I’ve honestly played a lot of various interactive stories throughout my time playing PC games, many of which were made during the mid-to-late 90’s when 2D sprite based games and point-and-click adventures were considered mainstream. It wasn’t hard to look back and find various examples of narrative driven puzzle games or interactive stories as it were. Sure they had puzzles, but they weren’t based solely around just those puzzles. They were there to tell us a story, and give us a unique look inside the hero’s/heroine’s head.
Of course, most games with interactive narratives were directed at kids, as a sort of story-time to let them have fun while still guiding them on a sort of rail-road. Now that point-and-clicks are now considered an Indie form of entertainment, you see a lot of start-up dev studios wanting to create content that is simple, and what could be simpler than the traditional point-and-click (save for all those 2D platformers that had little to no narrative at all)? And if nothing else, you can see them being directed towards a broader audience.
So what does Kentucky Route Zero bring to the table? How is it different?
Well, for one, there may be a general direction for you to go in, but there is no real hand holding. Choices are given to you, and you make them, consequences be damned and all that. Sometimes you won’t see all the dialogue or experience every part of the adventure unless you play through the game again. Events happen and you have to make conscious decisions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a black and white scale of decision making like a paragon/renegade system. Choices can matter, but they remain transparent, staying in the gray area rather than expounding on some moral obligation. You chat with people, you explore the small road map you’re given, and sometimes you miss something, or you discover something you didn’t realize was there.
A lot of the game is hidden in the country roads you generally don’t venture off on, and sometimes the logical choice is the most limiting. As a gamer, you’re inclined to explore, and as a rational human being, you feel that your duty is to complete an objective. Either choice is valid, but the ability to discover strange little unrelated tidbits rewards those who take the time to wander about. The core of the story itself surrounds a delivery-truck driver named Conway, and a tv technician named Shannon. The initial encounter with Shannon’s distant and mysterious cousin, Weaver, leads them to become interested in a strange place known as Route Zero, a hidden highway lying below ground. The mood and atmosphere can be a slice-of-life tale at times and at other times a strange, almost Twilight Zone-inspired ghost story. Truth be told, I found myself turning off the lights, sitting in a dark room with the sound up, and becoming quite immersed in the eerily quiet nature of the game.
The art direction and aesthetic for this game is excellent, presented in a simple style, using generally using a mixture of low-resolution models and shifting, tweening shapes, which may not be exceptionally realistic, but beautiful to look at, as characters blend seamlessly into their otherwise 2D backgrounds. All in all it delivers on the mood, giving you the information you need to build a scene, and then leaving it at that. You almost feel like you’re staring into a minimalist painting that moves.
Sound plays an incredible role in this title, whether implemented in a text-based mini-adventure that you can discover from exploring your roadmap, to a point where Conway and Shannon come across an old reel-to-reel recorder in an abandoned mine that starts to play a scratchy, old recording if you turn off your lamp.
I find it hard to say this is a great game at the moment, and would prefer to hold off on a rating. This is merely Act 1 of a five-act episodic game. Don’t expect the experience to last very long. Some of it can feel a bit confusing, or embracing subtlety a bit to much. Still, as far as interactive stories go, I give it a firm thumbs-up, and as it’s only $5 an act ($25 for the entire thing), it’s not really a bad sell. The adventure is limited right now, but I imagine as future acts are released, we’ll see more of how the game truly plays. Once it all comes together, we’ll be sure to give it a thorough play-through, and provide for you a full analysis and rating when the time is right.