Scaring people is hard in games. Sure, you can make them jump, but frightening them (rather than just startling them) is tough. It requires the build up (where you create a tense atmosphere) as well as a reveal, where we are exposed to the terrifying monster/killer/alien/zombie/dude-with-big-long-arms. In games the first part (the ramping up of the tension) is always a precursor to a scare of some sort. There are few (if any) games that are content to be creepy or unsettling without following up with a scare. Even with a game series like Dead Space or Resident Evil, when a scare fails to appear it’s only to make you drop your guard for a subsequent moment when a zombie thingy will jump out at you.
In television and movies though there are many times when a director is happy to creep you out rather than make you spill your popcorn. From Twin Peaks to The Vanishing, there’s a huge range of entertainment of the dreamy, spooky variety. Few games could be described as something like “Lynchean” though. But Kentucky Route Zero could. Drive past Mullholland Drive and turn left at the Lost Highway and you’ll experience a game as smooth as Blue Velvet….. *ahem*
Tortured references aside, Kentucky Route Zero is a weird game, and weird is exactly what Cardboard Computer’s Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy are aiming for. It’s a game that’s constantly hinting at dark secrets in the shady past of its characters and the small town they inhabit.
Nothing is clear or explained fully in Kentucky Route Zero. It sets out a story, complete with more than a few hints that things aren’t how they seem. As the first episode in a series this is to be expected, but you get the feeling that even by the end of the last episode there will still be a lot of the story that’s open to interpretation. No one in the game world speaks normally; everything is said in riddles and allusions to events you don’t yet understand, and the whole thing feels like a dream. The story could be great, but for now all I can say is that its really promising and if you’re the kind of person who loves weird mysteries in small town America then Kentucky Route Zero is pretty much a must-play.
The atmosphere is what really makes this game something work playing. The games visuals are very basic, looking somewhat like a stylised, retro re-imagining of Another World, but set very much in THIS world. Characters are simply modelled and flat and often viewed from a distance and there’s a focus on weird camera angles to build tension and pull you into the game world. Lighting is also well used, with creaky old houses emerging from the gloom of a game world that is in a state of perpetual night.
It all starts at a gas station where some welcoming bright lights direct you in an almost entirely dark screen. The beams from your own truck are the only other light in this world, and the sounds of its engine ticking over and the crickets chirping in the bushes are all you hear. Talking to the station attendant (who responds to every question with a friendly-but-cryptic answer) you start to realise that Kentucky Route Zero is playing with your expectations. You start with a short trip to fix a fuse box (including an encounter with some DnD players who can’t see you, then later disappear completely, almost as if you imagined them). It’s a great set up that pulls you in. Gameplay generally consists of simply clicking where you want to walk and occasionally selecting dialogue options. These seem to define the reality of the game world itself as you determine your characters own story (including the name of his hat-wearing dog) through your responses. Later sections of the game play with your expectations by having you switch protagonist for a time, effectively interacting with yourself from the opposite side of a conversation (if that makes any sense).
So Kentucky Route Zero has some elements in common with Dear Esther, as its largely free of gameplay. Rather, it’s a story you play through complete with choices. There are moments when it becomes more game-y too though. You are free to drive around the town from a top-down map, but you never see anything except this map and the sound of your trucks engine. You can drive around freely and will find some areas to explore beyond where the story leads you, but these are generally just text descriptions of places and what you find there.
While the game has limited visual appeal there are two stand out moments in this episode that really excited me, and one was a result of the games outstanding audio. I won’t spoilt it, but it involved a number of musicians playing (and singing) a creepy but hauntingly beautiful song. These musicians are only seen in silhoutette but weirdly they inhabit the foreground while the game continues in the background with your character very far away from them, and its unclear if he is aware that they are there. This moment stands out because the game uses text throughout, but at this point you hear a man’s voice singing. Its both spooky and beautiful at once, and its one of my favourite gaming moments of 2013 so far. The other outstanding moment was more of a creepy trick the developers pulled, and I won’t spoil it… but I will say that if they use more techniques like this they could give gamers real nightmares in the upcoming episodes.
And if I could commend the game on one more thing, Kentucky Route Zero really knows when to stay quiet. I’ve played a number of games with ridiculously bombastic soundtracks recently, so its nice to play a game that knows how scary it is when everything gets really quiet. When Kentucky Route Zero uses audio, it does so brilliantly, but it uses it judiciously.
I can’t wait to play the next episode, but before I recommend this first one let me issue some provisos. Even at just over an hour, there’s part of the game that drags halfway through during a mine cart section that really killed the pace of the game for me. Also, its a game that sets things up but nothing really happens. If you love atmosphere and story, there’s a lot to love, but if you’re waiting for zombies, a gun, a quick time event or a combo meter then you’re really in the wrong place completely.
And the game looks basic too. I personally like the visuals, but even I feel like Kentucky Route Zero looks like a proof of concept. I would love to explore this world that’s rich in mystery and atmosphere with similarly rich visuals.
Minor criticisms aside though, Kentucky Route Zero was absorbing and I can’t wait to continue the story. It shows real promise, and with Silent Hill games being so very shit now, we need to look elsewhere for that shiver-down-our-spine feeling in games. We need to look at games like Kentucky Route Zero.
If you buy Kentucky Route Zero you will get all 5 Acts as they are released, but only the first is available right now.
8 obvious and painful references to David Lynch movies out of 10