We have a ritual. The kind of ritual that thrives in a group of four. When a new episode of Kentucky Route Zero is released, we get together and eat dinner. We pull out the projector, relax on the couch and begin to play.
I don’t know if there’s something unique about Kentucky Route Zero that makes it ideal for community play. It could be that we’re all Kentucky natives, raised on Ale8one and fried chicken, and that predisposes us about a tale about our homeland chock full of magical realism and charm. I can hear the whisper of home in the ambient soundtrack, hear the strains of a rural accent in the imagined voice of Conway.
More likely, it’s the episodic nature. The first time we got together to play Act One, winter had set in. It was cold, and we drank hot chocolate mixed with peppermint schnapps. We huddled together on the couch, and for an hour we were sucked into the world of Kentucky Route Zero. An hour to two hours — the length of time it takes for us to play a single episode — is the perfect amount of time to engage in play. For me, film is a community experience, where people gasp and cry together even if they never speak. Playing games in this same communal way, for roughly the same amount of time as a feature, works.
If you haven’t already played Episode 3 of Kentucky Route Zero , you’re missing a truly atmospheric experience that is almost unparalleled in modern game development. There is a moment about halfway through where the ambient silence is disturbed. Not by violence, but by the sound of Junebug’s voice. She is dressed in an ethereal blue dress, cut in such a way to make it almost seem like paper craft art, and her voice fills the dingy bar in which she sings. The bar is literally transformed, until she and her fellow performer are the only presence, the ceiling tiles melting away into night. The patrons of the bar are in rapt awe, and as the audience, we were as well. It’s an exceptionally well delivered moment, and the strains of broken melody stayed with me for the rest of the night, long after the group had broken up.
We’ve tried other games. Double Fine’s adventure game Broken Age, Jazzpunk, and occasionally other people join us to try and become part of the experience. For me at least, nothing has felt quite the same as that same core group of people, playing KZR in near silence, calling out only briefly when they want a choice of path or sharing a laugh among friends.
There are two more episodes left of Kentucky Route Zero, and I await them with anticipation and a bittersweet sadness. They will be, if the previous entries are any measure, beautiful games. But at the same time, they will be the last two entries. Cardboard Computer, the developer, will no doubt continue making games but the era of Kentucky Route Zero (of warm Kentucky nights, pot lucks with friends, sitting in silence punctuated by ambient folk music) will be done.
You can pick up the game at the Humble Bundle Store, for a discount for a limited time.