It’s been a while since a text adventure came into the focus of the gaming community, and especially when it comes to being Greenlighted on Steam. But Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 is just that game, combining visual novel art style with point-and-click adventure gameplay, sort of. Let’s see if it’s really that special or just another indie fad.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 (PC)
(USA 2013, developer/publisher: Cardboard Computer, platform: PC)
Delivery service truck driver Conway has some problems finding the the right address, as it doesn’t seem to exist, and people he meets seem to be ghosts from the past. All is not well on the Kentucky Route.
Back to basic storytelling like in the good ol’ days
Text adventures have been out of date for quite some time. It’s true that there are still some enthusiasts who spent all a lot of energy crafting their own unique stories, distributing them for free on the Interactive Fiction Database. But combined with graphics, that’s not so common, despite the Cabrera Brothers’ Cypher effort, which apparently is still struggling with translation problems.
So it’s a nice change to finally have something well-written with a clear postmodern touch. The plot seems straightforward, but as the route Conway has to take seems non-existent and people he meets turn out to be not what they say they are or who are simply disappearing, the influence of David Lynch is obvious. This of course brings with it some problems as well: Characters don’t have much time to develop, only fragments of their personalities can be uncovered, but not in one single playthrough. Surely this adds to replayability, but when it comes to an engaging story and memorable protagonists, the game feels a bit empty and at times even pretentious by only delivering poetic lines for the player to read.
Many roads to travel with narrative turns to take
A sense of place is created by visiting off-the-road locations which don’t belong to the main storyline, but offer small narratives of their own. As the prose feels like being taken out of a longer literary piece , it’s easy to get lost in all these alternative routes, discover new places and people, see Conway behave in different ways. But again this is only a distraction from the main story which in itself is quite linear, highlighted by its chapter being divided into various scenes.
The player can decide what answers the characters give (yes, at one point there’s a change of narrative instance), and some even result in an alternative scene, but usually there’s not a lot of freedom to influence the story. This is quite a shame, considering an artistic game like The Cat Lady recently showed how much powerful decisions can be and how they shape the character the player controls.
Drivin’, walkin’ and bumpin’ on the road
The controls are similar to traditional point-and-click adventure games, but unlike this puzzle-heavy genre, there’s no inventory, and relevant items can only be picked up and are automatically used when Conway interacts with the environment. Pixelhunting is absent, as the objects are more or less collected on the way from one screen to the next. Only at some point does backtracking necessary become necessary, but as a notebook keeps tabs on the relevant directions Convey has to take on the route, this doesn’t make the game any more difficult.
What’s quite annoying though is that some parts of the story make the gameplay unnecessarily boring. When going through a mine (without now spoiling why), the player is asked to take different turns, and as the movement of the cart he’s going in is done by clicking again and again with the mouse button…only then coming to dead ends doesn’t create any kind of atmosphere or tension, but simply annoyance. Patience is one thing, but when there isn’t even any dialogue during these scenes and the player has no idea where he’s going, postmodernism rears its ugly head to come across even more self-indulgent.
As has been said, the absence of an inventory also means objects can’t be combined, so there’s really not a lot of brain activity involved with solving certain problems. Their solutions are obvious, and only the way to get to one story-relevant location to another needs some engagement on the part of the player or reader. Like most visual novels, gameplay takes a backseat and creating one’s own story and background become more important. Only as linearity is concerned, this doesn’t always work.
Take a look, a breath and listen to the sounds
The visual presentation is quite unique. Even if the graphics are reminiscent of older games like Another World, which also means that character models are rudimentary and don’t have a high-resolution quality, there’s a certain way colors and lighting are used to create a hauntingly beautiful effect. This is enhanced by the minimalistic sound design of background noises like chirping crickets, cars driving by or sometimes the complete absence of sound. Music is also implemented quite well.
The best effect can be witnessed in one scene: The camera pans out while Conway is on the way to his truck. The sundown bathes the place in a warm light and in the background some people are playing a song on acoustic guitars is a simple beauty rarely found in any other game (maybe reminiscent of Beyond Good & Evil‘s opening, even if it’s a completely different genre with better graphics; but if you play it, you know how it feels).
A visual novel worth a reading or two
Two questions become relevant when playing Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1: Does it work as a game and how much literary value does the text have? Both gameplay and storytelling have their problems and they’re certainly not for everyone. Playtime with less than an hour with one playthrough and an abrupt ending is less than stellar, even though it depends on how much one wants to explore the routes and try out alternative answers in the dialogues.
Still despite these flaws, there is a certain unique atmosphere, created by both sound, music and graphics. It might not be the best presentation, compared to Another World, or as visually varied as The Cat Lady, but it’s an atmospheric road trip into postmodernism, disguised as a visual novel with point-and-click adventure mechanics.
Buy the PC game on
the developer’s website
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