By Ford_Dent 1 Comments
WARNING: There are going to be spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero’s first three acts. I don’t know if that will make a difference—you should play this game anyway, your experience will probably not be my own—but hey, it takes about four or five hours to get through it all, so go buy it, play it, and come back if you think not being spoiled is important.
There are some things we should get out of the way, before going any further. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, with extended family down near Louisville, KY. I’ve spent some time in Kentucky, is what I’m saying, and I’ve experienced firsthand the sort of folks in the really rural areas, because they are what you might call kin. So it’s possible that a story set in Kentucky, dealing as it does in decline, might hit me more than it hits you.
Growing up, I heard stories about my ancestors—how three brothers fled England to France during its civil war, and wound up booking passage as indentured servants to the New World sometime in the late 17th century. We’ve been here since before there was a country, or so the story goes, and since then our tale has been one of rising power and steep decline. I don’t doubt my ancestors have done reprehensible things, but I also don’t doubt there were acts of bravery as well. Certainly at least one section of the family fought in the Revolutionary War, and was gifted land in return—land which was, of course, located in Kentucky (although at the time it wasn’t Kentucky, you understand). There was a vast acreage, once upon a time. It was to stay in the family for generations, in perpetuity, if they had their way. Meanwhile, my other ancestors ditched their indentured servitude and wound up somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, poor but at least not beholden to anyone. They would eventually wind up in Kentucky as well, and Ohio, and one large group would convert to Mormonism and decamp to Utah—but this isn’t about them. This is about the Kentucky clan, and their dreams of perpetual landownership.
Their dreams were doomed from day one. Part of Kentucky’s history is one of decline as well—one I am reluctant to cast as a tragedy, given how the state was built on the backs of slaves—yet that my relations experienced a significant downturn in fortunes is a fact stated here for the record (I should probably also note that I have no idea if my relations had the necessary wealth to own slaves—it’s not something that comes up at family reunions, you know? Plus that side of the family’s genealogical records are…somewhat incomplete, so I’m not sure anyone’s sure. But they owned a sizeable farm, and sizeable farms usually mean slaves, so the assumption is there). Hard times followed hard times, and the once vast acreage shrank, dwindling down to a single farmhouse owned by a great uncle’s cousin (I think. It’s all a bit muddy, and said great uncle’s been dead for years so I can’t fact check). That single farmhouse was, I believe, sold off (or repossessed, more than likely) back in 2007 or 2008. A corporation owns it now, and that long history drew to a close. I don’t remember the farmhouse that well myself, to be honest—we held a family reunion there when I was younger, and what I can remember are only brief flashes of imagery. A white barn, a fenced-in field, a few cattle which seemed disinterested in their surroundings. Even then, I remember a feeling of melancholy, the idea that once upon a time this had been greater than it was now. A broken pride.
There’s something like that everywhere in Kentucky, these days. A psychic wound, a background radiation of loss which infects young and old alike. Everyone has a feeling they’re getting away with something, that the other shoe is set to drop any moment. Many pretend not to notice, or pretend that the past is the past and cannot possibly influence their present—but nobody is fooled. Sooner or later, everyone is going to lose everything, and it is in that moment they’ll find out what kind of person they are.
Reactions to Loss
In the face of an inevitable defeat, some will continue to go on as if nothing is wrong. That’s essentially what Conway (I guess he’s the main character?) is doing. There’s one final delivery to make—the last delivery—and no matter what else happens, that last delivery is going to happen. The difference is there’s no delusion in Conway’s quest; he doesn’t believe nothing is wrong, and in fact is trying to come to terms with the fact that his life, such as it is, has fallen apart completely—has been in the process of falling apart for years. There’s nothing else for him to do—Lysette is old and shows signs of senility, he is too old, perhaps, to find another job—so Conway does the only thing left to him. It is also, of course, a sort of penance in a long act of penance that has extended from the day he was too drunk to work and Charlie paid the price. That he believes himself to be the direct cause of that loss is perhaps part of what drives him to perform this last errand as well, as a way of closing out the account he opened with Lysette all those years before, a long act of grieving
Shannon is facing a different loss—her shop, perhaps, or Weaver’s house, or Weaver herself—and is stubbornly carrying on in spite of it. At least, that’s how she seems to have been, until the reappearance of Weaver shakes her out of the pattern, and she latches on to Conway’s quest, thinking that perhaps she can find Weaver, or at least some kind of closure, by aiding Conway. Or perhaps having nothing left to her, she too is taking the path of least resistance, and sees helping Conway as something which will somehow wipe out her own debts. There’s a deep need for some kind of reassurance with Shannon, that she hadn’t fucked everything up, that it is possible to do everything right and still wind up on the losing end of something. Always—always there is the loss of her parents, like an open wound, perhaps the thing that drives her to look for a way out, to look for a way to beat Them, The System, The Strangers, whatever it might be. Shannon is not angry, necessarily, but she has a fighting spirit to her that Conway has long since put to bed. It is Shannon, indeed, who reminds Conway of their delivery while the two are subjected to the Stranger’s patter and offer of a drink (which I’ll get to in a moment).
