Kentucky Route Zero by Night: Act 4 (Subterranean Rivers, Decisions)

Flying from New York to New Zealand is a hell of a thing. JFK to LAX to Sydney to Wellington, leaving on a Friday and—between being in the air for almost a full day and crossing the International Date Line—arriving on a Sunday. That’s strange. On the way back, you leave on a Friday and arrive on that same Friday, which is somehow even stranger.

Stranger still, stranger than the feeling of going that far, is the feeling of being that far from where you started, from home. If you’re at all susceptible to the to a Fear Of Missing Out, or to anxiety about how time passes and how you use it, then man, being somewhere remote will amplify those insecurities a hundredfold.

If you’ve played Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero, which is about being in a remote place and never truly being able to take it all in, then you might see where I’m going with this.

I always play Kentucky Route Zero on overnight flights, but before now I’ve always been flying alone. This time I’m traveling with my wife.

On this trip, we’ll float down a subterranean river to see bioluminescent glowworms, not to mention a subterranean waterfall and later, separately, a waterfall that runs at a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We’ll see the world’s smallest species of penguin and the world’s largest species of bat.

We’ll miss a street festival in Wellington when I drive over a rock in our rental car, sheep peering at us quizzically while we wait for someone to come and change the tire, which neither of us ever learned how to do. I’ll feel terrible about this, but ultimately that day will occupy a special place in our memories. The kind of simple, quietly intense adventure that you couldn’t plan out for you tired, disasters averted, teamwork prevailing.

I don’t know any of this yet, but I do know that I’m going to be deeply worried about not doing enough, seeing enough, taking full advantage. It’s who I am.

If you’ve played Act IV, then you’ll know that it’s shot through with the idea of not being able to see everything, do everything, take it all in. Sometimes this comes in the form of layers—remembering while examining a memorial while mushroom hunting while making your way down a subterranean river. Other times it comes in the form of choices—missing out on a dockside bar because you chose to watch two dogs sleep on the boat instead. Some other, more unnerving times, it’s more about uncertainty—encountering bits of VHS tape without context, or using some divers’ boasting to make a mental map of the pitch-black waters below, never sure how much to trust their descriptions, nor your memories of them.

You’ve got to select what to focus on, which variation to pursue. As is always the case with this game, you could always go back and see what you’ve missed, how else things could have played out. But for me, as is always the case with this game, that felt wrong. Kentucky Route Zero encourages you to live with your decisions, especially the affective ones that don’t matter in the conventional non-linear game design sense—decisions that determine who these characters are, regardless of whether or not their fates are alterable.

Of all the game’s ever-expanding dramatis personæ, it’s probably Conway who has retained the least control over his own fate, who stands to miss out on the most, and (notably) who remains so distressingly sanguine about that fact. It’s admirable, the stoic way Conway lives. Unshakable. Infrangible. Untruculent. Calm.

But then again, maybe it’s important to retain a little of the anxiety that Conway lacks. Maybe it’s healthy to worry a bit about what you might be missing out on. Maybe that’s as important as, once you’ve decided, accepting how things played out and moving on.

Conway and I are different, in that way. For better and for worse.

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