Every word you say dictates a new reality. As you reach the borders of what you perceive, each action by your own hands manufactures more right below your feet. Or, are you discovering what’s already there? The fog retreating away from your presence. Someone knows something you yet do not. And that is Kentucky Route Zero.
Across nine years and five episodes and more haunting interludes (including a phone call on an actual phone), Cardboard Computer has crafted a magical realist experience that is…important. It’s such an extraordinarily unique product that it feels essential to the medium. Playing always at the edges of its form and narrative, KRZ is something behold as much as it is to play.
It has all culminated in this fifth and final act. Starting as a lost soul trying to make a last delivery, it is ending at less a destination and more a thought—an ethos to carry forward from the game and into whatever may come. It tackles so much during its tumultuous run—bureaucracy, capitalism, alcoholism, the fading light of life and utility—that it would have been reasonable to expect many of the threads to get tucked away under some grand lampshade. But lack of ambition was never a problem for Cardboard Computer.
I am loath to talk about this release, then, as I would any other game. Part of the impact of how it all wraps up is simply how you cannot walk into it with any expectations. And I mean that not in the permissive sense but that it is rather impossible to do so. If you’ve played any of the prior acts or interludes, then you know what I mean. It’s an experiment whose artistic bent you can’t anticipate.
Part of why that works is that its framework is something you have been trained to predict. Not just games in general and their many contrivances you may have taken for granted that facilitate you just Getting in There, but the point-and-click structure is perhaps the most traditional style of game many players are familiar with. It is first generation gaming exemplified.
But everything about KRZ is in spite of that tradition. Or rather, the sentiment it evokes is not only traditional. Amidst the timeless stories of corporate greed and loss of status and the crushing of any number of faceless souls, it makes it timely. Each episode feels like a mile marker of our collective consciousness from simply enduring the past decade of socioeconomic and political turmoil.
I will say, though, that this act is the largest departure of any non-interlude release before it. Not just in terms of the mechanics of the game but also the mechanics of the narrative. In a series of episodic experiences that constantly toyed with your perception of Conway’s time in this serially detached reality, this final episode twists itself around the knife as well.
And it’s a propulsive thought. Not necessarily empowering as it is, I guess, goading. Across the myriad concepts KRZ bears down on with its considerable and thoughtful weight, no particular notion stands out as much as the one that we are complicit in a system of broken promises. From the tokens in the mine to the abandoned forest houses to the slumping barfly, we are the ones who accept the unacceptable consequences so long as they are not hung around our neck.
The cost of wiping it away. The cost of trying again. The cost of fixing it. The debt is always there. But there’s a question there. There’s a blank space that capitalism has forced us to speed through—a quandary it’d rather us not consider. The question of who do we owe.
And it has worked for so long. Because they tell us and we listen. Rather than how the system let so many others down, we only hear that it can lift us up. Those people down there just played the game wrong, but play it right and, well…
That is the semblance of reality that the game holds onto. The ordinariness of its characters and tales of woe are extraordinary in that starkly spartan way, so much so that they keep a constant contrast with a more complex reality, a juxtaposition that holds the truth just barely out of frame but always in mind. It is the lie that we play into, the work where we keep ourselves down. We are only asking they hand us a shovel so we might bury ourselves better, and what we get in return is a demand to dig deeper.
With its closing moments, the game imagines something beautiful. Something forlorn and sentimental but beautiful all the same. And it wants to know—well, I won’t say what it wants to know. But Kentucky Route Zero is such a solemnly affirming experience that you can only let slip through gritted teeth and steely eyes a single and solitary yes.
Final Score: 10 out of 10