Kentucky Route Zero is, unsurprisingly, a game about Kentucky. But it’s not a game that romanticizes the state or makes it something it’s not. If anything, it places Kentucky under a microscope, revealing its many socio-economic flaws. Debt, addiction, communities destroyed by corporate expansion, a healthcare system fundamentally designed to destroy the poor – all of this and more, displayed on a tiny Nintendo Switch screen; my home state, spread out for me to see and agonize over.
In Kentucky, everyone lives hard – the coal miners, the drug dealers, the people that starve and break laws just to survive. I have friends who do drugs first thing in the morning, friends who aren’t ready to face their own demons, friends who will always be poor – victims of a system they had no choice but to live under. I also have friends from the program who I lost contact with, and sometimes I wonder if they’re still sober or still alive. Some aren’t. Kentucky Route Zero makes me think of all these people. It makes me think of myself, too.
Like Conway, the main character, I’m a recovering alcoholic. If misery loves company, then being an alcoholic in Kentucky is one of the best places in the United States to do so. We’re world-renowned for our bourbon; it’s everywhere and plentiful, in every restaurant and advertised all over billboards. Drinking is a part of our identity. Kentucky also has some of the worst levels of opioid abuse in the country. There are hundreds of AA and NA meetings around the state every single day trying to help those who are victims of the state’s substance issues. When I went to rehab, I had to wait for a bed to open up. While I was there, we were always at maximum capacity, and since I’ve been gone, the company has had to open a larger location to meet the demand.
Kentucky is also among the poorest states in the U.S. Last year, 10 counties in Kentucky were ranked among the 25 worst to live in the country. Our portion of the Appalachian region is infamous for its extreme poverty, disease, and addiction. At its worst, Louisville, the state’s biggest city (where I live), had an 18-percent poverty rate, though thankfully that has improved in recent years.
Everyone here lives hard.
Seeing these things reflected in a video game is a pretty surreal experience. When the game asked me to find the Artificial Limb Factory off Dixie Highway, I knew exactly which one it was referring to; it’s 25 or so minutes from my house right now, though I don’t know what they actually make there. More upsettingly, seeing our state’s problems with debt and poverty displayed onscreen was heartbreaking. One poignant scene, in the game, has you trying to find a neighborhood in rural Kentucky, only to discover it’s been demolished and replaced with a museum. In the museum are the people and homes of the neighborhood it displaced; they live here now, a visual metaphor for the way corporate expansion destroys community and the ways we love to ogle rural-living people and put them on display.
The game’s portrayal of alcoholism hit close to home. In one of the many intermissions that bookend the five chapters, you participate in a theater production for a play called “The Entertainment.” Your character is an alcoholic simply named Barfly, so far gone that the other alcoholics pity them. Been there. In lieu of real lines, text flashes on the screen that mirrors the character’s thoughts or actions. One particular note says the Barfly is scanning the table they sit at, looking for landmarks. At my drunkest I used to do the same, trying to find things I could focus on around me or thoughts I could grasp onto that would keep me from blacking out the night the next morning. To see that represented, alongside the way a character like Conway has to actively deal with and work around his addiction spoke to me. It wasn’t a gentle representation, but I didn’t need it to be. I lived a hard life as an addict, and the game is true to my experiences.
Kentucky Route Zero is uninterested in glamorizing the state or the allure of our most expensive bourbon and the misnomers of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Kentucky Route Zero is not trying to convince you to move here; it might be actively doing the opposite, in fact. It’s showing what a post-recession Kentucky is really like, what debt, addiction, and the combination of the two really do to people around here. It’s not a glamorous look at the only place I’ve ever called home, but it’s an accurate one, in my opinion*. It makes me hate this place more than I already do. It also makes me love it more than I ever have.
My whole life, I’ve wanted to leave Kentucky. I’ve always hated this place – its lack of real skyscrapers, its politics, and its traditions. My whole life has been spent dreaming of bigger, louder cities, never minding that their problems are probably far greater and more complicated than my own. I’d think, “No place is perfect, but any place is better than here.”
When I do leave Kentucky, when I travel for work or vacation, Kentucky is all I talk about to my friends who have never been here. Even now, it sometimes feels like I’m making things up to impress them; the things that happen here are so weird – the people are so weird – there’s no way they can be real. I talk about the time when we were teenagers that my friend Johnny and I were trusted with an entire building in downtown Louisville, allowed to throw metalcore and rap shows in the basement. The cost of that was the art gallery upstairs (my employer at the time) almost got evicted from the building, and every time we had a show we had to deal with cops answering noise complaints. Or there were all those times in high school my friend would run into Kroger, grab multiple 30-packs of Budweiser and run out the front door, me waiting in his driver seat, ready to drive away, even though I didn’t have a license yet. I talk a lot about my friends, usually by first name as if the people I’m talking to already know them. I talk about the people I surround myself with here in Kentucky, all the bad and weird things we did, and how much I love them. I love the people here.
My whole life I’ve wanted to leave Kentucky, but the second I do, it’s all I want to talk about. I’ve always hated this place, until I’m somewhere else, and then I’m filled with pride. I want to boast about how uniquely messed up this place is, and how it makes people here special and wonderful. Everyone here lives hard. It’s true, but that makes everyone here a survivor in their own unique way. There’s a pride in being from Kentucky – similar to that of people from places like New York or Philadelphia – that you don’t find in other, lesser-publicized states. Who the hell is proud of being from Indiana, anyway?
Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t always put these things on display. But still, it makes me reflect on the state as a whole. I think about the bad because it’s undeniable, right there onscreen every time I boot up the game. In that introspection, Kentucky Route Zero leads me to the good here, too. Which are the people. Always the people. For all their flaws, all their faults and screw-ups, I love the people here. I don’t know what Conway did in the past, but I know it wasn’t always great, made evident by his post-recovery guilt that pops up in-game from time to time. But I know he’s good. And that’s this intangible Kentucky thing. We all live hard; we all do bad things and get mixed up in bad circumstances. But a lot of people here, they’re still good. Kentucky Route Zero’s people are good, too. They’re just flawed like all of us are.
When I play Kentucky Route Zero, I see the state I grew up in, that I live in, and maybe will die in. I see it for all its faults and shortcomings. I see reflected on that screen how bad everything is here, how people are just trying to survive, cope, and forget. I don’t always feel pride when I look at that screen. It is hard to be proud of a state that’s systematically set up to kill people for the crime of simply being poor or born the wrong way. It is hard to be proud of a state that betrays its addicts, leaving them to fend for themselves. It is hard to be proud of the people in power who remain unaffected by the cruel laws they create. Everyone here lives hard because, in a lot of cases, that’s the life that was chosen for them.
I feel love when I play Kentucky Route Zero. Love for a place I say I hate. Love for people I say I want to leave. I think you can have it both ways. There are ideologies and traditions here that are loathsome, but I’m still from Kentucky, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of everyone here that fights back or simply gets up in the morning. I’m proud of all the people that made it big, that got clean, or fought for a better life. For those that haven’t yet, I wish nothing but the best for them. If you can make it in Kentucky, you can do anything. Everyone lives hard here, but we’re still living.
* I would be remiss to not including this piece by my friend, colleague, and fellow-Kentucky native Amanda Hudgins, who in their piece for Bullet Points Monthly, writes a wonderful breakdown of why they don’t think this game is as true to Kentucky as I do.