Since January of 2013, we’ve been treated to a slow trickle of Kentucky Route Zero episodes — two that first year, one in 2014, and the latest just last month. Another is still to come, but several themes have come clear through the four episodes we already have. The largest, the one that ties together the game’s desolate highway Americana and the quiet desperation shared by many of its characters, is debt.
Content warning: spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero
Debt is endemic in America and elsewhere. Medical debt is bought and sold as a commodity. Lenders have developed predatory systems to dig people who are already struggling with debt even deeper. Student debt is at an all-time high, and it’s weighing people down well into their thirties and forties.
It might sound like a financial issue, but all that debt is having a serious impact on mental health, too.
Kentucky Route Zero takes all that ubiquitous, dangerous debt and uses it to drive a complicated, fascinating narrative about the way our lives can be commodified. Dante Douglas recently looked at that narrative for Deorbital.
One thing about debt, and about being in debt, is that the deeper you get, the easier it feels to fall further downward. To take out another loan, assuage one payment by pulling money from a new payment, don’t think about the future. Being in debt becomes a lifestyle of survival. The future grows darker with every day, so why focus on a few weeks out? Debt and poverty wrest attention to the now, to the day-by-day task of keeping yourself afloat.
In the world of the Zero, the Consolidated Power Company acts as a creeping force on the inhabitants of the highway and the surrounding areas. Each location you visit has been touched by the Company, either lightly or forcefully. Its workers — the softly glowing, skeletal creatures that they are — are described by other characters as dimly recognizable. They are people, yes, but they are consumed by debt, physically and psychologically. On the Zero, debt becomes visible, makes itself known as a physical force on its victims.
Laura Hudson also looked at Kentucky Route Zero’s take on debt and economic desperation for Slate.
“It’s important to us that the game be in, and of, the real, contemporary world,” a member of Cardboard Computer, the development team behind the game, told Vice. “So the characters are living in the world of predatory lending and bizarre, inscrutable financial machinery.”
Conway ends up exploring an abandoned coal mine where a terrible accident claimed the lives of dozens of miners. Much like the narrator of the folk song “Sixteen Tons”—and countless real-life victims of predatory truck systems—the miners were paid not in money but in scrips, little plastic tokens that could only be redeemed at the overpriced company store, a racket designed to drive them deeper into debt and conscript them into permanent indentured servitude.
It’s an experience that is both rarely discussed and frighteningly quotidian; as one author wrote in May about her own very American experience with poverty, “It’s scary being poor, worrying that one parking ticket would mean I couldn’t buy groceries, or deciding whether I should see a dentist about a toothache or pay my trailer park fee. … How many times have we been told to get a job, or that if we just worked harder we could improve our situation? Work harder. Work harder. Work harder. American society has made it perfectly clear: If you are poor, it’s your own damn fault.”
When we first glimpse the skeletal, debt-ridden individuals of Kentucky Route Zero, it’s in The Entertainment, an interactive experience released between two of the game’s episodes. That first look inspires mild horror — the skeletal creature look irradiated and otherworldly, something to be avoided. The game goes on to explore its themes further, but that moment is one to remember, because it evokes the profoundly isolating nature of serious debt like no other.