Wot I Think: Kentucky Route Zero – Act III

By Adam Smith on May 7th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Here at RPS, we’re quite fond of Cardboard Computer’s magical realist adventure. Kentucky Route Zero took the final spot in our 2013 Advent Calendar and while the wait for the third act has been longer than I would have liked, it’s good to have Conway and his companions back in my life. The new chapter of gaming’s strangest trip since Sam and Max hit the road contains a musical performance worthy of Lynch, a whiskey-soaked underworld and enough melancholic mystery to fuel a new generation of the blues. Here’s wot I think.

The punk with the metal legs is quoting Samuel Beckett as she leads our troubled collective into a dive bar by the name of The Lower Depths. She’s playing a gig with a guy she refers to as her ‘cricket’, and she’s running as late as a white rabbit or the corpse of a slacker. She’s already mentioned a couple of guys she knows called Didi and Gogo, and as we gather around the beerlight she throws out a snippet of Waiting For Godot. “We are not saints but we have kept our appointment.”

How many can boast as much, goes the rest of the line as Beckett wrote it.

Billions, is the deadpan response.

Conway doesn’t know the punchline though, doesn’t even recognise the comitragic joke, so he simply acknowledges the beauty of the line and asks where it came from.

“Who said it?”

“A poet,” says the punk. Is she talking about Beckett or is she talking about Vladimir, the creation who spoke the line? He’s sometimes called Didi, a man she has already claimed a passing acquaintance with. The cast of Kentucky Route Zero are infiltrated and haunted by characters from our world and from many others. This new Act, along with interlude The Entertainment, contains the most explicit blurring of the lines between creators and the things they create. In Kentucky, Samuel Beckett may never have existed at all but his characters did and so do lonely limbo trees at the side of the road.

As the adventure continues, certain techniques are becoming motifs and there’s a sense of comfort and cohesion when they arise again. In the story’s most perfectly executed scene to date, interiors swim away in familiar fashion during a dreamlike player-directed musical performance, leaving audience and band stranded in a glowing nowhere. We watch them as they watch a transcendent display, and later there is a game within the game to sit alongside the play within a play.

The impossible dismantling of scenery, which has been occurring since Act I, carries the suggestion that the characters exist on a stage set. The hotspots, waiting for a cursor and a click, are the active props. Along with these visual clues the themes of memory loss, disassociation and death that run through the writing are reminders that theatres have always been home to ghosts. Whether it contains the explicit phantom of a Banquo or Daddy Hamlet or simply the echoes of past performances, the stage is a haunted place.

On one level, Kentucky Route Zero does appear to be a ghost story, taking the form of wordy tours of various afterlives. Those afterlives aren’t always spiritual, just as the debts and burdens of the characters aren’t quite loads of sin to burn away in a waiting room before the pearly gates. Conway, Shannon and their growing gang of followers cross between the Lethean underworld of the Zero and the quiet rural desolation of overground Kentucky but while the player can occasionally choose to recollect and repent, there are other functions to fulfil.

It would be a mistake to explore Kentucky Route Zero’s narrative through the prism of any one character. The controls switch liberally from one to another and the player is in the role of the prompter at the side of the stage rather than pricking at the conscience of the king Conway. We’re not directors or writers, the game tells us at every step, we’re more like an audience being taken along for a ride. That’s not to say the interactive elements don’t matter but they’re more about the specifics of our engagement with the characters rather than any direct control over them.

I feel like I’m shaping Conway, Shannon and the rest, exaggerating the former’s boozehound past and the latter’s anxious attempt to retain a clear head while the past and future grow darker. A couple of scenes are slightly overlong, intentionally meandering around an obvious truth and sticking to conversational backroads, but that’s to be expected. The game is about the search for not only a destination but a route – it was bound to meander and mostly it does so with a determination at odds with the verb.

There are brilliant lines to discover in the most unexpected corners and the personal stories of each character are becoming clearer. Player choice is involved in the specifics of those histories and my vision of Conway as a tragic figure is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Poor guy can’t catch a break when I’m selecting his dialogue and the direction of his occasional musing.

