After two years of increasingly feverish speculation, Cardboard Computer finally released the fourth act of their five-part magical-realist epic Kentucky Route Zero in July of this year. It felt denser and weirder than any of its predecessors, as if refusing to play nice after all that time. Onetime protagonist Conway was a drunken shadow of himself, barely present in the narrative. Instead, the controllable character switched, sometimes mid-sentence or mid-stride. The game featured walls of text with wildly diffuse branching choices, and, while they were rich with the series’ themes of debt, loss, and technology, it all still felt a step out of reach. It is, as ever, that rarest of things: a “difficult” game that anyone can play.
What lingers in the mind after playing it a few times, then, aren’t its ideas, which have sat simmering in the minds of its creators so long at this point that they have an almost gumbo-like richness. What lingers are its images and sounds. Toward the end of the act, they come together in an unlikely set piece, a floating restaurant called Sam & Ida’s. All of the game’s eccentricities are on display here: a text-based arcade claw game; a procedurally generated list of seafood dishes; mid-sentence shifts in character; and a long, almost shaggy-dog narrative about how the married couple who run the joint make such damn good food. But it’s the setting itself I remember, hauled up on stilts, swaying dramatically in a river, the cold halogen of its dock contrasted by the warm light of the restaurant up top. When the scene begins, a diving bell is hauled slowly up, after which the player makes their way to the top floor where red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and squirt bottles of ketchup and mustard await on each table. Static-drenched opera warbles from an old radio.
It’s a moment of almost domestic calm that stands in direct contrast to the dark, winding river. The dream-like architecture that defines the series—full of buildings that are both indoors and outside, and derelict structures put to weird use—takes a break for a simple, unlikely restaurant. Its only distorted element, perhaps, is its height; beyond that it all seems strangely plausible. The game’s surrealism—often employed to disturb, disorient, or enchant the player—is arranged here to create a calm, stable scene of an old, working marriage. When the scene is over, you clamber back down to the raft, and in the foreground, a musical quartet paddles by, singing a quiet, sweet folk lament. You are given the choice to head back to the tugboat and continue the game, or to sit and listen to the river. In any other game, you’d press right on, eager for the next checkpoint or spectacle, but at Sam & Ida’s, you’re inclined to linger, to listen, to observe.