[light spoilers for all Acts of Kentucky Route Zero follow. if you think you want to play it and not be spoiled, please play it, finish it, and come back. i hope you do.]
This is not a review of Kentucky Route Zero. If you want to know my opinion, it’s incredible and will only become further accepted as “essential reading” for game enthusiasts as time goes on. There is nothing quite like it. There are so many profound moments where I just had to let the text box hang on screen, highlighted and ready to move on, and let the words land and wash over me slowly. I took a screenshot during every one of these moments as I played, not including cutscenes. I ended the game with 34 screenshots and still find myself wanting to go back and capture certain moments.
For a game as narratively rich as Kentucky Route Zero, there are several powerful themes that I could write about. If you want to hear me ramble about any of them, find me in person when I have free time and we can get into it. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to talk about the ever-present force of the Consolidated Power Company (CPC) in the game.
The Consolidated Power Company acts as the main antagonist in a game that is mostly a cast of characters just trying to get by in the world they’ve sculpted. Everyone you meet has a story about the CPC and none of them are good. The player-controlled characters will never see or interact with a CPC worker directly. You will only hear the disembodied voice of one of their workers watching the player characters in security footage. You will see the scattered trail of what the company has done in hospitals, museums, and bars.
The Consolidated Power Company took over the local mine that you discover in Act 1. As you explore, you see the culture of the miners that worked there. Their decorations line the walls and give life to the darkness. Maybe you can still hear their working songs echo in the deepest parts of the cave, reverberating long after the voices who sang them have passed. Ultimately, the CPC’s management decisions end up with the mine flooding due to lack of precautions, killing twenty-eight miners. The company moves on with their business to other parts of Kentucky.
The Consolidated Power Company demolishes an entire neighborhoods and builds a museum dedicated to preserving it in its place. The old residents of the neighborhood now live on display for out-of-towners to come through and gawk at. Admission is not free.
Some of the original residents move away to try and create a new town of their own in the woods, but most are too beaten down by the hand they’ve been dealt to do anything about it. All they want is their old homes back, so they’ll settle for anything remotely resembling it, no matter how awful it is.
I grew up in Sonoma County, California. There was always a mix of agriculture, suburbs, and big money in the region. The county has sprawling hills that allow cattle and vineyards to flourish, and much of the economy is invested in these industries. Vineyards have their headquarters and wineries that act as the gateway to Wine Country tourism to the north, farms to the south. Sandwiched in between are the major cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma, now home to many tech companies’ satellite offices. It’s a relatively humble part of the state.
As the tech industry rapidly destroyed any sense of culture and stable housing in the Bay Area, the people who worked and continue to work there needed places to live. Over the past ten years, the hour-long commute between Santa Rosa and San Francisco has become increasingly familiar to the people who had no choice but to leave the city where they work, the homes they had lived in for ages.
Almost 70% of California’s power lines are owned and maintained by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a public corporation. This means that a public utility is being run by investors as though it were only a business and not a basic need that Californians require. PG&E is responsible for ensuring that its shareholders are experiencing comfortable returns on their investment. Following the company’s 2001 bankruptcy, the company charged above-market prices to the customers who had no other options for years.
This money didn’t go toward maintaining their existing infrastructure. In October 2017, twelve fires broke out across Northern California as a result of PG&E lines that were in disrepair. The largest of these was the Tubbs Fire that destroyed an unprecedented number of homes in Santa Rosa and the surrounding areas, totaling around $1.2 billion.
A larger fire happened a little more than a year later in November 2018. Same story, only in a town called Paradise three hours away. This one made national news. The president of the United States even showed up to conduct a press conference where he said the name of the town incorrectly and promptly left.
In an effort to cut costs and attempt to limit additional fires from breaking out, PG&E started cutting power to certain parts of the state whenever high winds were blowing to avoid any decrepit power lines from starting new fires. The fires still happened anyway, like in 2019. The rolling blackouts seem to conveniently miss the areas where major tech offices and headquarters are located. They don’t miss the homes of people with medical equipment who rely on power to run.
As time goes on, PG&E’s outages will only continue to get worse. The company went bankrupt for the second time in early 2019. The executives in charge of the power lines’ safety have all resigned, on to other executive-level positions in other companies. The faceless PG&E will continue to be funded by the lives of those they’ve ruined. It will shamble on in some restructured way, maybe with a new name for better optics. People need power: we can only keep going.
