Kentucky Route Zero’s original protagonist, Conway, is far from what you would call artistic. Yes, his thoughtful, yearning demeanor betrays a unique awareness of his own plight—he’s worked too hard for too long, and he’s tired. But that self-awareness is pragmatic in nature. Conway isn’t interested in having an artistic experience that puts his own life experience into perspective. All he wants to do is rest.
Well, that’s too bad for Conway, who time and again finds himself playing a central role in deliberately off-putting artistic high-jinks. He’s the very archetype of the guy who was dragged to an interactive play and just wants to blend in. Inevitably, he’s the one the performers gravitate to. “They’re the ones who need it most,” they assume.
Time and time again, Conway finds himself forced into situations that suddenly and without warning become transcendent. In Act I there’s the inscrutable table-top game and the fourth-wall breaking bluegrass band. In Act II there’s the Museum of Dwellings. These moments confront him with the truth of his existence and the world around him and inevitably resonate with his specific plight.
Conway is the videogamer who heard that Kentucky Route Zero was a lot like The Walking Dead videogame series. How annoying it must be to simply desire for one’s plight to be over (or at least satiated), only to be confronted with opportunities to stew, obsess over, and confront that plight, to be made aware of its’ universal nature, the breadth of the root problem? Conway’s problem (he’s tired) is unveiled to be not that special. It’s historical and mundane in nature.
But his plight is also beautiful. That’s what Conway and the player are presumably starting to discover in Act III, an impressively ambitious new episode of the Kentucky Route Zero series. Conway does his fair share of aimless and mundane wandering, both spatially and in conversation. But in the latest act, that wandering seems to be in anticipation of something.
Conway’s becoming more conscious of his own desire for rest, which motivates him to seek more actively for a solution. In a way, the inevitable future state of being “finished” is the MacGuffin that drives the whole game, which Conway acknowledges over and over in conversation. He alludes to his last delivery, pushes the story forward with his own natural urgency to finish the job, but also embraces opportunities to experience a taste of that rest ahead of time, before it truly arrives. When his truck breaks down on the side of the road on the way to his next destination, he seems to welcome the respite.
Of course, this may all just be my own reading of Conway. When the truck breaks down, I’m the one causing Conway to walk to and fro, studying a fallen tree on the side of the road. Under my control, Conway spends some time talking to the boy Ezra, remarking on how we’re not in much of a hurry anyway. When a couple of musicians speed by on a motorcycle, Conway suggests (because I suggested he suggest it) that they’re in too much of a hurry. Conway appreciates rest, partially because I am living vicariously through him.
But I am also projecting a lot of my own baggage onto Conway. I am, after all, playing this game at the climax of a period of personal burnout, plagued by fears of failure. I am not “old” by most standards, but at the age of 31, I’m becoming increasingly aware of my own mortality and the decreasing amount of time I have to make my time in this world count for something. So no wonder Conway’s limp speaks to me, and no wonder I cause him (through dialogue choices) to speak to others of rest and existential dread.
We’re all experiencing that dread, really, and Kentucky Route Zero is partially about what we do with it. Like Conway, do we acknowledge it, or like Shannon do we seek to outrun it? Like Ezra, are we only vaguely aware of the dread, distracting ourselves with humor and play? Kentucky Route Zero makes no value judgments and casts no aspersions toward any one of those approaches, but the player inevitably does, settling in more comfortably to one character while experiencing an increased distance toward the rest.
But distance doesn’t mean a lack of appreciation. As Conway’s party expands, so does his sense of appreciation and outlook. Forced into situations that are both otherworldly and baffling, the best Conway can do is enjoy the ride, something he’s predisposed to do anyway given his physical and spiritual lethargy. He seems to appreciate Shannon’s pragmatic pushiness, Ezra’s determined joyful naivete, and Junebug and Johnny’s unique artistic prowess.
Kentucky Route Zero has always seemed, to me, to be a game about rest. The experience of playing the game itself is noticeably muted, and while the pacing isn’t exactly slow, there’s a meandering quality to it. The game itself asks very little of the player, as if it was created with the weary and heavy-laden in mind.
By now I’m starting to view Kentucky Route Zero as a game about discovering how to rest. We all have a good idea of how to physically rest; just lay down, close your eyes, and fall asleep. The next day, we’re back to normal, given enough time in slumber. But how does a spiritually exhausted person rest? How do we recharge our tired souls?
For Conway, perhaps his most profoundly rejuvenating experience is something he never would have sought out for himself: live music in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere. As Conway and the player marvel, the roof literally lifts and evaporates into the air, unveiling the glory of the universe and the beauty of being a part of it.
In that moment, both Conway and the player discover that spiritual rest is not found by determined meandering, pragmatic searching, or dogged distraction. It comes, suddenly and without warning, from outside of ourselves.
Richard Clark is editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture and managing editor of Gamechurch. You can follow him on Twitter.