The prologue is among many things Kentucky Route Zero borrows from the theatric structure of the classic Greek tragedy. Both Act II and Act III start with one, the former introducing Lula Chamberlain (whose art installations we briefly visited in the first interlude Limits and Demonstrations) and the latter providing insight into Conway’s backstory through a dream induced by an experimental anesthetic administered by Doctor Truman. In the dream we converse as Conway with Lysette, owner of the antique shop for which Conway is making deliveries. Even in the dream the dread of inevitability so often alluded to in Kentucky Route Zero looms, as we get ready to make our final delivery to Dogwood Drive - the catalyst that sets into motion the successive events, adventures and encounters of our journey thus far.
A journey that, at the end of Act II, had led us to a far away forest in search of a doctor that could mend Conway’s injured leg. After waking up to Doctor Truman explaining to Conway his billing plan, we find that Conway’s leg was replaced by a ghostly skeletal limb giving off a faint yellowish glow. Because the trip to Truman’s was one of necessity, our group decides to head back to the Museum of Dwellings immediately. Finding it closed for the night we are left with no choice but to resume the search for Lula Chamberlain. After just a few miles on the road, however, the old truck breaks down and leaves us stranded next to a collapsed tree. Luckily, two young musicians - Johnny and Junebug - pass us on their way to a performance in The Lower Depths and decide to repair the truck. In exchange, our group agrees to come along and watch their performance.
Too Late to Love You
Until now, every piece of music in Kentucky Route Zero has either been a non-diegetic soundtrack or the semi-diegetic inclusion of songs by the Bedquilt Ramblers - a group that seems to exist in the game world but is not visible to anyone in it. In Act I, Conway had met them in the basement of Equus Oils and later they had performed You’ve Got to Walk as we descended down the hill back from Marquez Farm, having just met Weaver Marquez. In Act II, one member provided the melancholic bluegrass solo Long Journey Home as we traversed the forest of homes in search of Doctor Truman.
Thus, Junebug’s rendition of “Too Late to Love You” marks the first time Kentucky Route Zero uses music in a fully diegetic way. As the roof tiles of the old, disused bar start to float away into the night, revealing the moon and stars behind them, wavy and nostalgic synths from Johnny’s keyboard fill up the two spaces - inside and outside - transforming them into one singular stage for a long forgotten love song.
A full moon looms in the background, and if watching closely one might spot one or the other shooting star.
Once again, Kentucky Route Zero manages to blur the line between the medium and the player, for soon after Johnny starts playing, the game suddenly provides us with three lines to choose from: the lyrics to Junebug’s song.
And just as we formed the password-esque poem to Joseph’s computer, we also create the song Junebug is performing, thus connecting it to our experiences as a whole and our emotions in that exact moment. This transforms an already hauntingly beautiful scene into one meaningful and deep moment that most players will probably never forget.
Punch Cards and Tape Recordings
In the same vein that the songs performed by the Bedquilt Ramblers are covers and reinterpretations of old bluegrass songs, Junebug’s love song is one that stuck with her after hearing it a long time ago. In that sense, the artists themselves preserve multitudes of ideas, feelings, ambitions and dreams of days gone by. Indeed this is also something the soundtrack itself encompasses, as it adds a faint electronic warbling or more pronounced disintegration to simple ambient loops and field recordings, akin to William Basinski’s “Disintegration Tapes”.
After fixing the truck’s radio, we can tune in to the eerily garbled transmissions of the Zero - programmes that outside of the Zero still feel oddly human, but are transformed inside by cave walls and dark tunnels into otherworldly sounds. They are familiar and yet strange, with a stream of static washing away and eroding any form of clarity and context.
This, combined with the constant hum of the truck moving around in the Zero, makes for a weirdly soothing experience; a state of satisfying weariness clouding the mind. Sometimes it feels like one is in a slowly decaying simulation, that one is listening to an audio book that has been played too often.
Wandering the Zero we find places in which we can make field recordings ourselves, filing them under certain categories - like “water sounds” or “art and artists”.
At one point the group stumbles upon a woman on a ladder, fixing small pieces of colored stone to the cave walls - the unfinished mosaic itself without meaning until she finishes that menial but strangely fulfilling task. Another time we come across people repairing a boat on the shore of a dark lake, wishing to embark again soon.
Most time in Act III is spent in the Hall of the Mountain King, however, an impromptu redoubt in the endless cave systems settled by a fellow named Donald and his entourage of assistants: Amy, Roberta and Andrew. There, they guard what is left of Xanadu, a grand computer project started by him and his two close friends Lula and Joseph. Shortly before realising it, they parted ways - this is probably caused by what Joseph describes as the “painfully concave love triangle” in one of his books. David remained in the cave system with Xanadu and finished it. Much later, Xanadu itself gives us insight into what had happened between the three friends:
“There’s a whole world here, and we need your help to unmask it… Maybe you’ve found your own Xanadu. Well, so have I! […] The chalky bones of a beautiful dream. But you can see what it once was, can’t you? Can’t you?”
“We are too late. Always too late …”
(JOSEPH says something clever, and LULA leans on his shoulder. You wish that, instead, she had taken your hand, or that there were any other option.)
“I still have a bit of mold in my pipe, and a few dreams left.”
