Drifting Down the Echo: Emotional Flotsam in Kentucky Route Zero’s Fourth Act

With urgent screeching and deep, mechanical wailing, a towering waterborne mammoth announces Kentucky Route Zero’s return for its penultimate act.

The screeches and wails of the machine that serves as this installment’s mode of transportation give way to Will, one of new vividly-painted characters who joins the ever-growing group for this act as they float along the Echo, a subterranean river that visually operates on the same endless circular cycle as the Zero. This time, however, the characters are resigned to only floating downriver, slowly spiraling downwards at a fixed speed.

On the Echo, the characters more directly confront their unique challenges and struggles.

This opening scene immediately reintroduces us to the atmosphere of Kentucky Route Zero and its darker permutation for this act. On the Echo, the characters struggle more directly with their mortality and the passage of time, each character confronting their unique challenges and struggles in different ways.

The player’s control over Conway, the main character of the first three acts, has vanished in the fourth act, and we’re relegated to observing his self-destructive actions through other characters. Midway through the act, Conway vaguely explains the cycle he’s always been trapped in — he knows he will always fall off the wagon, dropping his sobriety when he feels the circumstances call for it. He knows what his coping mechanisms are, and he falls back on them hard as he attempts to comes to grips with the looming, skeletal distillery workers and their increasingly suffocating presence that only he seems to be aware of.

Luckily, many of the other characters tend to be more positive on the surface to balance out the tone of the act’s narrative. The time you spend onboard with Will, Cate, and Clara is crowded with optimistic talk of different stops further down the Echo, foreshadowing some of the impactful scenes that arise later in the act.

Though Conway cuts himself off from the group and seems more distant than ever throughout the act, the other characters are able to band together and find satisfaction in the little things, picking mushrooms, sorting through maps, playing card games… doing essentially whatever it takes to distract from the crushingly melancholy atmosphere that always seems one step removed from the characters as they float their way downriver.

Choice is central to each of Kentucky Route Zero’s acts. The flow of the first three acts was more loosely structured, giving the player more control over exploration and the pace at which they progressed to the next main location. This open-ended exploration throughout the three acts culminated in the exploration of the distillery, giving the player, as Conway, total freedom to explore the sprawling facility before he takes the drink (regardless of the player’s actions) and seals his fate, a turning point for how choices are presented in the game.

There’s another side to how choice is presented throughout each act. Despite surface similarities, Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue choices are not handled the same as those commonly found in series like Telltale Games, where simple interactions can have significant plot-altering impacts down the line. For the most part, Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue choices allow you to learn additional details about characters or subtly guide conversations to leave your own unique imprint on each character’s personality. These dialogue choices are more nuanced, ultimately having a significant impact not on the events that occur throughout the game, but on how the player bonds with each character and makes connections between the various characters that populate the game’s roads and rivers.

From Here and There Along the Echo, the interlude between Acts III and IV.

As part of this gradual journey down the Echo, Act IV introduces one significant decision-making mechanic that sets it apart from previous acts. Players get to make a choice at each stop on the river: hop off the boat to explore a new locale (and the new scenes are as intricately crafted and visually stunning as ever) or experience more subtle moments with the characters that choose to stay onboard the Mucky Mammoth. This choice was genuinely difficult for me each time, since even the most menial-sounding of tasks in Kentucky Route Zero are engaging written. To better acquaint the player with both new characters and those we’ve been traveling with for several acts, quieter scenes on the river are often accompanied by vivid descriptions of past events and memories, psychological fragments that the characters carry with them at all times.

Act IV isn’t about making choices that will impact where the characters are physically travelling; the pace and route down the Echo are set. The characters are just along for the ride, able to choose what they do at each location but powerless to manipulate the speed of their journey or the order they visit each location in–they’re on “river time,” as one character puts it early on in the act.

Interestingly, the player is always one step removed from the characters’ sense of finality after leaving each stop. The clear, branching choices given to the player at each stop essentially ensures that we’ll play through the act twice, adding a kind of Sisyphean inevitability to both versions of the events at each stop. Cardboard Computer knows that we’ll come back to the game and restart Act IV from the top of the Echo and float our way back down the river, unable to resist seeing the other half of the events at each stop.

The ability to play through the act again and explore different possibilities highlights an emotional disconnect between the player and the characters — we’re able to go back and redo the choices we make throughout the act, a luxury the passengers of the Mucky Mammoth aren’t afforded. While the travelers reflect on their choices and come to terms with where their futures are headed, the player is more or less encouraged to be thinking about their next play through the act, able to change the choices they make, free from the constant, one-way flow of the Echo.

Given Kentucky Route Zero’s track record, it’s unsurprising that experiencing the unique scenes both on and off the boat is more than worth a second playthrough. The act’s lengthy development time pays off through the care clearly given to every scene, as each has an incredible level of detail with writing that dives into darker territory than previous acts without being outright depressing…usually, at least.

