This post contains spoilers for Acts I and II of Kentucky Route Zero as well as Limits and Demonstrations. You’ve been warned!
Act II of Kentucky Route Zero was finally released yesterday, after considerable delay. I played through it in just over an hour, and now I’d like to share some thoughts about it, after the jump.
When we last saw Conway and Shannon, the image of the Márquez farm outside the window of the house had transformed into one of the Zero, right before their eyes. Act II doesn’t pick up where we left off. Instead, it takes us to the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces to meet Lula Chamberlain, who was introduced to us as an artist in Limits and Demonstrations. Here, she’s merely a clerk in the office, going through the motions, hoping to one day have her big break. Depending on the choices the player makes, she starts going through folders of proposals to repurpose little-used buildings or facilities. Though the player has the choice to have Lula endorse or reject the proposals, they all seem perfectly reasonable. I mean, if nobody’s using a distillery, why not repurpose it as a chapel from which people could benefit? But when the prologue ends and Conway and Shannon arrive on the scene, Act II plays a trick that makes the player reconsider the choices he or she might have made: Conway and Shannon are informed that the office building at which they’ve arrived actually used to be a cathedral.
It seems ridiculous to see such a massive brick structure occupied by something as mundane as an office, but the player now realizes that the proposals in Lula’s files would be equally ridiculous when visualized. When the repurposing decision is reduced to a proposal in a folder, written in bureaucratic language, there is both a physical and metaphorical distance between the decision maker and the decision. However, when Conway and Shannon stumble upon the repurposed cathedral, the very idea seems absurd. Kentucky Route Zero plays off this absurdity by placing a conference room next to an abandoned church organ played by a hobo. Vaguely religious music fills the air as Conway and Shannon make their way through the office. It’s altogether a weird, somewhat unsettling experience.
That feeling is discomfort is central to what Act II is all about: places may merely be buildings or locations on a map; however, the spaces in those places are imbued with history, meaning, and purpose. A place is just a place until you step inside it. When you walk around in it, you start to understand it as a space, an area marked by the collective experiences that have occurred in it.
The remaining scenes in Act II play around with this notion. Take Shannon and Conway’s trip to the church/storage facility, for example. When Shannon goes off to find the file they need, Conway chats with the janitor, and the screen fades to black. It should provide an opportunity for the player to envision a church in his or her head, but it’s impossible; the image of the storage facility is burned into his or her brain. All one can visualize in that space is files and folders and boxes.
The Museum of Dwellings also generates feelings of discomfort. It’s odd to see so many men, women, and children living in the museum, but they can be thought of as people desperately clinging onto what made their old spaces special, unable to inhabit a new space and generate a new history. The scene is presented as museum security camera footage, which gives it a sort of sterility. It evokes the way museums cut out bits and pieces of spaces and put them on display. One can look at that display and get a sense of the space whence it came, but one can’t get the whole picture.
It’s only when Julian, the giant eagle, whisks Shannon, Conway, and Ezra to the forest that we finally see a space that seems aligned with its current purpose. Gentle folk music plays in the background as the gang makes their way through the neighbourhood towards Dr. Truman’s house, creating an atmosphere of comfort and hominess. Though the people who live in the forest have been displaced from their original homes, they have managed to create a space with a shared history, and they live in harmony with the space they inhabit.
Act II of Kentucky Route Zero concludes with Dr. Truman giving Conway an anaesthetic, and the player watches as the doctor’s home dissolves into a world of white-and-grey abstract geometry. Thus far, Kentucky Route Zero has only explored concrete spaces, the ones that can be physically inhabited. Perhaps Act III will take players into an abstract space: Conway’s psyche.
While Act I mainly hinted at magic, choosing to intimate that there may be more to the mysterious analog devices of our past than meets the eye, Act II dives headfirst into the supernatural, with giant eagles, forests of optical illusions, and the titular highway, whose twisted geometry hides many mysterious secrets. Act I stayed more grounded, in order to to acquaint the player with Conway’s, Weaver’s, and Shannon’s personal histories. That left Act II free to be a broader examination of the distinction between place and space, and correspondingly, it more fully embraces the supernatural. The result is another fascinating chapter is what is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing electronic adventures.