Finally, there’s Ezra, who has lost his whole family and carries on, hiding behind a child’s façade while helping those who he decides are in need of his help, along with Julian the giant fucking eagle. Ezra recognizes the danger of the graveyard/distillery and its lure of more responsibilities and more adulthood concerns (like debt), and elects to remain outside of the matter entirely, though he can’t help but be pulled into Conway and Shannon’s orbit, because he recognizes their loss mirrors his own. The three form something like a family unit, and Ezra desperately misses family. He replaces his lost family with Conway and Shannon, which makes the end of act III, where it is revealed that this too will be lost—Conway is doomed to the distillery—such a harsh blow to take.
Junebug and Johnny, contrasting the other three, have lost nothing—indeed, the only thing the duo have “lost” is their former identities as (literal) corporate drones. They’ve built their own identities as an electropop duo who can describe loss, but have yet to really experience it. This is perhaps why of all the characters, they are the ones able to navigate the dense bureaucracies and baffling geographies of the Zero. The two exist above it all, having long since cast aside the demands of the world in order to forge their own existence—and while this tempts the player to view them as heroic, they also are forced to hustle endlessly to survive (Conway and the others can barely get a word in edgewise and are all but shanghaied into service as customers for the bar, which in turn gives them leverage to demand payment from the bar’s owner). Their decision to tag along afterwards is seemingly done out of boredom, although it is equally likely the two also desire some kind of greater purpose than their lives possess—helping Conway achieve his delivery seems as good a purpose as any.
The Crushing Weight of Obligation
Debt drives the machine of Kentucky Route Zero, debt to faceless corporations, or parents, or colleagues. Professional debt. In the old days, stories were told in the South of young men who could sell their souls to the devil for skill on the guitar—now Doctors sell their souls to pharmaceutical corporations in order to learn the medical trade. Those doctors, in turn, are able to help their patients, sort of. Said patients are now saddled with obligations to the medical machine, complete with incoherent payment schedules, and all sorts of fine print that can’t be fully understood. Conway loses his leg—it belongs to the pharmaceutical corporation that provided the drug—and as a result it becomes a skeletal form, a shadow of its former self. Its identity subsumed into the crushing bureaucratic gears of Debt.
The Zero, indeed, seems to function primarily on debt, and repossession, and reassignment. The power company takes churches and converts them to offices for a department to manage repossession and reassignment. The dead are disturbed so a distillery built on chaining its workers to the company through debt can be built. The Strangers have lost everything to the company, caught in a web of debt that strips the meat off their bones. The story of the miners and the company script is horrifying specifically in the way it completely removes any way of escape for the employees (also, in the way that it is 100% a real thing that happened—and in some twisted form continues to happen, across the country). Once the company has Conway, once it has gotten him to drink and in so doing allow his alcoholism to come roaring back to the fore, it is willing to allow him to complete his final delivery, because it has a hold on him now from which there’s no escape. Conway is obliged to return in the morning, because Conway drank. The player, in this case, is powerless to stop it, and all efforts to do so only serve to cause the final drink to happen.
Xanadu as well is powered by obligation. The interns and various academics caught in its pull stick around because they signed on to help, and cannot conceive of a world in which they are able to escape. Donald’s obsession drives away Lula, but it also binds Roberta and the other research assistants to his cause, even though he’s long since forgotten what Xanadu was supposed to be and spends his time lost in memories of what could have been. Nobody seems willing to abandon the project, because they cannot remember a time where they weren’t working on it. In this case, it’s not a monetary debt, but more of a reluctance to admit the whole thing was a waste of time—even though they’ve all lost whatever spark allowed them to make Xanadu work in the first place.
This Will End. This May Not End Well
Conway’s delivery is the glue that holds everyone together. It cannot last forever, because when morning comes, Conway has to report to work at the distillery. Julian will finish moving houses and probably come looking for Ezra. Shannon will need to get back to her shop, though she’ll probably wind up losing that too. Junebug and Johnny will go do whatever it is they do when they aren’t performing. No solution to the problem of Conway and Shannon’s debts seems readily apparent, unless the delivery of the antiques results in a massive, mind-boggling amount of money to pay everything off.
Kentucky Route Zero is all about the inevitability of loss, but more importantly it’s about how its characters react and prepare for that inevitable loss. Conway’s dogged determination to do this last thing right is noble, in its way, as is Shannon’s decision to help. The group will continue to navigate the geographical oddity that is the Zero until their task is done, and that will be a victory. It will not, I think, stop the inevitable loss they are all slated to experience, but this bizarre quest of theirs, and the memories of it, will perhaps allow them to handle it. Better to experience a loss with some form of support, after all—and if nothing else they have formed a group united by their having lost something (deliberately, in Junebug and Johnny’s case), or been lost. Indeed, they are all lost, in the geographical sense, and it is their attempts to find reasons to continue on that gives their lives meaning. It’s what makes their story worth experiencing.
That and the bears on the third floor.