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'Kentucky Route Zero' Pays Off on Nine Years of Hope and Doubt

A masterful exploration of shame, debt, magic, and capitalism comes to its surprising conclusion.
January 28, 2020, 6:43pm

There are light spoilers for the previously released Kentucky Route Zero Acts I-IV below. If you want to know nothing else, know that whether you have been playing this game episodically during it’s now seven year long release period or if you have been waiting for the full package, it has my highest recommendation. Also, content warning for discussion of dentistry .

Act I

In retrospect I don’t know how I didn’t see that Kentucky Route Zero would be a game fundamentally about capitalism. Or, that’s not right, exactly, because there are many elements of capitalism that are absent from the game—the rich people which last year’s Disco Elysium skewer loudly, directly, and repeatedly, for example, barely appear in KRZ. Instead, it’s probably more fair to say that Kentucky Route Zero is a game about what capitalism does to people, how it turns them into fuel and into highway both, so that it can spread further and further, devouring more and more along the way.

Maybe I didn’t see it because the landscape was so different. It would be facile to say that 2011 was a simpler time (whether for video games or for the world), but I think it is fair to say that for many, it seemed simpler. I was certainly a simpler (if still well-intentioned) critic. So when Cardboard Computer launched the Kickstarter for the game on January 7, 2011—a full year before the massive, multi-million dollar Double Fine Adventure and Wasteland 2 campaigns ushered in crowdfunding as a common fixture of gaming in the 2010s—maybe I just didn’t expect much from something so humble. After all, it only raised $8,583, and I’d been taught that budget and quality were, if not causal, at least correlative.

In what might seem like an unrelated thread, but which, I promise, has deep relevance to Kentucky Route Zero, this was also about the time I fell down the stairs of the townhouse I rented a tiny room in, chipping my right permanent mandibular first molar, tooth #30 per the Universal Numbering System. (“Although it is named the ‘universal numbering system,’” Wikipedia tells me, “it is also called the ‘American system’ as it is only used in the United States.” Hmm.)

From late 2010 until mid 2015, I was living in Canada, attending the University of Western Ontario’s Media Studies program, and making something like $15k a year as teaching assistant plus, eventually, some extra cash from freelance writing. Which meant that not only was the high price of fixing a chipped tooth (yes, even in Canada) out of my range, even Kentucky Route Zero’s original, $40 Kickstarter ask wasn’t something I could easily fit into my budget. Which was a bummer, because Cardboard Computer’s pitch was laser targeted at me.

Though the game looks much different than in its original Kickstarter video, many of the basics laid out in the campaign remain the same: Kentucky Route Zero follows the journey of Conway, an antique deliveryman who would travel the roads (visible and invisible) of Kentucky, meet some memorable friends, and make one last delivery before his employer shut down shop. Not only did the developers use the words “magical realism,” a literary genre I barely knew (yet was convinced I loved), they also described the game as a “slow-paced” adventure, “focusing on exploring new environments and talking with new people.”

Kentucky Route Zero is greater than whatever buzzwords are used to sell it.

In the face of the Call of Duty-driven FPS ascendancy, I’d become someone who demanded more from games. As a young writer with an underdeveloped critical toolkit and the overconfidence that often comes along with that, I could just tell that Cardboard Computer’s pitch for KRZ was promising the sorts of things that I was desperate to see more of, and which I hoped the then-burgeoning “indie boom” would bring.

I was right, but what I couldn’t predict was that not only would these naive hopes of younger self be met, they’d actually be exceeded. Put simply: Kentucky Route Zero is greater than whatever buzzwords are used to sell it. It makes me want to write with the fervor of naivete, yet rewards serious engagement. It’s a masterful American tragedy that avoids the cheapest tendencies of games like it, while leveraging techniques distinct and unique to gaming as a medium. Nine years after it was announced, the journey has been worth every day. I doubt I could be happier with it.

Screenshot courtesy Cardboard Computer

Act II

When Kentucky Route Zero: Act I released two years after its successful Kickstarter, its $7 standalone price tag still seemed like more than I could afford for something reportedly so short. But a month later, Cardboard Computer released Limits & Demonstrations, the first of the game’s free “Interludes” which bridge the game’s major acts together and offer some additional backstory and context for the events to come. (These interludes are now built directly into the game, and though you could skip from Act to Act, they should absolutely be played as you progress through the story.)

