Kentucky Route Zero – Pandemic Game 01

This will be full of spoilers.

I played the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero from start to finish in the space of a little more than a week, a tiny slice of time considering KRZ released its final act seven years after its first. My playthrough lasted only nine hours or so, but what I experienced felt much bigger than that, and it has stuck with me in the way few games or stories have been able to. As I talk to you about the game I’m not aiming to tell you everything, but to tell you all of the parts that have stuck with me the most. It’ll wander and it’ll likely be incomplete but it’ll be true. I’m listening to the game’s soundtrack as I write this and I’m reminded of the moment that I really fell in love with the game.

At the very end of Act I, having managed an escape from an abandoned mine, Conway, our antiques delivery truck-driving protagonist, and his new companion, vintage television repair person extraordinaire Shannon, return to the family home of the elusive Weaver Marquez. Shannon repairs Weaver’s ancient television and, in doing so, opens the route to Kentucky Route 0, a highway that exists in a magical “between” space that weaves together many different fantastical locations, and somewhere along which lies the destination for Conway’s last delivery.

As Conway slowly limps down a hill from the house back to his truck the game’s camera zooms out, revealing a group of silhouetted figures playing string instruments and singing together. Everything about it was beautiful and a little sorrowful. Once, while driving alone through the Texas hill country, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen another car for nearly an hour. A series of switchbacks laid bare an immense valley beneath me and I pulled over to get out and look. To be there and see it, and hear it, and breathe in the air. Kentucky Route Zero is like that, meditative, unhurried, coaxing beauty out of each moment. 

So I sat with Conway and his old dog, who I’d named Homer in my playthrough but you do get a choice of “Blue” or no name at all, and I listened. Shortly after that I looked up the soundtrack for the game, and learned that the band in the game is called “The Bedquilt Ramblers,” and that throughout the game there would be three more songs that they had written. When Act I came to its close I continued in anticipation of those songs. 

During the game I chose to speak to Homer at every chance available. Each of these interactions is three lines long, all you, talking to the dog, talking to yourself. And each line remains on screen as you select the next, and at the end of it you’ve assembled a three line poem that is yours, you created it, and you are moved by it. There is no right answer, every sequence of lines is a poem, and none of them are wrong or any worse than the others. And the whole game is like that. There’s no “bad ending” to threaten you, there’s just you and the choices in front of you and the sequence of events in your poem. 

Conway’s journey takes a detour when the state of his leg, crushed beneath falling rocks in the first act, becomes harder and harder for him to bear. On the recommendation of Lula Chamberlain, former musician and installation artist and current clerk of the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, Shannon and Conway seek out a joint doctor along the zero. They befriend a young boy named Ezra and his giant eagle companion Julian who flies the group, like hobbits from Mordor, out to the forest where the doctor resides. In this sequence we control Ezra, moving through still scenes of Conway and Shannon talking and walking, and silhouettes of the Bedquilt Ramblers singing in between the trees. They find the doctor, and as Conway’s leg is treated the themes of debt and addiction are introduced hand in hand. Upon waking Conway finds that his leg is working as good as new, but we see it as a skeletal leg composed of yellow electricity. Like it’s being viewed through an x-ray. It’s no longer Conway’s leg, it’s the power company’s. 

I’m going to make a detour of my own now to talk about Conway. He’s introduced as the protagonist of the game. We control the other characters to a degree, but being put in control of Ezra at the end of Act II was the first major “out of body experience” for me so to speak. I wasn’t Conway anymore, Conway was on his own ominous trajectory and I was truly just watching now. Act III spends time exploring Conway’s lifelong battle with alcohol addiction. He’s sober now and has been for awhile, maybe the longest he’s ever been. But the drug that fixed his leg has stolen a piece of him, has begun to infect him. Deep below an abandoned church Conway and Shannon find the Hard Times Whiskey Distillery, run entirely by electric skeletons, depicted entirely the way we see Conway’s leg. These people are owned completely by their debt. Conway is pushed into becoming a delivery driver and, to seal the deal, takes a drink of Hard Times Whiskey. In act IV our perspective is completely alien from Conway. He spends the whole act looking for beer and drinking rum and fixating on his lost youth. The last we see of Conway he’s floating away on a small boat, completely skeletonized at this point, with two more identical skeletons. He’s not struggling or fighting, they’re not kidnapping him, he just floats away with them, having succumbed entirely to his addiction, and to his debts. And that’s it. He’s gone. There’s no catharsis but it’s one of the most real things about a game that takes reality as a pretty light suggestion. For me, I met and then bid adieu to Conway over the course of a few hours, but imagine being invested for years and seeing this happen. I hear some fans were furious. Homer and Shannon and the ensemble of other characters move forward, and Conway falls away like the stars. I’m going to go back to talking about earlier Acts now, but I just wanted to cover Conway all at once.

