Kentucky Route Zero is the game about 2020 — despite its decade in development

I graduated from college in 2008, and after 60 cover letters, five phone screeners, and two interviews, secured an entry-level role at a forgotten entertainment website. Four months later, the U.S. entered the Great Recession. Dozens of my co-workers had lost their jobs by November, and in December, the office’s secretary had a panic attack that ended with her weeping through prophecies about the end of the world as paramedics strapped her onto a gurney and wheeled her out the front door. Most co-workers exited through the fire escape, but a handful of us ended up locked in a meeting in a room by the police — “for our safety.” I’ll never forget how a junior sales manager tried to continue a brainstorm session for a Hanes underwear back-to-school sponsorship. Needless to say, they didn’t book the client.

The company kept me around because I was cheap and there weren’t unions or other jobs, so I’d work and work and work for enough money to split rent and groceries with my girlfriend, who herself worked 60-hour weeks grinding through the entry gigs of TV production. Compared to most Americans our age, we had it easy. Which is to say, we had jobs.

KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO

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The economy rebounded, according to Wall Street, but for the next decade, I watched as my generation struggled to get a stable footing in a supposedly “healthy” market, their careers set back by slow job growth, low salaries, a static upper management class holding onto their desks for dear life, a national pushback to racial and economic equality, rampant sexual harassment and discrimination, an opioid epidemic, and over a dozen major natural disasters.

Consciously or not, I’ve felt warmth for folks my age who shared this predicament of existential fuckery. Framed as a generation of bums, we’re fortified, able to eat every shit sandwich prepared by the generations before us. We get by.

Around the same time that I left college, a few artists had the idea to adapt this moment of suck into a video game, and in January 2011, they had enough ideas and bits of concept art to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Eating a bagel that served as both breakfast and lunch, I obsessed over the project that looked so … now.

Image: Cardboard Computer/Annapurna Interactive

Designer Jake Elliott summarized the adventure with a single paragraph:

“Kentucky Route Zero” is a magic realist adventure game about a secret highway in Kentucky and the mysterious folks who travel it. The player controls Conway, an antique furniture deliveryman, as he attempts to complete the final delivery for his financially troubled employer. Along the way he’ll meet dozens of strange characters and make a few new friends to help him overcome the obstacles in his path. We’re raising money to fund development of this game, and planning to release it around the Fall of 2011 (on PC, Mac and possibly other platforms).

What stood out to me wasn’t the pitch, but the vibe: a bittersweet rendition of the American dream gone awry, like a children’s cartoon that’s fallen on hard times.

The initial goal for Kentucky Route Zero was $6,500, and the project raised $8,583. I remember watching the ticker while eating street meat from my cockroach-infested office above Times Square and thinking, “Damn, that’s a ton of money!”

Of course, I was wrong. Nearly $8,600 is a lot of money for one person wanting to recklessly live in New York City in their 20s, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the financial reserves necessary to create a video game over multiple years. I’m embarrassed to admit I was surprised when the game got delayed in 2012, and again when the creators decided to release the game in acts, beginning with Act 1 in 2013.

Image: Cardboard Computer/Annapurna Interactive

In hindsight, it’s a miracle that Kentucky Route Zero exists in finished form, a 20-plus-hour video game spanning five acts and multiple free interludes, each segment bashing against the expectations of what a video game ought to be. It’s like if I put a single gallon of gas into a freight truck in 2011 and it somehow made a trip around the world by 2020. I wouldn’t be angry; I’d be astonished. I’d want to know how and why. How the hell did you do this, and why did you keep going?

The answer, in part, is evolution. The game you can and should play today isn’t the game pitched on Kickstarter. The claymation-style 3D models got swapped for crisp 2D figures resembling minimalist paper dolls. Conway stepped back from the spotlight, allowing the story to become an ensemble piece. The creators took protracted breaks from the main game to experiment with VR headsets, telephone hotlines, digital art installations, and faux-community television broadcasts. And as the country changed from having the Democratic Party holding majority control to a split government to a new president, the tone and tenor of Kentucky Route Zero evolved too.

