There’s a spadeful of damp vulnerability sown in the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. Our delivery man protagonist, Conrad, doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. You and I, don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into — and that’s really the beauty of this game: we don’t belong in it. There’s a certain vampirism that feeds off the player’s role as a voyeur, a consumption of trust and perception. We know what’s real, what’s not, what physics and logic permits in reality, and which intangible arrangements can only manifest themselves in dreams.
The first act, for the most part, used dialogue to disorient you. You drive up to an old farm-house and ask a strange woman about a broken TV, only to have her respond with a non-sequitur, oblivious to your tone or that something was even asked. While this Lynchian dialogue is still present in the second act, what rises to prominence are the contrastive visuals composed by glacial vector graphics. Once again, a heavy sediment challenges your perception of the natural and unnatural, but in this visit to the eponymous highway you’re stifled by the uncanny settings and their interactable objects.
Hermit crabs are walking around in caves, carrying about their business. But to interact with them would reveal an unsettling comment on how our inorganic consumption in everyday life, affects the way nature intended things to be. The cave is the initial scene of Act 2, and in it you’ll find an office building. Yes, you read that correctly, but while you’re running hoops through bureaucratic paperwork, you can take a break from white-collar life and head to the third floor, where you’ll find some burly employees simply watching you. The inorganic setting of an office is out-of-place for them, but you don’t belong around them either, or whatever sphere of existence Kentucky Route Zero adorns. You can only walk across the eerie, antiseptic office, and they’ll watch your every movement, like the ugly duckling you are.
The perverse espionage that comes with every art is heightened and brought to the forefront of this demented escapade. Film, television, literature — you’re always peeking through a keyhole, getting a narrow cross-section of the events in someone’s life. Though with the participatory narrative of this second act, these roles seem to be reversed. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the first act handed you the power of judgement. You could reflect on your opinion of the town by speaking to your dog and choosing how to respond to the patrons of the haunted highway. It always felt like you were the kid watching ants endlessly toil about a farm. But being the ant in the farm feels disturbing — all the attention’s on you, as naturally, you’re the stranger in these parts.
Any semblance of solitude and privacy that existed in the first act has been robbed of its vitality. Not only do characters watch your movement, they inspect your every action with detached judgement, enforcing a further state of dissonance between your visiting of the Zero, and the people who call it home. An entire section of this episode dictates this dissonance, and efficaciously writes history as it’s being made. Rather than following the structure of the first act and scribbling a tableau of what used to be, this second act forces you to experience history in the making and through another being’s perspective. The aforementioned section has you pointing and clicking as you would, but interacting with objects summons a conversation between citizens of the town that describe the events as if they’ve already happened, but with their own unique and vindictive judgement. Your participation is still part of their commentary, but it’s something etheric and supernatural; the act of taking possession of new character with each engagement.
Characters change in this new episode, and express their personality with more credence in their utterances. Most responses hold a dichotomy that subtly allocates a gentle and tapered tone with Conrad, and abrasive demands by Shannon. It’s a kind of contrastive dyad that let’s the player decide how to deal with a situation while also adding strata to the composure of the protagonists. We’re introduced to new characters as well, their own histories and quirks adding more questions to this tumble in the rabbit hole. Though my only gripe arises with a certain character who is a little too farfetched for the uncanny valley the game presents. This game thrives on taking the realistic, and twisting and construing it to a point that makes you feel like something’s crawling beneath your skin. But when you’re acquainted with a character that seems larger than life, in a game that’s just weird enough to make things creepy, you feel like you’re waking up from the hallucination that Cardboard Computer designed.
There’s ample choice in this game but it’s all intrinsic to who’s playing it. The choices you get to make aren’t the moral decisions you typically see shoehorned into games but instead reflect the characters you create. You participate in the creation of Conrad, Shannon, and how they navigate this chasm between our world and that of the Zero. There’s no gravity to your decisions, only character development and the feeling of co-writing a book. I can’t say what this game is pointing to; it’s a hodgepodge of bizarre events and behaviour. But the most conspicuous facet of the game is how unsettling it is, because of how personal it becomes. Not in the way you make decisions in Mass Effect. Kentucky Route Zero proffers no question of whom to bring along, or which choice will benefit gameplay or story — just how you wish to perceive the narrative. You start to see yourself in these characters, your memories bleeding into theirs, and you’ll get a chill down your spine when you realize how idiosyncratic this game gets, and yet remain at sea with how this feeling came to surface.