There’s always something deeply unnerving about a gas station at night. Depending on the road, it can be the only point of light for miles and miles, and beyond is nothing but an infinite abyss of curves and strange noises in between you and your destination. That Kentucky Route Zero’s very first image is a gas station at twilight is apt. The game knocks you off-kilter in the first seconds, placing you in the last fading glow of sunlight before nightfall on a threadbare stretch of road. Even when the game’s at its most peaceful and gentle, it never quite feels stable or permanent, like everything good, bad, strange, or affecting that happens in the next five acts could disappear into the darkness at any moment.
That sense of impermanence is such a crucial part of Kentucky Route Zero, more so now that it’s a complete work with a full arc and definitive ending. Beyond the various oddities and nonsensical moments, at its heart it’s a game about American progress and the corpses it leaves in its wake, a pensive Wizard of Oz-like point-and-click adventure through a country whose yellow brick road is built on futile hopes and unanswered prayers. Its version of Kentucky is a nothing-place of American dreams breathing their last, if they’re not already dead. Its protagonist, a grizzled, tired delivery truck driver named Conway, is headed in the same direction.
Conway ends up here making his final delivery for his friend Lysette’s antique store, after which he intends to retire. However, the road to the delivery address on 5 Dogwood Drive takes him through the Zero, an abstract Kentucky highway where, it seems, all things obsolete–people, places, objects–come to make residence. The Zero is, essentially, America’s purgatory, a place that looks like cubist paintings of Silent Hill, and sounds like detuned radios and the white noise of old TVs. Hiding behind all of it are old creaky workers lamenting that they never earned enough to move away and coal miners crushed to death after giving their blood and sweat to a corporation they will never stop owing money to. Their stories are underscored by soul-shaking music that only the wrinkled and withered remember or perform. Every major beat of Conway’s journey is punctuated by American requiems, ranging from mournful bluegrass elegies about people time forgot, sung by shadowy riverfolk, to ethereal love songs so powerful the skies literally open up over the stage to accept them.
You navigate the Zero–in all of its fever-dream weirdness–primarily through dialogue trees and old-school adventure game mechanics. It’s fairly linear when it comes to the particulars of making progress; either a tiny box will come up at your destination telling you to click on it to proceed, or you can simply run through every option until you proceed anyway. But staying on task is harder than it seems. Every area has one interaction that will advance the story, but there are a dozen other objects to examine, a dozen other NPC stories to hear, or a dozen other switches and buttons and context-sensitive areas to walk that shift the perspective of the entire area. All that added potential context really takes effort to ignore.
In the first area of the game, Conway has a talk with a friendly gas station attendant about the road, about old age, about poetry, even. Then the power goes out, and Conway has to make his way into the gas station’s mineshaft-turned-basement after the lights suddenly shut off. There, while flipping the circuit breakers, you come across and invisibly assist in grabbing some fallen dice for what appears to be a D&D game in progress in another dimension. Why, exactly, is there a D&D game happening in another dimension? You never quite know–there are, admittedly, some long threads to pull on in this game that lead nowhere, and although that’s deliberate, it is occasionally frustrating–but that deceptively simple task is what passes for a tutorial in Kentucky Route Zero. It shows you exactly how it’s going to try and sway you from the end goal time and time again.
The vast menagerie of characters Conway meets on this journey contain multitudes; their dwellings and belongings are full of histories and unresolved relationships. These things beg for your attention and curiosity, urgent gold boxes waiting to be clicked on your way to the next critical step in the story. Often, they create more questions about these people and their world than they answer, but it becomes clear over time that there are answers, in every area, begging for you to chase them down. The entire game is a minefield of curiosity, where the only way to plow through to the end of each Act is to either thoroughly exhaust your curiosity or have absolutely none of it. The former is much more rewarding, and the game excels at making you want it, always placing the next narrative breadcrumb or the next leading question or the next inquisitive line of dialogue within easy reach, even if the payoff is miles down the road. However, it also means it’s very easy to lose the main plot in the process.
That’s especially true since much of the poignancy and power of the main plot often requires you to proactively listen to and learn from the world. The stories being told along the way can take many forms–from homespun wisdom to analytical science theses to ordinary phone conversations between loved ones–but the game bets the farm on you being comprehensively thorough about engaging with all of it. With no way to rewind and play specific scenes over again without replaying the entire Act, missing a specific bit of information can leave entire portions of the game as obtuse, and not in the intentional way some scenes are.
To play Kentucky Route Zero means having to be present and honed in on the world in a way that doesn’t happen often in games. That frequently means hearing information relayed in a vast rainbow of ways, the game subtly training you to hear other people whose voices and experiences we are often trained by the modern world to tune out. The sharpness of the dialogue is so crucial and executed so well in that regard. Information is conveyed through every interaction, but even with the minor NPCs, the game emphasizes their worth as a character first and a mechanical function of the game second. Whether their next line opens the way to the next scene or not, there’s a sense in every line of dialogue in the game that lives have been lived, this character has a history here we will never know, and their weariness is on display and palpable. It makes the world of this game feel real and tangible and lived in, which accentuates the disquieting fact that there are people who actually live in such desolation.
Lines of dialogue from side characters can inform another character’s major decisions to take the journey of their lifetime later. A stray line during a radio broadcast can tell you why Conway wound up at a particular location or why a road is blocked, or why the history of a place matters. But as engaging as it all is, especially in the later Acts of the game where you start having more control over which character to follow into the next scene, new information and character development can happen in a scene that you might’ve missed entirely. Still, the solution is to play that Act again, and there’s so much to see and hear in the game that it’s possible to have a very different and equally worthwhile experience next time.