Its creators never directly comment on the moment in the game. Instead, Kentucky Route Zero is akin to a mirror reflecting another mirror reflecting the world. Indirect, distorted, but still familiar. They borrow abundantly and ruefully from classical texts, poetry, theater, and history: tumescent 1950s Americana, the plays of Arthur Miller, the silhouette of Klaus Nomi, and the words of Coleridge. Its Appalachia is a fallen empire littered with decaying factories in which employees’ lives (and afterlives) are bound to arcane contracts. Churches echo a beautiful refrain via recordings because nobody bothers to attend Mass. We don’t see the opioid epidemic, but it doesn’t take a detective to draw a connection to the game’s population of living, irradiated skeletons.

In her essay published alongside the release of the fifth and final act in February, Laura Hudson summarized the game: “Imagine it is a tragic ghost story about the American Dream where the ghost is the American Dream; the tragedy is that it keeps haunting America because it doesn’t know it’s dead.”

That all sounds rather grim, and sure, darkness is an ingredient in the stew. How could a game made in the past decade about the past decade not be a bit of a downer? I haven’t had a guest in my house since March because of a global pandemic, and the president hasn’t accepted defeat a month after losing the election. These are grim times. But the game gives off a precious light, too, if faintly at first. The initial story of an older man hobbled by addiction and regret expands like a pair of lungs filling with air, each episode introducing new travel buddies with their own hopes and dreams and desire to escape, albeit with no destination in mind. Brothers who have lost their family. Musicians in search of meaning. A TV repair woman who can’t stop recalling her grief, like how we can’t help but tongue the socket of a missing tooth even though it stings.

Earlier this year, I asked Jake Elliott how the team and the game changed over the years.

We’ve been learning a lot about how to work creatively and how to just make a video game. We’ve also been growing as artists and learning about how to be, sort of, politically responsible artists. […] We kind of grew in our capacity to explore some of those ideas in more detail, and we … It’s important to us to contextualize the terrible stuff that’s happening right now, and also the good stuff that’s happening right now, within that broader history of American capitalism.

Image: Cardboard Computer/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon

Kentucky Route Zero culminated on Jan. 28 with a restorative final moment, like a splash of morning sun after a calamitous night of rolling thunderstorms. Then came the pandemic in the real world, and for the first time, the game’s proclivity for prophecy appeared to have misfired. As its characters stepped out from the caves and out onto dirt beneath clear skies, I moved inside. And I stayed inside.

But with some time and distance, the game’s conclusion has given me hope.

In his review at Vice before the pandemic hit our shores, Austin Walker wrote: “[The second throughline of Kentucky Route Zero] 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?”

This year has surpassed the recession of 2008. The grim prophecies in the office of my first job seem sadly, horrifically quaint compared to COVID-19, which is now killing more Americans every day than the 9/11 attacks. We have been failed by the people in charge, something Kentucky Route Zero underscored with each act, hammering home the repetition of the country’s sins.

But as the game showed with its conclusion, we have also seen our friends, families, and found families come rushing to fill the void. We’ve seen massive protests, communal acts of giving, people forgoing time with those they love the most to slow the spread of a virus that could kill strangers they will never meet.

We live in exceptional times. It’s imperative that as we see the threats against us, we push against malevolent systems, even when they seem immovable and permanent. We must also step out from the cave, gather with those we love, and celebrate what matters most to us.

When I first saw Kentucky Route Zero, I imagined a game that captured the plight of my generation. But it’s more than that. With a tour of the arts, history, and humanities, Cardboard Computer made a game about how every generation has been pummeled by those in control, and how we can and should come together, not only for revolutionary change, but to give one another a chance to breathe in the fresh air.

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