“Hope is not a youth movement, but buries its young in the tide.”
—A. Maxwell, Candor is the Brightest Shield
“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.”
—Sign near the Bat Colony along the Echo River, Kentucky Route Zero, Act IV
Drowning has always terrified me. The end, yes, but more specifically, the moment when your larynx catches, and your reflexes fail, and suddenly you’re using your lungs in a way you were never meant to. In Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, everyone is already beneath the surface. For them, that same fear of mine stretches out over its four released acts until they can’t remember where their fear starts and stops. It has engulfed everything until all that’s left is little more than the sweat-inducing sensation of being immersed under water.
Economic dread pervades and defines the Zero of Kentucky Route Zero. It manifests in the form of the Consolidated Power Company and its many subsidiaries, fiefdoms, and allies: the Hard Times Distillery and the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces among them. Consolidated Power has taken advantage of a great flood’s wake to mutate architecture—and even nature—to its own ends. The Zero is a place where, as Douglas Dante puts it for Deorbital “debt becomes visible, makes itself known as a physical force on its victims.” No matter where you look, this Kentucky reflects the horrible ecosystem that has grown, and the apex predator of the Consolidated Power Company that sits at the top and slowly shovels people, places, and things into its institutional maw.
Society-wide privatized debt is a sign of a usable past that has grown too unwieldy
In Act I of Kentucky Route Zero, Conway learns in the Equus Oils parking lot that the destination for his last antiques delivery, “Dogwood Drive,” can only be found along the Zero, an underground highway in Kentucky with a non-Euclidean onramp. He meets others wandering the Southern gothic landscape who have been drawn to the Zero and together they form a strange troupe—Conway, the broken alcoholic with his faithful dog; Shannon, the mechanic searching for her quasi-deceased cousin Weaver; Ezra, the boy abandoned by his family and adopted by the giant eagle Julian; Johnny and Junebug, the android musical duo; Will, the forgetful adjunct; and Catherine, the ship pilot slash doula.
On their travels, Shannon laments the spatial excesses of her Kentucky: “You know what used to happen to old trees out in the forest? Wildfire would come through and clear them all out. It made room for the new trees. But then people built houses, and we can’t have fires going all the time. So we keep putting them out. And now we have all these old trees choking out the saplings.” As Catherine notes much later, only the noble mushrooms “clear away old things, make room for new things.” But the rest of nature has to make do with recycling man-made detritus. The hermit crabs scuttling around dock next to the Bureau have salvaged inkjet cartridges and other office supplies to use as shells. The television sets playing in the cathedral’s alcoves are its “grotesques.” A cartoon bird playing on one set builds a nest from clothes, plastic, and trash that still looks warm and inviting. Humans have proven to be less flexible.
From the sheer profusion of overlapping spaces and objects, no landmark keeps its original reference following Kentucky’s flood. The very reason Conway, and crew, have to navigate the Zero is that the Consolidated Power Company, to exert its cartographic possession, reshuffled the names of streets all across the state. At the Bureau, Conway is informed by a clerk that his delivery address on “Dogwood Drive” points to an irresolvable collision of street names. What was once “Dogwood Drive” could now be “Pale Dogwood Drive,” “Large-leafed Dogwood Drive,” “Himalayan Flowering Dogwood Drive,” or countless others.
“I just need to get my head clear for a minute, get a clear view of the day”
And nothing remains true to its architect’s intention: the enormous horse head (its body buried beneath) converted into the gas station of Equus Oils; the Bureau’s office built within a cathedral, next to its organ; the parish displaced into a storage unit even though no one attends services except the janitor. The Museum of Dwellings transplants homes of all kinds (mobile home, house boat, ranch house, etc.) and their residents from across Kentucky onto an existing residential area and builds walls around its incoherent collection of hostages. The people who first envisioned those spaces are displaced. Like the gut renovation of apartments during a neighborhood’s gentrification, this overwriting is systematically necessary even if it verges on being useless or pointless. The Hard Times Distillery waterwheel is installed twenty feet above the surface of the Echo River, but somehow it still turns. Only its appearance of function matters.
There are a handful of exceptions. Bars, as poor replacements for a public commons, persist due to unique technicalities: The Lower Depths has an I.O.U. from the Distillery and the Rum Colony is officially owned by a dead man. For the remaining unlucky places, there are only the vestiges of previous use, the features that could not be erased—something severed hiding the sublime. Thanks to the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, this repossession of land was facilitated by a labyrinthine bureaucracy that provides the official veneer necessary to obscure the fact that anything untoward happened at all. (Despite its surreal character, these are common tools in America’s history, from the federal seizure of sovereign native nations’ lands to the privatization of public space in order to criminalize homelessness and unsanctioned mass gatherings.)
Consequently, directions and travel become precarious—the markers temporary and the destinations drifting. Kentucky Route Zero uses many different ways of navigating the world map to indicate this uncertainty. In different Acts, the characters drive above ground; drive through the Zero; fly on the eagle, Julian, above the map; and float down the Echo River. And each way of traveling comes with its own form of directions. For the highways above ground, the vernacular instructions are only mildly otherworldly: “Turn left as soon as you see that ugly tree that’s always on fire.”
Then, on the Zero, objects from previous scenes re-appear as vast, flickering markers above the roadway. The road itself appears to form a complete circuit that you navigate clockwise and counter-clockwise. But directions on the Zero also break the visual expectation of a Euclidean space: “Just get back on the Zero and drive until you hit the crystal. Then turn around.” And along the Echo River, direction is no longer even a two-dimensional choice—as the Mucky Mammoth floats along, the player merely chooses between interior scenes on the boat and exterior scenes that investigate whatever it happens to be passing at the time.
