This post contains spoilers for the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero. You’ve been warned!
Until last year, I had never been inside a small-town bar. All I had was the impression of them in my mind, gleaned over time from books, TV, and movies. I imagined them as warm but dingy, with mismatched furniture in the sitting area and an old jukebox in the corner, fairly empty aside from the crowd of local regulars and one or two visitors. But if I had to point to specific passages or scenes from popular culture that gave me this impression, I wouldn’t be able to. The impression was clear, but the sources were hazy.
Chalk this up to the fickle nature of memory. Impressions are usually better remembered than details. But as Kentucky Route Zero‘s third act points out, the devil is in the details.
Take our protagonists’ journey into Xanadu, Donald’s mega-computer, for example. It plays out as a Zork-like adventure game, recreating the tragic events that led to the dissolution of Lula, Joseph, and Donald’s team. Those horrors are just details to Donald, though; he chooses to remember the good times, not the utter dysfunction that plagued his old research team. He’s so desperate to cling onto these memories that he created Xanadu for the purpose of recreating them. But computers don’t lie; they merely compute 1’s and 0’s. So, ironically, Xanadu recreates not the impressions in Donald’s brain, but the cold, hard facts that he doesn’t want to hear. Notice how Donald himself never uses Xanadu; he has an assistant for that purpose. As for players, they experience Xanadu through the eyes of Conway and his gang, not Donald. On some subconscious level, Donald knows that the truth lies in his machine, and for that reason, he stays away from it.
The idea that memories can be painful, even harmful, underpins Kentucky Route Zero’s third act. Conway’s memories of Charlie recall tragedy. Johnny and Junebug’s love song at the tavern is ultimately a sad one, seemingly no matter what options players choose. Even Shannon’s memory of her mother and the bird cage is portrayed as deeply disturbing.
I began this set of thoughts by talking about small-town bars for a reason. The gang’s visit to the Lower Depths tavern called to mind my own impressions of small-town bars, drawing from the general pop-cultural consciousness to create the setting, rather than actual small-town bars. In fact, the entire game’s setting is based around players’ impressions of the rural South. Is this actually what Kentucky is like? I have no idea. But it feels like what I think Kentucky should be like.
Thus, Kentucky Route Zero calls its own existence into question. Is it a faithful recreation of rural America, or is it just purposely playing off our impressions? Even its entire plot is up for debate. At the end of their journey through Xanadu, Conway and the gang see Xanadu itself on the screen. If they kept playing, would they be able to see their own reality reflected back and them? And how would it conflict with their perceptions and impressions of reality?
If Act II argued in favour of the preservation of space, Act III argues against it. Act II argued that spaces are imbued with history, which is lost when they are repurposed. However, Act III shows us that memory is fallible and suffers from subjectivity. If this is true, then the history with which spaces are imbued is based on impressions rather than facts, and it may not be worth preserving.
Thus, the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces serves an important function. When emotion and sentiment get in the way, it behaves like Xanadu and gives the cold, hard facts, reminding us of what we subconsciously know: repurposing is not only efficient; it is truthful. And in a world of underground highways, giant eagles, and underground shipping operations, truth can be hard to find.