The Great American Video Game
In late 2019, I was presented with a rare and exciting opportunity. At the time I was working for Trader Joe’s. It was my first grocery store job after nearly ten years of working in restaurants. Some small, hopeful part of myself thought that the change in post and pace might refresh me after so many years as a slave to knives and ovens. Restaurant work is thankless, fast-paced, and difficult. It wears down the body, saddles many people with alcoholism or drug addiction, and for me, exacerbated my worsening depression to dangerous levels. When I secured the job at Trader Joe’s I was elated — here was something that, while not special, was different.
My time at the grocery store — a small stint of only a few months — was lonely, frustrating, and slow. While it was refreshing to not have the pressure of tickets and prep sweating down my neck, the job was bloated with incompetence, a lack of clarity, and uninspired repetition. Despite believing that the work might save me some physical sacrifice, my knees suffered more in those few months than they ever did working kitchen lines. Worst of all, despite being organized as a “top-down” format that put the workers first, the corporate design and management of Trader Joe’s is appalling. Trader Joe’s is infamously anti-union, creating a sort of “union illusion” within their stores that serves to satisfy the employees and keep the “friendly neighborhood grocery store” (that currently has over 500 nationwide chains) safe from union activity.
Depressed, listless, and worn, in November of 2019 there was an opportunity to jump ship from the grocery store wasteland and head to greener pastures. Not three minutes from where I lived, a bakery was opening. This bakery was being headed by some familiar chefs, it employed my friends, and the administration was initially positive and welcoming. The pay was good and they were suspiciously warm to my questions about unionizing and putting the employees before profit and capitalist greed. It seemed like a golden opportunity — not my dream job, certainly, but a place where I could cut a good paycheck and wouldn’t be taken for granted while I pursued my writing.
The thing is, under the designs of Corporate America and the yoke of capitalism, no such place truly exists, and I was going to suffer an astoundingly painful lesson that would not only affect me, but over sixty other people. Greed, debt, and the designs of capitalism don’t settle for the sufferings of the individual — they are part of an insidiously constructed web that casts itself over us all.
They are insidious things, as dangerous as a broken leg gone untreated, or a coming storm.
Although Kentucky Route Zero’s journey began back in 2011, I didn’t play the game until recently, when the collected edition made its way to the Nintendo Switch. Stuck in early access for a few years, Act 1 released in 2013 to critical acclaim — garnishing hype, awards, and widely lauded as an incredible indie work. I played Life Is Strange episodically back during its initial release, and thoroughly enjoyed ruminating over the little details between each chapter, wondering what could possibly happen next. While I unfortunately missed out on the same experience for Kentucky Route Zero, the seven-year-long release of the game cemented it as many people’s game of the decade — an award rightly deserved.
Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game, a visual novel of sorts set across the real and fictional tableaus of Kentucky. Our wayward hero is an aged man named Conway, who is driving an aged truck carrying antiques across the aged state, looking to make his final delivery at the address of 5 Dogwood Drive. At the start of the game Conway learns that not only does 5 Dogwood Drive possibly not exist, but to get to it he must find a mythical highway called the Zero, an ethereal route that might — but might not — lead him to making his final delivery.
Partnered only with his trusty old hound who is wearing a straw hat, Conway leaves the gas station of Equus Oils and heads out armed with new directions, only vaguely hopeful that he might locate the Zero, finish the delivery, and return home. As Conway makes his way across Kentucky, his journey is riddled with supernatural sights, colorful characters, and odd happenings that both impede and progress his way toward 5 Dogwood Drive.
The magical realism of Kentucky Route Zero comes through not only from its surreal locations (such as The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces or the Zero itself) but from the game’s incredible dialogue, which is often laced with dreamy, poetic prose. Characters speak in biblical and canonical reference, story beats are often presented through bluesy folk music, and the design of the fictional Kentucky swings between monochromatic minimalist to full, beautifully pixelated backdrops that could easily serve as painted works. All of this serves to benefit the point of Kentucky Route Zero, making the delivery system of its narrative both a dream and a nightmare.
The American Dream
Shannon: “Do you have any debts?”
Conway: “I owe some people some apologies.”
