That lonesome valley
You've got to walk it by yourself
There's no one here
That can go there with you
You've got to go there by yourself...
A Magic Realism mix of Adventure Game, Interactive Fiction, and Choose Your Own Adventure, Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic game developed by Cardboard Computer for PC. The game was first revealed in Kickstarter, and ran a successful campaign, followed by a trailer and the first act's release in January 7, 2013. The fifth and final Act released in January 28, 2020 alongside the TV Edition, a "definitive edition" containing all the acts and interludes, released also on consoles.
The game marks the intersection between the Adventure Game and Midwestern ghost stories. This ain't your traditional, freaky Ghost Story, mind — this one's more of a kind to make you sit back, and think about your life.
Conway is a humble deliveryman, working for an antique store delivering good-quality old stuff to those who want it. He's driving through the long Kentucky night, with only his old, straw-hat-wearing dog for company. He's got a shipment to deliver to someplace called "Dogwood Drive." He doesn't know how to get there, and it's not on any maps. Shannon is the child of a mining family. She repairs TVs in the back of a bait shop to make ends meet. Her family's been suffering financial troubles since the mine closed down. Joseph, the man at the gas station, says the way to Dogwood is to take the Zero — the one and only route that goes under Kentucky.
The game provides examples of:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Act III's song, Too Late to Love You.
- The Alcoholic: One possible interpretation for Conway. He falls back into the habit in Act III.
- Alliterative Name: Dogwood Drive.
- And Then John Was a Zombie: Near the end of Act IV, Conway is taken away by the boys from Hard Times and is now indistinguishable from the rest of them.
- Animal Motifs: Horses. Hermit Crabs. Dogs.
- Best Known for the Fanservice: An in-universe example. One of the local TV stations had a late-night program with a naked man playing a banjo, which is really all anyone remembers about it.
- Big Bad: As of Act III, it appears to be the Hard Times Whiskey distillery, which is colluding with the Consolidated Power Company to effectively enslave people in debt to either. Conway winds up being coerced by them in Act III's conclusion.
- Bluegrass: There's not a lot of music in this game, but when it's not ambient noise, it's bluegrass. Appropriate enough for the Bluegrass State.
- The story begins and ends with the player choosing dialogue to create a poem. First when figuring out the password to Joseph's computer at Equus Oils in Act I, and at the end of Act V as Nikki reading a poem for the Neighbors' funeral.
- The story starts and ends at horse-related artworks: the first scene of the game is set at Equus Oils, which is a gas station in a statue of a horse. The last scene is set at a horse burial, with painted horse faces serving as the marker for the grave.
- In the last act, Shannon gives a 20-sided die to Bob and his friends. In the first act, Conway stumbles upon the group while they're playing with it in Equus Oils.
- Capitalism Is Bad: It's the middle of the Great Recession in a decaying section of semi-rural Kentucky. The local Consolidated Power Company controls has their has fingers in every pie through ownership of debt and the local whiskey distillery they own is a debtor's prison/not very subtle Hell allegory.
- An optional one — you can make Conway respond to all questions about his job by saying "It's better than being in a ditch."
- Another optional one — when you make Conway inquire about other characters hobbies and whatnot "[field of study, e.g. topology]. Ok."
- Shannon starting conversations with random questions: "Do you believe in ghosts?", "Wanna settle a bet?", etc.
- The Bureau clerks' "Happy to help."
- Celebrity Paradox: The second interlude released between acts shows a production of a play called The Entertainment with set design by Lula Chamberlain. In the beginning of Act 3 a scene set directly in the aftermath of the play occurs with Johnny and Junebug turning out to be the titular entertainment. The trope comes into play when Lula Chamberlain herself shows up later in the same act.
- Central Theme: the burdens of capitalism and debt; the decline of rural America; community and found families; memories and remembering; and the power of art.
- Choose Your Own Adventure: Stopping at some landmarks activates a dialogue-tree-based exploration of some surreal location of the Kentucky overworld or the Zero. These are often ghost-stories in miniature, like finding and searching an abandoned church with a tape deck playing hymns and sermons inside.
