In a Guardian article on how Parkdale, one of Toronto’s many recently gentrified neighbourhoods, exemplifies greater trends in Canada’s most populous city, writer Murray Whyte cites statistics that lay bare the economic landscape of my soon-to-be-former home. “The average price of a single-family home went from $251,267 in January 2000 to $1,044,527 in late 2018,” Whyte writes. For context, Global News’ Amy Minsky, in a 2017 article, reports on a Statistics Canada analysis that found “that minimum wage and the average hourly wage [in Canada] have remained, more or less, unchanged since the 1970s.”
In the Toronto Star, Jennifer Pagliaro summarized details from a Social Planning Toronto report comprised of figures drawn between 2010 and the end of ’19. The short of it: “[Austerity policies have] starved our city of the necessary resources to create affordable housing, to end homelessness, to improve the public transit system, to increase access to high quality and affordable child care, to address pedestrian and cyclist safety, and to pay for the critical public services our communities rely upon.” A few other highlights include figures showing that, “the average rent for a one-bedroom unit increased by 33.7 per cent between 2010 and 2018,” that “the Toronto Transit Commission continues to have the lowest government subsidy per rider of all mass transit systems in Canada and the U.S.” and that “child care in Toronto is the most expensive in the country, with more than 17,000 children on wait lists for subsidized spaces.”
In Whyte’s article, these kinds of statistics find human expression. He quotes a former Parkdale resident and current student, daughter of Filipino and Indian immigrant parents, who says she doesn’t “feel like I can make it here in Toronto anymore.” That same woman says “Parkdale will always feel like home, but it doesn’t look like any home I ever knew anymore. My Parkdale is gone.” Whyte ends his article with an elegy to Toronto, which is a city whose “loss is absolute” to those who can no longer afford to stay in their home. He calls it “a place knit into your psyche, torn out and walled off, forever.”
It’s tempting to say Kentucky Route Zero is a “game about economics,” but that sort of description feels too limited to capture the totality of its portrayal of how economic fallout works on a global, national, local, and finally personal scale. Money isn’t just money, after all. It’s freedom and power. Set in a magical realist version of Kentucky, Zero follows a cast of characters struggling to exist in a world that seems absolutely fine with leaving them to disappear into obsolescence. Its central characters are Conway, an aged recovering alcoholic out to deliver a truckload of antiques, and Shannon Márquez, a TV repair woman who specializes in old CRTs of the kind already out of date when the game’s first act released back in 2013. The pair pick up companions as they travel to Conway’s destination, including a boy named Ezra who lost track of his parents while sleeping in bus stations after their home was foreclosed and a pair of android musicians, Junebug and Johnny, whose joints loudly whizz and whir in noticeably low-tech fashion. Their travels are a rural odyssey where each new trial is an examination of life for those trying to survive our age. The cast moves through an underworld of abandoned mines haunted by exploited workers, a former neighbourhood turned into a bitter museum gallery where squatters occupy placarded examples of houses and tents, across the roads and underground river system of the eponymous Route Zero—a strange parallel world filled with castaways eking out new communities below the region’s surface—and, ultimately, back above ground to the failed utopia of the town where Conway’s “5 Dogwood Drive” delivery is destined to end up.
There are an incredible number of fine details to Zero’s depiction of its pocket of the United States. Whether these are short text vignettes about an artist painting images of wrecked ships, an in-game play detailing a group of bar patrons all yearning to escape the realities of their lives, or neighbourhoods dotted with spherical homes reminiscent of pre-fab, disaster-ready, and environmentally friendly Ekinoid shelters, every bit of the game complicates and enriches a multi-faceted statement on the psychic and material struggle of trying to enjoy a simple life under the impossible weight and thousand cuts of American-style capitalism.
Zero’s recurring imagery—skeletons and television static; ghosts and old technology—hammer this mood home. Its characters don’t mope. They still talk about the future. They sing and have conversations about small matters. But everything they say and everywhere they go is coloured with the palette of a post-apocalypse. Or, maybe more accurately, the particular, manic kind of cheer sometimes forced into the air among small groups of people drinking cocktails and nibbling church sandwiches at wakes.
“That’s this whole town,” a character thinks of her home at one point. “Just whistling along, on its way to the grave.”
