Kentucky Route Zero and the Desperate Reality of Liminality

*Spoiler warning: be aware this piece discusses the plot of Kentucky Route Zero in its entirety*

In one of Kentucky Route Zero’s four “interludes”, the player watches ‘The Entertainment’, a four-act play, from a first-person perspective. We’re given the ability to look around the theatre, reading production notes, sound or lighting cues and reviews of the play from critics in the audience, but the action will pause unless you’re looking at the actors onstage as they speak their lines. In the game’s lore, the play is a unique merging of two other plays by local playwright Lem Doolittle, ‘A Reckoning’ and ‘A Bar-Fly’, here being performed simultaneously. During this interlude, we see from the perspective of the titular bar-fly of the latter play, inhabiting the sole role of what was originally a one-person mime but here contributing to only half of the performance. We are witnessing and passively taking part in a merging of two artistic creations, both plays being simultaneously fully realised and yet not being allowed to stand on their own merits nor integrate in any meaningful way, thus existing in a kind of vague zone in between the two. “An absorbing, if unfocused, drama,” reads one review.

Similar to this play, Kentucky Route Zero is a game comprised of acts. This implies a sort of narrative structure, and ostensibly the game is about delivering a package that does eventually get delivered, but like the play, whilst Kentucky Route Zero can be poignant in its simplicity, it’s also never just about one thing. Its opening, following driver Conway as he attempts to make his last delivery for a doomed store, feels like an ending, whilst its conclusion, as the sunrise beams across a weather-beaten town following a torrential storm, feels like a rebirth – a beginning. It is a title that subverts not only the gameplay format seen in most games, avoiding complex puzzles or any tests of timing or perseverance, but the storytelling structure of video games as a medium. This only adds to the liminal quality that the game’s story, characters and (perhaps most notably) setting so profoundly contrive.

The concept of liminality is, rather fittingly, a complex one without a clear definition, but it’s enough to say that it refers to the ambiguity of the “between” times and spaces – something transitional, or perhaps a sort of threshold. It’s that time between projects when you feel no clear sense of purpose, or that abandoned factory by the woods on the edge of town, where the order of modern life meets the wildness of the old world. It’s the crossroads where Robert Johnson met the devil, the empty hallway of the university residence that never quite feels like home. It’s the twilight when it’s neither night nor day, or the solstice when the barrier between seasons becomes nebulous. 

In folklore, liminality is frequently significant, such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes of Welsh mythology who “cannot be killed indoors… nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot”. He is eventually stabbed with one foot in a tub and one on a goat. We see something similar in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, where the Forest Spirit can only be killed when caught while transitioning between its two forms. More recently, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book Edgelands has popularised the use of its namesake, a term coined rather brilliantly by writer Marion Shoard. Put briefly, it refers to the nameless, unacknowledged areas that are neither town nor countryside – the overgrown car parks, derelict scrap yards and disused plots of tarmac that are all but entirely forgotten.

Third Floor. (Bears)

That which is liminal is unfamiliar and lacks clarity. It can be a hopeful or alluring space of infinite possibilities, but it’s just as often a bewildering or even ominous one where the path ahead seems blurred and formless. Kentucky Route Zero is a game set almost entirely in this amorphous in-between space, one giant edgeland where everything is at once both real and surreal. It is a game that makes confusion a virtue, causing neither frustration nor exasperation and instead offering a gentle albeit mournful saunter through a world in which not everything makes complete sense, because the rules are long forgotten, or perhaps yet to fully form.

This sense is driven home by the art style and the way that the difference between “outside” and “inside” is tangential throughout – the darkness of a cave making it seem endless, or the roof dissipating to show the stars as a singer croons a sorrowful ballad. When you arrive at the part-cathedral, part-office building structure that is the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, Shannon remarks, “This is weird, but are we inside or outside?”. As Conway, the player has three possible responses: outside, inside, or both. The transitory nature of the game’s world is furthered by its unique approach to dialogue trees, where the player chooses not only how to respond but who should respond, sometimes being given limited options and at others having the freedom to gently nudge the story in a particular direction. Occasionally our choices can even decide history in real time, like deciding what Conway’s dog has (or hasn’t) always been called or choosing the name (and consequently gender) of Shannon’s ex.

