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Wot I Think - Kentucky Route Zero: Act V

Just because it's over doesn't mean it's really over

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This is the story of a journey’s end. But no homecoming can have meaning in isolation from the voyage that preceded it. This is why offering some critical judgement upon the fifth and (as far as we know) final Act of the interstate dream odyssey that is Kentucky Route Zero is an exercise in absurdity. It cannot be separated from what came before, nor from how the long years of waiting altered its place and power in memory. It also, perhaps, cannot be separated from how the world has changed during those long years.

So the following must be about all of those things, and not just the final moments of a landmark in videogame storytelling. To call Act V a climax, or a finale, or a denouement, is incorrect. Unexpectedly short and sharp, yet still wide of focus, it’s more of an epilogue to a decade-long journey which reached its final destination three and a half years ago.

2016. That was the last time we saw these characters (though certain bit-players appeared in 2018’s crucial interlude, Un Pueblo de Nada). That’s important, isn’t it? A lot changed in 2016, and has kept changing since. Act V arrives into a very different world – and a very different America – from the one we played Act IV in. And though it makes some bravura changes of its own, it isn’t reflective of that. That’s not KR0’s fault – it’s the rest of the world’s.

‘Americana’ is the term most often used to describe Kentucky Route Zero’s aesthetic tone, with its quasi-mythical tangle of highways and videotapes and country guitars and bars and cars and horses. It is about a lost dream of vintage America, and the ghostly traces still remaining, after the brutal juggernaut of the late 20th century rolled over it.

That is its power, that is its value. But I think – I worry – that, as the curtain falls and we are left to consider whether there can be peace and happiness after profound calamity, Kentucky Route Zero might itself have become part of that lost dream. That, ultimately, for all its knowing focus on tragedy and rapacious corporations and ruin and lost souls, it too is a fond and even fanciful imagining of a better America. Or, at least, a probing dream of one that could be, in the right places and with the right people, but which seems so unlikely at this moment in time.

I wish I could have played this last Act before the hate plague came. As it is, it is not the small candle of hope I think it intends to be, but a bittersweet glimpse of alternative universe. Still, fanciful or not, songs of hope are vital. Maybe romantic notions of what we could build when the storm has passed are what we need to cope with the storm.

I am, on balance, content with this final act, despite it being comparatively slight, and lacking the previous instalments’ sense of journey. It had to end, and it ends well enough, with darkness and sweetness both, some startling experimentation – not least with structure – and some characteristically unforgettable sights and sounds. It does the things Kentucky Route Zero has always done best, and a few more besides. After all those Acts in the dark, there is a wash of unfamiliar, surprising colour this time, which chimes neatly with the themes. Also, there’s an excellent cat.

Act V is inarguably a full-stop after our long ride here. Indeed, it’s visually structured around a literal full-stop. It still makes sure to avoid any absolute closure, but I’m not sure what flavour of closure I ever wanted from Kentucky Route Zero. I think, in truth, I hoped its lonely road would continue indefinitely, a shaggy dog story of companionship and anecdote-sharing, framed by off-camera tragedies and unexpected songs.

For it to end, after all this time, after all those years growing in memory, is shocking in and of itself. I suspect this is at least partly the reason this is no flashy, sewn-up-with-a-bow climax, but instead a quiet final bow from those who remain. Perhaps no ending could have worked.

It is the ending it needed to be, though. The journey is over. A destination has been reached. We are at last at Dogwood Drive, the fabled address to which Kentucky Route Zero has been driving since the very start, since that first sight of Equus Oils and its great, sunset-framed horsehead. There are answers of a sort, but really that is not what Kentucky Route Zero was ever about. We are there to be shown something.

Superficially a point-and-click adventure, Kentucky Route Zero remains – until its very end – not a game about choice of action, but about choice of behaviour. We are there to decide how we, the player, will carry ourselves in the face of adversity and anxiety. Whether to be hopeful or cynical – or, through a different lens, whether to be nostalgic or realistic. We are not there to end a hero’s journey.

I imagine this will be the key discomfort for many who have waited this long: that Act V doubles down on Act IV’s quiet statement that the game is not after all the story of its erstwhile protagonist, the broken-down delivery driver Conway. His tale is already told, his debt is being paid, and his role in Act V is only one of distant thematic resonance. That is only right. KR0 has long (and often heavily) implied that what it is really about is what capitalism did to America, and that has never been more explicit than it is here.

The remaining characters, those we have travelled with for so long (albeit in years, not hours) are put into the background so we can focus on this. Shannon, Ezra, Junebug, Johnny and Clara are present throughout, as are a clutch of other faces, both known and unknown, but now we observe them more than roleplay them. They are the green shoots, growing from the blasted wasteland.

It’s impossible to discuss details of this Act without spoiling the wildly ambitious and unmissable surprises of how it’s structured. So, all I will say here is that it offers a long, unblinking look at a place chewed up and spat out by American capitalism, and the entire form and function serves that purpose. Though it never directly turns to camera and says “ooh, those corporations, eh?”, it holds the view long enough, clearly enough, and devastatingly enough that the sentiment cannot be missed.

Our characters are now seen from a new perspective, which takes KR0’s famed use of scale, light and mythicised roadside architecture to new and immediately branded-upon-the-hind-brain heights. From this vantage, we see them emerge into the wreckage left behind by the money-guzzling machine that is America, with their last purpose being to decide whether or not all hope is lost. Kentucky Route Zero’s true purpose turns out to be discussing whether or not there can be a different way of life from the deeply and destructively imperfect social structures most of us live in today.

I think Act IV, with the quiet despair of its near-final notes, made a little more sense as an ending – and maybe had more truth to it – than Act V. Please though, feel free to blame my own shattered belief in the idea that the human animal is essentially a kind and generous one for that sentiment. In our world, the ignored outlands of America have responded – through vicious manipulation – very differently to their decades-long shattering than they have done here.

But maybe, so far away, on a grey street on a grey island currently in the grip of a similar malignancy, I simply cannot see the comings-together, the open arms, the folksy creativity and intellectual curiosity suggested in Act V’s grand vision of what America is at heart. Though that has always been there; all along the Zero, we have been shown art, music and fellowship on the margins of ruin, binding lost things together. That is what KR0 has always been telling us, and that is why this had to be the ending.

A further consequence of both this intention and the sweeping structural shift that defines this last act is that we get very little real time inside the skins or minds of any of the now large, even unwieldy, key cast. Though I enjoy and appreciate everyone who came later, that sense of connection, to the broken-down Conway and the searching Shannon of the first three Acts in particular, has ebbed significantly.

We are – very much deliberately – kept at much more of a distance from the characters now. The end of their line draws near, and there is no time to change destination. KR0 is by now more concerned with the idea of these people as a group, a nascent community, than helping us to understand or define the individuals within it. Because of this, I found myself wishing I could have had more time with them beforehand, to get to know them better still.

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to go home. Perhaps, greedily, I just wanted a few more miles lost on the Zero. Because now what? It’s over. I waited and waited for this, and now one of the most outstanding, intelligent and beautiful videogames yet created is God-damned over – and it was outstanding, intelligent and beautiful to the last. I wasn’t ready for that.

So back I go, to Act 1, back to Equus Oils, back to the horse and the sunset and the headlights. To Conway and his van, and ancient, faithful Blue (please tell me you didn’t choose a different name for the dog). It feels like home. ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’

I think I was meant to do that. I believe, even though there is an ending, that the Zero is a loop, and I am just another ghost that echoes around it forever. For it was – it is – unforgettable.

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Alec Meer

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Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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