We Talked to Cardboard Computer About ‘Kentucky Route Zero’ and the Politics of Debt

The small studio's enveloping narrative game is one in which money matters. Or, rather, the lack of it does.

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Jun 27 2016, 7:30pm

Capitalism doesn't care about you, not even a little. It's not just indifferent, though, it's corrosive and divisive: market forces can be eternally damned. Obviously this isn't a new stance to take: Karl Marx was bleating on about it in the 19th century and since then it's a discourse that, unsurprisingly, hasn't gone away. But video games—well, video games haven't dared touch on this rich vein of political dissent. Apoliticism and reinforcement of the Western hegemony is what we do in video games; the classic opiate of the masses. Kentucky Route Zero, though, is a game specifically about the profound downsides of capitalism. It's barbed and confrontational and fuck, is it refreshing.

Unsurprisingly, Cardboard Computer, the stateside developers behind Kentucky Route Zero, aren't in any mood to pull punches. When I ask Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt—the three members of the studio—whether the rise of Trump has had any bearing on their determinedly political game, the response is bullish. "Most of Kentucky Route Zero's development happened while Trump was just another serially-bankrupt, racist, real estate developer with a reality TV show. It's hard to imagine how the context of his noisy political career might have changed our work." Fair enough, guys.

They do, though, use the question as an opportunity to dig into "Kentucky's own rich, right wing 'outsider' in power," the current Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin. A Republican, and part of the Tea Party movement, he's looking to systematically demolish Kentucky's own abortion clinics and roll back the advances of Obamacare, both initiatives that give the economically vulnerable choices, choices that have dwindled over the last ten years.

KRZ, then, feels like a response to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. Cardboard Computer's version of Kentucky, like much of current America, is littered with foreclosure signs. Businesses are failing and families are being displaced by the banks; people are fucking struggling. But the game also draws on more distant depressions, to previous hard times of the 20th century. I ask Elliott, Kemenczy and Babbitt if drawing out these connections was a conscious process. "Yeah, that may be a political position we take in this game," they reply, before adding: "The 2008 financial crisis and recession aren't temporary embarrassments but totally consistent with post-industrial capitalism."

That response, Elliott later explains, was a play on the Steinbeck quote: "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." It's reflective of their desire to connect the dots, to layer and interpolate the work of their forbearers into the game's idea of America. Steinbeck's there, but so is post-Depression literature more generally. "Yeah, I think we try to position Kentucky Route Zero as part of some of these earlier traditions. Putting in these little cues is part of this broader gesture."

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Money, then, matters. Or rather, the lack of it does. Conway's antique business is on its last legs; the farm of Weaver's parents was repossessed due to debt repayment issues; and the lease on Shannon's TV repair workshop was suspended. Despite the surreal and often fantastical flourishes that emerge throughout the game, it's still rooted in the seemingly mundane struggles we all experience. "It's important to us that the game be in, and of, the real, contemporary world. So the characters are living in the world of predatory lending and bizarre, inscrutable financial machinery."

There's a sense, though, that Cardboard Computer grew into the story of Kentucky Route Zero, exploring a few creative dead-ends before settling on a form that allowed the narrative to breathe. The game started life as a platformer set in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world. But after investigation into the cave's tumultuous history it became clear that the platformer mechanics were getting in the way of the stories Cardboard Computer could potentially tell. "Yeah, the plat-former mechanics—and a lot of other design-y, mechanical ideas—kind of fell away as we got deeper into creating these characters and their world," the team tells me.

But if there's one thing to unify the characters inhabiting the world of Kentucky Route Zero, it's their relationship to debt, "this weird immaterial power that constrains so many of us" as the team refers to it. I know I'm shackled by it. Chances are you, assuming you're an under-30(something) reader of VICE, have a relationship with it, too. Certainly, Cardboard Computer does. "Our experience is pretty typical: student loans, medical bills, confusing credit cards, stuff like that."

"As dark as it gets, this game is largely about people and their relationships, so there's always some joy in there." – Cardboard Computer

It's an inescapable force in the game world. Dr. Truman, when administering medical care to Conway, talks of how he was lucky enough to get a scholarship with a pharmaceutical company (strings attached, of course) while less fortunate friends were put in a position of irreversible debt. It transpires that the pharmaceutical company is owned by the Consolidated Power Company. It's a banal detail but perceptive, pointing towards a corporate coercion that governs healthcare and energy supply in the States.

And debt frames Act III's climactic situation in the Hard Times Whiskey Distillery, Kentucky Route Zero's most daring and bizarre scene. Conway and Weaver descend into a subterranean industrial space populated by dead-pan skeletons serving their time producing, packing, and delivering whiskey in order to pay off their debt to the distillery. It's macabre but comic, demonstrating a deftness with which Cardboard Computer handle weighty subject matter. "Yeah, there are a lot of ways of approaching the subject matter; even a dark subject can be treated gravely or humorously without being disrespectful or undermining the work." Elliott, Kemenczy and Babbitt, though, are quick to point out that the game isn't just about these systemic, highly charged questions. "As dark as it gets, this game is largely about people and their relationships, so there's always some joy in there."

The imminent Act IV takes the game in a different direction. Ditching the underground roads and caves of the previous episodes, it focuses on a single riverboat journey and the communities that populate its banks. "We see some of the fall out of the decisions in the past episodes," Elliott tells me. Kemenczy chimes in: "In a way there's nothing that is random. Even small esoteric things that could change are all derived from player choices." Consequence, then, rather than fate is the governing force in Kentucky Route Zero, a reminder that we're never wholly able to escape the shitty systems we're a part of.

Follow Cardboard Computer on Twitter for further information about Kentucky Route Zero and its forthcoming acts.

Follow Lewis Gordon on Twitter.

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