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I finally completed Dark Souls III [official site] last week, a world that I have been dipping in and out of between bouts of listlessness since its release in April last year. It didn t grip me like the first revered Dark Souls, but it still made me sad to know it was all over. Where could I go now for my Souls fix? The answer, it turns out, is loads of places. The games industry is quietly reverberating with the series influence. From small games boasting souls-like combat, to bigger games doing weird things with death and player messages. Meanwhile, our PlayStation brethren got Nioh, which took the pocket full o souls idea and simply renamed them Amrita . There is a popular complaint that everything in the industry is now being compared to Dark Souls, and it’s easy to forget that games embraced difficulty and strangeness long before the Bed of Chaos made you weep with frustration. Nevertheless, the mechanics and the tone of Miyazaki s magnum opus is leaking into games everywhere.
That there’s an influx of Soulsian disciples out there isn t a problem to me. My problem is that they are learning all the wrong lessons. At least, they are neglecting the most important one. But first let s look at what sly tricks are being lifted from the series, and who is lifting them. … [visit site to read more]
Kentucky Route Zero is a brilliant point-and-click game. So brilliant that, even unfinished (we're still eagerly awaiting its fifth and final chapter), it's easy to recommend picking it up for the £18.99 it's currently selling for on Steam.
Good news, then, for Amazon Prime subscribers who don't yet own the game: you can pick it up for free today. There's no strings attached, and you'll get automatic access to the game's final chapter when it releases. It's a cracking deal.
To get it, all you need is a Twitch Prime account, which is included in your Amazon Prime membership and offers free games every month. Log into Amazon, click this link, and download the game using the Twitch desktop app. Voila: one of the most atmospheric adventure games around for absolutely nothing. But hurry — the offer runs out on Monday.
Oh, and if you haven't already, check out Joe Donnelly's piece on the making of Zero, the highway that binds the game together. It's a great read.
Kentucky Route Zero, the game so good we declared it our game of the year back when only two of its episodes were out, is currently half-price. That’s always worth pointing out, that. Sales from this latest sale will go to the American Civil Liberties Union, joining similar fundraisers with other cracking games. Also joining in are the delightful Fez, frightful treasures from Kitty Horrorshow, and the next game from Tetrageddon dev Nathalie Lawhead. … [visit site to read more]
Like Rapture is to BioShock, Los Santos is to Grand Theft Auto 5, and the Greenbriar residence is to Gone Home, The Zero—the mysterious highway that binds Kentucky Route Zero together—is as big a star as any one of the game's cast of dysfunctional characters. Sneaking us into bygone America—an era of neon signs, roadside diners and lazy rivers—The Zero's hazy, two-dimensional monochromatic design contrasts with KRZ's highly stylised 3D character models, animations and story settings. Few games have captured the imagination, inexhaustible possibility and spirit of the open road with similar style and conviction.
"I started off saying and thinking I wanted to downplay the roles of the setting but I guess it's true: the place is really important to me," says the game's co-creator Jake Elliott. Before moving to Kentucky himself, Elliott often travelled to the Bluegrass State to visit his wife's relatives. En route he'd wonder at the journey's contradictory landscapes and environments, and the vastness of both its surface and cavernous highways within Mammoth Cave—the world's largest known cave system.
This varied geography inspired much of The Zero's superficial details. In Kentucky singular wide-berthing roads are all that all that splits the land from the sky. "If I go out into the highway that's closest to me, it's a really strange feeling," Elliott adds. "Places like this, where there's no hills, it feels like there's way too much sky. It's really hard to adjust to and feels like you could just fall into it, it's really strange."
This sense of overwrought scale was consistent with The Zero's earliest designs, and while Elliot and co-creator Tamas Kemenczy didn't know exactly what the map would look like in its final form, or how it would operate mechanically, it was to play a central role from the outset.
"I thought a lot of the game would happen on The Zero," co-creator Tamas Kemenczy admits. "I thought the way that we were designing The Zero was that, after the first act, everything would be on The Zero for a long period of time. Then it sort of got remodelled so that the characters were interweaving in and out of The Zero throughout the acts. That was an interesting development a little later on that was not clearly defined from the get go."
