Kentucky Route Zero

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Kentucky Route Zero
KRZ.png
Developer Cardboard Computer
Publisher Cardboard Computer (PC), Annapurna Interactive (Console)
Designers Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy
Composer Ben Babbitt
Engine Unity
Platform Windows, macOS, Linux
Release 2013–2018 (infoAnchorIcon.svg)

Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky and the mysterious folks who travel it. The game is developed and published by Cardboard Computer, an independent studio consisting of Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt. It follows an episodic format, mirroring the dramatic structure of a five-act play. The project was first revealed on January 7, 2011 on Kickstarter. By the end of the campaign, the game had acquired USD $8,583 from 205 backers, exceeding its original goal of $6,500. A heavily-revised trailer with an updated visual style was released on October 17, 2012.

The game's five acts follow the narrative of a truck driver named Conway and the mysterious people he meets as he tries to cross the fictional Route Zero to make his final delivery for an antique company. The first act was released on January 7, 2013. The second, third, and fourth acts, along with four shorter, free-to-play supplemental games, have since been released. The final act is forthcoming. The game is currently available via Steam, itch.io, GOG.com, and the Humble Store, and will release on all major consoles in 2018. Players receive all available acts upon purchase, with future acts and updates free-of-charge.

Gameplay[edit]

Players are able to choose between different dialogue options.

Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game. However, there are no puzzles or challenges like those commonly found in games of this genre; instead, the game focuses on storytelling and atmosphere. Players are able to control Conway (and other characters) by clicking on the screen, either to guide him to a location or interact with other characters and objects. Players are also able to choose characters' dialogue during in-game conversations, which are text-based. These choices do not impact the storyline as in a branching narrative, but rather influence the poetic dialogue of characters later on, affect aspects of stories that are told to the player, or change which characters may be encountered.

Release[edit]

Title Medium Release date
Act I Video game January 7, 2013
Limits & Demonstrations Video game
Art exhibition
February 8, 2013
October 4–10, 2013
Act II Video game May 31, 2013
The Entertainment Video game, Play November 22, 2013
Act III Video game May 6, 2014
Here And There Along The Echo Video game, IVR system October 30, 2014
Act IV Video game July 19, 2016
WEVP-TV (wevp.tv) Web television Summer 2016
Un Pueblo De Nada Video game, Video art January 25, 2018
Act V Video game N/A
Death Of The Hired Man N/A N/A

Story[edit]

An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days.

Act I[edit]

Main article: Act I#Synopsis

Conway, a truck driver, works as a deliveryman for an antique shop run by a woman named Lysette. Conway's last job before retirement is to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive. The game opens with a lost Conway, together with his dog, pulling into the parking lot of a dimly-lit gas station, Equus Oils.

Conway asks for directions, and Joseph, the owner, informs him that the only way to reach his destination is to take the mysterious Route Zero. He tasks Conway to fix the circuit breaker to restore power to the station so that he may use the computer to locate directions. In the basement, Conway encounters Emily, Ben, and Bob who are playing a game; they ignore him, apparently unable to see or hear him. He finds their lost twenty-sided die but, on attempting to return it, discovers that they have disappeared. Conway uses the computer to find directions to the Márquez Farmhouse, and also sees an overdue notice from the energy company Consolidated Power Co. Joseph tells him that, at the farmhouse, he can talk to Weaver Márquez who has a better understanding of the roads. As he leaves, he tells Conway that he loaded Weaver's old TV into the back of the truck to take to her.

SHANNON: We all lost people down here. Well, not all of us. But most of us.

Conway drives north on Interstate 65 to the Márquez residence, optionally encountering a variety of hidden locations and characters on the way. At the farmhouse he meets Weaver, who asks him strange questions and to set up the TV before she'll explain how to get to the Zero. As Conway looks into the screen, his gaze drifts to the barn out back and he spaces out. Weaver informs him that the TV is picking up the wrong signal but that her cousin Shannon can fix it, and proceeds to give him directions to the Zero on-ramp. When Conway looks away from the screen, Weaver has vanished. He walks back to his truck as Emily, Ben, and Bob play a folk song in the foreground.

Arriving at the destination, Conway discovers it is actually an abandoned mineshaft called Elkhorn Mine. He walks into the entrance to find Shannon Márquez and explains his predicament, to which she reveals that she had encountered Weaver earlier that evening, and that Weaver sent her to the mine to "find something she's been looking for." The two head into the mine and test a P.A. system to measure the tunnels. However, the reverberations cause the roof of the mine to collapse, crushing Conway's leg.
SHANNON: Do you have any debts?
CONWAY: I owe some people some apologies.
SHANNON: There, just gotta turn it north/south, and —

Shannon frees Conway and helps him onto an old mine cart. While exploring, Shannon reveals that the mine flooded at one point, killing the miners trapped inside. The two discover a turntable and explore the mine and its history; turning off the lamplight reveals ghostly visions of the miners. Conway exits the mine alone while Shannon goes back to check on something, and when she returns, reveals her parents were killed in the flood.

