Self-purchased. Reviewed on Switch.
Kentucky Route Zero is a fantasia of light and sound, a lucid dream rendered from the Southern subconscious, a distorted fable that mines the core of Kentucky’s folk culture until it’s as strange and alluring as a raw diamond. It feels like Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism transplanted into the U.S. Deep South, fused onto one of LucasArts’ more experimental adventure games. But developer Cardboard Computer never buckles under the weight of the titans they draw inspiration from. Kentucky Route Zero feels breathtakingly original. For something this powerful to exist in any medium would be a triumph. But for it to exist now, as an interactive narrative drawn with striking visuals, meaningful choices, and moving music, feels more like a miracle.
A massive horse sculpture looms over a lonesome gas station. A cathedral plastered with CRT screens houses a stifling bureaucracy. A wireframe highway stretches out to oblivion and back. A river raft floats through a sealocked sanctuary for bats, a rare sight that’s equal parts terror and wonder. These are the images that imbue Kentucky Route Zero with its extraordinary emotional power. Each step of this strange journey feels like a fleeting memory of a dream scribbled down in the first waking moments of the day.
Conway is a delivery driver for a family antique shop. He’s making a delivery to an address he doesn’t recognize: 5 Dogwood Drive. The game opens with Conway stopping at a gas station for directions, soon to learn that Dogwood Drive is only accessible via a paranormal highway known as the Zero. People speak of the Zero with a combination of fear and reverence. Others doubt it exists.
There’s much to say about Conway’s story, but to reveal too much would do this fascinating tale a disservice. Conway is our introduction to this world, and he’s the protagonist in the sense that his delivery sets Kentucky Route Zero in motion. But this game’s peculiar structure has much in common with its titular highway. It plays with our sense of perspective, suddenly drawing in new characters while quickly discarding others.
Kentucky Route Zero does away with traditional choice systems and long conversation trees. Instead of offering branching paths that fold back into a list of repeating choices like a phone menu system, it asks players to make a single choice at each moment of dialogue. This gives the roughly ten-hour experience an element of replay value: you won’t be able to see many of the game’s lines on your first run through each of the game’s five brief acts and interludes. These decisions don’t shift the story’s arc. Instead, they fill in small details of your companion’s lives. Did Conway name his dog Blue or Homer? Is the voice on the other end of the phone line indignant or patient? When a stranger approaches, do you respond with confusion or clarity?
The lack of mechanical consequences is liberating. It frees the player to choose options based on their own gut instinct rather than a desire to produce the “best” outcome. Player choice becomes a mirror where the audience finds bits of themselves reflected in these characters. It feels surprisingly meaningful, more so than in other games centered on supposedly impactful choices that boil down to clicking options from a menu to decide the fate of humanity. You may not be able to decide humanity’s fate in Kentucky Route Zero, but you can decide how other people deserve to be treated.
It’s a subtle approach to game choice. There are no fail states, no death, no reloading from a previous save once you realize the horrible consequences of your decision. It just keeps rolling forward, respectful of your choices but never allowing them to interrupt the flow of its narrative.
Playing a game where the totems and symbols of “gameplay” exist, yet float free of their traditional consequences is incredibly refreshing. There’s no reloading a save for a second shot at a failed roll or to retry a conversation that wrecked your intended progress path. Kentucky Route Zero just floats along, translating bits of what you’ve provided it into powerful moments of emotional release.
If you’re looking for a straightforward mystery with a clean resolution, you might be disappointed by Kentucky Route Zero’s refusal to play by a clear set of narrative rules. But that same sense of abandonment is also its strength. It draws more from the literary tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams than from its point-and-click contemporaries.
A game that leans so heavily on long passages of text could easily fall apart without quality writing. Luckily, this is Kentucky Route Zero’s most compelling asset. The writing is transcendent, effortlessly blending the magical with the mundane until they feel all of a piece. It recreates the magic of the natural world by exaggerating its wonder. The giant bald eagle that aids young Ezra, one of our central characters. Or the mysterious Echo River, with locations that seem to appear only when they’re needed. Even separated from their meaning, this game is filled with beautiful images.
But an experience focused only on these supernatural riddles would run the risk of feeling slight. Kentucky Route Zero works so well because it grounds its wonder in the mundane realities of a damaged society. This is a journey through desolate gas stations, empty museums, and abandoned churches. It’s about much more than magic highways and giant eagles. It’s about people who can’t pay their medical bills. The hopes of workers crushed by uncaring bosses. And it’s about seeking comfort in the shadow of death.
A church, transplanted into a tiny storage unit by the strange government agency that reclaimed its cathedral, is abandoned, yet a tape of the sermon repeats on an endless loop. A janitor tidies up, although he’s no longer paid. An old man keeps showing up at a decrepit telephone exchange even though he’s officially been laid off. There’s comfort in the ritual. It is all they know. And that’s what this game is about: places that have lost their purpose, yet carry on through muscle memory and fading tradition. It is a howl of pain about late capitalism, about the way industrialization turns human beings into commodities only to discard them when their margins vanish.
The greatest works of art are bundles of different emotions, striking out at each other, conflicted, spinning in a chaotic dance. Even when beauty creeps into Kentucky Route Zero, most notably in its incredibly touching fourth act, there’s always a tension lurking underneath it, an understanding of its fleeting nature. It owes much of this to the spectacular sound design and the beautiful selection of old gospel and bluegrass tunes, rearranged with a haunting flair by composer Ben Babbitt.
A close friend of mine died about two weeks before I started playing Kentucky Route Zero. I’m not trying to make this a sob story, I only mention him because that experience slept in the trunk of my mind as I played, knock-knock-knocking away, each moment suffuse with a bit of restless sorrow.
Kentucky Route Zero is death. It’s analgesia, it’s nostalgia, it’s a memory corrupted by the passage of time. A pinprick of poison and honey flowing onto the page, spilling into the screen, slipping past the gates and peeking into the illusions we maintain to keep ourselves alive. A half-remembered dream scribbled neatly in notebook lines.
The winding highways of the southern United States, where I have lived my entire life, are forever embedded in the walls of my memory. They stretch on and on, cracked by weather, the lane markers eroded, the sense of direction lost. But there is a comfort in knowing they will always be there, the cicadas and engines and car radios whirring in the background, ready to carry you away to another place.