My “Games of 2013” were not exhaustive by any means, but I feel like it’s a solid selection of games I would recommend to almost anyone. Sadly, what might be my very favorite adventure didn’t make the cut; in its current state, I cannot call Kentucky Route Zero one of the best games of 2013. However, I’m not ready to start 2014 before explaining why it’s worth your time, and why it got cut in the first place.
Kentucky Route Zero feels like it tumbled from the film canister of a David Lynch project. The rural setting is framed in a lens that bears close resemblance to his eye for magical realism; there’s something always “off” about the place even before you finally find The Zero, from a taped sermon playing in a deserted church to a ghostly game of Dungeons and/or Dragons in the bowels of a gas station basement. Unlike most modern portrayals of strange occurrences in an otherwise-normal town, it never descends into horror, and comes across as an earnest, wondrous portrayal of the region rather than threatening players with hillbilly murderers.
Kentucky Route Zero also gives players an unusual amount of control in shaping the stories of its characters. Instead of gaming a trite good/evil meter or offering traditional branching paths, you’re occasionally asked to decide why one traveler is searching for the Zero in the first place, or how a potential new companion responds to the established cast. Conway won’t sprout horns, grow a halo or lose an arm, but even if these choices don’t appear to change the structure of the game, they have an impact on the way you take in the journey. It’s an intriguing way to give players a greater degree of authorship without sullying the creator’s intent, and it works flawlessly. I found myself filled with sadness as I reflected on the backstory I chose for Conway, but my involvement didn’t cheapen the moment; I had simply discovered the “real” Conway, and he was a tragic figure.
Despite my absolute adoration for Kentucky Route Zero, I just couldn’t bring myself to list it as one of the top games of 2013, and it all hinges around one unavoidable fact; it’s incomplete. There are two episodes currently available, and three more are supposedly on the way in the near future (there are murmurs that the third chapter will be available before the end of this month, and my fingers are certainly crossed). I partially cut Zero from the list because it has a better fighting chance in 2014, when it forms into a more cohesive whole. It might be a bit presumptuous to claim it will be just as significant next to this year’s crop of games, but when the first two parts are already a home run, I have faith that the rest of it will be just as stellar.
Sadly, such expectations can often be shattered; we’ve all had experience with games like Indigo Prophecy, where the rancid ending voids all goodwill from a gripping first half. If Kentucky Route Zero screws up later, it would look silly to list it as one of the top games of any year. Some critics (including our own Colin) were also bothered by the rather irregular release pattern of the series. When someone slaps the episodic label onto their game, we expect them to release on at least a monthly basis, thanks in no small part to Telltale’s respectable execution. Act II of Kentucky Route Zero released on May 31, 2013, and since then we’ve only had a few intermittent experimental projects from the developers to pass the time. Quality certainly takes time, and I have no problem with waiting for the rest of the game, but the general frustration with Cardboard Computer’s sparse releases is completely understandable.
2013 may be out of the question for Kentucky Route Zero, but there’s a nice pedestal waiting for it in 2014. If Cardboard Computer sticks the landing, their loving portrait of the heart of Americana will be on our tongues for quite some time.