It wasn't until Elliot and Kemenczy began digging into KRZ's second act that The Zero started taking shape. I'm reminded of Mulholland Drive when Elliot speaks of mirroring Lynchian-esque locales which pull upon the psychological and emotional tendencies of the viewer—depicting spaces which aren't always rational or physical.
Beyond doffs of the cap to a number of American playwrights such as Eugene O'Neil, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, KRZ has a magical realism quality about it, not least out on The Zero, where psychological spaces are projected into a physical reality. Earlier iterations weighed heavier on exploration using the combination lock-like mechanic that features in later acts. While the map wasn't always intended to be a fully-formed circle, once this idea was suggested Elliot and Kemenczy decided it made perfect sense.
"The very first approach we had to driving at all was that it was going to be that you were sitting in the car and it was realistic and you could see the truck. That's what we were thinking going into development," Elliott explains. "It didn't really work well in the way we'd have liked so we did this abstract map mode, and then we didn't know how that'd apply to being on The Zero. I remember there was a version of it where it was just like the above ground map but it was almost like it was made up of a bunch of jigsaw pieces that would kind of get reassembled randomly.
"The road was different every time you went on it, it extended infinitely and the only way you could navigate it was by following these kind of ritualistic directions—like take three lefts and then a right, or something."
Kemenczy interjects: "Which we kept ultimately, but the ritualistic driving was more about these symbols, and even the way you get back onto The Zero doesn't depict mechanical directions."
Further to its design, another intriguing quirk of Kentucky Route Zero's open road is its sense of permanence. Optional locations litter the map's roadside which, once visited, grant players access to additional story vignettes that often bolster elements of the main plotline. What's interesting, though, is that once these locations have been inspected they vanish from the map. Much similar to how the game's dialogue system functions, the conversations had in these areas are spent and therefore inaccessible thereafter.
"It's a kind of realism that makes the people feel a bit more real—that you can't just go and treat them like an information vending machine or something like that," says Elliot of the process. This in turn prevents players from interrogating NPCs and repeating themselves—a mechanic which has plagued narrative-driven games for decades.
Kentucky Route Zero is good at elegant, restrained storytelling. In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun last year, Elliott praised From Software's Dark Souls for being "economical with the way it uses lore", which is something I'm compelled to acknowledge as I feel there are some strangely appropriate, albeit wholly incongruous, parallels to be drawn between KRZ and Lordran. Elliot laughs at the general comparison, but does recognise the abstract likeness as far as each game's wider world and the player's insignificance within it is concerned.
"Lordran and the settings for the other Dark Souls games have a lot of history there but you really have to dig for it. When you play it, you're just dropped in and asked to understand and accept and just respond to the way all of these creatures are behaving and how these environments work etc.," says Elliott. "The characters that actually will talk to you talk to you often with this sense of pity, they know what's going on but they know you're new to this. In KRZ also we don't ask the player to bone up on a bunch of lore before we start talking to them—we just start talking to them as though they're already an inhabitant of the world.
"That's something we get from magical realist fiction where one of the technical tenets of that genre is that people accept the magical and the bizarre along with the real."
Of course visually, these games couldn't be more at odds with one another and although KRZ suits its universally dull and muted colour palette, The Zero itself is almost mesmerizing in its use of laborious two-tone that distances itself from even the darkest of the game's narrative scenes.
"The map mode is loosely inspired by early computer graphics that had all sorts of limitations and where it was pretty common to just have simple line art. One example is Mystery House but even earlier video art stuff like the Rutt/Etra system which is a video synthesiser that works with scan lines and has a certain look to it, like a rippling wave-form. Specifically The Zero has ripples and this sort of ribbed appearance reminiscent of the uniform appearance of scan lines."
"I think in some other games when they show a map they have a scale morphism or metaphor, maybe like a highway or something," Elliott adds. "I think in Sam and Max Hit the Road, they have a touristy cheesy highway map—there's other metaphors for what a map is—and I think ours is a weird non-time specific early computer influence. We're topological too because it's kind of like a graphic map that has topological too. The aesthetic has a pretty fair connection to that sort of stuff."
