Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be moseying through the hidden geography of Kentucky Route Zero. All section headers are from the Kentucky Route Zero Wiki unless otherwise noted.
The Great Recession, which began in 2008 following a crisis in United States mortgage lending, was marked by North America’s highest jobless rates since the 1930s. Matters were even worse in areas like the Midwest and the Rust Belt, where residents had been experiencing the disappearance of industrial and manufacturing jobs for much of the preceding quarter-century. While a host of economic stimulus measures and lending regulations would resolve the worst of the situation by the early 2010s, these years would leave lasting trauma on young people attempting to enter the workforce and family members forced to support both children and parents. The abandonment experienced by the working poor in both urban and rural areas would influence much of the following decade in United States culture, including Cardboard Computer’s socially conscious Kentucky Route Zero.
Act I (2013)
Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy met in Chicago’s arts scene, collaborating on electronic art installations and experimental music during the 2000s before founding studio Cardboard Computer with composer Ben Babitt in 2010 and making their video game debut with browser-based text adventure A House in California. In January 2011, while they completed work on first-person point-and-click adventure Balloon Diaspora (2011) and third-person dialogue-driven walking sim Ruins (2011), the studio turned to crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to gather funds for its most ambitious project yet. All $8,000 of its proposed budget were raised within one month.
Kentucky Route Zero began development as a puzzle-platformer, though its presentation shifted to become a text-driven point-and-click adventure during 2011 and 2012; Elliott and Kemenczy had been inspired to change course by their recent experiences playing online text adventures in the Twine engine. The game’s impressionistic presentation and dialogue were inspired by theatrical scripts and set design, while its atmospheric content was inspired by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the surrealism of David Lynch, and the Southern Gothic of Flannery O’Conner. Its only real antecedent in the world of video games was Colossal Cave Adventure (1979), a text adventure best known for its role as the predecessor to Zork (1981). The first entry in Cardboard Computer’s episodic experiment was released to widespread critical acclaim on PC on January 7, 2013.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act I sees players taking control of Conway, a truck driver working for a woman named Lysette, as he makes his way along Kentucky’s Interstate 65 and the mystical Route Zero en route to deliver a purchased antique. Conway is accompanied during this first chapter by his loyal old dog, who follows him as he walks around small walkable areas like the Equus Oils gas station and the Marquez Farm. Many of these locales, populated by people who seem to come and go in the manner of a dream, are characterized by the economic decay and dislocation pervading 2010s American society. The first chapter culminates in Conway’s exploration of the abandoned Elkhorn Mine alongside a woman named Shannon Marquez.
Gameplay articulates as a third-person point-and-click adventure in which the player moves Conway around areas and lightly interacts with people or environmental features. The biggest impact the player has on the game world is determining what questions they ask and what answers they provide to other characters’ dialogue prompts. Other sequences hint at what’s to come for the series, however, as the player navigates between areas by driving an abstracted version of Conway’s truck along a line drawing of rural Kentucky from an overhead perspective and an optional pet store is explored purely via text and audio cues.
Act II (2013)
Between the release of Kentucky Route Zero: Act I and Act II, Cardboard Computer published a free downloadable interlude on their website. Titled Limits and Demonstrations, this very brief experience sees the player controlling Emily as she explores an art exhibition by artist Lula Chamberlain. Emily can inspect each piece of art, assembled from over 35 years of work by Chamberlain, and discuss them with her companions Bob and Ben.
Act II was then released in May 2013 as a downloadable expansion available to anyone who purchased the full game. This model would be used for distribution of all future core episodes prior to the game’s collection in a physical edition at the end of development. Gameplay is mostly unchanged from Act I, though there are more environmental objects to interact with in the manner of Limits and Demonstrations.
The story initially appears to be disconnected from Act I, as the player sees Lula Chamberlain receiving a rejection letter from the Gaston Trust for Imagined Architecture as she toils away in anonymity at the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces. Conway and Shannon are soon reintroduced, however, when they stop in at Chamberlain’s office after becoming lost on the Zero. A visit to the Bureau archives fails to turn up accurate information concerning Conway’s delivery destination, so Chamberlain directs the two to a storage center that houses her department’s older files. They are unable to find what they’re seeking and Conway’s leg injury, sustained during his descent into Elkhorn Mine during Act I, forces them to seek medical attention.
Chamberlain refers Conway to Dr. Truman and provides directions back to Kentucky’s traditional roads. Unfortunately, Truman’s address turns out to be the Museum of Dwellings; exploring and interacting with a variety of smaller buildings within this facility recalls the art installation from Limits and Demonstrations. Conway and Shannon are saved from their predicament when a young boy named Ezra introduces them to Julian, a giant eagle who flies the group to a forest where Dr. Truman dwells. The act ends with Truman treating Conway as Shannon and Ezra watch television in his home.
Act III (2014)
In the year between the release of Acts II and III, Elliott and Kemenczy’s experimental art background returned to the fore with the publication of The Entertainment. This lengthy but only lightly interactive downloadable interlude sees the player controlling the perspective of an unseen bar-fly as he looks around a room to view production notes, lighting cues, sound cues, and the script of its eponymous play. The dialogue and audio are contextualized as two combined plays by Lem Doolittle being performed by the Buffalo Street Student Theatre in 1973 on a set designed by Act II’s Lulu Chamberlain. Contemporary websites associated with a fictional art gallery known as Little Berlin and a fansite purporting to show scans of Chamberlain’s art were published by Cardboard Computer as tie-ins to the free game.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act III followed on May 6, 2014. Conway finds himself affixed with a ghostly skeletal leg and the need for ongoing treatment, kickstarting the game’s ruminations on drug dependency and debt. Fading memories are another major theme, as Conway relives a meeting with Lysette in which she appears to have a hard time remembering her own past; Conway and his friends then revisit the Museum of Dwellings and Equus Oils on their way back to the Zero but find them less inviting than they had previously been. Their truck eventually breaks down, stranding them until they’re rescued by robot musicians Junebug and Johnny.
