Spoilers ahoy for the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero.
So. Kentucky Route Zero is finished, and I’m finished with it. I cried while I played Act V, a few tears escaping here and there all throughout before the final setpiece left me sobbing. My head’s buzzing with thoughts about this game, which I’ve been obsessed with since 2013, and I’m dying to write something about it.
It’s kind of hard to know what to write though, is the thing. People way smarter than me have said just about everything I’d want to say about Kentucky Route Zero, and they’ve done it far better than I could. The vast majority of the game has been out for years, and there’s really nothing new to say about Junebug’s breathtaking musical act, Ezra’s melancholy hike through the woods, or Conway’s tragic relapse into alcoholism. It’s all really good! And people have been explaining how and why it’s all really good for years now.
So, instead of trying and failing to write anything comprehensive about the entire seven-year epic that is Kentucky Route Zero, I’m gonna narrow my focus and talk about a character that I haven’t seen anyone else say anything about.
I’m gonna talk about Ron.
Ron’s there, in that dark corner in the middle of the picture. Depending on how your monitor’s set up, he might be pretty hard to make out. This is the first glimpse of Ron that you get in Kentucky Route Zero, but you’re not really supposed to be paying attention to him at this point. He’s background scenery, another body to take up room and emphasize just how cramped the space is.
This screenshot is from “Un Pueblo de Nada,” KRZ’s fourth interlude. In case you’re unfamiliar with the game’s structure, it’s broken up into five acts, like a play, with “interludes” between each. These bits draw the focus away from the primary characters for a little while, and usually play a little differently from the main game. They also generally diverge from their preceding acts in tone, adding tension where there wasn’t any or providing comic relief. The interludes add lots of shading and texture to the narrative, and each one serves to establish some important worldbuilding for the act that follows it.
“Un Pueblo de Nada” focuses on WEVP-TV, a public access station that’s discussed at length during Act IV. The station is run entirely by volunteers, with funding and electricity provided by The Consolidated Power Company, a corporation that dominates the entire region Kentucky Route Zero is set in. They own the power plants, the mines, and just about every other profitable enterprise you encounter. Even the hellish Hard Times Distillery that turns the dead into whiskey and the living into ghosts is a part of the Consolidated Power empire.
WEVP-TV is funded by court order; a judge determined that Consolidated owned too much of the broadcast spectrum, and must therefore under-write the station while having no input on its programming. This is a laughably inadequate response to Consolidated’s monopolistic practices, but it’s also the only time in the entire game that we hear about Consolidated losing anything. You get the sense that the people behind WEVP-TV take pride in being the only ones who’ve successfully given the enigmatic power company a black eye. In Act V, you also get the sense that Consolidated is petty enough that for all its power, it deeply resents this single and ultimately inconsequential defeat. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In “Un Pueblo de Nada,” you play as Emily, the closest thing to a producer that the station has. You do what you can to keep the evening’s broadcast running smoothly, even as water from the storm outside soaks right through the station’s old, decaying ceiling. The show is doomed to end in catastrophe; first, it’s taken over by a mysterious pirate broadcast that’s been plaguing the station for years, and then the entire building is destroyed by the flood.
The new, complete release of Kentucky Route Zero is really nice, bundling what used to be a bunch of separate programs into one complete package and adding in a wider range of options and settings. There’s one omission, however, that I really think they needed to make room for: the video you can find at wevp.tv.
This video is a live-action portrayal of the broadcast that’s being produced in “Un Pueblo de Nada.” The two depictions share a lot of elements and dialogue, but wevp.tv contains some really important, exclusive content, including an explanation of what “Un Pueblo de Nada” even refers to.
But, I don’t want to get into the People of Nothing, at least not yet. I‘ve laid enough groundwork now that I wanna circle back to Ron.
On wevp.tv, Ron is first mentioned when the broadcast’s host, Rita, thanks him for providing pots and pans to catch the rainwater leaking into the studio. Rita’s entire introduction is awkward and stilted; even though she’s been hosting WEVP-TV for what sounds like a long time, she’s not very good at it. This is something that comes across a lot more clearly in the live action version. The entire performance is skin-crawlingly awkward, and sets the stage for wevp.tv being one big piece of cringe humor.
About a third of the way through the broadcast, Ron steps out of that dark corner he’s been slouching in to become a part of the show. He’s prepared a tape for broadcast, a piece he calls Wild, which Rita is excited to showcase. It’s… well, it’s something. Most of its running time is nothing but ambiguous black blobs and digital noise. Occasionally, the static and darkness resolve into comprehensible images: a barking dog, a horse in a field, a forest. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m looking at footage of an animal or a shadow puppet.
It’s not really clear whether Wild was deliberately made as a piece of abstract art, or if it’s the work of some dope who doesn’t know how to use a video camera. Ron appears on the show after Wild ends, and, well, he kind of seems to support the “dope” interpretation. When asked about the contents of his video, his only explanation is that “everything on that tape was wild.” He emphasizes the word “wild” by doing anxious, half-committed jazz-hands at the camera. Instead of pressing him to elaborate, Rita and her other guest, Maya, interrogate Ron about whether the horses or the dog in the tape are actually wild animals. He scoffs at their questions, and offers them nothing other than what he’s already said: “Everything. On that tape. Was wild.” He does the jazz-hands again, despite his obvious irritation. He spends the rest of his time on camera grumpy and indignant, before a tedious on-air caller puts him to sleep with a droning story about raccoons.
