No one wants to be told that they’re wrong. The genius of Kentucky Route Zero is that it allows players the freedom to do whatever they want within its world, and always feels as if that were how it had to happen. The intrinsic mystery that’s been baked into every aspect of this game takes away any sense of forced storytelling and allows the player to bask in the delight of an uncertain certainty. Events simply unfold, and however it happens, it’s never wrong.
Kentucky Route Zero is a funny thing. I’ve thought a bit about why exactly it appealed to me initially, and I suppose it comes down to the atmosphere it creates. Unique art design and a striking presentation take this game a long way. Lighting plays a large role while exploring the world, and the lack thereof can single-handedly create an engrossing sense of mood. I believe I first caught a glimpse of the game on Kotaku or a similar site, watched the trailer, and more or less dismissed it. I blame a poor trailer on their part, and a lack of proper attention on mine. I did however visit the website, KentuckyRouteZero.com, after watching that initial trailer, and was beyond impressed. The presentation of the site alone made me watch the trailer a second time, but still I was left unconvinced. Then the Giant Bomb Quick Look happened, and I got to see in further depth the kind of world that had been built, story that was being told, and graphical style being presented. I was hooked. I rushed back to the site I remembered so fondly and bought all five episodes of this game almost purely on faith and intrigue. Such a thing isn’t insignificant to me, either. I haven’t yet gotten that money tree out back to grow, and so I’m generally overly thrifty in my video game buying. I think it says quite a bit that this game was able to capture my imagination enough to pull me out of my oft-too-conservative financial mindset.
So why is it that an unassuming indie game gets my money on the aforementioned faith and intrigue, while the larger games of the world take a back seat? I find this interesting. I’ll use Borderlands 2 as a quick example. That’s a game that can be had for $30, just $5 more than Kentucky Route Zero. And in certain cases, potentially with Amazon credit, the two games would cost the same. Borderlands 2 is also a game I'd like to play, and I think for $25 it should be a given that I’d buy it--but it’s not. I can only conclude that there has been a shift in my own taste. Yes, Borderlands 2 would be a ton of fun. I liked the first one a whole lot, and I’d certainly be down for more. And yet half off the original PC price of $50 still isn’t good enough. Instead I was drawn in by the siren song of a game that was much less guaranteed. I’ve found an allure in the mysterious.
Is there anything to be learned from this by the people making bigger budget games? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps my own taste is just becoming more and more pretentious and edging away from the mass market video games. But I’d like to think that there are others out there that feel the same way I do. Whether or not it was always this way, we now prefer smaller, more thoughtful experiences. Things like Kentucky Route Zero are much more interesting to us because, in them, we can feel the heart and soul of an individual (or a handful of individuals) wanting to create something meaningful and unique.
While I don’t doubt that the bigger games of the world all start with this same kernel of genuine intent, I feel that they often lose sight of it in the financially-necessary elongated process, and that’s a shame. Perhaps big-budget developers and publishers should take a step back and think about what they want video games to actually be. There are simpler, more meaningful experiences to be had, and Kentucky Route Zero is evidence of that.
I’ve come out of Act I of Kentucky Route Zero feeling wonderful about my purchase, and wholeheartedly craving more. If a quirky and mysterious adventure with a lot of heart sounds like something you would enjoy, then I couldn’t recommend Kentucky Route Zero enough.
Thanks for reading. If you guys have thoughts on anything I’ve mentioned, I’d love to hear them.