You Need to Play This Thought-Provoking Indie Epic Before It Leaves Xbox Game Pass Next Week

Mo Mozuch
America is a myth. Sure, the United States is real. A real country full of gadgets and fast food, but the concept of “America” is really about the nation’s soul. What exists at the heart of America? Who are we? Where are we going? It’s a poetic notion explored by countless novels, films, and songs. But there’s really only one video game that gets at the esoteric roots of our existential musings, and it’s only on Xbox Game Pass until March 15.Kentucky Route Zero from Cardboard Computer is an indie game in every sense of the word. Conceived by just three people, Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt, it’s an artistic vision that explores what America really means through the story of a trucker named Conway off to do one last delivery. His journey takes him through a world full of mystical realism along a ghostly highway in the subterranean bowels of Kentucky, a folklore-driven narrative that’s as much your story as it is Conway and his companion’s.First, a caveat. Kentucky Route Zero is very much a thinker of a game. It’s not full of puzzles or breakneck action or RPG skill trees and inventories. So if you’re craving something that’ll get your thumbs a-twitchin’ you’ll need to look elsewhere. But it’s a brilliant game because it elevates the form beyond what is typically expected. It engages you by being thoughtful and moving, like a book you can’t put down.Longtime fans had to endure years between story beats. The game was released in five acts (with several interludes) over the span of nearly a decade. It began as a Kickstarter project in 2011, with the first act dropping in 2013 and then the rest in subsequent years before wrapping up in 2020. The version available now on Xbox Game Pass, Kentucky Route Zero TV Edition, contains the entire story from start to finish. That’s great for new players, or anyone who played an act or two but got lost along the way.The best way to describe the gameplay is like a movie script you write in real time. As you traverse its haunting, southern gothic dreamscape Kentucky Route Zero serves up tons of dialogue choices. These aren’t designed to be BioWare-y narrative branches where every choice has some crucial narrative outcome attached. There’s only one ending here. Instead, the choices draw you deeper and deeper into the story because they feel like you’re in control of the history in this world. You’re creating a context that shapes your discoveries, and the characters you meet begin to feel more real because you’ve invested your own imagination in them. It plays out in gorgeous ways, like this sequence where you create song lyrics.Without spoiling too much, the common theme running through the characters you meet is debt and, more broadly, loss. When people talk about this game getting at the soul of America, this is a big part of the reason why. Yes, the aesthetics and flavor of the game reflect an Americana vibe too, but the mirror it holds up reminds us all that, in America, you always owe something somewhere. There’s a price to be paid for simply existing and you can’t get out of it no matter if you’re lost or broken (or both). It’s truly a masterpiece and worth the ten hours or so it’ll take you to get through it. Play it ASAP.Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is available on Game Pass until March 15. It’s also available for purchase on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch and PC.
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.