We’re all haunted by something. Whether it’s people long since past, debt, or events we’d rather leave behind, our lives are constantly hounded by things that linger. The ever-present nature of these ghosts make them intangible, ethereal beings that yet somehow impact how we live our everyday lives. Kentucky Route Zero is all about these ghosts, but it’s also about the implicit truth that, despite being haunted, we all must keep going, keep living through the hauntings the best we can. Every scenario presented in the game is a glimpse into how everyday people carry on, a truth that we constantly need reminders of even today, when we’re haunted more than ever.
Kentucky Route Zero ends on an incredibly poignant note during a funeral for two horses you’ve never even met before. The town you find yourself in was recently flooded during a storm, and the Neighbors, two horses that can trace lineage to the beginnings of the town, died in it. As you poke around the town as a cat chasing a dragonfly, a man makes progress reeling in the horses from the river, digging a grave, and setting up a colorful gravestone next to a barn. The entire town then gathers, says a few words in remembrance, and sings a hymn to close out the proceedings. It’s a lovely moment, but context up until that point makes it even more poignant.
You’re given no real reason to care about these horses. You’re just visitors in a town full of strangers as you attempt to make a delivery to a very difficult to find house. But it’s that same delivery that gives the funeral an extra layer of meaning. The delivery itself was the job of someone who is no longer with the group you follow. Conway, a delivery driver on his last job, was searching for the elusive house and eventually gathered a cast of characters that end up following him on the job. But his past, which is eluded to throughout the game, won’t stop haunting him. Soon it’s represented physically, with a glowing robotic limb that also proves prophetic when he meets the glowing skeletons of the Hard Times distillery. Once there, his past catches up with him as he drinks a bottle of expensive alcohol that puts him into massive debt to the distillery. By the end of Act IV, he joins the glowing skeletons and leaves the party, himself fully skeletonized and indistinguishable from the other Hard Times workers. His alcoholism and debt caused him to be lost to the rest of the party as he disappears from their lives.
Conway doesn’t come back in Act V, nor do we see what happened to him past his Hard Times transformation. But Conway’s absence is felt throughout the final chapter, lingering like a ghost. Much of Act V is about what the rest of the gang is going to do after they’re done with Conway’s delivery, and it’s an open question that the player can fill in however they want. But more than that, it’s a testament to how we need to keep going despite the ghosts that still haunt us. It’s what Conway did, and it’s what everyone else must face as the delivery is made. In this way, the funeral is more than just a goodbye to the Neighbors. It’s a coming to terms with what’s faded away and what’s to come. Even though the funeral isn’t about him, it becomes a sort of formal acceptance that he’s gone and that the rest of the gang needs to figure out how to move on from there.
The funeral itself evokes a literal haunting. It starts with all the characters you know and have interacted with standing over the grave as Emily, one of the people in town who works at the local TV station, starts singing the song “I’m Going That Way” a capella. As the song progresses, shadowy figures start appearing in the crowd, and the song slowly gets more voices. By the end, the shadowy figures outnumber the more familiar ones, and the song practically has a chorus. It’s the kind of musical gut punch that the game is known for. The figures are supposed to represent people who aren’t familiar to you or important in the story, but that they’re shadowy and ghostly isn’t an accident. Funerals themselves are a sort of haunting, where we display the dead so it can linger just a little bit longer. But the people who attend are also haunting the honored dead, serving as echoes of past lives that the person led.
We’re communally haunting each other, interweaved in each other’s lives via people already in our lives. It’s the moving on that’s hard. Who do we move on with? Who do we leave behind? It’s why funerals are so tied to spirituality, not just because of a hope of an afterlife, but also a hope of someday leaving the hauntings behind. It’s this shared recognition that we’re all constantly haunting, constantly lingering, and then constantly moving on. We may have things weighing on us, but we all do, and we all get by despite that because we’re together. The hauntings will never stop, but like Conway’s newfound friends show, you don’t have to go them alone.