“This World In Not My Home”: Driving the Zero

Let me be among the many bloggers & gamers that celebrated this week: “Thankyouthankyouthankyou, act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero is here!!!” Or to quote the game itself, “GLORYITISGOODTOBEAMONGFRIENDS!”

Oh KRZ, I have missed you so. I have missed your weird Lynchian drone noises & your stripped-down bluegrass. I have missed your restless ghosts & reconfigured mythology. I have missed your orgy of references to literature, computer programming, theater, & psychology.

Screenshot from Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer

But, let me stop myself before I get carried away in my rhapsodizing & I’ll try to describe this weird, expansive game/interactive story.  We start off simple enough: Conway, an aging deliveryman, is trying to track down 5 Dogwood Drive for one last shipment.  As he searches for this elusive stop through the Kentucky backroads, he is waylaid by Weaver Márquez, an eccentric mathematician who points him in the direction of the Zero, an underground highway that connects impossible places.  Before the player knows it, Conway is exploring places stricken by poverty & apathy, like a Museum of Dwellings in place of a destroyed subdivision & a brightly-lit church where there is no congregation, but hymns & sermons play endlessly on a tape recorder.  Beautiful, unexpected things happen: an organist’s playing summons hordes of hermit crabs with office supplies as their shells; meteors fall; Xanadu is rebuilt in Mammoth Cave; & a singer not only brings the house down but remakes it with her song.  Throughout all of this, Conway tries to believe that there is still something of worth left to his tired, worn life.

I love it.  I LOVE IT!

Screenshot from Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer

I spent about 3-4 hours on Wednesday completing my first play-through of act 4, which is not out of the ordinary.  Each chapter is dense with various places to explore & characters to meet so there is no way to see everything in one session.  In fact, only a month or so ago, I had gone back & replayed the previous chapters & found things I had overlooked when I first played the game in 2014.

This is less a game than an interactive story, since the conceit relies heavily on choosing how each character reacts or approaches a situation, despite the fixed trajectory of the action.  An early line in act 1 tells us that we are headed for tragedy & if to drive that point home forcefully, the latest chapter takes place entirely in the Echo River & Lake Lethe.  Y’know, that place in Greek mythology where the dead drank to forget their lives?

Screenshot of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer

I know that one’s enthusiasm alone can’t convince a person to try out the game, especially given the long development time between chapters & the risk that the amount you pay may be outweighed by other factors like impatience or even that the game might not be to your taste.  But, if you are still curious & want to know more, at the very least read this series of articles dissecting the game’s influences.  The author Magnus Hildebrandt puts together a comprehensive & interesting list of references drawn from all sorts of academic fields & also shows off some of the art of the game.  Who knows, you might even come away with a really great summer reading list!