By Alex Wakeford
After seven years, Cardboard Computer have concluded their journey with the fifth and final act of Kentucky Route Zero.
This final instalment brings us multiplayer… sort of. It’s Kentucky Route Zero’s own very on-brand interpretation of the feature – nostalgic, reminding us all of how we used to build our own communities through the games we loved in a time before online play.Coinciding with the release of its final act, Kentucky Route Zero has also made its console debut with the ‘TV Edition,’ which means that players on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One can experience this existential, Americana-inspired tale.
It’s an adventure game that leans greatly into magical realism, a style that takes the modern world but has supernatural elements, all about a secret highway that runs through the caves underneath Kentucky and the colourful characters who travel it.
A single-player game in every conceivable sense, seeing multiplayer come up (in the options menu, of all places) was admittedly rather strange…
Until you read the message.
1. Play until you encounter something – an image, a sound, a choice of words, a notable absence – that reminds you of someone else in the room.
2. Pass control of the game to that person.
3. You don’t have to explain yourself.
4. And so on.
Kentucky Route Zero’s multiplayer is a reminder of what it was like to share a game with somebody else.
Since the advent of online gaming, we’ve been brought closer as people from different homes, cities, and continents can play together with ease. That itself is amazing, the fact that I can jump online and communicate with somebody on the other side of the planet while playing a game together is so easily taken for granted now.
But as time has gone on we’ve definitely seen a decline in couch co-op experiences – something that, once upon a time, wasn’t an ‘option,’ but a necessity.
Indeed, rather than watching a friend play a game while we’re sat next to them, we have whole communities built around online streamers on Twitch, Mixer, YouTube, and many other platforms.
For this decline in ‘couch co-op,’ the reason is simple – we literally don’t make games like we used to.
Game engines on older consoles used to load an entire level, which we can’t really do any more with how much larger and more detailed games have become.
Now we load in bits and pieces of a level, something which dramatically reduces load times and allows for a more consistent, seamless experience while you’re on your adventures. We’ve gotten very good at that now, but these developments always have trade-offs.
Locally adding a second player to that framework brings complications, essentially doubling the necessary processes.
But Kentucky Route Zero proposes an ancient solution that we used to practice.
Just pass your controller to another person in the room.Recently, my partner and I have started playing games together. Her experience has largely revolved around Mario Kart and LEGO Star Wars, but just as she’s my co-op partner in life so too shall she be my co-op partner in saving the universe (or, as is often the way, just trying to inconvenience each other while playing).
We’ve been playing Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime, a neon-themed space adventure where you and up to four players sat in the room with you can take control of your own spaceship and have to manage its individual systems – weapons, shields, piloting, and so on.
It’s a test of patience and communication as you navigate a variety of hostile obstacles, and we’ve been having tremendous fun with it.
But another game she’s taken particular interest in is Jedi: Fallen Order (which also proved to be my gateway into getting her to watch through the entire saga with me).
Fallen Order is a game that I thought I’d struggle with, as I’ve never been able to jive with – nor ‘git gud’ at – Dark Souls games or its genre-inspired peers.
Nevertheless, when she saw protagonist Cal Kestis unexpectedly launched several kilometres into the sky after moving on a disagreeable bit of pixellated ground in a humorous compilation video, she was not to be deterred…
It was around this time that the two of us had discovered the YouTube channel Girlfriend Reviews (we’ve watched every one now, following Shelby and Matt’s videos has become something of a bi-weekly ritual), and so – following our anniversary dinner – I passed over the controller so she could assume the role of perhaps the most violent and destructive ‘Jedi’ I’ve ever seen!Watching somebody experience the novelty of gaming for the first time and get invested in the experience (verified by her coming over and asking “Can we play the Jedi game?!” with a terrifying twinkle in her eye that Palpatine himself would think twice about) is honestly quite wonderful.
It’s easy to see why things like reaction videos are so popular online; we love seeing other people get excited about the things we enjoy, especially when it’s genuine excitement.
And so, I return to Kentucky Route Zero.
This game can be a solitary experience. You can comfortably play it and get to the end by yourself, and you’ll have the full emotional arc of that. You’ll probably never forget it.
But this is a story about community, about what the greed and decay of capitalism does to people, and so much more. These are topics to be talked about, stories and experiences to be relate.
The final gift Kentucky Route Zero imparts alongside its concluding act is the encouragement to share this story the way we used to.
Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist adventure game in five acts, featuring a haunting electronic score, and a suite of hymns and bluegrass standards recorded by The Bedquilt Ramblers.
Rendered in a striking visual style that draws as much from theater, film, and experimental electronic art as it does from the history of videogames, this is a story of unpayable debts, abandoned futures, and the human drive to find community.
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