At The Lower Depths, an atmospheric roadhouse, the group listens to Junebug and Johnny perform a beautiful song called “Too Late to Love You” before they’re given directions back to the Zero by bartender Harry. Conway, Shannon, Ezra, Junebug, and Johnny next make their way inside a mountain and discover Xanadu, a text-based computer infected with black mold. The apparently self-aware computer allows them to play a text adventure that depicts the history of Xanadu technician Donald and his research assistants. Act III’s final sequence sees Shannon helping Conway to avoid relapsing into alcohol addiction at the Hard Times Whiskey Distillery – an operation run by skeletal workers beneath a church – as they discover a solution to Xanadu’s mold problem and Conway becomes saddled with the same debt that afflicts the distillery’s staff. The group then boards a ferry on their way to make Conway’s delivery.
Act IV (2016)
The wait for Act IV would be longer than the interim between Acts II and III. To fill the gap, Cardboard Computer published another free interlude titled Here and There Along the Echo on their website in October 2014. Players tap buttons on the handset of a telephone to select options in a fully-voiced automated guide to the Echo River presented by the Bureau of Secret Tourism; guide descriptions foreshadow locations of Act IV, including the Rum Colony, Iron Pariah, and the Silo of Late Reflections. If the player does not interact with the handset, they will eventually be called by a held line featuring music, a signal tapping out morse code (dutifully translated online by fans), or a numbers station.
Act IV itself was published on July 19, 2016 and is set primarily on the Mucky Mammoth, a ferry service carrying Conway and his friends along the Echo River. Much of the chapter is centered on the interactions between Conway’s group and a host of new characters, including forgetful ferryman Will (who had briefly appeared in Act II), Mucky Mammoth captain Cate, Lithuanian musician Clara, and researchers Mimi and Jenn. The player is repeatedly forced to choose between experiencing two parallel vignettes featuring different locations and characters.
Act IV’s central theme is the tension between retaining memories and being unable to escape one’s personal history, as Conway continues to flirt with relapse at a riverside bar called the Rum Colony, Shannon recalls her dead cousin Weaver, and Junebug and Johnny wrestle with the possibility of adding Ezra to their band. At the Radavansky Center, which the player experiences from the limited perspective of a security camera, Mimi and Jenn perform a psychological study on Conway, Shannon, Will, and Ezra in an effort to better understand memory degradation. As the group reunites and listens to a theremin performance by Clara, they discover that Conway has turned into a skeleton and abandoned his friends to return to the Hard Times Whiskey Distillery. At the end of the Echo River and without any means to move the truck further, Shannon and the group proceed on foot.
Act V (2020)
Fans would be left waiting four long years for Kentucky Route Zero’s conclusion. Roughly halfway through this time, on January 25, 2018, Cardboard Computer released another free interlude on their website. Un Pueblo de Nada is presented as a historical broadcast from Echo River community television station WEVP-TV experienced by Emily, one of three ghosts who the player has encountered throughout Acts I to IV. Emily’s partners Bob and Ben are also at the studio. The story ends with a crashing sound, implying that this is the final night before the station was destroyed by a massive flood as described in Act IV.
Act V finally launched alongside a home console port of the full series on January 28, 2020 in an America radically changed from the one in which its first chapter was published seven years earlier; the economic inequality that Kentucky Route Zero explored, alongside xenophobia and white supremacy, had brought a profoundly dangerous populist movement into power. Act V eschews wrestling with this broader cultural moment in favor of a meditation on how people move on after their lives are upended. Shannon, Ezra, Johnny, and Junebug finally complete Conway’s delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, a home left untouched during the recent flood that destroyed the surrounding town. Instead of directly controlling any of the returning protagonists, the player navigates the town as a local stray cat.
As Shannon and her group load their delivery into the house and chat with local residents, they discover that most residents are in the tragic position of needing to decide whether they’ll stay and rebuild or take their chances elsewhere. There are no easy answers. In the end, the cast gathers together at 5 Dogwood Drive as the townspeople bury two beloved horses who perished in the flood. A final “interlude” called The Death of the Hired Man – unlocked after completing the game and restarting Act I – sees the player switching stations on an old television while characters nearby discuss a failed play based on the eponymous Robert Frost poem.
Note: Section header sourced from Polygon
Narrative descriptions fail to do justice to Kentucky Route Zero because, like the magical realist works from which Cardboard Computer drew inspiration, it’s more interested in provoking emotions than telling a traditional story. Conway, Shannon, and their friends travel on a journey stuffed with observations on life in early 21st Century America and broader concerns about loneliness and the ephemeral nature of our connections with others. At the same time, its characters are well-sketched enough that they don’t exist as hollow caricatures. Specificity, after all, is what separates art from allegory.
The absence of Conway from Act V is a bold swing that pays off because it reflects how Kentucky Route Zero eschews the importance of personal stories in favor of how those stories connect to wider communities. This is the rare game that commits to abandoning the medium’s preoccupation with heroes in favor of collective experiences. Conway may have served as the entry point to this beautiful, sorrowful world, but like the narrator of a hymn sung during Act I – or indeed any of us – the world wasn’t his home. He was just passing through.
What do you think about Kentucky Route Zero? What’s your favorite Act and why? How about your favorite character or song? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons like Celeste, Jarathen, and Cheatachu make it possible to keep producing great content!
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #120: Metroid – April 1
- #121: Metroid Prime – April 15
- #122: Snowboard Kids – April 29
- #123: Drakengard / Nier – May 13
- #124: Valkyria Chronicles – May 27