Wot I Think: Kentucky Route Zero Act IV

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.

It’s markedly different to what’s gone before, both in terms of tone and structure. I want to say it’s perhaps the weakest of the Acts to date (there is one more to follow), but given how much is layered into this game, essentially invisible unless dug for with a deep knowledge of literature and theatre to hand, it’s entirely possibly I’m missing vital context that would lift IV in my mind. And, in any case, even a weaker Kentucky Route Zero is going to places other games simply do not, and cannot.

This is something of a calm before the storm chapter, though that too is based only a guess that Act V will draw threads together at last. I shall avoid spoilers – one in particular – but it is hard to discuss IV in any meaningful way without talking about one change. KRZ Act III’s quintet of characters are now at sea, living together on an unusual boat, its cross-section interiors evoking a far less zany Zissou.

Though this journey echoes the Zero highway in visual ways, it is a very different affair in terms of pace and tone. There are destinations in sight, but for the bulk of Act IV it is a free drift, even to the point that it overtly grants holiday time to the cast.

Where previous chapters have been something of a restless (though unpressured) search for meaning and purpose in a universe that shrugs nonchalantly at every request for answers, IV repeatedly presents at least the outline of an idyllic lifestyle, a blissful life at sea with a family of friends. Gathering mushrooms, exploring bat sanctuaries, seafood meals at perfect ocean cafes, and cocktails on the beach to a slide-guitar soundtrack.

It’s a big departure from the metaphysical oddity of Acts II and III, and though no less beautiful its pursuit of something closer to normality means there are fewer remarkable sights. There are still some, fear not: for instance, I’ll just say the words ‘cat boat’ and leave it at that. Frankly, it’s a tall order for anything to keep up with the bar scene, Xanadu and the distillery tour in III, and perhaps this being more (ironically, given the nautical setting) grounded is a deliberate reaction to that.

However, with this comes a surer sense of being railroaded. KRZ has always been far more about choice of attitude than choice of action, but the absence of the freedom to drive those highways is felt – the ship sails itself, offering only the occasional option of whether to get off at some of its preordained stops or not.

This is coupled with the fact that sometime star Conway adopts very specific behaviours that, previously, had seemed more like an option, in terms of what kind of guy the player perceived him to be. He is not our avatar any more.

Can’t safely say much more, but put it this way: expect a more talkative fellow, and one who behaves far more like an NPC than a protagonist. There are intriguing and even distressing reasons for this, and I have no doubt that concepts of things slipping out of our control will increasingly come to bear later, but for now his diminished role is offset by the introduction of yet more companion characters.

Already up to five by the time III ended, the ranks of the main cast are now swollen further still – to the point that it’s started to threaten my sense of connection with those who came earlier. The newcomers don’t make anything like as clear an impression as III’s delightful Junebug and Johnny, and to some extent their arrival is at the expense of time with Conway, Shannon and Blue (what the hell do you mean you called your dog something different?).

In particular, one new character, Will, acts as essentially a narrator for the journey, spinning long, meandering tales and sometimes inviting the player to choose which direction one will go in. This means far, far more text than even this game’s usual verbose standard, often with few choices to be made, and I have to admit that, for the first time in this series, my attention began to waver.

This being Kentucky Route Zero and its longstanding fascination with theatre, I have little doubt that something is being said about the nature of telling and hearing stories (and the more fixed structure and movement perhaps plays into that too), but an excess of slightly contrived wistfulness is an excess of slightly contrived wistfulness even when it’s trying to make a point.

It also makes this chapter artificially long, perhaps even the longest yet, whereas I suspect that, were there more brevity of dialogue, this would be KRZ’s shortest act.

There is a sense, overall, of biding time ahead of the (presumed – let’s be honest, the e’er-inventive folks at Cardboard Computer could spring anything on us yet) finale. Two major events occur towards the end, but ahead of that the cast are essentially on holiday. Not that they don’t deserve it, but I have to confess to feeling slightly detached from proceedings this time around – I felt less involved in the behaviour of the cast, more of a spectator now.

