How a video game uses magical realism to reframe the way Americans think about debt and homelessness


'Kentucky Route Zero' starts at this Equus Oils gas station, where Conway looks for directions to 5 Dogwood Drive. — Annapurna Interactive/TNS

When the nearly decade-long journey of Kentucky Route Zero began with a crowdfunding campaign in 2011, it was pitched as a surrealist road adventure with a retro look and a folksy tone, the sort of point-and-click-styled game that went out of favor in the early 1990s but was finding new life as a niche independent product.

There was no way of knowing it was to become one of the most thoughtful, heartbreaking and yet fantastical looks at modern life in America.

Last month, Kentucky Route Zero introduced its fifth and final chapter, a four-year-in-the-works episode that cements the game's status as one of the defining interactive texts of the decade. A game that you read and watch as much as you play, Kentucky Route Zero unfolds as a modern fairy tale, one where the imaginative nature of the game contrasts with its often harsh and pessimistic tone.

Its magical realism inspires wonder and curiosity as much as it does despair. We choose the lyrics of a song, and then watch as it is sung before us. We visit an underground distillery staffed by skeletons, but the afterlife is a flexible thing here. Just before the final chapter begins, we're told that "dead or alive, a ghost is just what happens when a person is gone but still taking up space".

This mystical quality permeates almost every scene, despite the game's backdrop being our own reality – one where tens of thousands of Californians are living without permanent housing, and an untold number of others are surviving paycheque-to-paycheque. Never mind what Wall Street says, many are existing in their own personal bear market.

This America is the backdrop of Kentucky Route Zero. One of the institutions in the game responsible for housing is, in fact, staffed by bears.

When we travel via boat, it's "manned" by a machine-like woolly mammoth, and when we encounter a homeless person's tent and other forms of transient housing, we do so in what's essentially a museum, where the poor and downtrodden are viewed with cold curiosity by more fortunate members of society. When the gallery closes for the night, their homes are taken back to the woods. It's the contemporary art world exaggerated, and for me, revisiting this early-chapter scene resulted in uncomfortable echoes of taking in Do Ho Suh's installation "348 West 22nd Street", a fabric residential reconstruction of the artist's former New York residence currently on display at LACMA.

Throughout, we meet folks who wanted to be scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, small-town entrepreneurs, doctors and authors, but individual goals in Kentucky Route Zero were replaced with payment plans and due dates. "If you want to die with any dignity," says Conway, the antiquarian truck driver without a home who sets the game into motion with a quest to deliver one last package, "you've got to settle up." It's as if a life in its twilight moments amounts to little more than a bar tab at last call.

Kentucky Route Zero was born out the financial crisis and recession years of 2007 to 2009, but instead of feeling like a reflection of those years, it's more a living document of hard times since.

"We've definitely been responding to things that have been happening over the last few years. When we started planning the game in 2010, the context then was we had just had this financial crisis and everyone was in debt," says Jake Elliott, who collaborated on the game with Tamas Kemenczy and musician Ben Babbitt, all alumni of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"A lot of people were being totally immiserated by these predatory banks and loans. What's happening now is just a logical follow-through of what was going on then," Elliott says. "There hasn't been a moment where we had to change directions. This is a story about things that have been going on in America for a long time. It is not just a reaction to one moment."

While never lacking in critical acclaim, Kentucky Route Zero hasn't always been successful enough for Elliott and Kemenczy to support themselves on the game alone – over the years, they have taken on programming work and regularly taught game design. The long-awaited fifth chapter was completed with Annapurna Interactive, the game-focused division of the film studio responsible for last year's Booksmart and Hustlers. Annapurna Interactive has become something of a patron for experimental and adventurous games, including the recent releases Wattam and Outer Wilds.

With Annapurna's backing, Kentucky Route Zero is no longer relegated to PCs, and has been released for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch in a US$24.99 (RM105) package that collects all five chapters as well as the mini preludes that preceded four of them. Anyone, regardless of game experience, should be able to play, as the key component is largely choosing dialogue, a nod to the text adventure games of yore, with some light driving of vehicles throughout. Each chapter can be completed in about two hours.

There are no real goals of Kentucky Route Zero, as it's a video game due to its format but not necessarily in its feel. There are, for instance, no visible villains; the bad folks are unscrupulous real estate agents, credit card companies and long-dead mining firms that destroyed communities by paying in scrips – anyone, essentially, who benefited financially by facilitating or encouraging debt.