In America, the national debt has surpassed a total of $27 trillion, bringing it nearly 20% above the country’s GDP. Debt held by the public was approximately 77% of GDP in 2017, ranked 43rd highest out of 207 countries. Back in 2014, Wal-Mart publicly admitted that its business model is predatory, that it determines its business operation on risks and uncertainties that include “changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplement[al] Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.” [via Forbes]
While so many American suffer under the weight of poverty, an additional 8 million slipped below the poverty line during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The American Dream — long classified as owning your own property, having a respectable salary and raising a family — has been a ghastly illusion for so many decades now that it has not been radically enjoyed by multiple generations. Instead, the new American Dream is the lies fed by the possibility of upward mobility, of leaving the poor class behind and joining the comfortable boons of the middle. This dream is surged and fueled by an illusion that can be marketed to — and enjoyed by — anyone, in exchange for a lifetime of debt. There is nothing preventing you or anyone from getting a college education, buying that slick new pickup truck, or owning a house. You only have to be saddled with crushing, inescapable debt that banks can buy and sell like stock, while you work away in a job whose corporate designs maintain that you are consistently paid beneath a living wage.
Preacher: “…this day is celebrated in remembrance of a violent protest in Chicago, and to honor the four martyrs who were unjustly persecuted in its wake, having not only pursued their vocation in their daily labor, but also having pursued their avocation in the form of protest, activism, community-building, radicalization, scholarship, and finally martyrdom.”
Kentucky Route Zero puts the plights of its poor, normal, everyday people at the forefront. Conway’s final delivery that takes him through the Zero and back again is about more than simply settling an order, it’s about getting out from under the yoke of both personal and private debts and guilts. As his trip takes him across Kentucky, the characters he meets share similar fates: Shannon is a struggling TV repairwoman who grew up in a poor family and whose parents died in a mine flood. Junebug and Johnny are mechanical musicians who were designed to drain the Elkhorn Mine after the tragic accident and want nothing but to be paid and play music. Harry, a humble bar owner, is a stubborn man who elected to sell his own customers’ debt to the Hard Times Distillery in order to settle his own. There are many and more vibrant characters throughout the game who, like those who make up the quilt of Americana, seem irreplaceable both to the narrative and the structure of the game.
Settling A Debt
Like so many Americans, the beginning of Conway’s end is a seemingly small and insignificant thing: an accident. A single injury results in him needing treatment for his wounded leg, an action that saddles with with new medical debt. This is his first brush with the Hard Times, the distillery that has unsavory connections to the infamous Consolidated Power Company that has inflicted so much pain and misery on the poor populace of rural Kentucky. When Conway wakes to discover that his new leg shares some uncomfortable similarities with the skeletal employees of the Hard Times, Conway begins to slip back into his old ills, the worst of them being his alcoholism. Conway’s lifelong flirtation with the substance is the cause of much of his personal guilt and trauma, but despite this, it returns as his sole comfort. Throughout the game, various character refer to the Hard Times — its shady, gloomy characters and its untoward business practices. As Conway’s struggle worsens and he finds himself accumulating new and terrifying debt, he eventually settles for what seems to be the only way out.
While Kentucky Route Zero is filled with various dialogue options, events, and possibilities, it is a game that is about inevitability. The unique nature of these characters’ lives play out against a backdrop of surprising poignancy and strangeness, but their individual struggles pale against the overwhelming power of the capitalist arm that is working behind the scenes. The Power Company has done more than absorb the beleaguered citizenry into its cadre of employees, it has decimated and destroyed integral pieces of the landscape.
Whether or not the “accident” of Elkhorn Mines was truly that, the Company’s unwillingness to pay a fair wage, give its employees healthcare and benefit the ecology of the state compounds the evils it has wrought on the working class. Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to say about personal choices and ancient guilt, but ultimately it is the inevitable power of a predatory capitalist state that destroys the lives of the people who are simply trying to exist. The Power Company serves as a villainous but hidden enemy throughout the game, one whose effects can be constantly observed though their main body is never seen. This bit of realism ventures on a sort of horror, and fixes the player with the unsettling truth that the worst “bosses” in existence not only cannot be defeated, but cannot be approached.
Sign: WE CLAIM THESE HELMETS IN THE NAMES OF THE FOLKS WHO WORE THEM AND WE PLACE THEM HERE IN THEIR MEMORY BUT ALSO AS A SPIT IN THE GREEDY GREEN EYE OF THAT POWER COMPANY WHO BOUGHT UP OUR OLD MINE AND TRADED OUR BROTHERS’ AND SISTERS’ SAFETY FOR A LITTLE MORE YIELD BUT ONLY YIELDED TWENTY-EIGHT GOOD MEN AND WOMEN DEAD WHEN THE WALLS COLLAPSED AND THE TUNNELS FILLED WITH WATER.
