When Cardboard Computer released the first Act of Kentucky Route Zero in 2013 it was only my second year in college as a History major. I played the game inspired a lot by my experience with Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a game that made me aware of the narrative possibilities in games. But KRZ had been since the beginning a game of its own kind, with a unique art design and an absurd atmosphere that made it stand out from my previous game experiences. When I played it for the first time, the political statements of KRZ flew right over my head. The 2008 economic crisis — so deeply embedded in the story of Conway, Shannon and the old Hound/Homer/Blue — was much more a tale of despair than a reality in my country, Brazil. In 2013, even amidst the explosion of a political movement in the streets, optimism seemed to be the tone of the country since in 2014 we would receive the World Cup and in 2016 the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Economical disaster was instead a kind of long-gone memory that resonated on cautionary tales by my parents and instead the youth seemed to believe in the possibility of changing for the better while keeping the small achievements of a tropical social democracy (despite its flaws).
So, with that in mind, Kentucky Route Zero presented itself as a kind of faraway tale of a broken and strange United States and not so much a political critique of late capitalism. I kept up with the game’s updates all these years, playing the acts as they released and as the narrative on Conway and Shannon took its darker turns, with themes like alcoholism and debt seeping its way into the surreal landscape of Kentucky and its metaphysical Route Zero.
As I replayed the acts to get to the final one released this year, I started to realize how much of KRZ now spoke to me. When Conway and Shannon first meet, they do in an abandoned mine, populated by the ghosts of the miners who died in an accident due to poor work regulations. It is clear then that the presence of ghostly figures, on its diverse manifestations is one that permeates the whole five acts. What kept creeping up on my playthrough was the production of an atmosphere that emphasizes the present-absence of the future. By tapping on the story of the miners or on the work of Lula Chamberlain, an artist turned bureaucrat on the Zero, KRZ mourns the futures that were imagined, be it those of the universe of labor and the evolution of industry, or the failure of an art/technology project to create a computer simulation of cave systems.
As we start on a new decade, a lot has changed since the first spectral apparition of Kentucky Route Zero. The world around me has lost all semblance of optimism, the country that seemed to veer into a bright future now is blighted by unemployment, poverty and the absence of any possibility to imagine a future. As I played KRZ in its entirety now I started to finally understand its political messages and its statements on our own time.
The contemporary sphere of politics and economics is haunted by the mistakes of the past and the futures we lost. In the interlude from act IV to V, one of the characters quotes Hamlet’s already famous lines of “time is out of joint”, a quote that is also present in Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, in which the French philosopher tries to redeem the spectral presence of Marxism as a potent figure of politics that would not be thrown away by the defeat of the experiences of Real Socialism made in the 20th century. I can’t help but feel this is perhaps the diagnostic of our times, time is indeed out of joint. What KRZ shows us is this suspension of time, made obvious in the surreal landscape of the Zero, full of abandoned places and debt-ridden people for whom the future is not visible. Between past and present, our world seems to be much like the one of the characters from Cardboard Computer’s game: one of shadows, melancholy and drifting adventurers.
This feeling of suspended time has been true since 2016 in Brazil, ever since the elected president, Dilma Roussef, was ousted by an impeachment process full of legal incongruities and backed by the far-right and now-president Jair Bolsonaro. Coupled with the fact that climate catastrophe is becoming more and more tangible, the future has never been so foggy and the present has become almost ethereal.
[SPOILERS FOR ACT V]
Kentucky Route Zero does something different in its final act, instead of doubling down on the dark and melancholy atmosphere of its previous acts, Act V of the game is surprisingly light filled, with a colorful scenario that radically contrasts with the nocturnal and interior-like backgrounds of Acts I through IV. The ending, although somber in its own way with a very moving funeral scene, invites the player to imagine exits to the existential dread and the suspension of time produced by the politics and economics of our time. Depending on the player’s choices, the group that comes to 5 Dogwood Drive can end their adventure forming a community, building something anew from the ruins of an old and disconnected town. A community that brings together animals, children, androids and immigrants, a very significant group of beings that updates the possibilities of being-together through difference.
This final breath of utopia can be seen as an attempt to find exits to our contemporary condition, proposing the creation of a localized communal experience as an oppositional answer to the corporate world of profit. In its own way, KRZ gives its players a solution that echoes some revolutionary propositions for our time from people like the Comité Invisible, a French anonymous group that theorizes the need to make secession and to create communes as a gesture to end capitalism and the governmental ways of politics.
It is rare that a game experience can go on for this long. But by its episodic releases, Kentucky Route Zero has made its place as a beautiful journey of interpretation, critique and utopian resolution to the difficulties of our times. As I journeyed through the convoluted waters of South American politics, I started to understand more and more the ways in which Cardboard Computer spoke about the common obstacles of the contemporary and the possibilities to overcome them.