Limits & Demonstrations features three of KRZ’s recurring background characters, Emily, Ben, and Bob, visiting a museum of conceptual and interactive art. Playing as the trio—or maybe it’s more fair to say in league with the trio—you wander from exhibit to exhibit, choosing dialog options and determining if and how the three friends interpret and play around with what’s on display. I write “in league with” because even in this free interlude, it was clear that KRZ had a peculiar understanding of player agency and control.

Instead of embodying a single character, Kentucky Route Zero casts you as a sort of co-author to the game’s own writers. Though you do directly move a character around an environment, a la most adventure games, which character you control often changes from scene to scene, and sometimes even within a given sequence. Additionally, from the game’s first act through its finale, you bounce between interlocutors in the game’s many conversations, choosing which character will speak and which line will be said. Conway, the aforementioned deliveryman, might kick off a conversation with a beleaguered and verbose bureaucrat, but you might choose to be Shannon Márquez, a TV repairwoman and Conway’s traveling companion, to end it with a brusque response.

This isn’t a game where you explore BioWare-style dialog trees, exhausting options and repeatedly returning to “root” topics. Instead, you make constant forward progress, with little transparency as to what selections are being tracked and no way (bar save-scumming, replaying, or digging around in the game’s files) to see what another choice might lead you to.

Today, as more players are familiar with story-driven adventure games and visual novels, this might not seem so striking. But in 2013, it contrasted sharply with both the popular BioWare model and especially with Telltale’s The Walking Dead (released a year prior to great acclaim), which signposted “important” choices directly with the now commonly parodied so-and-so will remember that text appearing directly on screen.

Even in the brief Limits & Demonstrations, I was never quite sure when one of my decisions “meant” something. Or rather, what KRZ would come to teach me was that player choice doesn’t need to be flagged, cataloged, and externalized-into-grand-setpiece-reveal in order to contain meaning. Which is probably why I replayed L&D over and over, trying to understand what it was doing, and why it was so compelling.

Eventually I broke down and bought the whole game, all at once. Things would be a little tighter that month, but it would be worth it. I’d just have to be a little more responsible with my cash, pack a few more lunches, buy a couple less coffees. I’d be more responsible.

I didn’t realize yet, but Kentucky Route Zero was winding up to punch me in the nose for thinking this way.

Screenshot courtesy Cardboard Computer

Act III

I said at the very top that I don’t know how I didn’t see how Kentucky Route Zero is all about capitalism and what it does to people because, upon revisiting it, Act I is dotted with telltale signals. Even before you make it to the failed coal mine of the chapter’s striking climax, Conway and Shannon visit one location after another, each touched by the broken promises of a system powered by those broken promises.

As you drive around the stark black-and-white map of a few of Kentucky’s southern counties, a pair of text-only vignettes feature Conway visiting the shuttered offices of a local energy co-ops, which have been pushed out of business by the ubiquitous Consolidated Power Co. Now, their conference rooms walls have rotted away and filled with glowing fungus, or have been turned into encampments for those made homeless (whether by Consolidated or the then-recent subprime mortgage crisis, who could say).

Maybe I didn’t see them because I simply didn’t trust that KRZ was actually committed to these themes instead of just using signifiers diluted by their regular presence in the pop culture palette. A dystopian power company? Sure, why not, toss it in. A mine ruined by poor safety regulations? Standard fare.

But when an accident at the end of Act I became the focal point of Act 2, which is centered on the accessibility (and cost) of medical care, things started to click into place. And by the time Act 3 came out in 2014, two things were clear to me.

The first was that Kentucky Route Zero was a game about debt and shame, in the many shapes and sizes those things take.

In what I think is the best of the game’s interludes, The Entertainment, you both watch and participate in the staging of an experimental play about a struggling bar and the struggling people who work and drink in it. Just before the play’s final scene, one of the characters—a young woman distraught over her parent’s floundering lives and her own role in the Moloch-machine of capitalism—tells that her boss has invented “a new financial technology,” “a new type of debt” she clarifies when prodded. What kind?

PEARL: You know what we do at the pawn shop? "Secured loans." We don't buy used goods, we take personal property as collateral on a loan. Then if you don't pay your loan, we sell your stuff.

HARRY: Sure, I get that.

PEARL: It works for people who couldn't get loans otherwise. I guess. Now Hardin has this new idea. He calls it a "payday advance." But it's just a short-term, unsecured loan with a wicked interest rate. There's no filtering. Most who borrow can't keep up. Then he has this big pile of debts with big returns on paper, and he can sell those debts to a bank.

HARRY: Huh. Who's borrowing like that?

PEARL: Who do you think? When Joe put me in charge of it? The only dark-skinned clerk in the whole shop?