Donald himself is still lost in the now hubristic, then longingly romantic vision of his creation and what it contains: the memories, emotions and conflicts of a younger self. It contains Joseph, it contains Lula, it contains a past in which the future was still unwritten. Then, there were still more than just a few dreams left. Now, all of it is lost within decaying data tapes of a once grand simulation. And indeed, Xanadu has fallen into disrepair over time. As we start up the simulation, a garbled ensemble of letters greets us, accentuated by furious static and accompanied by a chaotic drawing subroutine. Xanadu, like a different, man-made version of Atlas, was condemned to carry an enormous weight: The dreams of three young aspiring artists.
But what exactly is Xanadu? I briefly mentioned it in my article about Act II, when I was talking about Gaston Bachelard and his “La Poétique de l’Espace”. I promised that my point about the text interface being a core part of the playing experience would be made clearer when talking about Xanadu. Now, Xanadu’s interface (or maybe Xanadu itself) is one that is primarily comprised of text. It is essentially a text adventure. A text adventure within a game that could itself be considered as such. It is a record of history, encounters, emotions just like Kentucky Route Zero itself is. After completing its prologue (which describes in detail how Xanadu came to be and the relationship between Joseph, Donald and Lula), it starts to simulate itself and the world around it. We play it as Donald, hiring people and assigning them to various tasks - like debugging or speculating.
With the inclusion of Xanadu - a game within a game, a space within a space - it is now irrefutable that Kentucky Route Zero aims for the deconstruction of common design boundaries. On a more philosophical level, it asks a very interesting question: Who are you as a player? Are you a separate entity, completely detached from the game, existing in another space altogether, or are you the person you control? Does the player exist in the simulation while playing the game? Do the events that transpire in the game happen to a game character, or to you as a player? Kentucky Route Zero challenges us to think about the questions it poses, it challenges us to think about ourselves.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Very often now with modern games I feel like I am wholly disconnected from the experience. Games have become a product, and man desperately tries to invent crutches like virtual reality headsets to replace (or at least circumvent) something that was unknowingly lost to the population and deliberately destroyed by the game industry: imagination. It is this imagination that fuels the human soul, it is this imagination that gives us the power to create truly humanistic works - and not pale imitations thereof. Together with Kentucky Route Zero, games like Riven, A Machine For Pigs, Planescape: Torment and The Talos Principle show that there is still the capability and desire in man for mirth, mystery, criticism and true philosophical discussion. These games display the pinnacle of what one can achieve with interactive media; they should be considered art and be remembered as such like the paintings, texts and poems of old.
Work and Need
A recurring theme in Kentucky Route Zero is the notion of strangeness and the weird duality between the strange and the familiar. The owner of The Lower Depths, Harry, describes to us a radio broadcast:
Déjà vu and its opposite Jamais vu both only become that much stranger because there exists a familiarity with the event (or, when talking about Jamais vu, a lack thereof). Oftentimes we hear reports of “the strangers” or “the people from Hard Times”. Donald himself vividly recounts how strangers used to intrude and scrape the mold off of Xanadu, an action he considers sabotage and the main reason for Xanadu’s demise. In order to fix Xanadu and find Lula Chamberlain, our group decides to travel to the “Place Where the Strangers Come From”.
What happens there is not revealed until the end of Act III, when our ever growing group - Shannon, Conway, Blue, Johnny, Junebug and Ezra - waits for a ferry to their next destination.
In a flashback, Shannon and Conway find a hidden elevator in an abandoned church and ride it down to an underground whiskey distillery. The distillery is staffed by uniform, indistinct skeletons giving off a yellowish glow. One of them - Lem Doolittle - greets Conway and mistakes him for the replacement delivery driver.
After a tour of the eerie underground factory, Conway - still maintaining that he is in fact not the driver Lem is looking for - is coerced into drinking a very expensive whiskey. Now in debt to the distillery, Lem states that Conway has no choice but to pay off his debt by working for them after all.
The moment of coercion is the only time the game takes away the control from the player, forcing the cursor over the bottle of whiskey and clicking it afterwards. Several times before it is hinted at that Conway used to have a drinking problem - the probably cause for this removal of freedom. Debt is another recurring theme in Kentucky Route Zero. The ghostly skeletal leg of Conway’s is evidence that the Hard Times distillery now partly owns his body. After all, the company producing the anesthetic is owned by a Hard Times subsidiary - and Conway could not pay the bill right then and there.
Lem Doolittle and all the other people working full time for Hard Times are humans no more but mere skeletons, deathly images of their former self. They’re owned by the company and exist solely for it until their debts are paid. Debts that, inevitably, will ever increase and have already surmounted the far-away possibility of nullification. Here, Kentucky Route Zero paints a picture of our immediate society - a corporate and capitalist one. A society in which people are owned by companies and have lost their individual freedom. To the company, everyone is a skeleton, everyone is equal: mere workforce, a means to an end. Hard Times whiskey the abstract entity of debt and ownership in Kentucky Route Zero, and money the corresponding parallel in our world.
Thus we are left again with the dread of inevitability. Conway is allowed to make his last delivery, but has to work for Hard Times come morning. As the ferry arrives carrying upon it what appears to be a woolly mammoth, Conway, perhaps in a hint of stoicism, accepts his fate and the game cuts to black…