A truck pulls in to an Equus Oils gas station, the driver, an antiques deliveryman named Conway, lost and seeking direction. The attendant can't help, although he knows who can, but the power is out - the station is pitch black - and the information is on the office computer. You pop down into the cavernous basement to flip the breaker, where you discover three people playing a game. You restore the electricity, and they're gone. The old, blind attendant says it was probably a trick of the light. Your journey continues.
Kentucky Route Zero is an adventure, but it has far more in common with last year's indie darling Dear Esther than with conventional point-and-click games like Deponia or Harvey's New Eyes. You can't die, there are no puzzles to solve, you'll direct both sides of conversations and, ultimately, you'll get to where you need to be whether you want to or not. It's a slow-burning bluegrass dream about a man, his dog and the magic of the road.
The game is designed to ensure that as little as possible comes between the player and the experience. Click where you want to go, and Conway will saunter over. When he comes within range of an interactive hotspot, an icon will appear indicating that he can look at it, talk to it or use it in some unspecified way. Conversations are a just a matter of clicking one line of dialog from a choice of two or three, but all roads lead to Rome and the options appear to be more cosmetic than practical.
It would be easy to get the feeling that your choices are irrelevant, but Kentucky Route Zero avoids that trap by drawing players into a wonderfully realized world that's interesting, engaging and holds just a hint of darkness at the edges. Its graphical style is immediately and strongly reminiscent of Out of This World, primitive compared to most other contemporary games, but its brilliant use of light and shadow, complemented by startlingly good sound effects and ambient music, conjures a truly powerful ambiance.
But what really seals the deal are the things you don't see, or might have seen, or didn't bother to look at before something drew your attention elsewhere. The Zero is hard to find and the world surrounding it is mystical and mysterious, and a single pass through it will almost certainly leave you feeling as though you missed something. Something important, perhaps. You don't have to pay attention, but you probably should.
In the sense that bells cannot be un-rung, Kentucky Route Zero is a very linear experience, but there's plenty of freedom to do what you want on the journey. Directions to important points on the top-down road map tend to be vague - head north-east on the 65 until you reach the burning tree, then take the next left and drive a ways - and you're free to get them wrong or ignore them entirely, which will set you on a free-form, cross-country sightseeing tour. The world is bounded and sooner or later you'll reach your destination, but you might see some interesting things along the way.
Or you might not.
It's a very short game - you'd have to do some serious dicking around to get two hours out of it - but technically it's Kentucky Route Zero Act 1 and with four more acts planned, it's an understandable brevity. Saves are made automatically when you exit the game and loaded when you restart, so reloading for different results isn't an option - not that it's really necessary anyway. This is a game about seeing what you see, and missing what you miss. Life goes on.
Kentucky Route Zero is one of those games that can be derided as "artsy fartsy nonsense" almost as easily as applauded for its stunning atmosphere, captivating story and smooth infusion of the magical into the mundane. It's not for everyone. But there are few other games that are more beautifully crafted or that tell their tale with such fluid ease, and I can't wait to see where the road leads next.
Bottom Line: Gorgeous, atmospheric and utterly intriguing, Kentucky Route Zero is a fine example of all that is good about indie game development.
Recommendation: Stereotypical Call of Duty fans need not apply, but everyone else should give it a serious look.
Game: Kentucky Route Zero
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Cardboard Computer
Platform(s): Mac, PC