Debt and Poverty in Kentucky Route Zero

Cardboard Computer, creators of the episodic magic realistic adventure, Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ), have stated that; “at the core of it, the game is about the different ways that people deal with hard times, and the different ways that economic downturns affect people who live at the margins.” These themes of debt and poverty are the ones I’ll be examining throughout this post, especially in relation to the first scene of the game, through the lens of the game’s mechanics. 

In the game, the player’s first avaliable action is to observe and enquire. It introduces the core gameplay idea of investigation, of examining your environment. The mechanics across the game are slow-paced and deliberate, especially later, when lead character Conway injures one of his legs. This allows, even forces, the player to take their time and really absorb the visuals, sound design and dialogue. The horseshoe animation that appears when players click to move Conway reflects this idea of a laid-back, leisurely atmosphere. It’s also a reference to the setting, the American South, which is something all elements of the game are quite intimately tied to.

After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the South in particular was devastated by high unemployment and property foreclosures. A lot of people, already deep in debt, simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. It’s only got worse since then, in fact, the child poverty rate in Kentucky has increased to 26.5% from 23.5% of the population since the onset of the crisis in 2008. This central idea of debt is reflected in the mechanics of KRZ, and more widely in adventure games in general. In a typical role-playing scenario, the player needs something from an NPC, and the NPC needs something from the player. The player performs a task for that NPC, that NPC is then in debt to the player; a debt they repay with an important piece of information or item. This trading of debt is present in this first sequence of the game, where players must help blind gas station owner Joseph by switching on the lights. Unable to pay the bills due to his condition and a lack of business, Joseph gives Conway a lantern to navigate the basement of his decrepit business. 

After exploring the basement, the player meets a group of card players gathered around a dingy table. They seem to ignore Conway as he asks them questions, and disappear entirely once the player collects a die for them. This sets players up thematically for the rest of the game, where characters appear and disappear with alarming frequency. Much like forcing players to take in the various aspects of the game with it’s slow-paced mechanics, KRZ also uses this scene to illustrate the idea of poverty, and the notion of appreciating the objects in one’s life, because they might not be there for long. I refer to the ghostly card players as ‘objects’ in this instance, because the game sets up a really interesting separation between player and characters.

Once the player finally gains access to the computer to search for the location of 'Dogwood Drive’, they have the option of entering 'Conway’ as a user. If they do so, the computer will state: 'User “Conway” is not real’. I found this to be a similar concept to Magritte’s painting, ’The Treachery of Images,’ viewable above. Translated, the text reads 'This is not a pipe’. The game is reminding you that it is a game, that you’re not interactive with real people. Like the ghosts that Conway interacts with throughout the game, the characters, like all video game characters, are fake- just polygons and pixels. Later in the second act of the game, the player visits a museum filled with people, and people’s homes, presented as exhibitions. They’re something separate from Conway and his companion Shannon, exacerbated further by limiting communication to intercom-like museum recordings.

Kentucky Route Zero distances players from their playable characters, and those characters from each other, just as people in high socio-economic positions distance themselves from lower ones. But it also offers hope. While we as players are interacting with computers, there’s still a human element, so we care. Perhaps we can care for people at the margins too.