Those with the luxury to vacation are viewed with hatred and distrust, and home ownership is a burden. "My folks had a really nice house," says Ezra, a homeless boy we meet relatively early, "but it made them worried all the time. Then, the bank took it back."

We traverse this world via highways that are Mobius strips or waterways where a telecommunications firm has been relocated to a sewer-like cave. We visit an island, whose entire real estate is a tiki bar that provides its guests with the brief, hallucinatory respite of a Mai Tai or six, and sometimes we soar in the claws of a giant eagle. At one point, we are an eavesdropping cat – a charming reward for playing through to the fifth chapter.

Thus, Kentucky Route Zero presents a fanciful cure to our harsh realities.

"It's pretty pervasive, this condition of being in a precarious state," Elliott says. "When we thought about making debt such a strong theme of the game, it was in the news everyday. All these Americans have been indebted by bizarre financial instruments – these weird speculative impossible to understand financial practices that the ruling class engages in.

"But we wanted to make a magical realist game," he says. "The realism part is the important part, a very real part of living in America now. So we have this realistic and grounded part that people can recognise, and then this element of the fantastical comes in. It paints the full picture of the reality of these experiences. There's a spiritual, emotional and psychological dimension to this kind of capitalist precarity, and you don't get that just from representing reality directly."

Kentucky Route Zero is a triumph because we want to live in and with this universe. The game unfolds as an interactive poem. Its look is graceful – the metropolitan noir of Edward Hopper, brought to the Kentucky plains – and yet it also has a sense of humour. Dialogue is delivered with the acerbic tone of Chicago author Nelson Algren. Among the street-tough words of wisdom Conway drops: "Don't name dogs after loved ones."

Its zoomed-out look and abstract, hand-built art style creates the sensation of looking in on a stage. "We were looking at stagecraft, and how they create these small layered impressions of space," Kemenczy says. "Death Of Salesman is a good example, not only the theater implementation but also the adaptation for a movie in 1985. It maintained a surrealist, magical representation of space. The Loman house is all permeated. It looks like a theater set. In the kitchen, there are literally gaps in the walls. You can see out into their yard. That resonated with us."

Such a style comes to the fore in the fifth chapter, especially scenes in which the player as a cat runs among a town where buildings disappear into air. Ultimately, we as players endure the game's underlying sadness because we want to know what the game's characters will say or do, and, more important, understand how we can shape them. While we can't change the story per se, we can mold characters so they're hopeful or honest. We can play along when a gas station attendant tries to sell us trendy crystals, or shut him down and tell him we don't have time for that nonsense when we're starving. Sometimes, we simply tweak the paragraphs we'll see, choosing a highlighted word that will shape the direction of the text.

Oddities and mysteries abound. Some are simple – why are folks playing a Dungeons & Dragons-like game in the basement of a gas station? And some are cynical – why was it necessary for a corporation to retrofit a church into a trendy office, only to relocate the place of worship to its former warehouse?

Yet its cast of characters are never romanticised. They sing and they drink and say things like, "I'm made of sweat and blood and beer" but feel real. Most are essentially homeless, but the game doesn't try to remind us of this fact. It's more interested in characters than bank accounts, even though their lot in life was shaped by the latter. In turn, it makes it clear how quickly and easily homelessness can happen, but it also never strips anyone here of their dignity.

"All people need is enough to pretend we're home," Conway says, "and we can make it anywhere."Kentucky Route Zero offers a new way to think of a growing American tragedy simply by ignoring the fact that its leads are homeless. It becomes a testament to human strength, as where they live and what they do is the least interesting thing about them – for they are introspective, vividly drawn people looking for answers, even though they recognise that no happily-ever-after kiss awaits them. But maybe, if they're lucky, they can score a consolidated loan. Or at the very least spend an afternoon dreaming up what kind of songs worms sing.

At one point in Kentucky Route Zero, we encounter a carefully preserved cave for bats, complete with museum-like notations on perches, Conway asks a question the game seems to be raising throughout, and one that should resonate for anyone living in Los Angeles in the midst of our city's homelessness crisis: "Who's gonna build the people hibernaculum?"

A decade in the making, Kentucky Route Zero raises questions we'll likely be trying to answer for decades to come. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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