After the fires were over in 2017, families with insurance policies had insurance adjusters come by, to determine how much of the damage they would have to pay for. They usually decided that they shouldn’t pay much. People who had been continually giving money to insurance companies for the specific instance of a wildfire were given measly sums or nothing by those same companies’ payouts. This didn’t just happen to a few people. Every day on social media was seeing a friend’s family launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to support themselves when the insurance companies burned them.
We know the companies that fail us by their acronyms on the top of their letterheads serving us bills we cannot afford, on trucks and billboards in our streets, illuminated above us on buildings in neon, always keeping tabs. They will not forget who is owed what unless it is convenient for themselves.
Every time I drive into Santa Rosa, I am greeted by a huge sign erected over still-scorched earth proudly stating, “SONOMA COUNTY STRONG: WE WILL RISE FROM THE ASHES.” Behind this sign are empty parking lots and streets where thousands of homes and businesses used to stand. We do not have the convenience of forgetting.
Playing Kentucky Route Zero is like listening to a distorted echo of my own life. The fictionalized Kentucky natives live in homes flooded due to negligence on behalf of the CPC. They construct boats. They have birds carry their homes to the forest. They live underground. My friends and I all own respirators and air purifiers for the fires that happen every summer, so we can lounge around together in our own homes with elastic bands holding the filters over faces in place. We evacuate to each other’s homes outside of the fire danger zones. We move out-of-state.
Throughout the game’s five acts, you see the different lengths that people will go to have any semblance of control over their own lives again in the face of the CPC. On one end of the spectrum, you see people radicalized by vitriol, living on the fringes of society because it is the only reasonable and just option left to them. On the other side you see people so downtrodden and defeated by the system in place that they must beg for the most basic of rights, only to have the CPC act as if it is a profound kindness to provide them.
In some sort of magical coincidence, my workplace sent out an email while I was in the process of writing this piece. The Human Resources department announced that they’re rolling out a system where you can donate your sick leave to another employee who has exhausted all their Sick and Annual Leave balances and is still facing more unpaid time off. The company recognizes that this is a problem and a regular occurrence, but rather than using their funds or resources to address it, they ask you to beg your coworkers for your right to pay rent and stay alive.
In one of the most beautiful passages in the opening scene of KRZ, a character describes what the dignity of routine and a hard day’s work and what that means to people in Kentucky. As the game goes on, it continually extrapolates upon what this idea means under modern capitalism. What do you do when your dignity in your own work is stripped from you by people who will never see the repercussions of their destructive policies? Where do you work when the corporation that runs your part of the world closes every other business? At what point do you have to give up your convictions to have a place to sleep and food to eat?
Kentucky Route Zero shows how corporations like PG&E construct the systems around you to push you deeper and deeper under debt. The CPC wants people to do the jobs they will eventually replace with machines for little pay while working on the technology to do so. They want people to live in their workplaces, until the lines between work, home, and leisure become so blurred that they are indistinguishable. Characters find camaraderie with those working in the factory where they will work off debt for the rest of their lives. Maybe there’s a comfort in that.
At Kentucky Route Zero’s conclusion, there is a dialogue option for a character to say they’re going to march to the power company and finally give them a piece of their mind. This is never an actual possibility. In corporations, responsibility is dispersed among enough people and offices, that when a major failure happens, it’s nobody’s fault. We need a word for that.
Corporations call it limited liability.
Kentucky Route Zero lets you decide what it is.
I don’t live in California anymore, but I am very close with my friends there. I worry about them every summer. I worry about my family. Every time I go home to visit for a long holiday, I wonder if it will be the last time that I sleep in my childhood bedroom. There is never any way of knowing when something we love will leave for the last time.
The first few times I saw the lawn signs and bumper stickers declaring “Sonoma County Strong” during my return home, I let the cynic in me win. I saw them as political platitudes that make easy moneymaking opportunities for those savvy enough to hop on the trend first. Like a profile picture frame that shows “you care” about whatever cause is popular in the moment before being quickly discarded. Now, I hear from my friends about groups forming in Santa Rosa to help feed and take care of those homeless or displaced as a result of the fire.
Not the government. Not a wealthy philanthropist who has deemed the cause worthy enough to be graced by their money. Not a corporation trying to get some tax breaks and good PR. Regular people like soccer moms and ex-shut ins and quiet neighbors and college students are the ones taking care of those people from their own bank accounts. The same incomes being strangled by the housing market that evicted those they take care of.
When I play Kentucky Route Zero and see a world of people just trying to secure their own homes with dignity, I see my own experiences expressed in a more poetic way than I could ever say. I see my found family and the found families around me huddling together to fight and make homes for each other. There may never be any escape from the forces that actively work to ruin what we love. There is no going back to the world we knew.
We are all we have. Solidarity forever.