“Pseudoscience is the marriage of whimsy and process.” So speaks a drifter in Kentucky Route Zero who’s stopped to tell your character, Conway, about the experimental adaptation of a Robert Frost poem that he hopes to perform. It’s a meaningless encounter (there are no inventory items to obtain from him, no actual quest to fulfill), but those who appreciate gothic and philosophical flavor text will have no problem getting behind Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy’s pseudo-game, which weds a tense and Lynchian atmosphere of abandoned, ghostly properties along the various back roads of Kentucky with a series of metaphysical encounters. Samuel Beckett would be proud of such unexplained and non-interactive scenarios, like the one in which two “almost broken” men push a small aircraft across a narrow strip of highway, or another in which the sight of roadside debris has Conway waxing poetically to his dog.
With only one of five acts officially released to date, it’s hard to evaluate the cumulative effect the game will have, but the conceit feels tiring after only a single hour. Shannon Marquez, a co-protagonist who’s introduced halfway through the first act, hints that everything will come together, but has only pseudoscience of her own to offer up: “Topology. That’s the science of continuous space, my friend. The way this twisty maze of passages fits together.” True or not, such fanciful reveries and Kentucky Route Zero’s strong art direction, which calls to mind the surreal and angular environments of Out of this World and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, aren’t enough to provide momentum, and that’s ignoring the fact that some locations are described entirely through screenplay-like text—stage directions and all.
As for gameplay, though a minimalist interface allows you to click through each area, hotspots popping up as you approach them, there aren’t really any puzzles to solve. Instead, you’ll be reading dialogue and picking a response from a series of abstract and impact-less choices. By avoiding clear-cut moral issues, Kentucky Route Zero seeks to put you in sync with Conway on a more personal level, but it’s unclear how the decision to name your dog Blue or Homer causes the player to feel more invested in their actions. In a particularly odd sequence in the Elkhorn Mines, Conway tests the air quality by blowing into a P.A., and he’s instructed to breathe normally. To do so, you can either remember a time earlier from that day or a moment from your childhood, but this feels more like a dressed-up personality test than a game.
Eschewing immediate results and taking an exceedingly leisurely narrative path (at one point, an injury causes Conway to move even slower across each screen), Kentucky Route Zero stands distinct from most games out there, but the effect produces only a sad semblance of wander, not a satisfying sense of wonder.
You can purchase a Kentucky Route Zero season pass on Steam here.