The two head to Shannon's workshop, located at the back of a small bait shop to search for Weaver, but she is nowhere to be found. On the way back to the farmhouse, Conway can choose to return to Equus Oils where he and Shannon meet Joseph's friend Carrington who is looking for a venue for his upcoming play, and asks the two to keep an eye out for a location.

Back at the farmhouse, Shannon reveals Weaver fled after learning of their family's debt, and tonight was the first time she had seen her since then. Shannon attempts to repair the TV by cleaning moss off the vacuum tubes, and Conway looks in again; this time, however, both the picture on the screen and the barn behind the house begin to warp and separate, forming an image of the opening to the Zero and the truck driving into it.

Act II[edit]

Main article: Act II#Synopsis
SHANNON: This is weird, but ... do you think we're inside or outside right now?
CONWAY: Inside.
/ Outside. / Both.

Act II opens with a prelude in which Lula Chamberlain, an installation artist whose work is featured in Limits & Demonstrations, receives a rejection letter from an organization to which she had submitted her portfolio. She continues on to sort through proposals for reclaiming spaces for alternate to their current function, such as one to reclaim a distillery as a graveyard. If encountered in Act I, Carrington comes up to her and asks her about the space for his performance.

Thoroughly lost on the Zero, Conway and Shannon stop at a large, brick, open air building known as the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces and ask for directions to 5 Dogwood Drive. Unable to assign them to any of the proper clerks, the receptionist sends them upstairs to Lula who, upon hearing their request, ponders if her former lover Joseph sent them to her to get her attention or if her former intern Weaver overestimated her capabilities. Lula suggests the relevant records have not yet been transferred to the new building from the former site of the Bureau, the Saint Thomas Church, and directs them there. She also recommends Conway visit a man named Dr. Truman to look at his hurt leg.

The two head for the church, which is located inside a self storage facility, and navigate there by following a series of ritualistic directions. Shannon finds the records while Conway chats with the janitor. Shannon returns with the information but, upon leaving the building, Conway collapses from his injury. Shannon decides their first priority should be to find Dr. Truman and obtain treatment.
MARY ANN: Just get back on the Zero and drive until you hit the crystal. Then turn around. It'll make sense once you get on the road.
EZRA: Julian's my brother. He's a lot bigger and stronger, and he has more feathers than me, but he's still my brother.

They return to the Bureau and, while Lula is gone, they find that she has processed the files needed for them to return to the surface roads. Carrington appears and asks for a venue recommendation, and Conway is able to suggest either Elkhorn Mine, the self storage facility, or Equus Oils.

Conway and Shannon head above ground and follow Lula's directions to Dr. Truman's house. Upon arriving, however, they find the neighborhood has been torn down and replaced with the Museum of Dwellings. They talk with many of the residents and meet a young girl named Flora who tells them Dr. Truman has moved away. On the roof, a young boy named Ezra tells them he and his brother Julian fly the museum residents' homes out to the forest at night which is easier to sleep in, and that Dr. Truman has decided to stay there permanently. Ezra agrees to bring Shannon, Conway, and his dog to the doctor and calls Julian, a giant eagle who snatches them off the roof and flies them to the forest. In the air, the group can observe many situations and locations below, such as the farmhouse, gas station, and various other establishments and wandering travelers.
EZRA: You have a way of falling behind, don't you? Me, I'm always too far ahead. Maybe I should slow down a bit, like you.

The group lands in the forest and walk through the illusory trees as Emily, Ben, and Bob play a folk song in the foreground. They arrive at Dr. Truman's house and he inspects Conway's leg, who says it's severe but treatable. He gives Conway a dose of an anesthetic called Neurypnol TM, who begins to succumb to the drug. As he falls into into a nebulous sleep, his vision grows black and the walls of the house pull away to reveal the forest beyond.

Act III[edit]

Main article: Act III#Synopsis

Conway dreams of a conversation with Lysette from the previous morning. The two reminiscence about Ira, Lysette's deceased husband and Conway's former boss, and her son Charlie who died in a tragic roofing accident. Lysette tells Conway of a final mail-order delivery before the shop closes, as she is to leave and move in with her sister due to her old age and poor health.

LYSETTE: It wasn't anyone's fault, Conway. That's what we mean when we say it's ...
CONWAY: An accident.
/ A tragedy. / A shame.

Conway wakes from his drug-induced sleep and stares at his leg, which has been replaced with a ghostly, skeletal limb with a yellow glow. Dr. Truman tells him that while he may feel a sense of "lost time" or "lateness," dreaming would have been highly unlikely. He suggests Conway look over the bill as his employer has recently been bought out by the Consolidated Power Company and they have changed the payment system.

Conway, Shannon, and Ezra return to the Museum of Dwellings and find it closed for the night. Emily, Ben, and Bob stand at the entrance, and debate whether to enter after finding the door unlocked. The three set out to search for Lula in Conway's truck, but are quickly stopped as the engine breaks down in front of a large tree.
JOHNNY: Test. Test. One. One. One. Three. Fifty. Lamentation. La — men — ta — tion.

