. The complexity and nuance of the characters and story, one of the game's big selling points, is also its biggest downfall as the minutiae is particularly hard to recall several months down the track. For this reason, I'd urge people to consider resisting the need for instant gratification and wait for the complete five episode experience.
Episode III is slightly longer than the first two episodes, possibly due to some repetitiveness. With two more episodes to go, one might estimate that a full meandering playthrough will likely take around 9 hours, which seems fair for a game of this type.Edit: updated 30 June 2014 to reflect having played through Episode III