Kentucky Route Zero, Act IV: All but Done

No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing! — and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
 — Robert Frost, “Out, Out — ”
“That’s just what they do: clear away old things, make room for new things. Pretty important, right? I’ve always thought they deserved a little more respect.”
 — Kentucky Route Zero, Act IV

Robert Frost’s “Out, Out — ” is a death poem, though for readers of Shakespeare the title alone gives that fact away. And art about death is never really about death so much as figuring out what comes after the end. Frost’s answer to that question is brilliant, but only because it’s an answer to a completely different question. The speaker in “Out, Out — ” doesn’t care what’s next for the newly dead boy (“No more to build on there.”). Instead the poem asks what’s next for everyone else. The answer is simple: more work.

That time keeps moving forward, past a boy’s unexpected death or any other tragedy, is a truth well acknowledged by Kentucky Route Zero’s fourth act. More than any of the previous episodes, this piece of the game’s weird story, as dreamed up by developers Cardboard Computer, is obsessed with forward momentum. Here there is no exploration, here no chance to drive in slow spirals or circles until every lovely tableau is witnessed. On the Echo River, there is only the steady current and the occasional choice to stay aboard or get off when The Mucky Mammoth, the rickety tugboat bearing you downstream, makes its stops. Whatever passes by will not come back again, unless it resurfaces in a memory. In some respects, this idea has always been present in Kentucky Route Zero — each of its brief conversations is a reminder that words should be chosen carefully, since they can only be chosen once — but not yet to this extent and not yet this confidently.

Like Frost before them, Cardboard Computer know what questions naturally arise from their work and are totally uninterested in answering those questions in the expected way. The third act of their surrealist Appalachian odyssey ends in tragedy (a relapse, a debt, a coming reckoning), and, rather than hope or complication or any real thickening of the plot, the fourth is steeped primarily in resignation. Conway makes it clear from the onset that he has no intention of finding any way out of his binding agreement with the Hard Times distillery (who now own both his debt and his addiction). On a tugboat on a river in a tunnel underground, when they could be searching for a way out, the old man and his friends just wait to make it through.

As Kentucky Route Zero moves newly, plainly forward, it embraces a sort of linear tension. Where time in the first three acts is an endless resource to be spent at the player’s leisure, it becomes an agent in the fourth act with the power to rule out certain experiences. With a slight change of the rules and some subversion of their own conventions, Cardboard Computer manage to completely invert the player’s relationship with time, as the characters within the game run up against the limitations of their own agency. Now that these faceless, pensive strangers find themselves floating steadily in one direction, it’s appropriate that they would begin to wrestle with this temporal anxiety themselves, or at least to draw our attention to it. They chew on time and its casualties, change and its consequences, loss and its symptoms. In one scene, Shannon sits in a research lab, listening to a tape of doors opening and closing, a sonic meditation on choices made and lived with. In another, a new character named Will listens to 23 consecutive voicemails containing complaints of sleeplessness and stories of earliest memories. Time is always passing by; is it always lost?

One new character in particular, Cate, offers a uniquely optimistic perspective on time and change, not to mention a potent microcosm of Kentucky Route Zero’s themes. She works as both a tugboat captain and birth doula, specializing in harvesting rare mushrooms along the Echo and creating homeopathic medicines from them. Her love of and respect for the fungi are derived from the way they enable change, removing what is old so that what is new can take its place. The process of change is usually viewed either as deterioration or renewal, depending on which side of the timeline you’re looking from. But mushrooms, nature’s catalysts of decay and fertilization, have no agenda or rhetoric. They just exist inside change, feeding on the process.

As it is with mushrooms and rot, so it is with the people and events of Kentucky Route Zero. This game takes place in the midst of a painful transition from old to new. The power company looms large, buying up every service they can. The old-fashioned way, the way of family-owned businesses and human switchboard operators, is on its way out. Everything must go, and the people that stick around are stuck supervising the going — there is, after all, always more work to be done. They don’t think of stopping the process or discovering some loophole to avoid their impending obsolescence. They turn to their affairs, ensuring that the transition happens smoothly and with as little pain as possible.

So the bars, the gas stations, the riverside concert venues, and the folks that run them are fading away. Time takes its course, slowly converting protagonists to figurants and then to nothing at all. Fittingly, these characters find themselves discussing matters of memory quite a bit during this soggy leg of the voyage toward 5 Dogwood Drive. When faced with the concept of being forgotten, a mind naturally turns to its own fading memories — are memories all I will be, eventually? But we are reassured as we make our way downriver: “There’s a dignity in being forgotten,” one character states. “It’s no shame, to be forgotten,” posits another. Meanwhile, Conway, he who would have been our hero, gets drunk and drifts off into his own mind, satisfied to fade into the background while others push this story (or what’s left of it) forward. The player’s locus of control is slippery now, less stable than in any of the preceding acts. In fact, in multiple sequences there is no chance for input at all — only a story to be told.

Yet some things don’t change. Kentucky Route Zero is and has always been about contrasts. It basks in the negative space of stark architecture, highlighting the color of life in opposition to the darkness of the structures that contain it and the environment that threatens it. The camera orbits well-lit oases in an otherwise bleak nighttime landscape, and scenes always seem to take place in the moments between bad news. There’s both a loneliness and a mirth in these compositions, in a group of strangers meeting by coincidence under a single cone of sodium light. The finale of Act IV, a lingering bird’s-eye view down the length of a spiral staircase, epitomizes this duality. It brings to the hopeful mind an ascension from the gloomy Echo and a job well done, but for the pessimist it evokes the notion of addicts circling the drain or of events spiraling out of control. When a silhouetted bluegrass band sings, “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore,” is it in lament for this life or in anticipation of the next one?

The closer that van full of antiques gets to its destination, the more important it is to cherish these scenes. If this act is any indication, the freedom to do so won’t last long. Acts I-III of the saga separate their scenes with time for player-controlled travel, during which the player is free to explore a network of roads however she sees fit. Breaking with this tradition, Act IV takes the wheel during the brief interstitials between scenes, making the time we get to spend in light and color all the more beautiful. Maybe this is the best possible lesson we can learn from our time on the Echo. While most games are about action, Kentucky Route Zero is at its very best when it encourages inaction. Its verbs of choice are listen and wait, its soundtrack consists of hums and drones, its dialogue trees go in circles and embrace the absurd, its vistas are static and deliberate. “You just breathe road,” the first act observed. “Listen to the river,” this most recent one implores. When faced with time’s frightful finitude and unchanging pace, maybe a life well-lived is a life of deep breaths and cherished experience. Then again, Kentucky Route Zero might have already provided its own best possible interpretation: “It’s hard to say exactly what it’s about. It’s a story of some people and animals, and their adventures.”