This review covers the third episode of Kentucky Route Zero and discusses specific plot details of all three installments so far. For an overview of the game’s tone and style of adventuring, read Ryan Smith’s review of Act I. Ryan also previously reviewed Act II.
All the world’s a stage, as the famous Shakespeare line goes, and in the confines of Kentucky Route Zero this idea feels literally true. There are moments in each act when structures and environments we think of as real—tattered barns and dusty dive bars—slide and melt away to reveal something else on the periphery. It’s as if the game is peeling back the curtain and reminding us that we’re just spectators engaged in a peculiar contrivance.
If there’s a particular play Kentucky Route Zero hopes to evoke in its third act, it’s Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy Waiting For Godot. That much is implied early on after the main characters’ truck stalls alongside a lonely stretch of road. The only options the game avails are meandering conversations with the antique shop delivery driver, Conway, and his wayward companions as they listlessly wait for a tow truck that may never come. They’re finally rescued by a pair of musicians named Johnny and Junebug, the latter of whom even borrows a line directly from Godot. “We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment,” Junebug says as they arrive late for a gig at a quiet bar called The Lower Depths.
It’s a joke lost on Conway, whose quixotic quest for one last delivery on the magical highway, the eponymous Route Zero, might be the only thing that keeps him from sharing the same fate as Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon—eternally stuck in neutral, muttering, “Nothing to be done.” The same could be said for the growing cast of supporting characters who join Conway on his circuitous journey. Shannon’s about to lose the lease of her TV repair shop. Young Ezra can’t find his missing family. Johnny and Junebug are drifters singing sad songs for empty rooms. Their reasons for traveling with Conway are never made explicit beyond a sense that they are avoiding the pain of their own lives.
People in Kentucky Route Zero’s sparse countryside suffer from the same disease as Xanadu, a supercomputer that Conway discovers in a vast cave network off the Zero. The device’s creator, Donald, has spent years isolated in this deep cavern studying its mysteries and laments the fact that its circuits are gummed up with the corrupting black mold that pollutes the cave’s air.
“Do you know what it’s like to spend your life building something, and then sit powerlessly as your work declines into ruin?” Donald asks. It’s a line that echoes loudly, and not just because he’s speaking it in a cave.
It’s also a question the game seems to be asking of its whole world. The dark muck sapping Xanadu of its function is later discovered to be unnatural, the result of an unconventional manufacturing process. It’s similarly implied that the forces causing the decline of rural Kentucky—and its people and technology—aren’t the results of nature taking its course but the uncaring machinations of modern capitalism and big corporations, forces that are extracting money and life out of everything until it becomes hollowed out and abandoned like the haunted old coal mine from Act I.
But just as Waiting For Godot invited all sorts of over-interpretation, this all might be reading a bit much into a game that includes a giant eagle hauling around people and entire houses with its hefty claws. This isn’t a Ken Burns documentary about the decline of the South, and the surreal dreamlike quality of the encounters does not lend itself well to straightforward allegory.
What’s more clear is that developer Cardboard Computer loves to subvert the conventions and expectations of the adventure game genre. The dialogue continues to skip around nonchalantly to different characters and perspectives. Using Xanadu’s antiquated interface also thrusts you into a game-within-a-game that resembles old interactive text games like Zork, where wandering a fantasy world requires typing in cardinal directions and a simple series of commands. Those games were built on a sense of logic, but in the case of Xanadu, rational control of your experience proves illusory.
In another scene, Conway and crew stroll up a seemingly endless walkway to a cave, and the game offers a collection of random things to look at. A bookshelf here. A computer there. I spied a rope, which I expected would hoist Conway to an otherwise unreachable area. Clicking it, however, informed me that it was rotten and unusable. We’ve been conditioned to evaluate objects simply for their utility, but like nearly everything in Kentucky Route Zero, this was simply the detritus of a lost civilization grudgingly succumbing to a rot of its own.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act III
Developer: Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy)
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $25 for all five episodes