Ah. The stage was set for further tragedy about the systemic exploitation upon the vulnerable, something only furthered by KRZ’s third act. By about halfway through the third chapter, it was clear that the game’s core cast was settling, and that you’d spend the bulk of this adventure with a disabled alcoholic past his prime, a working class Mexican woman, an orphaned child whose parents whose family had been made homeless during the subprime mortgage crisis, and a pair of androids designed for labor but who’d recreated themselves as stylish (and queer-coded) musicians. It was impossible for me to ignore that this was a game about the vulnerable and marginalized, those who fight to flourish in spite of the systems that demand they fail.

The second thing that was made clear to me by that spring of 2014, and was now impossible to ignore, was that I couldn’t chew on the right side of my mouth anymore. It happened slowly, a chip became something deeper—a quiet infection probably; nerve pain definitely. Too expensive to fix—maybe more expensive now, and even exploring my options came with something else: A conversation about how I’d made bad choices.

The worst thing you can be, under capitalism, is a leech. Someone who takes more than they give. And sometimes you can be a leech even as you pay for a good or a service meant to make you a better worker. “You know, I have a lot on my plate already. You could’ve prevented this. “Why didn’t you take care of it sooner?” “Why weren’t you more careful?” “You could’ve gotten a second, or third, or fourth job.” Capitalism, it turns out, will remember that.

I’m not sure if you heard, but that’s what it means to be a person under capitalism: You are an agent. The self is not the immortal soul or the complex firing of synapses, not the swelling network of causes and effects that led to you, and certainly not a being whose basic rights are enshrined by law and defended by the rest of humankind. You are an actor who makes choices. Good, profitable ones and bad, costly ones. Not just costly for you, but costly for everyone around you.

Part of the trick used by this ideology is that its agents will convince you that these causal chains and guilt are natural and real. They aren’t just an interpretation of actions, but a revelation of the truth of things. It is an entire procedure of control and discipline, that spins through our earliest systems of education and our most popular of pop culture. (You can point to a number of theoretical apparati to explain how it does this, though Foucault’s notion of biopower, which poses that structures of power recreate themselves by enforcing control over our bodies and behaviors, is probably most cogent.) When things go bad, even when it’s out of your control, you line up to take the blame. Shame sets in and the only solution, it seems, is giving more of yourself over to the machine.

This, it turns out, is the tragedy that Kentucky Route Zero is most interested in. Act 3 ends with the revelation of a new debt. Someone you care for has, because of a particular susceptibility, gone into the red. It is a targeted attack on someone’s weakness, which is then fastened into place by this ideology of personal responsibility.

A new financial technology.

Screenshot courtesy Cardboard Computer

Act IV

What follows in the game’s final two acts are a meditation on the shame of being a failure under capitalism and an exploration of the demands that shame places on us. Having now revisited its opening chapters, it’s clearer than ever that this was always the beating heart of Kentucky Route Zero.

In fact, it doesn’t only want to tell a story about shame, it wants to confront it practically and procedurally. It wants to shake us out of its hold on us, convince us to reject the world of predictable actuary tables and accept—maybe even demand or build—something a little fuzzier, a little more resistant to categorization and cataloguing.

This is why, I think, KRZ never offers any of the player-choice metrics that games like Life Is Strange or The Walking Dead offer at the end of their chapters. (As designer and academic Robert Yang writes, “If [ KRZ_] were a AAA game, the back of the box would boast, ‘over 1000 story variables tracked!’) This opacity doesn’t just encourage multiple playthroughs, it makes the slow mapping of all potential choice variations overwhelming and unappealing, if not literally impossible. ( _Colossal Cave Adventure may be a clear influence, but I’m not sure that KRZ wants to reward the same style of obstinate spelunking.)

This irreducibility is also true for the game’s dazzling visual style. Lots of words have already been spilled by critics praising the game’s aesthetic work, and they’re all well earned. KRZ moves effortlessly from dreamy to dreary, oppressive to oblique, all in an effort to show the beauty and complexity of the world that is being closed down and ironed out by the Consolidated Electric Co ( KRZ’s chief allegory for the colonizing power of capitalism).

In this line of thought, the reversal, the anecdote, the coincidence (and so also, the unproductive contradiction, the unexcused absence, the unlucky accident for which the miraculous and unexplained are metaphors for)—they already exist on their own merits, and it’s only after-the-fact that capitalism frames them as failure.

