Hard Times: Revisiting Acts I-IV of Kentucky Route Zero While Desperately Looking for Work

When Cardboard Computer announced that the fifth and final act of their magical realist adventure game Kentucky Route Zero was finally coming out on January 28th, I decided to replay the first four acts one more time in preparation. I’ve always found that KR0 rewards repeat playthroughs, as I routinely pick up on things I hadn’t before, or come to better appreciate the way that minor details mentioned in passing early on gradually develop into major components of the story. But something else made my time with Kentucky Route Zero feel more pressing and immediate this time around: my own precarious employment situation.

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It’s Hard Times (TM) for a lot of people these days.

When Acts I and II were released in January and May of 2013, I was snugly ensconced as an editor within the machinery of a video games website that was itself part of a massive corporate empire that includes movie studios, television networks, and publishing houses. A big, consolidated kind of company, you might say. It’s not like I thought that job would last forever. I mean, sure, I fantasized that I might get to spend my life working as a game critic, the way people like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert got to spend their professional lives as film critics, but my more realistic side knew that games media values youth, and that I’d probably be edged out sooner or later. (I got a later start than most in the business, and I’m 43 now; clearly, my perspective on video games has calcified into irrelevance.) I guess I did figure, though, that with a few years of editorial experience under my belt, I’d at least be able to find other work without too much trouble, and that, while I’d never be rich, I’d probably be able to make rent without too much worry for the rest of my life, and maybe even buy myself a latte or go on a little getaway every now and then.

Now, with Act V’s release imminent, the struggles of the game’s protagonist Conway and his traveling companions hit much closer to home, because my own situation has dramatically changed. I’ve taken a job working night shifts at a warehouse for one of the biggest corporations in the world, but at the moment, they’re only giving me three shifts a week, and at the rate they’re paying me, after taxes and all, that won’t even be enough for me to cover rent, much less groceries or anything else. And yes, I acknowledge that there’s a sense in which you could say this is my fault, a result of my own inability to adapt to the rapidly changing realities of online media. It’s not that people haven’t urged me to become a “pop culture writer,” or that avenues to doing that were closed to me. It’s that I fundamentally don’t know how, or maybe I just can’t. Let me use a moment from Kentucky Route Zero to try to explain what I mean.

At one point, Conway and crew meet a man named Donald, who laments that his life’s work, an elaborate computer simulation called Xanadu, has fallen into disrepair. He asks the travelers, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to spend your life building something, and then sit powerlessly as your work declines into ruin?” You then get to select which member of your party answers, and most can answer Donald’s question in the affirmative. Conway, for instance, can respond, “I drive deliveries for a small antique shop, and we’re closing down.” Meanwhile, Shannon Márquez, a TV repairwoman who joins Conway’s quest, can answer, “I fix TVs and I’m about to lose the lease on my workshop.”

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Oh, Conway.

Whenever I play this moment, I can almost hear people shouting at Conway and Shannon from the rafters, “Learn to code!” In other words, I hear the argument some might make that all Conway and Shannon have to do to keep getting by is learn some new marketable skill and they’ll be snatched up by employers and be able to continue making a living, no problem. And I don’t know, maybe there are elements of truth to that argument, though with so many people working multiple jobs just to get by living paycheck-to-paycheck, not everyone has the time and money to pursue vocational training in new fields.

But Kentucky Route Zero clearly sympathizes with the Conways and Shannons of the world, those who see their livelihoods becoming obsolete and have no clear path forward for staying afloat. As for my own work as a writer, I’m a critic. That’s what I know how to do. If you pay me to review games, I can do that. But jobs that are purely or mostly about game criticism were always scarce, and they’ve only grown far scarcer in recent years. Now, it seems to me that there’s an increasing emphasis on writing stories that appeal to fans, stories that lend themselves to headlines like “The Ending of Joker, Explained” or “Every Michael Bay Movie, Ranked.” And while I have tremendous respect for those writers who can flourish in a system that demands this, I also know that I’m not one of them, because I just don’t care. I don’t engage with art that way, and if I don’t care about something, if I’m not writing about it from a place of emotional and intellectual engagement, then anything I write about it will not be worth a damn.

So yes, I respect those who can succeed in this new reality, but I also lament that there is little room to just be a critic anymore. It’s also true that publications are relying more and more heavily on freelancers and look, I freelanced my butt off before I got that full-time editorial position I mentioned earlier. For a few years I spent my days working a 9-to-5 call center gig, then I’d come home and devote several more hours every night to playing games and reviewing them. I had the stamina for that sort of thing back then. I can’t cut it as a freelancer anymore. Right now, at 43, I just really need a steady paycheck, and ideally some health benefits. I’ve been rationing the hormones I’m supposed to constantly take for about a year now and I’m pretty much out.

I want to be clear: nobody’s entitled to a career as a video game critic, any more than anyone is entitled to a career as a movie star or a CEO. I’m just saying that seeing your livelihood dry up and not knowing where to turn or what to do is a real problem that a lot of people experience. The characters of Kentucky Route Zero are among those people and now, I am too. I don’t object at all to the idea of working in a warehouse. If anything, I rather like it, in the abstract. There’s a kind of integrity to that sort of physical labor, an opportunity to conduct yourself with integrity even if you’re working for a company that lacks integrity, that doesn’t do right by the people who work for it.

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Dr. Truman explains why he took the scholarship from the pharmaceutical company.