Conway’s mental map can’t bear this constant switching of navigational space. During a respite at the Rum Colony, he stresses: “I just mean to say I’m … I can’t look at anything without remembering something else, and then that reminds me of something else, and — I’m buried in it. I just need to get my head clear for a minute, get a clear view of the day, get oriented …” Shannon loses herself in an endless stream of television programs. Will drank too much of the Echo’s waters and has only disconnected memories of his academic career. (The Echo is fed by Lake Lethe, which is reminiscent of the pre-flood river of forgetting in Greek myth.) Will once gave lectures on remembering: “Edison’s emphasis on memory in cognition.” In his lectures, he insisted Edison believed that “When life units recombine from, say, a soldier into, say, a flower, we may be able — using some apparatus — to coax out from the flower memories of war!” And these quotes might be beliefs that Will holds as well, but the academic tradition of citation requires him to hide his intentions within the words of another.
No landmark keeps its original reference following Kentucky’s flood
The spatial and aesthetic style of Kentucky Route Zero also emphasizes this confusion of perspectives. In each scene, the camera is not controlled by the player, and the characters are always dwarfed by the immensity of the spaces they occupy. Framing objects or girders usually occupy the foreground, while characters muddle about in the middle- to background. As you move them, the camera follows along rigid paths, usually as characters run deeper “into” the screen or rotate around a central object or point. Aggressively short draw distances and carefully placed invisible walls mark off or obscure parts of spaces that are clearly much larger than they appear, like in the Forest where parallax-scrolling trees hide houses and characters in spatially impossible visual episodes. These techniques let the player see the same scene from different vantage points, but never in its totality.
And the player can become just as confused as the characters. By the time Act IV rolls around, there are more than half a dozen protagonists, and so many opaque choices that you can’t remember them all—although the game does. And the narrative branchings are so minute that their seams are hidden from a passing glance, as game designer Robert Yang points out: “[Kentucky Route Zero] never patronizes you if you don’t really get it. Instead, it patiently pushes you to grasp it as a whole … This ‘whole’ is something that carries over to the game’s technical infrastructure as well. Everything is connected; the game frequently calls back to your previous choices, and awakens seemingly dormant ‘meaningless’ choices.” Over time, more and more of Kentucky carefully occludes itself from the player’s view as they loses track of the consequences of their actions.
Some of the Zero’s denizens have tried to circumvent its inherent descriptive instability, but to little end. The researcher Donald spent his life’s work in the Hall of the Mountain King in the Mammoth Cave system (which appears in the ur-interactive fiction game, Adventure) trying to build a perfect computer simulation, XANADU. When Conway et al. find him in Act III, he’s gone nearly insane from frustration with his broken oracle.
Down along the Echo in Act IV, the couple Ida & Sam have never talked about why the table with a fully shellac’ed seafood feast that they’ve keep out front for decades is so integral to their restaurant’s success. Sam claims the preserved meal is a map to all the Echo’s secret fishing spots. Ida uses the table to remember all the recipes she conceived on a particularly trying night, when two drunk fishermen spent the evening ordering endless dishes and boasting about where they made their best catches. They both read the same topology of objects in contradictory ways. Like the visual illusions that art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote about, vague meanings “are keys which happen to fit into biological or psychological locks, or counterfeit coins which make the machine work when dropped into the slot.” These inconsistent interpretations and memories are so frightening because they highlight one of our most mechanistic attributes—unintentional reliability.
Extensive revisions of the self and the spaces of late capitalism are not separate—they are codependent. Just as its enforced ambiguity claims minds, Consolidated claims bodies as well. The Hard Times Distillery workers are the skeletal remains of debtors who fell behind on their payments and were press-ganged into Consolidated’s service. At the distillery, endless toil and self-sacrifice to redeem your capital failings is the highest virtue. (Of particular stress for me: “Keeping ahead of your self-employment taxes at least, Karla? Sometimes it’s all we can do.”)
Kentucky Route Zero is a cautionary tale from the already present.
Conway’s confusion over the sense and reference of Kentucky Route Zero’s shifting landscape allows him to be conned into a series of debts to the distillery. And then his body begins to change. His crushed leg is miraculously replaced with the glowing bones of a distillery worker. Only Shannon seems to notice him succumb to and accept his debt. Everyone else gets to work on forgetting Conway. The repossession of his body is his business alone. He is ashamed. He starts to speak hopefully of his upcoming indentured servitude. It’s the time for reflection he’s wanted, and at least he’ll be part of something bigger than himself. When he is spirited away by the distillery workers, he is in a dark and silent tunnel. His friends never see his transformation.
In Kentucky Route Zero, society-wide privatized debt is a sign of a usable past that has grown too unwieldy, that is stronger and more alive than those who would channel it. And, ironically, the perpetual absent-mindedness of the game’s inhabitants is the result of a vast system of collective memory that tracks and accounts for capital obligation. (The distillery workers refer to a Formula.) Other sources of memory, like museums, are complicit in this great shell game of institutional power as they instantiate new boundaries of space and thought through their authority.
On its theme, Kentucky Route Zero is a cautionary tale from the already present. We can rewrite and rebuild lost histories (of collective action, community support, and individual struggle) to wipe the slate clean, lest we sink along with them. When the waters come, we need to have either built levies or grown gills. And if we’re going to use them, we have to know where they are.
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