Computer games are a strange medium for art, and gamers are a strange audience for it. As soon as a game comes out that aspires to art, it takes about five seconds before someone on the internet gets out the big word: “Pretentious.” Give it another ten seconds and someone will say, “Ah, but is it a game?” It’s as if too many gamers would prefer their medium to be one thing only, forever, with no potential to become something more. And that’s ignoring the other side of the debate, the old-timers shouting, “Get off my MOMA-curated front lawn, you kids!”
I wonder what Old Man Ebert would say about Kentucky Route Zero, an indie adventure game whose first part (or Act – the game wears its many artistic inspirations on its sleeve) came out a couple of months ago. It’s as if David Lynch, Edward Hopper and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had collaborated on an old-school point-and-click adventure – but while it’s easy to point out how Kentucky Route Zero derives from a number of artistic traditions, in its first act it already manages to become something entirely its own and entirely of the medium, doing things that wouldn’t be possible in this particular way in any other medium.
The game excels at atmosphere, evoking a mood that is homely and uncanny at the same time, nostalgic and unsettling. As much as Lynch at his best, Kentucky Route Zero is dreamlike, surreal around the edges, but without giving in to the facile randomness that surrealism is sometimes prone to. The art, the writing, the soundscapes and music – all of these come together to create one of the most unique, compelling experiences I’ve played, well, since I took hold of a joystick in the early ’80s.
It is likely that hardcore old-school gamers without an interest in unique experiences with, yes, artistic pretensions will have issues, though. Compared to the classic games of the genre, Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t offer challenging puzzles. In fact, there are hardly any puzzles in the conventional sense as well. What the game does offer, though, is exploration – in more than the expected way. The characters, the conversations, even such simple things as a ride through an old mine on a cart, all these offer glimpses into a world one step away from our own.
It’s difficult to give any criticism that seems adequate. Yes, Kentucky Route Zero Act I is a short pleasure; in the conventional terms of game longevity, it does lend itself to multiple playthroughs so the different conversation choices can be explored, but for the asking price of $7 it offers a couple of hours of gameplay only. However, for gamers in any way receptive to the moody, fascinating world the game evokes, those couple of hours will linger long after Act I closes.
P.S.: Act II is to come out within the next month or two; the entire game can currently be bought for under $20. For anyone who’s simply curious to check out the look and feel of Kentucky Route Zero, the developers have released a free tech demo called Limits & Demonstrations that provides a glimpse especially into the project’s overall artistic sensibilities and the writing. Well worth checking out, which shouldn’t take more than half an hour.