I can’t help but wonder if there has been some anxiety on the developer’s side about how to move pieces into position ready for a conclusion, and the result of that is a more fixed journey than before, but on the other hand the only thing I’m truly confident in saying about Kentucky Route Zero is that its creators are far, far smarter than I am.

Despite my sense that this chapter is not quite the equal of those before it, it is entirely unmissable if you have played those, still as beautiful and unpredictable and as forlornly romantic as ever, and this time it shows me at least two places I wish I could go and live in forever. And though some water may be overtly trodden this time, be in no doubt that things are moving towards a conclusion. Dogwood Drive awaits.

Kentucky Route Zero Act IV is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, GOG, Itch and Humble through the developer’s own site. A season pass for all four episodes (a fifth and apparently final episode will appear in due course) costs £19/$25/€23 but is 50% off on all sites at the time of writing.

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17 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    I thought this was their best one yet. I felt it far better evoked a certain roadtrip (rivertrip?) feel. It was their first chapter where I managed to get completely zoned out, and the one that best managed to do various things with my heartstrings.


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    The Catboat, Conway’s stress causing him to drink *a lot* (which is why his behaviour changes so much this episode – he’s drunk), the talks about Weaver, and off course seeing Conway floating away from Shannon… I was stunned during that scene. Conway is fully skeletal at that point. I always felt that that Skeletal thing was supposed to indicate debt: Conway gets his leg on a special medical plan, and that is when it turns skeletal (“Like it isn’t mine anymore”). The distillery guys are all in over their heads when it comes to debt, and seeing Conway leave, fully skeletal, means that he has become fully enslaved to his debts. He doesn’t own himself anymore. I was so stunned there that I just let that boat float away. I realize that there were prompts, but I just… couldn’t. It’s actually the first time a videogame left me legitimately stunned.
    /////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      HERE BE SPOILERS! I shouldn’t have put those words in as if it was HTML syntax.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      I think you’re right about the debt. I haven’t played Act IV yet but previously Conway’s leg acted as a glowing, figurative reminder of his burden. As you mention, it becomes alien to him. It’s terrifying when anatomy and debt become merged.

      Debt is also a big part in off-shoot thing The Entertainment, which ends with a reveal that the bar owner had to sell the place to the liquor company to pay off some debts – the same company who employ all of those skeletons I believe.

      • Canadave says:

        It is the same company. That’s why a skeleton shows up at the end, to collect on the debts. And subsequently why when you meet Harry in Act III, he’s so vague about there being no one in the bar.

  2. ephesus64 says:

    So much. Well, for one thing, I haven’t had my experience of a game live up to my own anticipation of it this well since Portal 2. I thought the sense of place and character was exceptional. It was long, but I think I mostly felt that way because I played it all the way through in one night and lost sleep I needed for work the next day. Snake River Stampede whiskey was an excellent pairing, by the way. More thoughts later, I suppose.

  3. StAUG says:

    Might have to go back through the previous acts first, been a while between drinks.

  4. Laurentius says:

    I still havn’t finished III Act. TBH I am kind of frustrated with this game, there are some excllent moments in these episods that simply stand out as a best moments I encountered in the medium, even his singing in the bar in Ep. III is fantastic. But point and click elments are kind of dreary. Also the game stucture works against its stregth, and novelty is gon in ancient and obeselte game designs. I can grab one of my favorite books and in a matter of seconds open up on that excellent fragment that I adore, but in KR0 I can’t just as easily jump back to this excellent evocative scenes. This is disappointing and still a problem for a medium.