The houses in Toronto haven’t changed much, but the value assigned to them has. In the late ‘00s, the neighbourhood just north of my own was considerably more run down and barren than those south of it. It had a few bars, a number of used bookshops and coffee shops, churches and cultural centres, convenience stores, barbers, and nail salons. Every summer, it hosts a community concert and street fair. That neighbourhood, trailing a decade or so behind those south of it, went through the inevitable gentrification process, turning the homes working class families employed at the nearby factories (mostly big box retail stores now) used to be able to afford into investment properties. The brick bones of the houses and storefronts that existed before are maintained as a trophy—the cultural version of a taxidermy head on the wall, body long since discarded—but their interiors are gutted out so the cavities can be filled with more modern, luxurious new organs. A local diner becomes the kind of gift shop where customers can buy overpriced, hand-made coffee mugs; a record store becomes a boutique where someone can buy one-of-a-kind jackets styled to resemble an upscale version of the musty leavings others search for in thrift stores. Nobody who lived in this neighbourhood in the past—and certainly not their children—can stay there if they hadn’t paid down a mortgage already. Their home is not for them anymore. They built it carefully, only to be evicted by an invisible hand bigger than any one person could’ve imagined.
This process continues block by block, the city squeezing out its least wealthy inhabitants inch by inch until they’re forced to move to the other, smaller vassal towns surrounding it, some still commuting back everyday like weary indentured servants bound to a seemingly omnipotent client who will never repay their homage with anything like respect. The houses look the same from the outside, but they’re different now. Ghostly fences surround them. Spectral guard dogs snap at the heels of anyone lingering out in front. Their value has changed.
There’s a sense in Kentucky Route Zero that better times have gone away—that the people who inhabit its world are living in the dark of the ever-broadening shadow of something greater and forever past. Almost every character is transitory, moving toward a new location or at least thinking back to where they came from and where they could go next. The artist turned bureau clerk Lula Chamberlain is intent on Mexico City; Ezra, Junebug, and Johnny are happy to keep traveling toward whatever temporary family they might happen upon or construct between them; Conway seems like he’s figuring out how to retire, but we learn he’s really just discovering new ways to work himself into the grave, circling around old habits and regrets, using his sad past as a propeller. Shannon’s journey changes, too. At first, she’s on the hunt for Weaver—the restless ghost of her cousin who inhabits the transitory void of broadcast signals, seeming by this to be one of the only real residents that the restless purgatory of the Zero can lay claim to—but later, depending partially on the player’s choice, she’s either ready to settle down in a quixotic attempt to make a ruined town a proper neighbourhood again or keep travelling forward toward some just out of reach promised land.
The cast’s nomadic lifestyle doesn’t mean Kentucky isn’t still theirs. More than anything, it’s their presence, which conjures up the spectres of lost communities of miners and artists, folk musicians and cartographers of local mysteries, that gives the deadening landscape what cultural vitality it still holds onto. Beyond the ghosts and squatters enlivening aboveground Kentucky with music and art, though, new continuations of culture continue to form in exile.
The best example of this is the underground Echo River. Those who live on the islands and coasts that brighten its dark waters have built all kinds of unlikely new communities. There’s a tiki bar where torches light up a subterranean beach that attracts musicians and vacationers, and a restaurant where meals of strange pale deep-water fish, eels, and mollusks are served up to visiting diners. Even after being driven out of sight by the game’s stand-in for capitalist indifference—the Consolidated Power Company—the people along the Echo have created a new culture. Up above, we see mostly staid shadows of what they’ve left behind: museum galleries that display examples of dead neighbourhood homes, a Kafkaesque bureau set up to organize and filter through previously vibrant places in order to “reclaim” them for other purposes. (In one of Zero’s most pointed bits of symbolism, this Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces operates out of a church that itself has moved its business to an old storage facility.)
Wherever the game’s cast of destitute wanderers end up, regardless of whether that’s an all but ruined town or some other far-off landscape, in a state, country, or continent completely apart from Kentucky, they bring the seeds of their history along with them to plant something new. They’re the mushroom spores landing on abandoned Civil War battleships, growing life alongside the crew of restless cats prowling its rusty holds. They’re the boxes of old VHS tapes that a TV crew can fill a programming block with. They’re people with a history that will continue to thrive in whatever place they call home after being driven away. The world above can try to repurpose what they’ve left behind into new forms, but the corporations who reign over the landscape can’t create anything new. Those driven only by wealth are cultural vultures, picking ever-decreasing bits of rotting meat from their prey. After doing this for long enough, of course, only a skeleton is left.
Toronto is just one city in Ontario, which is one city in Canada, which is one country in North America, and so on and so on. The problems that exist here are ugly, but they’re no different—and in many respects not anywhere near as severe—as those happening across the continent and around the entire world. Though the particulars of rampant, grossly under moderated capitalism will change depending on a given society’s safeguards or lack thereof, the stories being told in Toronto should matter to those in San Francisco and London, Tokyo and Sydney or in the thousands of smaller, increasingly unaffordable cities that serve as homes for so many others. Right now, in early 2020, for example, the entire world watches the contest for America’s presidency, and whether the Democratic Party will rise to the current moment or continue to stagnate as an ineffective foil, with bated breath. We’re observing the future of a global superpower whose example and hegemonic influence will determine our own fates.