- Cloudcuckoolander: It's hard to tell with all the Magical Realism, but the operator of Here and There Along the Echo has a catalog of different types of water, which includes warm water and water in a cup. His service also contains an entire section about what to do if you're currently holding a snake.
- Company Town: Less a single town and more an entire rural region. The Consolidated Power Company has a hand in almost every aspect of life in this stretch of Kentucky.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Everyone has secrets to hide. Conway was a drunken drifter who found some comfort as a driver for an old antiques dealer, only to walk off in disgrace and come back to find that the man and his son had both died and the wife was growing steadily more senile. Shannon's parents and sister became hopelessly in debt from a house they bought and all disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Ezra's family also vanished, leaving him and his giant eagle to fend for themselves. Junebug is a robot made to clear the mine from Act I but abandoned the job.
- Dead All Along: Shannon's sister, Weaver. Maybe.
- Decoy Protagonist: Conway is the first character you have control over, and it's his job that starts the plot, but the game soon becomes about the ensemble of characters. And as of Act IV Conway is either dead or near enough to it, laving Shannon to complete the delivery in his stead.
- Dialogue Tree: Often as not, you don't really have a choice about what controllable characters say, only about how they say it. On the flipside, this means that about half your dialogue options let you determine what kinds of people they are, or even what histories they had. Alternate Character Interpretation abounds.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Hard Times Distillery in Act III and the general weirdness of the setting has quite a few allusions to the afterlife, specifically the concept of Purgatory.
- Eldritch Location: The Zero is apparently a single endlessly-looping giant cavern, yet its structure, landmarks, and available locations change when you switch directions at certain landmarks. Kentucky itself isn't far behind, though at least the world itself stays the same. The Echo River in Act IV seems to have similar properties to the Zero, appearing to be a circular river endlessly flowing into itself.
- Electromagnetic Ghosts: The ghosts of miners in the shaft. Flickering images of them appear through the sparking of the electrical rail, but only if the lights are off.
- Fantasy Americana: The game's plot takes heavy inspiration from classic Appalachian folklore and ghost stories.
- Foreshadowing: Keep trying to catch the attention of the tabletop gamers in the basement of the Equus, and one of the players will notice that winning the game seems impossible, and the GM will in response talk about degeneration into madness and how the game "is supposed to a tragedy."
- Ghost Story: The game takes inspiration from Appalachian folklore, in which ghosts, poltergeists, and other strange and uncanny beings and happenings figure heavily. True to form, there's a lot of apparently paranormal activity going on in little out-of-the-way places.
- Giant Flyer: Act II features Julian, a bald eagle large enough to carry away houses.
- The Hero Dies: Conway, in Act IV. Maybe. Whatever the case, he's gone to work at the distillery with the other glowing skeletons and isn't coming back.
- Historical Domain Character: The side character Lula Chamberlain was an obscure real life avante-garde artist from Kentucky. The first interlude, Limits and Demonstrations is a virtual exhibit of her actual work.
- Improv: All the player agency and gameplay is meant to be analogous to acting in a semi-improvisational play, changing the order of actions, dialogue, etc.
- Interpretative Character: Conway and Shannon in chapter 1, Lula and Ezra in Chapter 2. Some basic details about their lives are given. The rest can be made up by the player through the dialogue trees as you go along.
- I See Dead People: Maybe.
- Last-Name Basis: Carrington is only referred to by his last name unlike nearly all other characters, who are known by first name only.
- Location Title: The game is titled after, and set on and around, the titular Kentucky highway.
- Magical Realism: Stated as a major influence by the developers. Kentucky stops a bit shy of being an Eldritch Location. There's a lot of strange things around, but the general grayness and the insistent stance that all characters take on acting normally offsets it all.
- Medium Blending: Storytelling medium; KRZ is an adventure game but all its text, dialogue, and descriptions are written in stage play format and the areas have a distinct theater set design to them.
- Mega-Corp: The Consolidated Power Company. What they lack in size, they make up for in pervasiveness, as every aspect of electricity in the state appears to be governed by them. Even your health can wind up tied to your electrical bill, should you be treated by a doctor in their employ.