Likewise, KRZ's sound has a similarly strong connection to the The Zero—such as the humming engine of Conway's truck which pitches up and down depending on the speed you're travelling. In Act 2 alone the map has six different loops which switch whenever the player turns at certain symbols, alternating to different 'tracks' as it were in the process. It may sound straightforward, but this process is so computationally intensive that it's actually broken some players' computers.
"Since the Zero is a dark, subterranean cave highway, we thought it should have an ever-changing sense of space," says KRZ's sound designer Ben Babbitt. "So as the walls of the cave expand and contract around you, some properties of a dynamic reverb effect are modulated by the tunnel diameter immediately around the truck. So some parts of the cave have the sense of being more muddy, resonant or close, etc., by the way the reverb affects the music and engine sound in different spots.
"Real-time modulation of the reverb effect worked pretty well on all the computers we tested the game with at the time, but after we published Act II we discovered that it was too resource-intensive for some players' computers—it makes a weird, distorted crackling sound. That bothered some people, so for them we added an option to disable the reverb effect along the Zero. But we didn't want players to disable the effect unless they were really bothered by the crackling, so we gave it the unappealing label 'disable artisanal audio' in the menu."
Act 4's transition from The Zero into the river-set Echo, while seemingly jarring in game terms—suddenly the player is ostensibly a passenger and observer of the game's ever-growing cast—was an organic process behind the scenes. The decision to move the action onto the water was made early on in KRZ's development and recaptured the aforementioned jigsaw puzzle layout that was originally designed for The Zero. Filled with people living peaceful and sedentary lives along its riverbanks, The Echo feels less sinister against its land-bound counterpart—which is a direct result of Elliot and Kemenczy's desire to portray something a little warmer and more human.
As such, Act 4 is almost certainly the calm before the fifth and final act's storm where I suspect we'll spend much of our time travelling The Zero once more. Both Elliot and Kemenczy remain tight-lipped—"We got a good outline going, an interlude and right now we're doing a lot of housekeeping, getting our codebase up to date on Unity 5," says Kemenczy—however where Kentucky Route Zero's largely maladjusted characters falter within its delicate and malleable world, The Zero remains a rare constant.
Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time. >
I don’t want to say too much – the power of offbeat road trip adventure Kentucky Route Zero is in discovering its twisting tale and flabbergasting sights for yourself. Instead, I wish to make a plea. … [visit site to read more]
I came late to the Kentucky Route Zero party. So late, in fact, that I was only barely aware of it until the summer of 2014. My inauguration was a long time coming—I'd lost count of the number of glowing reviews I'd read for the first three of a proposed five acts, and while I reckoned it sounded like my cup of tea on a cursory level, I'd decided its narrative-leaning nature would echo that of Gone Home, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable.
These were (and still are) some of my favourite games, therefore I can't really tell you why it take me quite so long to join Conrad, Blue and old-timer Joseph in the forecourt of the Equus Oils station, but that it just did. It turns out Kentucky Route Zero is nothing like Fullbright, The Chinese Room or Galactic Cafe's seminal works. Kentucky Route Zero is like no other game I've ever played.
Which feels like a strange thing to say about a game whose story isn't finished. Of those five planned acts, developer Cardboard Computer released its first three between January 2013 and May 2014. It wasn't until July of this year that Act 4 landed, and its fifth and final chapter is without a due date entirely. This year has been a questionable one for a number of reasons, yet it's been a very good 12 months for videogames. Nevertheless, my favourite game of 2016 is Kentucky Route Zero's penultimate episode—a small portion of a game which on its own makes little sense, but against what's come before it is arguably the most important.
In a sense, KRZ's fourth act is the runt of its litter. It tells a similarly disparate tale which pays no less deference to storytelling, self-reflection, and the series' Americana lineage; but its structure, tone and outlook is distinctly less overwrought compared to its forerunners. It feels like the calm before the storm as it swaps the open road for life at sea—yet how it turns itself inward to better examine the quirks of its idiosyncratic cast is nothing short of wonderful.