Sometimes the new information comes from choosing the dialogue in a straight one-on-one conversation; sometimes, you get a totally different perspective out of nowhere, like a segment where you select dialogue between museum researchers as they talk about your present actions in the past tense while watching you on a security camera playback. It forces you to think about how others view Conway and the companions who come to ride with him along the way with some level of psychological distance, a storytelling risk that pays off the more we start to learn about why these characters are who they are.
That risk starts to pay off starting in Act III, where you can control the other side of a conversation, selecting responses for both Conway and the other participant. After seeing a doctor about an injury, and seeing the nightmarish remedy for that injury once he’s awake, you can choose to let Conway be out of sorts from the anesthesia or perfectly lucid. Through the next line of dialogue, you can let him and the doctor talk about continued treatment, let Conway stew in bitterness or very justifiable fear, or hop right into the worrisome particulars of the bill. It’s a captivating game of conversational tennis against yourself. You wind up experiencing and creating the story all at once, which makes the game more mechanically dream-like than anything. Combined with just how abstract many of the concepts and emotions you bounce back and forth can be, it’s not just a difference of agency so much as using that agency to form a group perspective, a collective conscience these characters will never know, but you do.
Very little in the overarching story of the Zero happens necessarily by your choice, and that’s a hard fact of real life that has been translated admirably here. No matter how much you tell your companions that your injury is fine or dodge questions about how deep in debt you are to those who help you, as Conway himself says, every man eventually has to settle up. And in that respect, the larger beats of this story will occur regardless of the choices you make. The intricate control you have over many of the game’s conversations isn’t about changing your fate, but how you parse it and accept it. That dovetails beautifully into the larger themes of the game, of getting to the acceptance stage of all the grief each character has endured. In that acceptance, you do have complete control. People in this game will get ill, you will miss your chance to tell someone you loved them, you won’t quite know what their last wishes were, and the world outside the Zero will often intrude and make life just a little harder for its residents once again. You can be angry, or petulant, or morose, and you can let that be the story of this world, but that’s a choice you can make in every scene. To sit with each interactable character is to sit with and have empathy for their failures.
That empathy is important given how alienating and lonely Kentucky Route Zero can feel. Much of the game’s interpretation of Kentucky life is portrayed in a very spartan, angular style of giant polygons meticulously fit together like puzzle pieces until they resemble minimalist facsimiles of human beings, trees, houses, and the like. It’s often stark and eerie, which makes the moments where it’s striking and stunning all the more effective. An early transition from the outside of a house to its interior occurs by watching the vector lines that form the building’s exterior move aside like shrinking geometric vines. One of the most powerful examples is a simple scene of Conway and Lysette sitting at a breakfast table. The geometric white streaks at Conway’s temples and his slouching back hint at his exhaustion, informing his decision to make this next delivery his last; Lysette’s face blank, but held wistfully, and framed by square glasses pointed blankly towards the outside world even. It’s an abstract picture that still speaks volumes.
It should be said that Act V ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o’clock on a Friday after a hard week.
The game’s aesthetic is capable of portraying breathtaking Midwestern landscapes, stark monuments to the coldness of industry, unfeeling research rooms, and cathedrals to forgotten American ephemera, bolstered ever so slightly by some new and subtle graphical grace notes added to the game since Act IV’s release. New lighting effects have been added, with specific scenes being brightened, and, most notably, a dazzling starfield effect during the game’s stand-out musical number, “Too Late To Love You.” Those scattered moments of warmth and wonder have been sweetened all the more by the changes, making the scenes of respite even more welcome and memorable. Still, it all pales in comparison to what awaits you in the long-anticipated Act V: a heavenly place of sun and grass, demolished by the raging storms and flooding. The visually exhilarating elements of the final landscape make the horror of all the death and destruction hit even heavier.
Despite that initial visual gutstab of Act V, it should be said that it ends not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the kind of deep sigh you hear from working folks at five o’clock on a Friday after a hard week. I assumed, going into that final Act, that we’d be looking at a story of rebellion, a day of reckoning for the marginalized and downtrodden. I should’ve known better. Kentucky Route Zero isn’t screaming for vengeance against all that America has lost, though there is an undeniable righteous anti-capitalist streak running throughout.
The game doesn’t so much resolve all the seething tensions and unfulfilled promises seen prior, but demands that you shoulder some of the weight of remembering and honoring what you’ve seen and heard. The overall point of the game is that not everyone’s life will be paid off in a way that provides catharsis, or comfort, or satisfaction. Sometimes it just ends, sometimes it keeps going whether we’re there to see it or not, and sometimes it’s just disappointment. Conway has debts to pay, and there is a chance he drops dead working to pay them back. That is as American as it gets in the 21st century. What Act V does, though, is give everyone one last chance to rail against that fact, mourn it, continue to have hopes regardless which, too, is what it is to live here. Kentucky Route Zero has been priming us for seven years to recognize that life isn’t fair, though we’d gain so much if it was, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to make it as fair as it can be. But just as often, we’re not. Kentucky Route Zero is ultimately a story about America’s ghosts, literal and metaphorical. It’s a story about entire ways of life coming to one singular place to die quietly, hopefully with dignity. In all of its oddity, it never backs down from the fact that all that is now dead will stay dead, and for those who have settled in along the Zero, that includes the American dream.