  5. sub-program 32 says:

    I completely agree with Alec in this review: it was slower, and left me relitively cold in comparision to previous eps, but I completely understand why they did what they did, and was genuinely distressed by the realization that Conway had become almost utterly seperate from my control (spoilers: a theme that had begun ever since I tried to avoid him taking That One Drink last ep). Only the very beggining and the scenes near the end really grabbed me, and my frustration with the split choice format is only exaberated when I hear about this “Catboat” that I never even saw. But again, this lack of freedom I do understand: the night, which once felt so infinate, is now dying, and we are dragged inexorably towards the end whether we want to or not, leaving all sorts of missed opportinities behind. The sun is soon to rise over Dogwood drive, and I don’t doubt the moments of awe I missed on the Echo will be redoubled upon the surface.

  6. orthochronous says:

    I was rather fond of the Team Zissou approach (and thanks very much for that analogy, it’s great!), but I do think the constrained format and alternating choices are a natural outgrowth of the weird, heady stuff that was all over the previous installments. It makes narrative sense for us to have less and less control over the characters as the causal inefficiency of the choices becomes more obvious (especially if you’re on a second play through). This is especially true for Conway, because of spoilerish reasons.
    (***SPOILERS***) for the rest of the post.
    One of the scenes really stood out to me in this way: at the questionnaire warehouse, everything we see Shannon doing is on videotape a ways in the future (the game stresses that the narrators in this scene don’t really know how old the tapes are). But we make decisions for Shannon anyway, while simultaneously watching the tape. This is maybe the boldest play on agency the game has made so far, since it literally breaks the causality of the game, and there are some subtle hints in the TV portion of the questionnaire that suggest that this was very deliberate. My mind kind of broke thinking about this, and I kept taking little breaks every couple of minutes trying to process what I was seeing. While this is going on, mind you, Shannon is walking through obviously constructed theatrical sets, a fact which is revealed by… a slow zoom out of the camera which is recording the tape. All the while, the two disembodied, purely textual narrators were very casually dishing out major plot points. What did it all mean? Not really sure, but I was just sort of sitting there stunned by the end of it (a light-hearted riff on mind-body dualism, conducted via telephone).

    • grrrz says:

      ye

      • grrrz says:

        …sorry
        yeah that scene was totally mindblowing, they took their meta narrative approach to a new level. reminded me of the movie “reality” by quentin dupieux, the scene near the ending where the character on a movie inside the movie picks up the phone to call…

  7. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    U can’t comment on acts III and IV because I refuse to come back to this magical world until it’s completed. I’ve skipped this whole WIT (sorry Adam) just to say this.

  8. invisiblewaves says:

    I also feel like this was one of the strongest acts. I mean it’s been long enough between acts that I’ve more or less forgotten the entire story, so for me, it was almost like playing something completely self-contained. I love how the game’s visual sense is evolving (the scene in the bat sanctuary is incredible), and the developers are slowly taking control AWAY from the player. I also think they are breaking new ground for episodic games, implicitly making the statement that as artists who have proven their commitment to quality, it’s okay to take your time and take two years to make a three-hour episode.

  9. EkoAzarak says:

    Kentucky Route Zero is one of a handful of games over the past 5 years that i really enjoyed. Love it. And this article is spot-on. Its just magical and surreal experience.

  10. Monggerel says:

    Having finished Act IV twice, I have to say – you *really* should probably finish Act IV at least twice in a row. This might be a slight spoiler, but the story branching and how that ties into what you’ve already learned during the previous three acts is… extreme. I was simply dumbfounded by how willing Cardboard Computer were to let people miss key/spectacular moments. It’s… really impressive? But can be frustrating if you’re used to the sort of frontloading typical of “game-type things” and if you feel like you’re missing out that can be unfortunate.

  11. gbrading says:

    I’ve just finished it and I might play through it again to see the bits I missed, and while there were moments I liked it was a bit too slow for me, even by the slow standards of KRZ. Too many characters telling long meandering stories which didn’t have any baring on the central plot, which didn’t meaningfully advance much.

    I too was saddened by our lack of control over Conway, but thinking about it Act III did foreshadow that at the end of the distillery tour… Still, no other game is like KRZ, God bless it.