Junebug and Johnny speed by the tree on their motorcycle and notice the truck. They are musicians and, while they are already late to their performance, decide to go back and help the group in hopes of gaining an audience. The two fix the truck's engine, and Conway, Shannon, and Ezra agree to accompany them to The Lower Depths tavern.

At the bar, Junebug and Johnny sing a song as the roof of the bar seemingly disappears to reveal the full moon overhead. After the show, the group talks with Harry who admits he can't pay, as he was left with nothing but an I.O.U. from the Hard Times Distillery after he traded his customers' debt for whiskey and the events in The Entertainment. He suggests they head to the distillery to claim their payment, but that they must take the Zero to get there. As Junebug and Johnny decide to accompany the trio, Harry gives them directions based on following radio signals, and they set out. The group drives until they see a team of horses standing in the middle of the darkened highway, and immediately appear on the Zero.

Another love came by, and stole my heart away. I wish that I could take it back, but it's too late.

The group soon comes across a large chamber dominated by a rock spire, known as the Hall of the Mountain King. There they find broken, vintage computers in large piles surrounding a tall, burning fire of discarded electronics. They come across an old man named Donald who is fixated on a grand project – his life's work – named XANADU, involving a computer growing black mold and an artificial intelligence simulation of his life's missed opportunities from long ago. He claims Lula and Joseph helped design XANADU and, while Lula left long ago, there may be a way to use it to find her. However, Donald says a group of people who he calls "the Strangers" repeatedly sabotaged the computer, leaving its text garbled and unable to be read. The group decides to locate the strangers so they may fix XANADU and find Lula.

DONALD: The chalky bones of a beautiful dream. But you can see what it once was, can't you? Can't you?

Venturing through a crystal tunnel, the group comes upon a church in a muddy graveyard. Conway and Shannon go inside while Junebug waits outside with Ezra. Junebug reveals that she and Johnny are escaped robots originally manufactured to clear out the flooded Elkhorn Mine.

Conway and Shannon emerge from the church, shaken, but Shannon says they have what they need. They return to Donald and fix XANADU and play its simulation as it tells an intricate, day-by-day story of its own creation, involving Donald, Lula, Joseph, and many research assistants including the Bureau receptionist and Weaver. The simulation reveals that one day, Weaver followed the strangers into the tunnels, and neither returned. Years pass and mold grows, until one night, different strangers arrive, and an old friend, Lula, returns. The program exits, and Lula is standing in the cave.

He removed his hands from the steering wheel for a moment and felt the car drift into a decision. Years later, he'd think of this as the moment he himself started drifting.

With Lula's help, Donald is able to find information to 5 Dogwood Drive, and they decide to wait at the Bureau for the results. As they descend from the Hall of the Mountain King, Emily, Ben, and Bob can be seen playing a folk song in the foreground. At the Bureau, Lula tells them she was able to find a corresponding near a mail stop off the Echo River, and they must take a ferry to reach it.

As they wait for the ferry, Conway reveals what happened with the strangers: he and Shannon had gone via a hidden elevator to an underground whiskey distillery staffed by indistinct glowing skeletons, identical in appearance to Conway's new leg. There, they meet Doolittle who mistakes Conway for a new hire as a truck driver. He gives them a tour and tells them about The Formula, a revolutionary equation for computing interest introduced to them by a brilliant mathematician, and reveals that many workers are forced to work there due to their debt. Inspecting a truck, Conway recalls his past with Lysette and Ira, and the accident that killed their son Charlie: too hungover to perform a roofing job, Charlie took Conway's place and, in performing the work in the hot sun, slipped and fell to his death.
EZRA: I'm confused.
CONWAY: It's just the way these things go, kid.

After the tour, Doolittle tells them how to repair XANADU, shows them the adding machine which calculates interest, and tells Conway he is hired, offering him a "shift drink" to mark the occasion. Conway, in a daze, is unable to refuse and takes a sip of alcohol. As Shannon insists they must leave, Doolittle reminds them that Conway is now in debt for taking both the alcohol and his time, and will start the next day, as the scene blurs and fades to black.

Back in the Bureau, the group stands silhouetted in front of Conway's truck, mulling over what's to come next. A tugboat arrives, and as it pulls into view, a horn blares, revealing a gigantic, trumpeting wooly mammoth.

Act IV[edit]

Main article: Act IV#Synopsis

Soundtrack[edit]

Main article: Music

The game's ambient soundtrack features music by Ben Babbitt with bluegrass tracks performed by The Bedquilt Ramblers.

Development[edit]

Reception[edit]

Kentucky Route Zero has been well-received by critics. It won the award for Excellence in Visual Art at the Independent Games Festival in 2013, and was named game of the year by Rock, Paper, Shotgun the same year. In 2015, Kentucky Route Zero's Act III won Best Narrative at the Game Developers Choice Awards.

Gallery[edit]