Creaking, sputtering, and sparking, but with the dignity and majesty that would rival a true woolly mammoth, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV opens with the old animatronic figurehead of The Mucky Mammoth, raising its head and snout to greet us - now travellers of the Echo River. The dampened reflections in the deep and dark water dance in front of us as the boat sways, and we seem to get lost easily within the endless depths while the boat’s air horn resounds in the twisty caves all around. In the distance a few accentuated shapes, helmets drifting in the water. Everywhere else only darkness. Thus our group begins the journey to their far-away destination: The Silo of Late Reflections. The way there leads through the web-like cave system in which the Echo River flows. On it forgotten shipwrecks, floating neighbourhoods, and ancient battleships now inhabited by cats…
We are a long way from home.
The beginning of our magical journey through Kentucky Route Zero looms only foggily in our minds, the eponymous horse’s head of Equus Oils now only a faint memory. Our group has come a very long way since, away from Weaver’s farmhouse, away from Elkhorn Mine, away from the Zero; Conway in pursuit of his contract, Shannon seemingly chasing ghosts in her search for Weaver Márquez, and Ezra still trying to get to know the fate of his parents. Embarking along with Junebug and Johnny on The Mucky Mammoth, we meet Will and Cate (the owners of the boat) and another passenger — Clara — a travelling musician and thereminist. Every one of them has a different goal, a different destination - but they are all of them together for the journey, sharing amongst themselves time and space.
A Collection of Memories
“Sometimes, if I’m running ahead of schedule, I like to drop anchor there and read for a while. The nice thing about the story cliff is you can start reading anywhere you want. There’s no beginning or end, just a bunch of middle.”
What started out as a story about delivering a few antiques in character in Act I has become one about a fellowship of people, bound by the journey they take and what they all yearn: an answer. Each of them a lost soul in the vast and rather cold and dark world of Kentucky Route Zero. But not only is it a story about that specific group, it is also a story about everyone else they meet. It is one giant collection of memories, each with its own viewpoint, its own circumstance, its own participants. This was — of course — already apparent in Act II and III, but IV takes the concept to a new height. Rather than retaining the freedom of movement from the other three acts, this act introduces a bunch of new mechanics and makes them work in a more linear setting. This time it is not us steering a vehicle, there is no free roam element. We are but passengers on a boat. A boat which — as Cate explains to us very early on — does not really need to be steered.
Despite that, navigating a boat on an underwater river is no easy feat. Especially since most of the important landmarks, ports, and services flow on the river and with it. They have a tendency to move around, to switch places suddenly or to just disappear altogether. Most of the technology we come across is very old and dire need of repairs. “Engineers are in short supply down here. I think the setting is too romantic. It scares them off!”, Will recounts as he tries to fix the Mucky Mammoth’s malfunctioning figurehead. Indeed even the maps Will maintains for any journey on the Echo are vague and ambiguous — they only contain information about the order in which one passes certain landmarks.
Not only does Will tend to the boat, however, he certainly also tends to the passengers by sharing stories with them. While the boat is travelling between stops — the game here shows the familiar wireframe outlines of the boat, cave, river, and its waves — he recounts many a weird tale about the folks who live on the Echo. He recounts history as told from wanderer to wanderer. According to him, true stories are only those which have been shared numerous times, for they, in his mind, gained the experience and knowledge of all the people that knew and recounted them. Now it is time for him to give his own version of the truth, and to enrich our lives with the stories he tells.
Thus we hear about the Iron Pariah, an old civil war battleship that now has found its home on the Echo. It is said that a very strange chorus of mews can be heard when it passes by, but nobody really knows why. We hear about two sisters who had hated each other and acquired plots of land on the same island in a futile attempt to reconcile. We also hear about how a photographer once took a picture of Will and then lost her film to the depths of the river:
As she was disembarking — not far from here, actually — the film fell out of her bag and was borne away by the current. I was working on the deck at the time. She shot me a sad, apologetic glance, but I wasn’t bothered. It’s no shame, to be forgotten.
Later on in one of the scenes outside of the boat, Kentucky Route Zero takes the aspect of telling multiple stories to a new extreme. As we are playing both Cate and Ezra foraging for some mushrooms on an island, the well-known text box suddenly splits into two independent pieces. We now control both characters simultaneously, depending on which part of the text we follow. Choices we make are reflected immediately in the actions of the corresponding character, but it’s not possible to exhaust one part of the story without ever focusing on the other.
This creates an interwoven narrative and makes possible for the game to display immediately a character’s reactions to the other character’s choices. Interactions are dynamic, but the story that is told in the background (displayed in cursive) is static. Such it becomes easy for the game to divulge a lot of personal background information on a character in an immediate and intriguing way, while still keeping the supporting narrative going. It seems as the prevailing theme of this act is thus characters and their very own stories; stories that make a person who they are.
Strange but Familiar
Oftentimes in this act, the Echo River is a metaphor for the transience of human life and the romantic image of a dynamic, ever changing reality. In fact, throughout most of the game, the apparent connection between the familiar and strange keeps being mentioned in some way. Whether this means hearing about the people from Hard Times, who are often being described that way, a fading memory one is trying to recollect desperately, or merely witnessing old video recordings of people one knows closely — everything elicits a feeling of familiarity and strangeness. A lot of elements in this act also allude to a certain disruption in the passage of time, which enhances the effect of strangeness which is already present.
A detail that in this context also is very notable, is the absence of any facial features on any of the characters. After four acts, Shannon and Conway seem like family, it feels like we know them very well, yet we have not seen their faces. Characters in Kentucky Route Zero are not really defined by outward features, but rather by what they think and how they act. They seem so much more like people — actual living beings with joys, tribulations, and reservations. Yet we do not know their faces. They are familiar but strange.