Most of wevp.tv and “Un Pueblo de Nada” feels like comedy, a light-hearted break from the somber mood that permeates so much of Act IV. It’s a part of the story where you can take a breather, laugh at some awkward weirdos and their awkward “artwork,” and steel yourself for an anticipated gut-punch in Act V. The new characters introduced here, Rita, Ron and Maya, along with Elmo, the station’s weatherman, and Nikki, a local poet, seem like a bunch of dinguses. The live-action portrayal spotlights their tics and gaffes and makes them seem much less put-together than the rest of KRZ’s cast, who are depicted as stoic, low-polygon models that speak thoughtfully-written prose.
It all feels like inconsequential fun, the kind of thing that makes you think, “well that was a good time but now let’s get on with the stuff that matters.” Or, back when it came out in 2017, maybe something like “ugh, quit fuckin’ around with this nonsense and release Act V already!” The only parts that feel “important” are the reintroduction of Emily, Ben, and Bob, characters who show up as ghosts all the way back in Act I, and the appearance of Weaver Màrquez at the very end, delivering a cryptic message to the viewer just before the station is destroyed by the storm. I think most folks assumed that the staff of WEVP-TV died when the building collapsed, that “Un Pueblo de Nada” was an origin story for those Act I ghosts, and that we wouldn’t be hearing from Rita, Maya, Ron, or Elmo ever again.
Which makes it pretty surprising that they’re such a big part of Act V.
A lot of mysteries were still floating around Kentucky Route Zero going into Act V. A lot of tension that remained unresolved. It’s easy to imagine a version of this story that deals with it directly. Maybe when the main cast finally reaches the mysterious Dogwood Drive, they’ll find something that can help them rescue Conway from the clutches of Hard Times. Maybe they’ll learn some profound truth about the nature of the bizarre reality they inhabit. Maybe Weaver Màrquez had set everything up to play out in just a certain way, and Act V would reveal both the end result of her plans and the motivations behind them.
Instead of anything enlightening or magical, Shannon Màrquez and her friends emerge from underground to find themselves in a flooded, half-destroyed town. A man they don’t know named Ron is kneeling over a dead horse, filled with grief and anger.
We know a fair amount about this town by this point. It’s first referenced in “Here and There Along the Echo,” the Act III interlude. It’s described there as a secret place, a town that no roads lead to, where wild horses walk the streets. Un Pueblo de Nada, Rita’s documentary about her home, offers some history on the location. It was originally settled by a group of people who came up from Central America. They were, essentially, sociologists. They built their entire culture around experimenting with the conditions in which they lived, in order to figure out the best possible life. They would introduce arbitrary new rules to their society, take exhaustive notes on the effects those rules had, then keep the ones that had a positive impact and discard the rest before trying some new random idea. Hence, they were the “People of Nothing,” because every single aspect of their culture was potentially replaceable.
The first experiment they conducted in Kentucky was freeing their horses, and they must have liked the results; more than a hundred years after their mysterious disappearance, two untamed horses still lived in the area, descendants of the ones that were freed. The next people to settle the area, the ones who produce WEVP-TV, treat the horses more or less as peers; they called them “The Neighbors.”
The Neighbors both died in the same flood that destroyed WEVP-TV. The night during which most of Kentucky Route Zero takes place is apocalyptic. It wiped out both the last living vestiges of the Pueblo de Nada’s culture, and most of the cultural history of the unnamed town, which largely existed in WEVP-TV’s video archive. The core KRZ cast finds the town at its absolute lowest point, in a state of utter destruction and devastation. 5 Dogwood Drive has no answers for them; it’s just a weird half-finished house that nobody owns.
At first, the flood seems like an inescapable act of God, the kind of tragedy that’s unstoppable and unavoidable. That’s… sort of true, but it’s also sort of not. We learn throughout Act V that the town was originally built by The Consolidated Power Company as a place for their workers to live, and that when the plant in the area was shut down, they pulled nearly all of their support. The flood was so devastating in part because everything the company built was cheap and ramshackle, and in part because they never dug proper drainage channels for water to run off during heavy rain. They hired a single person to dig those channels, a man the townsfolk called “The Out-of-Towner,” and worked him until they couldn’t anymore. It wasn’t enough; it was never supposed to be enough.
At the start of Act V, it seems like the bad guys have won. Kentucky Route Zero has promised its audience that it would end in tragedy from the very beginning, and it looked like it had at last followed through on that threat. Conway’s gone. The Neighbors are dead. WEVP-TV is destroyed. Shannon hasn’t found any answers. Ezra never found his parents. All the loss and pain of the night was just in service of delivering some furniture to an abandoned half-building.