The Great American Video Game
Once upon a time, the novel was viewed as the ultimate canonical essence that could embody the spirit of America. Americans — as ever and always — are addicted to the grandiose nature of storytelling and the masturbatory essence of patriotic legend. We mythologize our leaders and ancestors. We place titanic slave owners on our currency. We craft narrative after narrative that, in a post-truth society, constructs the framework of how we view our fleeting and recent past.
The Great American Novel has been many things. The majority of us have read such timeless epics as The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick. There is little that is actually democratic in the choosing of what constitutes such a work, or who decides what work becomes Great, or even classic. In essence, these novels that capture the spirit of America have, in many cases, not aged with the new American experience. The times that we currently live in are a testament to what is so frail about the design of the American narrative, and who exactly gets to canonize that narrative.
Any of us that have enjoyed indie video games over the past decade or so can easily and excitedly point to experiences we’ve had that seem as if their narrative could have only been possible through the lens of this medium. I personally have many favorites that, while being a novelist myself, have surpassed any book I’ve ever read. When it comes to the continued discussion around Kentucky Route Zero, it will add to that moment where we must face and celebrate the fact that video games can create and contain narratives whose structure and design surpass virtually anything else. The Great American Video Game will not be about the things we have come to expect, but instead exist as a celebration of the everyday people who engage in the timeless struggle of fighting for personhood, autonomy, and the right to live.
Kentucky Route Zero, deserves its place as a classic, as a powerful and painful lens into what so many of us are experiencing as we suffer through a society that is crumbling around us every single day.
Conway: I just mean, all people need is enough to pretend we’re home, and we can make it anywhere.
This World Is Not My Home
The end of Kentucky Route Zero is not an explosive, satisfying, plot-tying finale. It is, instead, the lingering note of a song, the sky’s reflection in a puddle, rain falling softly after a terrible storm. It mirrors life, and the struggle that many of us face in our everyday existence.
For me, what served as a bright and possibility-laden future at the bakery mutated into a course of corruption that imploded a community, put over sixty people out of work, and riddled a meager populace with aftershocks that are still being dealt with nearly a year after its sudden closure. The selfish and unfortunate designs of a small administration bent on pocketing as much as they could from the labor of their employees ended only in a loss for those some employees. I wish I could say that my experience was strange and unique, but it only mirrors what so many American people have suffered.
What remains after the storm — whether it’s the literal destruction of a town or the fallout of a workplace or community — is the people. The everyday people who work and live and die in a place, who breathe it in, who haunt it, form its story and to its architecture. While we all continue to suffer under the predatory designs of corporation after corporation, what builds us back up is each other, and Kentucky Route Zero made certain to showcase its people at the forefront in every regard and give room to their choices and movements. When it comes to picking up the pieces and continuing on, only the comradery of community can afford that, whether it’s digging another grave or placing the framework for a new home.
Despite its strangeness, its fatigue, its horror, Kentucky Route Zero is ultimately beautiful. I don’t believe it wants you to reach the final credits with despair and hopeless in our hearts. It wants us, instead, to reflect on each other and what aspects of the struggle are meaningful. As I made my way through Act V, I felt more connected to the game than I had at any other time despite being so removed from the characters. Kentucky Route Zero didn’t want to saddle me with any more emotional debt or personal guilt — it wanted me to reflect on the people, and their meaning.
For me, I’ve worked in restaurants ten years, I’ve worked in a grocery store, I’ve worked in a failed bakery. I’ve given my labor, my time, and my body in service to others who enormously profited off my faceless actions. Despite what I’ve endured, I am not yet a ghost, not yet haunted, not yet replaced by the skeleton of someone else’s designs. As I sit here, drafting my chaotic thoughts into a readable essay — unemployed, poor, and depressed — I still think about the worthiness of the struggle, and how lovely the sky looks right after a rain, and how, blessedly, a small group of people view these struggles as important enough to place in a video game.
I’ve heard of a land of joy and peace and wonderful light
A beautiful place of mansions fair and skies so bright
Where all who believe the savior dear forever shall stay
And having been saved by grace divine I’m going that way