"Kentucky Route Zero continues to play it completely straight, even as the narrative continues to rocket into the meta-regions and the unreal."
Kentucky Route Zero Act IV falls in line with a long tradition of stories structured around journeying. It can be compared to Heart of Darkness
(and by extension, Apocalypse Now
and Aguirre, the Wrath of God
), On the Road
, Easy Rider
, and I suppose most JRPGs (Final Fantasy XV in particular, with its focus on road-tripping), though is most similar to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
. And in many ways, Act IV is a Lynchian Huckleberry Finn
(which might pique some interest), or perhaps akin to American Graffiti
, with its meandering vignettes, or Little Miss Sunshine
. You get the idea.
On paper, Act IV is about drifting along the hallucinatory Echo River, stopping at locations on the way; a gas station, a lone phone booth, a misty tropical resort. Players are given the choice to follow different characters at each stop, choosing whichever event sounds most interesting. It's liberating to follow the story completely aimlessly, knowing that most choices do not truly have an "impact" on the game.
Act IV ditches the world map of lost highways and haunted barnyards found in the previous acts for a linear trip on the Mucky Mammoth steamboat (which is somehow exactly what it sounds like). This gives the act a sense of isolation and being out of the player's control as the characters descend into the abyss. Other than a few segments where players move a character around a map for a few minutes, there is little in the way of puzzles or gameplay.
One might be deterred by the lack of "things to do." It'd be easy to say "this is great and all, but I wish this story was turned into an RPG." But that journey, that heavy sense of having been somewhere, is all here: players collect tips for a musician on a beach (immediately reminiscent of spreading rumors in FFXII's Bhujerba, for instance), hunt for mushrooms with an NPC, and even run into a traveling flower seller (!). The fact that players cannot control the characters much, take the time to move them from point A to point B, is inconsequential because the world still feels full and being in it, satisfactory. Fans of adventure games may find the lack of puzzles odd, but the game satisfies in different ways. Act IV clocks in between two and three hours, making it possibly the longest act yet, but in the grand scheme of things, completely ephemeral.
Protagonist Conway takes a backseat in the narrative, giving room to explore the other characters, particularly Shannon Márquez. There are some poetic scenes with android (?) rockers Junebug and Johnny introduced in Act III, while Will, a new character evoking ferryman Charon (and dressed like a Persona character, maybe), narrates the act. Organizing the characters this way is risky, but the narrative feels more deliberate and thought-out than ever. There's a delicate balance in revealing certain bits of narrative and holding back on others, a testament to the developer's writing skills. The "plot," Conway's delivery, is reduced even further, and the game is all the better for it.
Each location features a murky slew of characters of varying degrees of tragedy for the main cast to speak with. Everyone in this world has suffered loss, and the strength of the writing allows players to connect with these characters, despite how quickly they come and pass.
The developers give players a few real world clues to follow (Echo River is connected to Lake Lethe, an allusion to Greek mythology; or a character named Clara who plays a theremin), but these hints don't explain away anything, and only add to the connections and uncanniness of the world.
There's a tendency in avant-garde media (and indie games in particular) to reference the medium ironically, or reference pop culture un-diegetically, to smirk or wink and break the fourth wall just for the thrill of it, but Kentucky Route Zero continues to play it completely straight, even as the narrative continues to rocket into the meta-regions and the unreal. Many scenes involve words like "intern" or "college debt" or "graduate school," words and ideas not usually seen in video games (who knows why), and if/when they are, spoken from a postmodern arm's length away (and often for comedy relief). In a biting scene, when Poppy, an NPC who lives in a sewer and happens to be the last of a long line of operators at a soul-eating, absurdist job, laments that she's "training her own replacement," it's such a human and real scene, almost more real and heartfelt than someone in real life describing the same thing. It's that effective.
Poppy later describes two employees who "stop[ped] routing calls, and [wrote] up some kind of 'best practices' document instead," before being phased out by the company completely. This detail rings true to me because I've seen this workplace phenomenon happen in real life, to me and to people I know, and it's so striking how this innocuous detail, this "flavor text," can feel so true. I'm sure every player will be stung by a few, specific lines of dialogue. "How did they know that?!"
Act IV continues the tradition of Kentucky Route Zero's minimalist, haunting graphics, unique camera angles, and spaces informed by theatre. Here, though, the developers go above and beyond our expectations, including some truly unique set pieces. Echo River, illusory and in black and white, is a crackling vortex, appropriately connected to Lake Lethe (Oblivion). There's a gas station and a diner, recalling both the American south/midwest, Edward Hopper, and players' own cross-country roadtrips. But these familiar locations also recall a simpler time in Kentucky Route Zero, back in the earlier acts, when players still had the option to drive to locations, when the world made sense in a video game context, when there was a world map. This uncanniness, this world that is so real and familiar (there's a guy defined by his minimum wage job waiting for a ride because he doesn't own a car), and also completely, insanely unreal is the heart of successful magical realism, a genre Kentucky Route Zero wears on its rolled-up sleeve.
There's a nuanced sense of spectacle in the form of the Iron Pariah, a mysterious, unaccountable ship the player may encounter that is completely unprecedented (and therefore should not be spoiled). The restraint the development team has and their ease of creating this very grounded, and yet completely unreal world is remarkable, a complexity only felt in the best dreamlike works of art (Fellini's Satyricon
or Lynch's Eraserhead
, for example).
Cardboard Computer's Ben Babbitt continues to seamlessly piece together droning Eno-informed textures, folky bluegrass, and subtle synths to build the game's atmosphere. The music, like everything, is deliberate and utilized fully.
The small touches of quality of life Cardboard Computer made their game with should also be applauded; the ease of saving and returning to the game, changing the text speed, not accidentally skipping a scene while trying to pause. These decisions go a long way to make Kentucky Route Zero feel contemporary and clean.
It might seem disingenuous or too far-reaching to describe Kentucky Route Zero as just a combination of bits of all these great things we have familiarity with (David Lynch, Silent Hill, Flannery O'Connor, Final Fantasy VII, Gabriel Garc"a Márquez, Mark Twain), especially because so few of them are related to video games, but due to the unprecedented nature of the game (and because it is so successful at what it does), we need some grounding and context to even begin to speak about it. Kentucky Route Zero is not The Legend of Zelda, but it's also decidedly not Grim Fandango, not Myst, nor a Telltale game. Kentucky Route Zero and its developers are not interested in recreating that kind of experience. It breaks all our expectations and manages still to be quite powerful.
In a narrative sense, Act IV is most likely the calm before the storm in Act V, and falls perfectly in line with the five-act structure often used to analyze Shakespeare (the section of falling action). The best adventures are ones where the location — physically and mentally — one begins and where one ends up are shockingly, violently different. Kentucky Route Zero embodies this notion as the characters (and the player) disappear into the night.