I didn’t play the first four episodes of Kentucky Route Zero when they came out: I generally try to avoid playing games on PC, and while I was willing to make an exception for Kentucky Route Zero, I figured I’d at least wait until all the episodes were released and hope for a console port. And, fortunately, the last episode and a console port arrived at the same time, so I played through it. (Doing one episode plus one interlude a week: I wanted to make it through reasonably promptly, but I wanted to leave a bit of a gap between episodes.)

It’s quite a game? Enough so that I’m having a hard time putting a finger on what I think of it, or perhaps more accurately how to think about it: I can’t just slot Kentucky Route Zero into an existing conceptual framework and use those expectations as a starting point. So I’ll just talk…


The first couple of episodes were a sort of pleasant meandering through a story: enough interactivity to take advantage of the medium, enough character moments to make me care, and enough magical realism to make it interesting. And then I reached the second interlude, talking about the precarious life associated to working at marginal jobs: and yeah, this game has something to say politically.

Which dovetailed rather well with what else is going on right now: I realized that I was accidentally playing three games each of which shines a rather direct light on the experience of living in a world with COVID. Death Stranding talks about the experience of being isolated, only connected by package delivery (and, honestly, I still can’t believe that that game came out when it did!); Animal Crossing is the shared escapism where we’re all spending time; and Kentucky Route Zero speaks to millions of people losing their jobs and the depression that’s suddenly arrived.


Which had me looking forward to playing the third and fourth episodes; I actually had mixed feelings about them, though. They went on just a little bit too long: not necessarily too long in any absolute sense, in fact I managed to finish each of them within an evening, but they took enough longer than the earlier two episodes that the back of my mind wanted them to end earlier than they did. And, in both of them, I ran into strange bugs (probably having to do with the controls of the console port?) that really made me want the episode to end.

And the way the third episode ended just didn’t make sense to me, with our protagonist suddenly having been forced into something that seemed more like slavery than a job just because somebody claimed he acted in a misleading way during a conversation. Like, I’m sure there are real-world scenarios where that makes sense, but in general, no, that’s not the way things work? And if you want to talk about being trapped in a job, there are a lot of other more plausible options to get there: for this story, medical debt and a need for insurance is just staring right at you as a possibility! (Medical care certainly is a situation where you can wander into a situation, sign some forms because you don’t feel that you have a choice, and all of a sudden end up in enourmous debt.) I dunno, maybe I’m missing something; I was listening to a podcast discussing the game that had a different enough take on what was going on there that I’m willing to believe that I did miss some context that would have helped the whole thing make more sense.

The fourth episode was disconcerting in some of the same ways (length, bugs), but also marked a shift towards an ensemble cast instead of a protagonist plus companions. Which was pretty interesting, conceptually? But the episode also felt to me like it was missing a problem-solving through line: the earlier episodes certainly left room for random encounters (with people, with locations), but the fourth episode felt like that’s all that was going on?

And then the person I’d thought of as the protagonist just left us, going away with his new employer. By which point I’d already mostly realized that he wasn’t he protagonist any more, so that was less jarring than it might have been; a relief to some extent, given my feelings about what had happened in the prior episode?


It took me a little while to decide what I thought about the fifth episode, but I ended up really liking it. It leaned even farther into the ensemble cast aspect of the game, but by now my attitude towards that had flipped: you see people coming together, you see the importance of groups and interactions.

And it gives a cooldown period at the end. That’s something that, in general, video games don’t handle well: plots lead to a big confrontation and then end almost immediately. That’s what really made Shenmue II stick with me: instead of ending with the big battle in Kowloon, or maybe that plus a scene of tearful farewells, it spends two full hours on a walk through the countryside.

Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t have the same sort of climactic battle as most narrative games, of course. Still, episode 4 does end with an important departure and reconfiguring of our team; and the fourth interlude is, if anything, more climactic, with a storm literally destroying buildings. And, on a quieter note, the fourth interlude also is an important transition in whom the game is about: we’ve seen the story shift from being about an individual to being about an individual with sidekicks to being about an ensemble, and the fourth interlude in retrospect marks the transition to being about communities.

Which all comes together in the fifth interlude. It actually has a candidate climax early on in it as well, with the team finally completing the delivery that the game has been working towards ever since the beginning; but that ends up just being one strand of what’s going on, and not one that particularly stands out. Instead, you see your cast of characters trying to figure out what they want to do next in their lives (and where and with whom to do that); you see the townspeople carrying on after the storm; you see the town as an actual place with its own history and goals instead of just a mythical destination. And there’s a rather lovely little ritual to cap the whole game off.


I dunno; I still don’t know what to make of this game. But I mean that in the most positive sense: I don’t know what to make of it not because I’m not sure that there’s something there, but rather because there’s so much there, so many threads, that I can’t weave them all together. I’m not sure if the game can, either, but that’s okay? Not everything has to be tied up into a neat answer; far too many games are simplistic in just that way, it’s very refreshing to see a game take such a different tack, and, ultimately to carry it off so fruitfully.

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