The Strange Case of Kentucky Route Zero

Episodic gaming has been around since as early as 1979, but the alternative delivery system has started popping up much more in recent years. Telltale Games is perhaps its biggest proponent, crafting most of their adventure titles around five episodes. They had experienced middling success with the format before their inventive take on The Walking Dead launched this past year to critical and commercial success.

The concept seems appropriated most for adventure games which rely on creative characters and powerful dialogue to drive the mostly puzzle-driven gameplay. In January, a new indie adventure game, Kentucky Route Zero, launched the first of its five acts set to release this year. With a stunning aesthetic and minimalist approach to both puzzles and storytelling, the first act essentially guided players through Kentucky backcountry.

It’s premature to judge the merits of Kentucky Route Zero when it has only released one episode, but it’s interesting to examine whether its minimalist approach lends itself to the drawn out process of episodic gaming. The Walking Dead succeeded by giving players overt black-and-white choices with compelling characters that players could discuss during the wait for the next episode.

Kentucky-Route-Zero-screenshot-5

The most apt comparisons for episodic games is television. The best shows build around characters, allowing both bombastic and intimate moments to come from human development. Kentucky Route Zero is approaching this method with its sparse elements scattered throughout a short journey. Yet the characters seem like little more than beautifully depicted pixels in the background.Kentucky Route Zero provides talking points through its minimal action and underlying mysticism in reality. This type of storytelling is one of my favorite approaches, particularly in video games where huge explosions and set pieces are presented in lieu of subtle progressions. Yet, I’m unsure if this approach is highly conducive to episodic gaming.

Although Conway may be developed more in later episodes, his character remains an enigma. This doesn’t always matter when players can quickly advance in a story and unveil his true persona, but Kentucky Route Zero hasn’t released a new act in over two months. Zero isn’t approaching the mass audience The Walking Dead was, but the lack of character development leaves players with little more than a basic cliffhanger to discuss.

Episodic gaming allows indie developers the chance to create smaller, manageable chunks at a time rather than fall into the sinkhole of time that plagues some games like Fez. It can also thrust games out of people’s consciousness however. Without the next act in a particular window and gamers can easily forget about a niche title in favor of the next entry in their favorite AAA franchise. The Dream Machine is another adventure game unique in its claymation approach, but no new content has released in over 16 months. Devoted gamers will welcome the next entry, but any mainstream press the initial release garnered has certainly dissipated by now.

The most sales for indie games come within the first week when their game is still publicized by whatever platform it’s released on. Kentucky Route Zero deserves attention for its unique approach to art and storytelling, but whether that initial praise can carry the game to its next few acts remains to be seen.

Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most intriguing games on the market right now. I’m just not sure its specific approach lends itself to the episodic avenue they’ve chosen.

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