Kentucky Route Zero - Act III Review

  • First Released Feb 22, 2013
  • PC

Looking for something.

We all have quests. It's why the story of the hero's journey, in all its many forms, has resonated with humanity for as long as people have been sitting around campfires and telling stories. Nobody gets it easy in this life. We all face obstacles and setbacks. We all, at one time or another, go looking for something, whether it's a place to call home, a fulfilling career, or a love to call our own. The antiques delivery driver Conway is looking for an address on Dogwood Drive, and the only way he can get there is by finding the elusive highway known as the Zero. Conway is the unconventional hero figure at the center of the very unconventional quest that is Kentucky Route Zero, and in its third act, this journey into parts unknown becomes an utterly captivating work of uncompromised artistic vision.

Act III of Kentucky Route Zero begins with a flashback, a conversation between Conway and Lysette, the woman he delivers antiques for. Their conversation recalls an old tragedy that clearly haunts Conway, and establishes memory and loss as themes that run throughout the act; characters frequently talk about the ways in which they've been shaped by moments in the past, and those moments sometimes intrude on the present. Conway's quest isn't realistic, but the hearts and minds of the characters, people who are as damaged and hopeful and dedicated as any of us, give you something to stay latched on to even when Kentucky Route Zero's narrative leaves logic behind and detours into the realm of dreams.

And even at its most dreamlike, Kentucky Route Zero remains deeply concerned with very real, concrete matters. Characters are crushed by debt. They are forced into difficult situations by massive corporations that don't care at all about the struggles of individuals, only about their own profits. Kentucky Route Zero is a lyrical game that is very much about life in America today. Modern America can be a disorienting place in which the way forward isn't always clear for ordinary people, and in Kentucky Route Zero, as you search for the titular highway Conway needs to find in order to make what will be the last delivery in the history of Lysette's Antiques (the end of another small business in America), you're told to scan radio stations until you find something familiar yet strange, and then drive until the station cuts out. Life in contemporary America feels familiar yet strange to a lot of people, and the America of Kentucky Route Zero will feel familiar yet strange to anyone who has spent time on its highways, passing through its small towns.

Kentucky Route Zero has always challenged traditional notions of player control and choice. You don't play as any one character--you might be choosing dialogue options for Conway one moment, and then choosing the tone an unheard voice on the telephone is using the next. Your role is not that of a traditional player in a traditional adventure game; it's something closer to that of a collaborator. This approach is manifested most powerfully in one unforgettable scene at a small-town bar. In Act III, Conway and company meet up with a pair of young musicians, Junebug and Johnny, who drag them to a gig at a bar called The Lower Depths. When Junebug and Johnny take the stage, something incredible happens. The roof flies away to reveal the moon and stars, and your choices influence the words of the hauntingly beautiful song that Junebug sings. It's a transcendent moment in which the beauty that always quivers under the surface of Kentucky Route Zero bursts forth, transporting the characters, and you, to someplace truly magical.

When you see the horses, you know you're on the right track.
When you see the horses, you know you're on the right track.

Conway's journey is always taking you to new and unexpected places--recall Act II's forest where time and space functioned in unusual ways and a bluegrass band provided soulful accompaniment to your explorations. Places like this give the entire journey a feeling of true discovery, and in Act III, Kentucky Route Zero ventures so boldly beyond our expectations that it achieves a special kind of greatness. There are worlds within worlds in Kentucky Route Zero--literal worlds under the surface, virtual worlds in dusty old computers, and worlds of memory locked away in the troubled hearts of its characters. Toward the end of Act III, you explore the virtual realm that exists in the consciousness of a moldy old machine called Xanadu--you're exploring a world in a computer while exploring a world in a computer, and just as the world of Xanadu has connections to the reality of Conway and his companions, Kentucky Route Zero has very real things to say about our world and our lives.

The game's meanings aren't simple, its logic not straightforward. It is, in its own way, as dreamlike as a typical Haruki Murakami novel, and every bit as captivating. Like Murakami's work, it can take on a life of its own in your own mind because it operates according to rules that belong more to the subconscious than to the conscious, effortlessly blending the concrete and the magical. Kentucky Route Zero is not, in any sense, a typical adventure game. It's an incredible one.

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The Good

  • Haunting, dreamlike narrative that's as concerned with the human heart as it is concrete issues plaguing modern America
  • Filled with moments of mystery, discovery, and transcendent beauty

The Bad

About the Author

There's something about Kentucky Route Zero, something haunting and sad, that reminds Carolyn of all those hours she spent watching America roll by out the window on family road trips as a child.