Cardboard Computer proves they are more skilled than ever at taking narrative risks in ways that are engaging and never too difficult to follow.

These events show Cardboard Computer at the height of the skills they’ve honed throughout the past three acts: increasingly intricately rendered visuals, expressive descriptions, and an atmosphere that consistently expands and intensifies with every scene and interaction.

Throughout Act IV it’s very clear how much work went into the visuals, which are stunning and memorable, making full use of Kentucky Route Zero’s art style. Each of the scenes off the boat are incredibly detailed and colorfully rendered, despite the act’s subterranean river setting. Many of the scenes use lighting in beautiful and sometimes unnerving ways, as the visuals reinforce the act’s atmosphere of the group drifting along at mercy of the Echo.

It’s easy to take for granted how strong the writing has been throughout every act, but Act IV plays around with the linearity of scenes, increasing the amount of flashbacks and memories presented and also entirely changing how some scenes are presented. Cardboard Computer proves they are more skilled than ever at spinning together current events, the characters’ thoughts, and past events, taking narrative risks in ways that are engaging and never too difficult to follow.

One of my favorite scenes in the act is conveyed almost entirely through text. An early choice allows you stay onboard the Mucky Mammoth as Shannon to ‘watch’ a collection of tapes. These tapes serve as fragmented scenes that you experience entirely through text descriptions, calling back to the many hidden stops you can make on the surface streets of Act I — where vivid descriptions convey feelings and tell short stories without any visuals at all. Just like those optional locations in Act I, once you’ve watched a few of the tapes you’re able to leave the TV room and continue on your journey, or you can continue watching tapes with Shannon until you’ve seen them all.

Shannon serves a more expanded role in this installment in light of Conway’s physical and emotional withdrawal from many of the events of the act. As Shannon, the player gets to speak with Conway and can be the clearest voice of concern for his future — if you choose certain dialogue options, as always. Throughout Act IV, Shannon is able to take up pieces of other characters’ journeys and make them part of hers as she floats down the Echo, adding an interesting depth to a character that has been with us since the first act.

Though Shannon and Conway seem to be the clearest focus of the game’s most prominent arcs, other characters are colored in wonderfully throughout the act. Act IV is the best example thus far of Kentucky Route Zero’s penchant for exploring the backstories and personalities of characters through scattered vignettes that come and go as easily as daydreams.

Kentucky Route Zero is primarily focused on the intricacies and varieties of human experience.

On the other side of the game’s emotional range sit Junebug and Johnny. The androgynous androids’ interactions along the river give us a glimpse into their unique, intimate dynamic that was introduced in the last act. Their understated gas station outing and their interactions during Clara’s theremin performance were both scenes I had missed on my first playthrough, so my second playthrough seemed to have a major focus on them and their casual intimacy. Junebug and Johnny’s scenes embody the more hopeful themes of Kentucky Route Zero, focusing more on the promises of the future than the regrets of the past that have always hung over Conway’s scenes.

The new characters proved to be as captivating as the old, especially Clara, a theremin player, and Cate, the captain and call-in doula, two characters who seem to capture both sides of the game’s atmosphere. Clara’s performance late in the act seems inherently mournful, especially after the heavier themes of the preceding scenes — the controlled wailing of the theremin seems to amplify the atmosphere and serves as an emotional, musical climax for the act. Cate, on the other hand, seems to be focused on the future, piloting the Mucky Mammoth downriver while working as a doula, a profession irrevocably linked to life and optimism.

The variety of characters in Kentucky Route Zero has always been one of the game’s strongest aspects. Though reviewers often emphasize the fantastical elements of the Zero and the Echo, Kentucky Route Zero is primarily focused on the intricacies and varieties of human experience, and different characters often explore completely different mentalities and challenges. The dialogue options throughout all four acts allow players to gently tailor aspects of these characters to reflect their own experiences, making each playthrough of Kentucky Route Zero subtly unique.

Kentucky Route Zero has worked its way into my shortlist of favorite games because it constantly causes you to reflect— not only through its dialogue and visuals, but primarily through the many opportunities it gives you to relax and take in each scene and reflect before you move on. These moments are present throughout the act; Cardboard Computer utilizes slow-moving boats in the foreground and background of these scenes along the river to encourage the player to linger on certain scenes, though there’s never any tangible reward to do so. Instead, the reward lies in the game’s extraordinary ability to evoke emotions and connect its themes to the player’s personal experiences.

In the last few moments of the act, when the camera pans upwards and shows the hundreds of steps out of the caves, the group’s path out of the belly of the beast becomes clear through a visual that clearly contrasts the spiraling descent of the Echo’s waters. This might be the group’s low point on their journey along the Zero, but it certainly isn’t a low point in any other sense. It’s anyone’s guess as to where narrative will take us in the final act, but I’m excited to see where we travel next.