At times like this, despair and hope are in constant lockstep. The ramifications of one local decision after another ripple outward across the world and inward to every individual person’s ability to believe something better awaits us all. A single person affects a community, which influences everything else. The average, working person has faced so many losses over the years that it’s impossible not to see even the smallest successes and failures as the bellwether for things as momentous as our common future.
In Kentucky Route Zero’s third act, Conway and Shannon visit a whisky distillery run by glowing skeletons. “The Hard Times boys” bottle liquor drawn from the corpses interred in the graveyard just above their factory. They work off debts that seem impossible to repay, the Consolidated Power Company animating their dead bodies with crackling electricity. Conway, having injured his leg while exploring an abandoned mine, comes to them with one limb replaced by a sparking skeletal one. A doctor has treated his injury with an expensive drug and, unfortunately for him, his visit to the distillery shows where he’ll end up working beyond death to pay off that debt. At the end of their tour of the facilities, a guide pours Conway a shot of whisky and prepares his contract paperwork. Even if the player refuses to click on the drink, knowing by this point that Conway is a recovering alcoholic, he eventually takes it. Physiologically, psychologically, materially, he returns to endless debt. The sequence unfolds with a sickening inevitability. It’s horrifying.
It’s also an apt depiction of the game’s concern with how hope is absorbed, along with everything else—culture, relationships, financial stability—that might accompany its existence by predatory economics. Conway represents the tragic end of the system he lives within. His downfall is brought on by an accident. On the Echo River, knowing it won’t be long until his first day at the Hard Times distillery, he drinks beer, now with one arm made of electric bone just like his leg, and is resigned to working until his death, talking up the miserable situation to Shannon by saying he’ll at least be given a place to sleep, food to eat, and the ability to pay down the debt he fell into—as if any of this is in any way ideal. Conway has given up on a better way of life. He pretends to be content, but he’s tired and old, simply passing time filled with sadness and regret while he waits around for death, and with it, the first real chance for his endless work to come to an end. (Even then, he’ll likely continue as a labouring corpse, just like the Hard Times boys.) This perversion of life—the idea that the only relief from work is dying—is the most achingly resonant of Zero’s observations. It makes every ghost and skeleton populating the game clear as a warning to us all.
Probably most generations, in most places, feel like they’re living through the end of the world. The 21st century, for reasons including and beyond continually growing global wealth inequality and the existential threat of climate change, hasn’t given much reason to doubt that we’re residents of a uniquely disastrous era. Despite this, Kentucky Route Zero manages to end on a note of grounded optimism. In the game’s final act, the cast has reached the surface world again as the sun rises on the morning after a violent storm. They find 5 Dogwood Drive in a flooded town ravaged by the Consolidated Power Company and the weather both. The address itself belongs to a white house, walls open on front and back and a few steps leading up into its interior. The house is blank and, as some of the characters remark, “spacious.” There’s room in 5 Dogwood to make just about anything. Shannon considers building new electronics there, Junebug and Johnny think it’s perfect for a studio. The antiques delivery Conway was driving gets partially unloaded inside. It consists of old furniture that belonged to someone forgotten and may be used to define the everyday life of whoever lives among it next.
A funeral takes place during the act’s conclusion. Two horses, beloved residents of the town, died during the storm and their bodies are interred beneath the shade of a barn. Shannon, Ezra, Junebug, Johnny, and the others they’ve met on Dogwood Drive speak a eulogy and listen to a song. One last pair of deaths amidst the ruin of a community marks Zero’s final moments. The characters decide whether to stay in the depressed town or move on, bringing their culture, and history to somewhere else that might have a better chance of doing right by it. Whatever they decide, their lives will endure despite the odds. The musicians will play their songs in other places. The artists will create new work in any new home they can find. It’s a melancholy ending, but still a hopeful one. Kentucky Route Zero sees the energy of our loves, regrets, the records of our achievements and failures, our most beautiful and horrifying creations, as a force that pushes forward with the undeniable will of an air-borne contagion—a post-nuclear cockroach or the single microbe that survives planetary destruction to germinate into a new single-cell Martian lifeform.
It doesn’t placate or talk down to an audience that has been touched by economic despair—the systemic greed and callousness that defines those in control of the modern world. Instead, it presents a heightened, fabulist vision of one American state, detailing the hyperreal texture of the injustices visited upon them, points our outrage and anger in the appropriate direction, and asks, despite all of this, that we remember that even the most horrifying situations can’t kill the spirit of those able to pass something on throughout and beyond them. Whether its vanity or just plain stupidity to believe better times, or a home worth living in, are waiting just over the horizon is up to each player to decide for themselves. Remembering the bones beneath our feet and the ghosts haunting the world we live in, though, Kentucky Route Zero won’t allow for any kind of hope to be naïve.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.