Driving, walking and flying through the state of Kentucky in Cardboard Computer’s envisioning of point-and-click has been an absolute delight. Two acts began unraveling an engrossing story, and now, after a decent amount of time, the third one sneaked up on us in the form of an unannounced two hundred megabyte update. If you’re one of the two people that for some reason had skepticism in regards to this act here, you’d do fine to throw away your doubts before hopping in.
The third act begins with a close-up of Conway having a drug-induced reliving of a past discussion with Lysette. That very first frame, with its minimalistic sound effects, alongside Conway’s faceless, bulky figure will absolutely remind you of the overall vibe of the previous acts. And the game continues under the mark of the same vibe. The previous installments had their own small particularities in unraveling the story. If the first one slowly settled us in, and the second act kept adding elements on that foundation, this time around, the view seems to have been lowered a bit. Most of the encounters will focus more on the characters, if not always through camera close-ups, then through the insight that is provided.
The better part of the game will take place in locations that will, perhaps, appear less striking than the ones in the previous acts. However, the relative plainness does make way for a couple of moments that present certain social themes in a strong fashion. And it’s not just the locations that work towards this. The magical-realist element has played a central part in previous acts as well. In fact, all three acts have certain images that are bound to stick with you as you go through the stories and most assuredly, afterwards. It’s through this combination of two separate logics, of two seemingly similar, yet fundamentally different planes, that Kentucky Route Zero adds mystique to the themes it tries to present.
And it’s these very things that matter the most. Kentucky Route Zero started with just Conway, his dog and his truck, heading out to make one final delivery. The third act finds Conway in a party of six. If in the beginning, one could rely on the truck driver being the protagonist, things aren’t as clear anymore. Kentucky Route Zero plays a game of giving control and taking it away from the player. You never know when your clicks will direct the steps of another character. The spoken replies also tend to jump from one person to another, often, coming from people not directly involved in the conversation, thus, rendering the situation a bit ambiguous.
The peculiarity doesn’t stop here though, as Kentucky Route Zero’s choices differ from the ones in traditional point and click adventure games. They’re not necessarily related to direct actions as much as to the direction of the discussion. For example, one particular scene gives you the opportunity to either make Conway follow the discussion at hand, or simply have him fall into a daydream where he remembers vital happenings of the past. You won’t know of your “power” until a few lines into the conversation, though. It’s exactly this ambiguity that adds a layer of mystery to the story, but also to your position as a player in relation to it. Point and click adventure games tend to give you control over the choices of the characters, turning you into a director. Here, this notion is uncertain. You sometimes feel like the hand guiding those on the screen, while in other occasions, you feel closer to being another person taking part in the journey.
And it melds, very well, into what Kentucky Route Zero is trying to showcase in its warm blue, eerie, uneasy world. The title is all about the lives of the faceless protagonists. It’s all about having control and losing it when you don’t expect it - just how life ends up being at certain times.
It’s a case of these faceless, apparently unimpressive figures that leave a strong impression on you, and all this is done gently. Kentucky Route Zero never feels like actually playing a video game. Despite appearances, at the end of the day there’s no distance between you and the bundles of polygons that act as characters. As conflicting as it sounds with the way control is done here, while you have the game window open, you’re there. The game slowly takes you in and carefully paints its picture.
In its ambiguity, its imagery and in its game of not letting you know how much you are actually in control of anyone’s fates, Kentucky Route Zero both portrays life in its grander and smaller scopes as well as fully immersing you into its world, in a manner that few other titles manage to. And with the conclusion of the third act, a sense of urgency is instilled, just as gently. But what’s most important is that it will leave you desiring the next installment much more than the previous acts did.