Each of the game’s core cast of misfits is on a journey of sorts, themselves transitioning from one thing to another but unsure where or what exactly that “other” is. Conway has spent years on the road and is now likely coming to the end of this career, with no next step planned. His struggle is reflected in his old, failing van that he leaves running whenever he gets out because he’s afraid he’ll never get it started again. Shannon has been running a TV repair shop but is facing eviction; Ezra has no home and searches for his lost family in vain; Junebug and Johnny earn a pittance as travelling musicians, having fled a life of working for the omnipresent Consolidated Power Company.

These characters are all in some way directionless – drifters with nowhere else to be and no next clear move to make. They are each themselves in a state of liminality, arbitrarily tagging along for the ride perhaps in the hope they find some purpose along the way. Though they live in a world of Southern Gothic folklore and magical realism, where Ezra’s brother is a giant eagle and Junebug and Johnny are mechanical androids originally built only to work, their stories are ones that feel keenly relevant under late-stage capitalism. Both Conway and Shannon are coming to terms with their jobs being made obsolete; Junebug and Johnny want to be unique and creative in a world that values only productivity; Ezra is the victim of forced eviction and homelessness.

In ‘The Entertainment’, Pearl wants to cut ties and head west, but is stuck paying her parents’ bar tab and working for a pawn shop that has invented a “new kind of debt”, a pay-day advance with a malicious interest rate. “I know debt, Harry,” she says. “I see it all day. It’s all around me, like a thick, gray fog. It’s in the air I breathe.” Despite such vivid depictions of people in tight situations, one critical review the player can read can only bring itself to call the play “obscure modernism posing as tragedy.”

A life turning to shit feels like something that should be dramatic or sudden, but it is the slow-motion descent into economic and(/or) emotional hardships that ensnares us more often than not. It’s no coincidence that Conway is coerced into his job at the distillery and quite literally pursued by skeletons until finally leaving with them, nor that his own transformation into one of these skeletons begins when he finally gets his injured leg seen to by a doctor, something that can and often does put many US citizens into debt. He initially seems reluctant to take this new job, but also remarks in one dialogue option that he should be grateful for the opportunity, really.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game set in a world completely unlike our own, with a network of subterranean highways and waterways where a perpetually inflamed tree acts as a marker point for directions and the gas station floats along a river showing up at random, but much like our own existence the game-world and its inhabitants are plagued by an agonisingly slow sense of decay. In our world, this is increasingly driving us to lose sense of our purpose and direction as we fall upon hard times and are left wondering if any of our dreams are actually achievable. Ben Babbitt’s incredible soundtrack for the game fantastically reflects this, most poignantly on his desperately forlorn rendition of an originally euphoric hymn that posits Earth itself as a liminal space on the way to heaven: “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through… If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?”.

But unlike ‘The Entertainment’, where the characters’ dreams feel hopeless and their lives stagnant, Kentucky Route Zero is not entirely a tragedy. “When we met, we were nothing, just these little gray shadows. And we grew, and filled in, and… we did all that together,” says Junebug to Johnny in one scene, perhaps the game’s most overt reference to the theme that begins to define its latter acts. Kentucky Route Zero might be hopelessly melancholic, using its fantastical elements not so much as escapism from the mundanity of life but as a heightened representation of it, but it slowly puts that aside to become a story about finding purpose in others, forming a makeshift community through friends where family falters, and living for togetherness.

In Act V, Emily Cross joins Babbitt to sing another hymn: “Yes dear, the saviour I adore is with me each day.” Interestingly, Jesus’ name is removed from the original words – this doesn’t necessarily remove the religious connotations of the song, but it does change the context from being about one saviour to something wider. As a rousing chorus slowly turns a lonely croon into a blissful harmony, the strength of community is resolutely reinforced. When society fails us and this world leaves us despondent, we’ll always have each other.

Words: George Parr

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