- Meaningful Name: The Zero is a loop, and the narrative of the game loops in on itself.
- Mind Screw: A number of things in the game, notably the nature of 5 Dogwood Drive. It's little more than a 3D outline of a house that apparently appeared during the night during the storm. No explanation is ever given and nobody finds it terribly odd.
- The New '10s: Set in and thematically about the Great Recession.
- Ominous Fog: Many of the outdoor scenes are set in foggy, poorly-lit areas, both adding to the subtly uncanny atmosphere and shrouding some parts of the scene until Conway gets up close (which is Truth in Television for nighttime fog banks in the mountains).
- Only One Name: Most characters in the game (with some exceptions, like Lula Chamberlain and Shannon & Weaver Márquez) are only known by their first name, Conway included. Junebug and Johnny are the straightest examples, as they have no surnames, being androids.
- Painting the Medium: Text becomes translucent and shaky whenever Route Zero is spoken, or when listening becomes difficult, such as a static-filled radio.
- Pre Existing Encounters: Traveling over the map uncovers a variety of locations that Conway can stop and visit, ranging from the scene of an accident to various abandoned buildings. A lot of these can have little Ghost Story-esque aspects to them while having nothing to do with the plot.
- Real-Place Background: The overworld map is an actual map of Kentucky's major roads.
- Real Time: Played with. The episodes are fairly short so one could easily see this trope in play, as the entire game takes place over one summer's night. In chapter 3, however, Conway and Shannon's visit to the distillery seems to take much longer then Junebug and Ezra waited for them to return.
- Robot Girl: Junebug has gray skin and makes mechanical noises when she walks but isn't obviously one till late in Act III when she tells Ezra she was built to clean up the mine from Act I. Some of the early promotional materials reference her as being a robot.
- Shout-Out: now has its own page.
- Small Reference Pools: Averted strongly! As these three essays point out, KRZ takes inspiration from and makes reference to the American theatrical and literary canon and history well outside the average gamer's knowledge base. The references are so obscure even the articles cited fail to realize Lula Chamberlain was a real person.
- Southern Gothic: It's the South during an economic recession.
- Unfazed Everyman: Conway, for all his myriad possible interpretations, will not be affected overmuch by the strange things that happen in the game. Ditto for Shannon, although in her case it's harder to justify her actions by ignorance. Such is the backbone of Magical Realism.
- Come Act III and pretty much everyone gets that there's something off about "the boys from Hard Times". Of course, you'd expect walking, glowing skeletons would warrant more of a description than "off", so the trope's still in-force.
- Ultimately, rather than question where the house-like prism that is 5 Dogwood Drive came from or how odd it looks, the party comes to accept it as a new community space for the isolated town.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Pretty much everything in the game. The sole exception seems to be The strangers, as they do terrify some of the cavern researchers.
- Among other things, Johnny and Junebug are robots (although extremely human ones). No one ever comments on this.
- There's a floor at the Bureau of Unclaimed Spaces marked "Bears". Going to it reveals a floor full of actual, living Bears just sitting there. It is never remarked upon in any way and cannot be interacted with (nor do the bears do anything but turn their heads towards you). This is in an oddly designed and located (but otherwise normal) office building.
- The Un-Reveal: Act V ends with most of the game's mysteries unresolved. We never find out what happened to Weaver, or what happened to Ezra's family, or who ordered the antiques, or what the deal with the Hard Times Distillery is and whether it has anything to do with the Consolidated Power Company. We just find a small town with no roads that's been flooded by a rainstorm, help the locals bury some deceased horses, and convert 5 Dogwood Drive into the town's new community space. The end.
- Visual Pun: Act III begins with Conway's leg glowing and skeletal as a visual metaphor for the monetary debt he's just accumulated. Later in the Hard Times distillery everyone is a glowing skeleton due to their debt and there's some clear hell metaphor going on. At the beginning of Act III Conway has one foot in the grave.
- Workaholic: Conway can be played as this, dismissing all other concerns in favor of making his delivery, even when he starts to black out from the pain of his injured leg.