This impulse traces itself back to one of KRZ’s many influences, Gabriel Garcia Márquez (whose work is often credited with popularizing magical realism, and for whom the game’s own Márquez family are named). Márquez told The Atlantic in 1973 that “surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America”:

"[One day] my wife and I were asleep and the doorbell rings. I open the door and a man says to me, 'I came to fix the ironing cord.' My wife, from the bed, says, 'We don't have anything wrong with the iron here.' The man asks, 'Is this apartment two?' 'No,' I say, 'upstairs.' Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it."

I don’t want to undersell this point, so: I just don’t know that KRZ works as a whole if it isn’t able to visually communicate the breadth, chaos, and seeming-impossibility of everyday life. It needs to be believable in its unbelievability. It wants to tell us that it isn’t strange that the puddles in the museum parking lot reflect the night sky so clearly that it feels like you’re running across the stars. That it isn’t weird that the trees in the second act’s forest blend foreground and background, sometimes occluding a character by showing what is behind them in their place. That it honestly isn’t all that surprising that Ezra’s brother is a giant eagle named Julian, nor that he knows how to use the phone.

Screenshot courtesy Cardboard Computer

What’s strange is that the Consolidated Power Co. would want to shut this all down, build roads over it, and put you in debt for being there in the first place. As the game progresses, the way you move around the world changes too, and the further you get from Consolidated’s world of interstates the easier that traversal gets. The reverse is true too: When a haunting cemetery in the woods gives way to a blocky, modern factory owned by Consolidated, you end up exploring the facility in an awkward utility cart. Despite being haunted in its own way (the factory gives a whole new twist to the familiar belief that ghosts are dead people with unfinished business), the result is a space that feels constrained and choking, despite being one of the largest interiors you’ve been to.

Under-girding all of it this is that accident from Act I, the mobility it takes from a character, and the costs of trying to get some of it back. The Consolidated system (that is, the American system) has no room for accidents or mistakes, at least not individual mistakes. If you fall down the stairs and chip a tooth it’s a profound personal failure because you should have known you might fall down stairs and chip a tooth, and planned your life accordingly.

That same logic exonerates the powerful and pushes the blame back on their victims. Corporate malfeasance? Bureaucratic blunders? Those get a pass because, according to this logic, the people who get harmed are really the people who should have done something differently. Sometimes the pipes under your house belch up poison water, and you drink it for years, and you get sick, but you should have bought those filters there was never any reason to think you needed. Sometimes a city conspires to turn your neighborhood into a dump, and the air around you gets a little worse, and you develop a cough, but really, why didn’t you just move? Sometimes dozens of coal miners lose their lives in a collapse, but that’s only because they chose to lay down their lives for the cause of “black gold” not because the company ignored safety precautions and calculated the cost of disaster was cheaper than prevention. (To say nothing of the thousands of others who’ve died to safety failures in less dramatic ways.)

Which leaves us (and the characters of KRZ) a choice: Do we give into the logic of capitalism, let the shame consume us, and begin to expand the highway that brought us to this destination in hopes of settling our debts to a system that has only ever given us the language of personal failure? Or, do we find some other strategy? Develop “new techniques” of our own? Do we find alternatives, develop oppositional positions, queer the normative, engage in revolution?

If Kentucky Route Zero ended here, I think I’d be happy with it, but with its final act, it takes another step, and makes things even more dire before.

Act V

“...[I]n our contemporary world,” writes philosopher Achille Mbembe in his essay Necropolitics, “weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”

Mbembe is writing in response to the aforementioned idea of Foucault’s biopower and biopolitics. While it might be true for some that power exerts itself through systems of discipline which coach and coerce people into behaving in the ways necessary for that system of power to reproduce itself, Mbembe argues that the the powerful also subjugate and control through the exposure to death.

This is the second throughline in Kentucky Route Zero, which only fully comes into view in its final act: Do those entrusted and/or empowered to provide what is simply necessary to live manage to do it? Who is given access to clean drinking water, medical care, safe transit, and food storage? Whose homes can survive a disaster? And as above, whose fault is it when these things go wrong and how are they accountable?

Act V—which has a framing and focus that I won’t spoil here, but which took me utterly by surprise, yet which seems (in the best way) necessary and obvious in retrospect—makes the player confront the cost of trying to build something outside of capitalism, a system which wields the power of necropolitcs in order to deny entire styles of life. It shows you first hand how bad things can go even in a fairly privileged place when you try to to live in opposition to capital. It underscores how capitalism can destroy your infrastructure long before you realize it’s ruined. And only then does it ask you: Should we still try to build a life somewhere else? (And as is KRZ’s way, it asks you this a number of times, and never exactly tells you that it’s asking you this.)