The strong form continues and there are enough meaningful hooks and connections here to reassure those who feared the writing might tend toward the nonsensical. Kentucky Route Zero’s world is infused with dust and drink, obscured as well as obscure, and while this act contains quiet revelations, it also muddies the firewater more than the previous two. There are machines in the ghosts now and down in the distillery, the spirits who tend to the spirits respond to a portable degausser with a flicker of life.

It’s possible to look at the entire game as an elaborate puzzle, a play on words and images that is tying all of its allusions into a knot of meaning, but I suspect that would be to miss the joke, just as Conway does when he fails to pick up on the Beckett reference mentioned earlier. Maybe it’s enough to enjoy the beauty of the fabric without worrying at each individual thread and picking at every stitch.

The game doesn’t encourage too close a reading, using its bag of learning to create atmosphere rather than an encyclopaedia of references. You don’t have to know Beckett’s work or the details of the Raines Law. Conway certainly doesn’t and it doesn’t matter because in his world the writer may not have existed even if his characters still do in some form.

As the Act ends, there’s a visual gag that risks undermining the more disturbing moments that precede it but everything just about manages to hang together, fragile as a hangover on a Monday morning. Earlier, when the static of the radio crackles and tunes into warped memories, the game drifts as close to dread as it has so far. I suspect there’s a horror game in Cardboard Computer’s future but Kentucky Route Zero isn’t it. The world might be weird but it tends toward absurdity rather than atrocities. I wouldn’t be surprised, or disappointed, if the final Act ended with a pratfall or a tragedy endlessly diverted by the power of a music hall routine.

After all, it was good enough for Godot.

Kentucky Route Zero is available now.

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21 Comments »

  1. Stellar Duck says:

    I don’t have many comments on the game itself as I haven’t played through act 3 yet but I need to remark this:

    Adam, I really, really enjoy your writing!

    To stay somewhat on topic though: the GOTY last year for KRZ was well deserved. They really are remarkable games. Games? I don’t know. Experiences? Musings? Whatever it is, it’s remarkable.

  2. Laurentius says:

    Hmm WiT by Mr Smith that almost doesn’t sound as usual “I’m completly burned out by video games but i have to play them and write about them for a living” routine. I liked the first two episodes they have brilliant moments but they also sports some clumsiness. Whether elevator usage in cathedrals was intentional to induce some grindy, tiresome feeling, it was too much…

  3. AngelTear says:

    Wonderful review, excellently written.

  4. Mittens89 says:

    I haven’t played KRZ yet. Am i right to continue waiting for the full 5 acts to be released, or should i jump in now? A simple question, i think i already know the answer.

    • JayArr says:

      Get in there now. The wait for new updates is borderline torturous, but it’s so worth it. It was nearly a full year between Acts II and III, but within a few minutes of starting Act III last night, I had completely forgotten how frustrated I’d been waiting, and I’m still thinking about all the brilliant moments in it a day later. Had one of the songs stuck in my head since I woke up, too.

    • SillyWizard says:

      I also haven’t played KRZ, but all the hubbub has me curious.

      As far as I can tell, these are point-and-click adventure games. Generally speaking, I don’t like point-and-click adventure games. I did have a fairly good time with the first Broken Sword game, so I can apparently tolerate them on occasion.

      What’s the over/under here?

      • Skeggers says:

        I was in exactly the same spot before I bought the game – not generally a huge fan of point & click games. And while KR0 is technically a point and click adventure game; there are no traditional logic puzzles (get item X, combine with item Y, use on object Z etc.) which get between you and the storyline or the atmosphere.

        I don’t like to draw a comparison to Telltale’s Walking Dead as the two are so wildly different in terms of presentation and theme, but both games follow a similarly streamlined approach to the genre which emphasises character and narrative over any tests of skill or logic.

        I’d say that the difference rises when you look at how the games deal with player agency. While the dialogue and action choices that you make in The Walking Dead generally see you affecting a character’s immediate future – such as causing them to die or dislike you or whatever – Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue choices tend to lend themselves to gradually shaping a character’s past and backstory.

