Kentucky Route Zero: A True Visual Novel
Until the final episode of Kentucky Route Zero released last month, I had no concept of what it was. It was just one of those phrases that floated around the cosmic microwave background, like “accent wall” and “fatty lipids.” They mean something to someone, but not to me. Even when the thing finally came out to cries of celebration and finality, I couldn’t really grasp it.
The only snippets of information I could glean were that Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure game (though it has no puzzles) about a man making a delivery drive (it isn’t, really) and that the player should just stop and, like, soak it in, man (whatever the hell that means). Trying to piece it together without getting spoiled was fruitless. I finally broke down and bought the game on Switch, losing out on five bucks for not pre-ordering. Oh, well.
My chief takeaway is that Kentucky Route Zero is the closest thing to a true “visual novel” that I have ever experienced. The typical connotation for that genre involves character portraits in front of a .jpg, but Kentucky Route Zero goes a hundred steps beyond. Unlike any other game, it gave me the same feeling as getting sucked into a book. The main action the player does, even more than moving around, is read. But the game’s prose is meticulously designed, switching from curt, realistic dialogue to flowing description. It’s a style that really resonated with me.
In my mind, the visual and audio elements are mostly there to bring life to the words. The developers are filling in details the same way you do when you read a story. Soft art direction and a distant camera always keeps the focus on the text boxes instead of the action. Most games begin development with concept art. Here, it feels like the entire “novel” was written first, and everything after was made as a companion. I don’t truly believe this to be the case, but the impression alone is enough of a credit to the writing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – the version of myself a month ago is no doubt whining, “But what’s the game about? What do you do?” Okay, fair enough. Setting aside genre quibbles, Kentucky Route Zero begins with an aged truck driver named Conway trying to make his final delivery. The address, 5 Dogwood Drive, doesn’t seem to exist on any map. Conway learns that the only way to get there is on the Zero, a secret highway that does weird space-time things (think of a bluegrass take on Wonderland). Many conversations and digressions ensue.
One notable thing about the game’s dialogue trees is the ability to lightly shape backstory through your decisions. An early choice is about Conway’s faithful canine companion. You can say it’s male, female, or that you don’t even know where the thing came from. Cases like these are rare, though. Characters generally have predetermined backstories. The choices are more often about what they choose to share with the class. Since you get to preview all the options, the information is relayed no matter what is chosen. Most players will pick lines based on how they interpret the characters. I loved having a small role in the events, and there was always at least one option I thought was fitting.
The effect didn’t take hold immediately, though. The first of the five acts was nowhere near the strength of the others. Part of the blame lays on me. Putting myself in the mind of Conway, I wanted to find Dogwood Drive and get on with my life. Conway shouldn’t care about fixing someone’s TV or exploring an abandoned mine, he’s got places to be. The developers seemed a little surprised that I would forgo that content. At the same time, they failed to make a case for me to diverge from my goal and check it out. Act I was inoffensive enough that I continued, and fortunately, each section is better than the last.
The juxtaposition between the interstitial chapter and the start of Act II was moving. In fact, I think it’s pretty essential to experience the stopgap sections to really get something out of the game. As the adventure progresses, you can tell this was something that came in a drip feed over years and years. The writing and locales just get more imaginative and inviting. There’s also the sense that the developers were challenging themselves to shake it up and work with new perspectives. In one package, it’s an unusual sensation, but it doesn’t take long to get to the good stuff.
By the last two acts, I was trying to squeeze out every bit of character interaction I could. Act IV has many options to view a scene or skip it. There are some captivating conversations full of delicious growth. When I unwittingly passed one over for a ten-second shot of Conway’s dog, I was crestfallen. The way dialogue options work almost encourages a second playthrough to see the other side. But this isn’t Telltale – you won’t get a different ending for your deviations.
The key to enjoying Kentucky Route Zero is to understand that the delivery is just a framing device. It’s really about the swelling group of party members and the myriad of themes: dark pasts and better days, drifting and imprisonment, loneliness and family. Yes, those themes are also in all those Great American Novels you were supposed to read in school.
Its most bittersweet moment is the very end: a cut to black, a “The End” card, and an unceremonious toss back to the menu. There isn’t even a credits sequence. I was torn up, searching for a hidden episode or DLC or a sequel that I knew doesn’t exist. Things weren’t tied up in a nice bow for me, but I didn’t feel cheated, either. Wanting more, so they say, is the best feeling something can leave you with.
I doubt that Kentucky Route Zero will stay with me forever. It’s not the most poignant game I’ve played, or book for that matter. But the true marriage between the two forms of media was refreshing. I had just the right amount of agency to feel like the story was mine, all while becoming engrossed in the characters. I wouldn’t mind seeing more games follow suit (though they’d need serious writing chops and a chunk of change). Whether the conclusion of it all is worth the years of waiting, I can’t say. But, all told, it is an enriching experience that sets a new standard for the visual novel genre.