I confronted this choice last weekend while on an antibiotic called amoxicillin and the type of ibuprofen they give you in an orange prescription bottle, which I think is the same type you buy from the shelf, except they put more in each pill. On Friday night, I got the right permanent mandibular first molar, tooth #30 per the Universal Numbering System, pulled out of my skull, where it had been rotting for nearly a decade.

At some point, a few years ago, I got decent dental coverage, the kind where copays wouldn’t break my bank. But I got it along with something else: a terrible workaholism that I wore like a badge of honor. In 2016, when I joined VICE to launch what was then called Waypoint, I was regularly working 60 hour weeks, plus whatever I was putting into Friends at the Table, the actual play podcast that was at that point still just a hobby.

Back then, maybe tooth #30 was still salvageable. But when would I find the time to step away from the office? I’d make the time when things calmed down, I told myself. You know, when things were easier. When we got a little more headcount, maybe. A little more budget. (If you have been following online media at all lately, you know that counting on these things is an easy way to lie to yourself). It didn’t matter. I had debts, figurative and literal, and I needed to work more. In the words of one Kentucky Route Zero character, I felt that I should be grateful for the opportunity. And if you want to live or die with any dignity you’ve “got to settle up.”

And while I was settling, it built, and built, and built and finally, in the late summer of 2018, it broke. After a fraught conversation with my boss about burnout and ambition and how much I’d already given and how little I had left, I bit into an almond and my left permanent mandibular second molar, tooth #18 per the Universal Numbering System, cracked in half. The wrong tooth, one that had given me no problems up until that moment.

The world is already filled with reversal and surprises.

(I don’t need to get into the details, but it took something like 15 months of dental work (and shameful conversations) to fix that particular surprise. Which is why I’ve only just gotten to rotten #30 now that that good dental coverage is behind me.)

Whether you’re a revolutionary or a reactionary or just trying to make your rent (like the characters of Kentucky Route Zero, so special because of their ordinariness), the world is filled with these snares that can drag us not only into debt, but into patterns of action that only worsen the situation, things that prey upon our worst instincts and a whole heap of traits that have nothing to do with our choices at all. The tragedy that Kentucky Route Zero wants us to confront is that the real Consolidated Power Companies of the world have made us pay for the privilege of digging our own graves, and convinced us to smile while doing it.

Except, and this is the sliver of hope it offers, what if they aren’t snares? Sure, like snares, they’re laid out for us to wander into, and if they get around us, they will begin to drag us away. But snares are definitive, and Kentucky Route Zero has already told us that the world is never as simple as “definitive.”

One of the exhibits in Limits & Demonstrations is an interactive audio recording of a research project, moving mysteriously through a nearby forest. Lula, who is recording the outing, speaks into her recorder: “We’re on a dirt trail, in the park. Or, well, it’s not really a trail…” Before she can continue, Donald, the most committed member of the small team—perhaps tragically so—shouts from afar, “It’s a trail!” But it isn’t, and, Lula finds a different word for it: “It’s more like a tendency. There tend to be fewer plants here, on the path we've been walking.”

It’s not that these machines that capitalism uses on us—biopolitics and necropolitics, shame and death—are unavoidable paths that we cannot escape. They’re tendencies. We cannot ignore them and their power, but we cannot accept them as innate, natural qualities of our world that we’re obligated to work alongside, either. As the ever-essential critic Carolyn Petit writes in her piece about the game’s fourth act, “debt is not some righteous fucking burden!” (She didn’t put an exclamation point on it, but I felt one there, lingering.)

Given all of this, it might be a surprise to hear that In its final act, the revolutionary case that Kentucky Route Zero makes isn’t fiery so much as sentimental. Despite that, it works. It lays out the beauty of life, the possibility of what we could have if we work together and take some risks to build something better. It never for a second says that it will be easy or even that it will be successful. But, as it always does so well, it visualizes something at the edges of the imagination with striking clarity, a visual metaphor that won’t leave my mind for a long time.

In these final moments—which I won’t describe more clearly, because I know that for so many, this has been a nine year journey they want to see through on their own— KRZ makes one final reversal, enlisting shame as a revolutionary weapon instead of a reactionary one: Look at this! it says. Look what we could have! And looking at it, I could see another world, one where we take care of each other, where clean water, and dental care, and free gender expression, and economic stability, and everything else would be possible. And I felt in my skin and in my bones and in my teeth that not fighting for that better world would make me a fucking coward.

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