The people — or rather, eerily glowing skeletons — from Hard Times are another good example of this. While they do give off a familiar and warm orange glow, it is at the same time strange and disconcerting. Something like this shouldn’t exist. As seen in the last act, every single one of them once was a human being. How much is left of their hopes and dreams, how much of their emotions? Have they fully succumbed to debt and a fetish for work?
Abstract representations of life become through the narrative and hard-hitting, personal, and emotional experiences actual people whom one cherishes. They become more than actors in a game, they become a part of yourself as the player; and just how much of yourself, in the end, is in the things you love?
The Passage of Time
TABLE OF CONTENTS
4. Order of Operations
3. The Passage of Time
6. Final Notes
— Manual of The Mucky Mammoth
Kentucky Route Zero is at its core a very linear game. The journey our group takes is told in sequence most of the time (notable exceptions are Act III, where the story branches off, and Act IV, in which the player at one point acts as more of an observer in in-game terms). However, it is never clearly stated when things happen. Instead of a straightforward timeline with exact time boundaries and sequences, one can only tell that a certain scene led to another. This creates a beautifully flowing and changing experience and enables the use of stark contrasts. In fact, the way in which Kentucky Route Zero works is very reminiscent of classical theatre pieces. Single scenes (even named so by the game) come to an end by being abruptly cut to black — just like a curtain falling. Scenes, however, are not inherently numbered. Should one find something interesting in the course of one’s travels on the Zero, the game will automatically begin (or create) an entire scene. Therefore it is simply not possible to refer to a specific scene by its scene number. In fact, the best way to describe this sort of mechanic is the term “living theatre”.
It appears as if the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero takes place in just one night. The circumstance, though, that we travel on the Zero most of the time and have only seen the sun once (it was setting at the beginning of Act I), makes the entire game feel more like several nights in close succession with the days somehow edited out; a perpetual, never-ending life in darkness. This is also highlighted and indeed enhanced by the employed colour palettes and rendering techniques. The most prevailing hue is a dreary bluish grey that oftentimes acts as a background. Contrasting that are deep black shadows and silhouettes, faint outlines of red brick buildings, and the dampened greens of vegetation. Bright lamps and neon signs are the most prevalent light source, either giving the whole picture a very warm or cold touch.
One notable scene in this act is the Rum Colony, a local Echo bar. It is one of the most homely scenes in all the acts and makes for a great contrast since one mostly sees more cold and hostile places on the river journey. A warm sand beach dotted with numerous torch poles and warbly ambient music creates a lovely ambience and gives the player a well-earned opportunity to respite. In this instance, time truly seems to stand still. The crew of The Mucky Mammoth is in no hurry to leave, and Shannon is even told that she can stay as long as she wants.
As such, a lot of the scenes in Kentucky Route Zero are designed around eliciting a certain emotional response. They are a wonderful example of a strange but intriguing pastiche or collage. This effect also works to increase the indefinable nature of the flow of time in the game. It is a blend of moments with no delimiters, a freely flowing narrative contained in a more rigid but disconnected theatric structure.
To play Kentucky Route Zero is to immerse oneself in emotion, to give free reign to feelings and to let those feelings embrace you completely. Those feelings, like the game, seem perpetual in retrospect. When the game then, in this swathe of emotions, also conjures up a touching story about a drifter getting lost on the Echo, only surviving in the oppressive darkness on the apples he brought with, day for day hoping again to see light only to realize that his last apple is partly rotten and is hatching a strange bug turning out to be some sort of glowing beetle giving him light again, then the game exhibits a kind of transcendent quality very near to the beauty of poetic art.
This World Is Not My Home
In comparison to the previous three acts, Act IV is very dire and serious. It seems that all the bad things that have been chasing us from the very beginning finally caught up. To everyone’s surprise, Conway is finally taken by the people from Hard Times, thus in turn crushing Shannon with worry. Now wanting to finish Conway’s contract herself, she meets up with the group at Sam & Ida’s, a local restaurant. Not a single member of our group really belongs there, but the journey so far has culminated in them being on the Echo, trying desperately to find some sort of answer.
They find themselves in a very dark place, both literally and figuratively. As Shannon arrives at the restaurant, one of the co-owners, Sam, emerges from the cold and endless depths in a diving bell with his catch of the day. Upstairs, Ezra and Johnny are trying their luck with a claw machine while the rest is enjoying Ida’s food. As Shannon comes up to them bearing the bad news, our group considers their options. Junebug and Johnny ask Ezra whether he would like to travel with them and decide to help Shannon with Conway’s contract. Clara, the musician, decides to go along with them.
The journey along the Echo was a long, dark, and exhausting one. Many of the places we traveled to were devoid of any colour, and next to the places on the Echo, even the hazy greyness of the Zero looks extremely lively. Our last stop before the Silo of Late Reflections is a small neighbourhood on the river. There, Clara performs on her theremin together with Ezra, who is in charge of the background ambience. The performance is another opportunity for all of the group to relax and reminisce on what has happened so far. Johnny and Junebug muse on their distant future while Ezra wonders why Clara is became an artist. Her answer is in form of a quote: “Why make art? To quiet the mind.”
As our group finally arrives at their destination, one man and one animal less, Johnny and Junebug help Shannon unload the antiques from Conway’s truck. As the game zooms out and up the Silo, revealing a nearly endless circling stairwell, we are reminded suddenly of a very familiar Bluegrass song…
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through. My treasures and my hopes are placed beyond the blue, Many friends and kin have gone on before; And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore. O Lord, you know, I have no friend like you. If heaven’s not my home, O Lord, what will I do? Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door, And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
— Ben Babbit