        The game’s also got tremendous writing and a glorious atmosphere that I think anyone can appreciate – regardless of whether they’re into the genre or not.

        So if that sounds like your sort of thing, then go for it. Agonising as the wait between Acts can be, I’d say that it’s probably worth the pain just for the 5 or so hours of gameplay which are currently available.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      I replayed Act 1 before playing Act 2, and am considering doing both again now before Act 3, it’s that sort of game. Play it, read about it, play it again. There’s plenty to pour over already without waiting for all 5 Acts. Also, make sure you grab the little additional side stories on the KR0 website, Limits and Demonstrations was released between Acts 1+2, and The Entertainment came out after Act 2, so prob the best order to play them in.

      Enjoy!

    • TheVGamer says:

      I’ve played the first two ‘acts’ about nine months ago and in the process of waiting I’ve forgotten nearly everything that happened in those episodes and have soured on the whole concept of episodic gaming. Between this and The Wolf Among Us, I am positive in saying I’ll never start playing an episodic game again before its released.

      • Cazychel says:

        I would say the exact opposite: Playing KR0 seems to benefit from waiting for the next act, because you WILL remember, what happened in the previous acts once you start up Act III (in this case), but not exactly. Your memory will just be as fuzzy and inexact as the atmosphere of the game is and thus you will re-experience the former acts in retrospect and perhaps reevaluate them, too.

        Starting up Act III, I was completely unaware of what the original destination was, until “Dogwood Drive” was mentioned and then specks of memories came flooding back, a mosaic of pictures and sounds, but still very uniquely identifiable as KR0 and how it all fit into the story.

        • GaiusJulius394 says:

          I completely agree. I think this game probably benefits from not overthinking the minutiae of the story – otherwise you might end up poking holes in it, when really the game is not about that at all. Just let the atmosphere, concepts, dialogue and characters wash over you and bathe you in their warm fuzziness.

        • Person of Interest says:

          I’m of the same mind as Cazychel and GaiusJulius394. Act III didn’t punish me for my fuzzy memory of the first two acts and intermissions. Some things I eventually recognized from previous play sessions, and some things I must certainly have missed. But a lot was in-between, where I thought I’d heard about such-and-such before, but maybe that wasn’t from the game at all? And I think that’s a fine state to be in while you play this Act.

  5. sub-program 32 says:

    Did anyone else get a error where they (deliberatly in my case, I did not want to miss anything) go to another place instead of the Bureau, triggering act 12, only to find they could not leave? Because that forced me to restart Act 3 and took the wind out of my sails to say the least.

    • BiggerJ says:

      If you haven’t already, could you please tell them about it via Twitter (@cardboardcompy) or email (cardboardcomputer@gmail.com)?

    • BiggerJ says:

      They announced on Twitter that they fixed the bug and several others. The amount of time the game will spend without the bug will be vastly greater than the time it spent with it.

  6. jezcentral says:

    So, this game is perfect? There’s nothing wrong with it at all?

    • faelnor says:

      This review tells you everything you need to know. As an interactive theatrical play where some of the meaning is to be pieced together by the spectator, it is pretty much perfect yeah. Technically and aesthetically sublime, extremely powerful at stirring up emotions and memories, intelligent and literary but restrained and paced well enough to allow for imagination; yet able to stand on its own through visuals and sounds alone.

      I don’t think it should be called a game but this decade-old debate that deals with semantics doesn’t really have anything new to bring here. Expectations should already have been sufficiently made explicit by now.

  7. DrollRemark says:

    It got so meta towards the end that I half expected the entire game to morph into Frog Fractions 2.

  8. spr00se says:

    Great writing. Poetic you might say.

  9. caff says:

    KRZ is currently the gaming equivalent of discovering an amazing bottle of inexpensive wine that no-one else seems to know about. You sip it at first, then everything starts to go hazy and a warm pleasant feeling envelops you. You start to feel intelligent, even though you’re not really.

    When you go back to the supermarket wanting more, they’ve run out of stock.

  10. thawks says:

    This act wrecked me. I actually cried for a bit when I realized who wrote the song, and why. Not to mention the whole Charlie business.