In my early 20s, I had a job for a few weeks going door to door hard-selling newspaper subscriptions. It twisted up my insides. It ran contrary to who I am as a person. I just couldn’t do it and be at any kind of peace with myself. Recently I applied for a position as a story editor with a mobile game studio that puts out narrative games in which you have to spend money to access the best interaction options. I had to take a test, and I didn’t get the job. Part of the feedback in the rejection read “The romantic scene wasn’t monetized at the end,” meaning that I hadn’t put paid interaction options during the sex that concluded the scene in the test. I’m sure that, if given the chance, I could have learned to monetize the fuck out of the sex scenes in their games. But I try to take some comfort in the idea that a role in which you have to figure out how to most effectively monetize sex scenes would not have been a great fit for me. But where do I fit, now? It’s certainly a little tougher to find work now as an out, visibly trans person than it was before I transitioned. I’d gladly go back to working in a call center, if the calls were incoming, and I was able to help people. I can’t do outgoing sales calls. Maybe you think I’m being too particular about the kinds of jobs I will or won’t do, but don’t we all have limits to the kinds of things we can do and still live with ourselves?

I can do the warehouse job with integrity. Yes, I’ll be helping to put more wealth in the coffers of a billionaire and I’m on Team Billionaires Should Not Exist, but maybe there aren’t a whole lot of 100% ethical employment options available under late-stage capitalism. At least I’d be able to conduct my small role in the giant machine with integrity. No guilty conscience, no feelings of discomfort from having to force myself to do something that fundamentally runs contrary to my sense of who I am as a person.

What I object to is the low pay. The paltry hours, which may require me to try to hold down two or three jobs at once. The possibility that I may have to assert my humanity to a company that doesn’t acknowledge it. In Act IV of Kentucky Route Zero, you meet a poor family on your travels. Shannon mentions to them a memorial she’s just seen to miners killed in a mining accident, and the family responds sympathetically. “No miners in their family but [the husband/father] was once injured in a warehouse job, and had to fight for disability pay — they knew what these companies were like, and what it was like to have to assert your humanity to them.”

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A memorial to miners killed by corporate greed.

In Act I, you visit the mine where those miners were killed, and while you’re there, Conway’s leg is injured when a tunnel collapses. Why is the mine so unstable? Why has it claimed so many lives in the past, and why does Conway walk away from it wounded now? Because the Consolidated Power Company, in its greed, pushed its miners to dig too deep, miners that it paid in company scrip, so that even what little money they earned wasn’t really theirs. In Act II, Conway gets his leg treated by a doctor who tells him that the only option he had to avoid spending his life saddled with massive student debt was to take a scholarship from a pharmaceutical company, which came with certain strings attached, such as the need to incorporate a drug called Neurypnol ™ into his treatments. Guess who owns the pharmaceutical company that makes Neurypnol ™ ? That’s right, the Consolidated Power Company.

The Neurypnol gives Conway’s leg a strange, skeletal appearance, and in Act III, we meet people whose entire appearance, head to toe, resembles Conway’s leg. These people are the employees of Hard Times, a liquor distillery affiliated with the power company whose workers seem to hover on the edge of existence, barely even alive, indebted to Hard Times, working to pay off that debt. Conway’s medical debt means that he is now an employee of Hard Times himself, whether he likes it or not. And in Act IV, he is taken away by Hard Times employees to begin his new work, his appearance now completely shifted, indistinguishable from the other skeletal employees of Hard Times.

The ethereal, sometimes almost invisible appearance of the Hard Times employees sometimes makes me think of my mom, who worked so hard for so long trying to keep a roof over our heads, while creditors constantly called. She worked the night shift doing data entry at a medical lab and slept through the days. She didn’t get to inhabit my life or her own as fully as she ought have been able to. She was exhausted all the time. She never got to experience anything approaching financial security despite working full time at the same job for a few decades. And she never got to retire.

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Conway, claimed.

Before he’s taken away in Act IV, Conway says to Shannon of his conscription by Hard Times, “I’ve got to repay my debt. Hell, I should be grateful for the opportunity — if you want to die with any dignity, you’ve got to settle up. That’s why it’s such a damned shame when people go sudden.” When I read this, I feel like what I’m hearing in Conway is the way America instills in you the feeling that it is good and noble to toil away in exploitative conditions, treading water or worse, and that if you fail, it is your fault, and you should carry shame about that. It makes me so fucking angry. But the truth is that I do feel like a failure, a huge fucking failure, and I’m deeply ashamed of it. And yet I know that there’s so much of value that I’m tremendously capable of doing, if only I were given the chance.

I thought I’d found where I belonged, years back when I was working for that gaming website. I guess I was wrong. I’m still looking. One thing I love about Kentucky Route Zero is how the group keeps getting bigger, taking on more and more wanderers and lost souls as the journey continues. Belonging among those who don’t belong anywhere is still a kind of belonging. Some people never even have that. I hope I find where I belong soon. But I worry that I’ll be like Conway, who can’t be saved, who falls under. Though I suppose we won’t know Conway’s fate for certain until Act V comes out on Tuesday.

In the uncertainty before Act V’s release, I keep asking myself what it is I want for Conway, as I myself prepare to start working nights at a job that won’t pay me enough to live. The sentimental part of me hopes that somehow his friends can rescue him from his fate, but I’m also worried that such a resolution would play like a copout. The last thing I want is for Kentucky Route Zero, which has confronted the exploitation of American workers with such clarity and righteous anger thus far, to go soft in the end, to offer a happy ending that rings false to all of us who have loved the game so much because of the ways in which we feel its truth. So perhaps I do hope that Conway’s fate is sealed, that he will die in servitude to Hard Times, and that even in death he will continue to serve the company, as previous employees have, who, we are led to believe by the chilling inscriptions on tombstones in a graveyard near the distillery, are turned into whiskey when they die. This feels like it might be the most authentic resolution: one that offers Conway no escape.

But I hope you don’t mind me saying that I sure do want something better than that for myself.

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