But then there’s a title card, the first one like it in the game: “WE SAVED WHAT WE COULD.” Ron doesn’t spend the rest of his life kneeling over a dead horse. Instead, he gets to work. As the morning passes, he dutifully cranks a mechanical winch to pull The Neighbors up out of the water. The work is painfully slow, but he never stops. He’s singularly focused on what he has to do, and what he has to do is pay respect to these animals, these neighbors, these friends. As time passes, his sadness slowly gives way to anger as he whiles away the hours dragging up the horses and cursing the power company, channeling his fury into his work. Consolidated didn’t care about these horses; they don’t care about anything but money. Treating The Neighbors with dignity and respect, treating the world with dignity and respect, is the only means of rebellion available to Ron right now. He commits himself to it fully.
This is the same guy who was goofily defending some badly-shot footage of a dog in the woods the night before.
Before debuting Wild, Rita interviews Maya, a guest both on her show and to the town. Maya’s a traveling artist who makes sculptures out of earth, and hiked out to see the Pueblo de Nada’s burial mounds. She seems to be enjoying her stay, but she’s also a little confused. She explains to Rita that no one in town seems to have a “normal” job. Everyone introduces themselves by saying that they paint, or write poetry, or make video art. She asks if the town is an artist colony, and Rita laughs her off. It’s not an artist colony at all, it’s a failed and slowly shrinking company town that’s struggling to get by. And yet, everyone who lives there is an artist of some kind, including Ron.
Art is a running theme throughout Kentucky Route Zero. In particular, the game is interested in the friction between traditional folk art and modern, abstract, avant-garde aesthetics. Or, it might be more accurate to say that it’s interested in the lack of friction between them, in the ways that that friction is largely imaginary. Kentucky Route Zero is at its most striking when it revels in mashing up seemingly incompatible aesthetic sensibilities. One of the most well-remembered sequences from the game is when a punk duo decked out in over-the-top 80s-style costumes perform a keytar cover of a sad country song, and the game’s epilogue is unlocked by following a hidden plot thread about an experimental theater director attempting to stage an adaptation of a Robert Frost poem. Ultimately, it’s all human expression, and there’s no real reason to consider these different styles of art as separate beasts.
Ron is a kind man who loves his neighbors and his community, and who has nothing but the most acidic venom for those who’d prey on it. He’s also an overweight dude with a twangy accent who lives in a Kentucky town that you can only reach by hiking or small aircraft. Stereotypically, if he was gonna make any kind of art at all, you’d think it would be more “folksy,” but Wild looks like something that would be playing on loop in the corner of a modern art exhibit. That’s what Ron made to express himself, and he’s proud of it. So proud that he balks at the idea that it requires explanation. And y’know what? I think I like it. I’ve watched Wild like a dozen times now, mostly to scrub through it for screenshots for this article, and I think it’s a good piece of art. “Horses emerging from video static” is a perfect distillation of KRZ’s unique aesthetic. Wild is eerie, compelling, and kind of funny. I dunno if Ron made it that way on purpose, but I think he’s right to be proud of the final product.
I mentioned at the start of this piece that smarter people than me have said pretty much everything I’d want to say about Kentucky Route Zero. That’s definitely true, but y’know what? That’s okay. I can still write my own thing here about one of the dozens of secondary characters that populate the game. I can write it, and have fun writing it, and be happy knowing that a hundred or so people will take the time to read it. Just like Ron made a video, and had fun making it, and was happy to know that his friends and neighbors took the time to watch it.
In Act V, you play exclusively as a cat, and maybe because of that, you can clearly see the ghosts that walk the town, and get a little bit of insight into exactly what happened to the Pueblo de Nada. It’s still not entirely clear, or maybe it is and I just missed some optional dialogue, but I got enough to understand. There was a man named Frazier who manipulated the group’s open-mindedness in order to get more and more authority. In order to, well, consolidate power. The details beyond that aren’t provided (or again, I just didn’t find them), but you can surmise that Frazier’s power-grab fractured the community and ultimately destroyed the Pueblo de Nada.
One of Frazier’s edicts was to have a large amount of the people’s research documentation destroyed, anything that he considered frivolous or unnecessary. If he’d lived in Ron’s time, he probably would’ve wanted Wild to be thrown on the bonfire. But Ron knows that when the people in power demand that we deny something love and respect, one way to revolt is to show it love and respect anyway. That goes for horses, and public access TV stations, and for ourselves. Frazier would’ve destroyed Ron’s tape only over his dead body.
It’s hard to tell, but I think there are people in Wild for a few seconds. If they’re people from the town, then those are people who fought The Consolidated Power Company tooth and nail to rip a modicum of dignity out of their greedy hands. People who turned a corporate shanty town into a self-sufficient society free from the influence of capitalism. People who will take the time to hold a funeral for horses, even on the worst day of their lives.
Rita and Maya don’t believe Ron’s explanation for his video. They think the dog and the horse are probably tame, and even if they’re not that there’s a difference between “wild” and “feral.” It seems kinda silly at first, but I think I understand why Ron is so annoyed by their questions and their criticisms, because I think Ron was right:
Everything on that tape was wild.