“More mysteries. They do pile up, over time, as people forget the details.”
-Shannon Marquez, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV
Kentucky Route Zero is defined by its voids. From its haunting, shadowy landscapes to its characters’ featureless faces, the meditative, five-part digital stage play offers players plenty of empty spaces to fill in or leave blank at their discretion. The increasingly large gaps between the releases of each new chapter of the still-in-development story are another kind of void. We only just got Act IV after an 18-month wait, which means that at the current exponential rate, the final act won’t show up until late 2020. Intentionally or not, these tremendous expanses between releases have come to define Kentucky Route Zero as much as any individual aesthetic choice. And though many players are eager to jump from one act right into the next, these waiting periods have forced restraint and opened up an experience with Kentucky Route Zero’s world that can’t be replicated by bingeing through it.
Kentucky Route Zero isn’t simply an impeccably written, visually resplendent game that begs to be played, it’s an impeccably written, visually resplendent game that, ideally, should be played right now. As with many episodic games, there are those players who are holding off on starting Kentucky Route Zero until Act V drops and the entire series is available all at once. However, in doing so, players will miss out on the game’s abundant voids, some of which cannot be duplicated from their original contexts. These voids are where Kentucky Route Zero seeps into the real world, floating between foggy memories of past events to create a game experience that you’re actively “playing” even when you’re not.
For starters, the gaps between Kentucky Route Zero releases help establish a contemplative pace for the episodes themselves. Each act lasts a mere one-to-two hours, and then it’s over. Every aspect of Kentucky Route Zero pushes players to savor it. You’ve heard of “slow food?” Well, this is “slow games.” There’s very little actively driving Kentucky Route Zero forward beyond podunk curiosity. Act IV makes this more apparent than ever, as players spend most of the episode drifting along the currents of the Echo, a subterranean river, making leisurely stops for small talk to flesh out the offbeat nuance of everyday spelunkers. On multiple occasions, characters will refer to the pace of life on the Echo as operating on “river time.” Which is to say, things happen when they happen. This is not too far off from developer Cardboard Computer’s mantra of “we’re getting there, thanks for your patience” in response to pleas for new chapters of the magical-realist saga. The team avoids hyping their releases with advance launch dates, instead preferring to unceremoniously drop chapters and interludes in players’ laps without warning beyond the occasional “soon.”
To be a Kentucky Route Zero player is to embody the spirit of “river time,” both inside and outside of the game. Every episode of Kentucky Route Zero is full of dialog options for players to select and direct the way the story fleshes out. Unlike the Telltale Games model for player choice where the difference between option one and two can be life or death, Kentucky Route Zero’s options are more concerned with establishing backstory or offering subtle tonal variations on character responses. How self-conscious is Johnny about talking aloud to a dog? Would it be too awkward for Shannon to point out the irony of Conway’s fatalist demeanor? The consequences don’t so much steer the plot as define what kinds of people the characters are. Players don’t control the current, but they can decide on which side of the boat to lounge.
More than anything though, the gaps between Kentucky Route Zero acts allow players to forget certain details from previous entries. “Forgetting” is a notion that’s utterly counterintuitive in most games, but serves the atmosphere and play experience of Kentucky Route Zero so well. The world of Kentucky Route Zero is one of clouded obfuscation. Flashlight beams stall in the dark and static mucks up telephone wires and TV antennas alike. Characters are reluctant to reveal their true feelings and motivations, leaving players to piece together fragmented anecdotes with surreal allegories. And, in general, there’s a lot of drinking and whiskey talk. The results are impressionist portraits that ask more questions than they answer. There are no “previously on Kentucky Route Zero” recaps at the start of each act. The game might be episodic, but it’s not trying to be television. A hazy recollection of past events is fitting, and leads to players feeling a bit like drifters themselves.
It’s a neat trick, and leads to each new act feeling like players are bumping into characters in an old tavern ala Act III’s The Lower Depths. Players get reacquainted with everyone in turn—some of the faces they recognize more than others. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” “Ah, still making deliveries?” “Oh, you know Weaver?” The two musician characters, Junebug and Johnny, make robotic squeaking noises when they walk. Are they androids? I don’t know, but I’m content to maintain my suspicions via side-eye glances rather than look it up in a Wiki. And the dialog choices that emphasize player performance over plot direction support that approach.
The real payoff from the waiting periods between acts isn’t the delayed gratification of each new episode, but that the voids themselves—dotted with interludes and experiments—have become staging areas for a Kentucky Route Zero alternate reality game (ARG), where virtual and real worlds merge as one. Released between Acts I and II, the first interlude, Limits and Demonstrations, features an art gallery exhibition, filled with intricate media art installations of fictional character, Lula Chamberlain. 10 months later, Cardboard Computer staged a real version of the retrospective at the Little Berlin gallery in Philadelphia, complete with the backstory that artist Lula Chamberlain was a little-known contemporary of John Cage and Nam June Paik. The show was on view for a mere four days, meaning that if you weren’t actively “playing along,” you’d miss an aspect of Kentucky Route Zero as live performance, even if you couldn’t personally attend the gallery reception.
For Here And There Along The Echo, which preceded Act IV, Cardboard Computer recorded an automated tourist information hotline for the Echo River that players could call with an actual telephone. The result is a Welcome To Night Vale-esque trip down a bizarre rabbit hole of quirky tall tales couched within the banal framework of a national park hotline. Additionally, Cardboard Computer held several auctions for physical telephones (one done up like a local cable access special) that, according to the item descriptions, could only dial one number. Because of these weird tangents where Kentucky Route Zero’s digital world seeps into our own, what happens between episodes sparks as much intrigue as the episodes themselves.
All of this mixed reality scene setting makes even (admittedly rare) social media updates from Cardboard Computer feel less like marketing materials and more like a slow drip of found footage that has been unearthed. It’s as if the Kentucky Route Zero we know is actually an archaeological excavation of a world removed from yet parallel to ours, cognizant of the passage of time. A single screenshot is tweeted without context. Rotatable digital vignettes offer a fragmented glimpse of what might await players just under the surface. A fictional cable-access channel announces new music from Junebug with a live studio performance. Sure, this requires suspension of disbelief to become invested, but unlike most ARGs where it feels like the designers have pulled the wool over players’ eyes, Kentucky Route Zero leads with its outwardly fictional videogame premise. And while the endpoint of playing most ARGs is to dispel the truth behind the illusion, Kentucky Route Zero poses the more playful question, “what if Kentucky Route Zero wasn’t only a videogame?” It’s an intellectual query that holds far more weight in the here and now than in retrospect.