Kentucky Route Zero. It's a lost highway in rural America, and reaching it isn't as simple as driving your truck onto the on-ramp. The first entry in this episodic adventure series is stylish and moody, urging you to consider what riddles lie ahead by giving you haunted glimpses of the lives the locals lead and once led. Beneath this style, however, isn't much substance. Kentucky Route Zero invites you to participate in its story by allowing you to select dialogue that fits your vision of who its main characters are. But your choices impact only that vision, not the path the characters follow, and many such choices feel hollow and game-ish. In a certain regard, Kentucky Route Zero is like the performance of a talented magician who diverts your attention from his trick with a dramatic flourish.
Yet such flourishes can result in a hushed awe, and Kentucky Route Zero's somber visuals inspire a similar reverence. You play as antique delivery driver Conway, pointing and clicking your way up a winding walkway and through a claustrophobic mine, among other locales. The interplay between light and dark makes for several solemn moments, and the act of turning off the lights can reveal chilling sights. The murkiness is offset by the down-home vibe of various animations: the weary saunter of Conway's lanky dog, the shiver of his running truck, and the way a mouse click results in the subtle toss of a horseshoe to mark your destination.
The rural uneasiness is also communicated through the game's story and dialogue. An old man tells you, "Did you hear that wreck? Truck full of bottles--I dunno, beer bottles? Whiskey?" He's blind, but Kentucky Route Zero allows that information to emerge through natural dialogue, rather than clumsily forcing the information upon you. Of your canine companion, the game says: "An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days." Descriptions are often this simple and evocative.
Kentucky Route Zero envelops you in its singular sense of place, and you begin to share Conway's trepidation as he edges closer to his secretive destination. You can react to your circumstances with various lines of dialogue, yet these conversation trees are a mixed blessing. On one hand, dialogue and action options intimate a sense of choice that the game never makes good on. At one point, for instance, you can decide whether to tap an object, clear your throat, or rub your finger along a surface, but your choice has no bearing on the adventure or on the development of its characters, leading you to wonder why there is a choice at all. At another, you enter passwords into a computer, but it doesn't matter which you choose: you always succeed in your task. You even get to tell an entire story of a roof you once repaired, one dialogue choice at a time, but in terms of plot and progression, such choices are window dressing.
On the other hand, some dialogue options allow you to become a narrative collaborator. As you relate past events to a newfound friend, you can share that a thunderstorm disrupted your plans, or you can say you were running late because you were hung over. Eventually, your mental image of who Conway is becomes clearer, which is emotionally empowering, even though there are no practical in-game repercussions. You also briefly take control of another character, Shannon, and make similar decisions for her in the first five seconds of her appearance. The narrative conceit works well for Conway, because the game gives you a starting point from which to mold his backstory. In Shannon's case, you're thrust into narrative decisions without having the chance to paint even a basic mental picture of her in advance, which robs your choices of their emotional power--the only power Kentucky Route Zero's choices possess.
The hour-long act may not reach many conclusions, but it does leave you wanting more, which is an admirable quality in the first episode of an ongoing adventure. Kentucky Route Zero is a pleasure to look at and interact with, brimming with anxious memories and begging you to peer into the distance. And yet it also comes across as a bit underdeveloped. Some dialogue options seem arbitrary and unnecessary, and the game opens with an easy but logical puzzle of sorts, but no others, setting an expectation it never fulfills. Nonetheless, this is a compelling mystery, and Conway is a likable leading man who must listen to the whispers of the past if he wishes to reach his journey's end.