Choices again govern the direction of the story, yet, this time more than ever, outline its past. Every decision carries weight, and can vastly alter you and the character you've vouched for's outlook. Likewise, interlacing narratives is a series staple among its cast of interchangeable and equally playable characters, yet number four spends much of its time exploring these networks further still. This in turn prompts a shift in tone: one which eschews the familiar dread of previous installments to instead focus on the minutiae of each scenario—the personalities, the foibles, the less obvious imperfections of this broadly dysfunctional, or, at the very least, disjointed, crew.
It's difficult to dwell on what Kentucky Route Zero does best because it's how you play it that matters. While each game will typically wind up with similar conclusions, how you get there is what makes it interesting—something which is interminably subject to change. Sidestepping the open road, the gospel churches, the bureaucracy of the Big City, and replacing it with the Mark Twain-esque story-focussed lazy Echo river is a masterstroke which sets the stage for the series' fifth and closing act. By dwelling on its specifics, its relatable vignettes, and its whimsical anecdotes and metaphors, Act 4 is perhaps the least developed of the lot as far as overarching narrative in concerned, but is nonetheless crucial to the story's progression.
The indie renaissance, for want of a less hackneyed term, of the last several years has opened the door to games like Kentucky Route Zero—yet at the same time KRZ is a game which recaptures the text-heavy, parser-reliant classics of yesteryear. With a stunning, minimalist art style, Kentucky Route Zero is a story-heavy game whereby you're as much the author as you are the reader and the player. Act 4 not only serves to frame its curtain call, but also celebrates all that's come before it.
I don’t think I could name a more beautiful game. I don’t use ‘beauty’ in the straightforward sense of Kentucky Route Zero [official site]’s appearance, although its bold geometric shapes and flat-wash colour absolutely qualifies, as does its wonderful architecture – Americana infused with magic realism. There is the soundtrack and the sounds too, ambience and steel guitar and the lonely sound of engines – gentle sonic beauty, but again that is on the surface.
In fact there is beauty woven through the core of KRZ: its love of images, its love of words, its love of the American landscape, and perhaps most of all in its preoccupation with the warmer side of the human mind. Whether that be conviviality and the coming together of sympathetic souls, or pulling solace from solitude and from the road. This has been a theme, of sorts, throughout KRZ’s first three acts, but the fourth arguably pushes it more to the fore, consciously slowing down and allowing its expanding cast to idle, to find themselves in idyllic rather than unsettling locales. This could be a good life, if they wanted it.
Kentucky Route Zero Act 4 is nearly done, we proclaimed back in November of last year. The statement was made entirely in good faith, but nearly done proved to be a somewhat flexible term, as was the promise that it would be released soon, which I think we can all agree was last seen receding in our rear view mirror shortly after the new year. But better late than never, as they say.
Kentucky Route Zero, as developer Cardboard Computer describes it, is a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. It's a point-and-clicker, but unlike most other games in the genre it follows a meandering but fairly linear path on a journey filled with choices rather than goals: You poke around, you discover, you maybe see something unexpected, and you move on. Dialog is sparse, the visual style is striking, and the audio is something close to perfect.
The release of Act 4 is notable not only because KRZ is such a remarkable game, but because it's taken so long to get here. The first act was released in January 2013; act two game in May of that year, and act three in May 2014, more than two years ago. Cardboard Computer acknowledged the long wait last summer when it assured supporters that the game is not abandoned, canceled, a 'scam,' a performance art piece(?), or anything else but a work-in-progress. But it also warned that, despite the longer-than-expected wait, its process would not change.
Which is fine with me. Good things are worth waiting for, as people like to say, and Kentucky Route Zero is very good indeed. Find out more at kentuckyroutezero.com.
Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero [official site] is finally here, continuing the magical realist journey through subterranean Americana. It’s a pretty flipping special game. We declared the first two episodes our favourites of 2013 and 2014’s Act III was just as lovely but the wait for IV has been long. But doesn’t KRZ teach patience, to enjoy slowness and quiet? It’s here now, and that’s just fine. Settle down with a bottle of Wild Turkey for a lovely evening.