In between every act of the game are these “Interludes”, events which happen adjacent to the main story line. The most impactful of these for me is the second: The Entertainment. The player is an actor onstage during a high school production of a fictional stage show called The Entertainment. You have no lines, you’re just an observer, watching the actors and the audience in turn as it all plays out around you. The play is set in a bar where a regular and the bartender speak with one another about the alcohol, and the bartender’s “vacation,” and the titular entertainment for the evening: Junebug. The play examines debt and addiction and the roles they take in each of its characters’ lives. The roles of the bartender and Junebug appear later within the universe of Kentucky Route Zero as characters. The bartender only sells Hard Time whiskey, to whom he’s sold his patrons debt, and to whom Conway later becomes indentured.

The play spoke more strongly to me through its style than its themes. When I was in college my at-the-time girlfriend, now wife, took me to see a performance of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love by the Texas State theater department. Fool for Love is set entirely within a desert motel room as two ex-lovers meet and fight and deal with their pasts. I have vivid memories of the play, fabricated to some degree I’m sure by the passage of time, and when Shepard passed a few years later I tracked down the play to read it and relive it to a degree. It wasn’t just the play that made the memory. It was the walk through the campus to the theater. It was sitting next to the person I was madly in love with. It was seeing people in their late teens and early twenties portraying much older characters with admirable commitment. It’s the pizza place we went to after to discuss, and staying the night together (not for the first time). I felt, as I played through the Entertainment, like the game designer had been with me that night, knew those memories as well as I did, and made something with them in mind.

Junebug, the titular entertainment from the interlude, is introduced alongside her partner Johnny in Act III as motorcycle/sidecar-riding musicians on the way to play a gig who stop to help get Conway’s antique truck up and running after some engine trouble. In exchange for their help, Conway and crew follow them to their show at the bar from The Entertainment. Johnny and Junebug’s performance is a variation on the poem theme that runs throughout the game: the player chooses the line that prompts each verse of the song that they sing: “Too Late to Love you.”

Junebug and Johnny are my two favorite characters in the game, and I was most invested in their arc, so I’m gonna talk about them now. Johnny and Junebug speak with Ezra, with whom they have most of their best interactions, about how they created themselves. Junebug says that she and Johnny were born grey, and that they colored themselves in, piece by piece, until they were their own people. They were defined by their actions and memories and experiences and that made them real. All of this reminded me of a quote by the filmmakers Jodorowsky:
“The goal of life is to create for yourself a soul.” After I finished the game I went snooping around the internet to see what other people had to say, to engage in the discourse, and I discovered that Junebug and Johnny were hinted to be “androids.” The whole time I played the game I didn’t pick that up, I had just assumed there was this metaphorical “born without a soul” thing in their journey, and metaphor or no I feel it’s a very strong theme. It runs contradictory to Conway’s journey, who slowly fades away from a person to nothing but a skeleton in the company of hundreds just like him. Junebug and Johnny are very, very human.

Throughout the fourth act they discuss adopting Ezra into their posse, and that touched me deeply. If I were to write fanfic about this game it would be about the adventures of Johnny, Junebug, and Ezra. 

In the context of Johnny and Junebug I come to Act V and the ending of Kentucky Route Zero. Those that remain arrive at Dogwood Drive, a tiny town with no roads in or out, blown apart by a storm the night before they arrive. Some of the citizens choose to pack up and move on, hike out through the woods which surround it. Others choose to stay and rebuild. There is hope for the future, and there is sorrow for what was lost. It all culminates in a funeral for the town’s two horses, and then everyone disperses, one by one, into the sunset. And Johnny and Junebug are there, and their colors are gone. That upset me more than anything else in the game and I hope against hope that it’s just how they dressed for the sombre occasion. I cared the most about the two people who created themselves and I will mourn dearly the loss of those identities if that is the case.

KRZ is going to stick with me for a long time. It’s music, it’s characters, it’s conversations about the soul, debt, addiction, companionship, and the road that ever moves us forward, bringing us together before pulling us apart, and we hope that it shall bring us back together again somewhere down the way.

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