Please support Game Informer. Print magazine subscriptions are less than $2 per issue


Discussing The Strange And Alluring Kentucky Route Zero Act IV

by Elise Favis on Aug 03, 2016 at 12:10 PM

Cardboard Computer’s haunting new episode of Kentucky Route Zero released recently. The point-and-click episodic adventure’s first act came out back in 2013, and the studio has slowly but progressively released new episodes year to year. What began as a story following the older trucker Conway, who wished to find the highway known as Route Zero to complete a delivery, has become less about the destination and more about the journey. Set in rural Kentucky, we now see Conway and his fellow drifter confidants hitching a ride on a boat as they continue their quest to deliver a parcel for the antique shop he works for. Editor Javy Gwaltney and I sat down to chat about our thoughts on Kentucky Route Zero and what’s special about this newest act.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Elise: Javy, you told me that you recently wrapped up the latest act of Kentucky Route Zero. I adore this weird and haunting game, and was pleased with how the recent act turned out. So, what were your impressions? Did it meet your expectations after such a long wait?

Javy: Yeah, I was a big fan of it. I loved how the series has found ways to traverse different kinds of roads: literal interstates, dirt roads, the mysterious otherworldly caverns beneath Kentucky itself, a mine, and now a steamer on a river. Kentucky Route Zero’s more interesting quality is that it combines American mythology with magical realism to create something that’s always super interesting and tragic. I feel like the tragedy comes to head in Act IV with Conway, who was presented as a recovering alcoholic up until the end of Act III, when he took a drink. In Act IV, we see it’s literally destroying him and turning him into one of the glowing skeletons (ghosts?) we’ve seen throughout the series. We don’t quite know who or what these things are, but it’s implied that it’s not a great fate for anyone who becomes one of them. So yeah, that left me feeling a bit wrecked, given that Conway was one of the two protagonists we started off with (the other being Shannon).

However, that’s also kind of KRZ’s charm too, in a way. Like The Wire or Game of Thrones, the game has slowly spread out as it’s gone along, expanding the cast of playable characters as more join Conway and Shannon on their journey. We end up playing as this huge roster of characters, all of them in search of something: happiness, redemption, peace. It’s been a very moving journey so far, and I think Act IV is one of the best chapters of it. What about you? How did you think it compared to the previous three acts?

Elise: I really enjoyed Act IV, too, but for whatever reason, I was disappointed to ditch the truck even if the tugboat was an intriguing new choice of transport. I think it’s more because I grew attached to the truck and enjoyed the level of control when zooming down the different highways and dirt roads mapped out on screen. But maybe there’s a point to that; the current takes you wherever it will and you just have to go along with it. Conway’s slump back into drinking at the end of Act III made him seem like he’s heading for a downward spiral, and that lack of control seemed suiting to the setting. The Mucky Mammoth ship grew on me, and like many other locations in the game, it had a peculiar design (there’s a mechanical mammoth sitting on it) and it plays with cinematography in astonishing ways, such as the outlines of the boat disappearing and reappearing as you go from room to room.

This is what I love so much about KRZ – every scene is like an art piece, and this is reinforced with its tendency to lean toward magical realism. That fantastical quality seemed to appear less often in this last act, though. I missed discovering a giant eagle in a forest, or watching a performer sing as the ceiling turns into a night sky. Many of the locales on the water were neat, but to quote KRZ in an earlier episode, they were “strange but familiar” – perhaps more familiar than strange in this act. What did you think? Were there enough magical moments that awed you? 

Javy: There certainly weren’t as many outright magical moments as the last few acts, like that amazing sequence in the forest in Act II, but I liked the steady drip of surreal surprises. It felt quieter for sure, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I really liked how low-key the musical moment was in this one, where previous scenes with music always came after a big reveal or climatic moment, the one in this act is just somber and soft but still powerful. I’m really curious where they’re going to take us in Act V. I’m wondering if we’ll see Conway again or if everyone will find what they’re looking for or, heck, how do you even end something like Kentucky Route Zero? I can’t even imagine it. What about you? Do you have any expectations for the final episode...due out sometime this century, I guess?

Elise: It’s hard to say, but I think I’m less interested in whether they complete Conway’s delivery job or not, and more curious as to what will happen to the cast. Like you mentioned, Conway’s storyline was left on a cliffhanger, and I wonder if he’s slowly transforming into one of the distillery skeletons. I worry that will be his fate. But I also wonder, will the mystery surrounding Shannon’s cousin Weaver ever be solved? Will Ezra reunite with his family? Those are the burning questions I have right now. For me, though, it’s never been Kentucky Route Zero’s plot twists that had me fall in love with the game. I really like the at times mundane but steady journey this group has set out on, and I think what’s most fascinating is the strangers they meet, and the connections they make in this strange world. Whether my questions are answered or not, I’m somehow okay with that either way; because the ride is fantastical enough on its own. I’m also fond of how the game plays out similar to a text adventure, but here I think it’s less about action and consequence, and more about shaping the world around you as you pass by. What are your thoughts on choice and dialogue in Act IV?

Javy: I really liked the branching options. It was a nice switch up from previous acts, which had mostly just given you branching dialogue options, but I also liked how it was worded, as though the game is aware that you are storyteller just as much as it is and it’s letting you know that. I liked being able to choose to hang with some literal cats on a boat instead checking out a beach with some of our main characters. Maybe that means I missed some essential story nugget (though I doubt that’s possible in this game), but that’s just yet another reason for me to go back to the game later on, to try out those segments I didn’t play my first time through.

Overall, I’m both excited for and dreading the ending for this game. I’m not really worried about everything wrapping up or not wrapping up nicely, as much as I feel torn between wanting this long, beautiful journey to end and to have these characters find some measure of peace or to have it go on for as long as possible, stringing together heartfelt and surreal moments one after another. Whatever may be said of Kentucky Route Zero, I can honestly say I don’t think there’s ever been a game quite like it, and I don’t think we’ll have anything like it ever again. That's something I can’t really say about the vast majority of video games out there.

Elise: Kentucky Route Zero is like an interactive, theatrical experience that can be both immersive and enthralling. There are few games out there that have left that same kind of impression on me, and I doubt there will be another any time soon either. I can understand your dread of this story ending, but I think I would prefer it to conclude, rather than have it drag on to the point that it loses that sense of wonderment. From its idyllic environments like a shadowy cavern filled with bats, to its odd bunch of characters that tell their life stories, KRZ Act IV continued to surprise me in the best ways.