Kentucky Route Zero and the Persistence of Communities in the Face of a Spiraling Dystopia
Written by: Duncan Howard
It has always seemed surreal to me that the most profound video game of the last decade, if not of all time, also happens to be the only one set in our state. Kentucky Route Zero, the universally acclaimed point-and-click adventure game developed in 2013 by the indie studio Cardboard Computer, is an artistic masterpiece because it uses its setting to its fullest potential. It strikes a graceful balance between portraying the socioeconomic environment of Kentucky, the stories of its many characters, and the condition of humanity at large, intricately weaving these themes with its beautiful aesthetic to craft an unforgettable experience. I recommend to play it as soon as possible, and therefore will refrain from spoilers as much as possible.
KRZ is much more of an entire experience than a game. It is often said that it seems wrong, even, to call it a game. KRZ is a story, a soundtrack, visual art, and it is almost even like a case study into the lives of average people. One optional stage of the game even includes a full-length 40-minute play that only holds tangential relevance to the narrative, and yet singlehandedly captures the game’s themes so well that it would be worthy of extensive analysis purely on its own. KRZ truly excels in all fields, and yet, what makes it truly stand out is how it emphasizes people.
The game tells the story of Conway, a middle-aged delivery driver making his last run for a failing antiques shop. It is explicitly set in the wake of the 2008 Recession, a crisis that affected regions like Kentucky particularly hard. On a quest to locate and navigate the elusive Route Zero in order to reach a mysterious neighborhood to which no roads lead, players will encounter and control a diverse cast of characters and explore surreal landscapes that are rich with fragments of the past and present. KRZ features an original electronic score by Ben Babbitt, along with arrangements of old Christian hymns and bluegrass songs, that seamlessly work together to paint a picture of a world closely tied to its past and present cultures.
The game's narrative is presented in a non-linear fashion, with each chapter exploring different aspects of the story’s overarching theme. Kentucky Route Zero touches on difficult themes such as loss, identity, debt, addiction, and regret. At its core, the game is a reflection of the kinds of struggles that millions of Americans face every day. It is a panorama of the consequences that capitalist dehumanization brings, using the historical relationship between individuals and corporations as a backdrop.
The corporations in the game are responsible for a slew of injustices, the consequences of which are present throughout almost every scene. KRZ’s primary antagonists are a mining company and a whiskey distillery, both guilty of causing widespread environmental destruction, manipulating the public and their employees by spreading propaganda and forcing them into debt, treating their workers inhumanely, and ultimately completely abandoning them in times of need.
Over the course of the plot, the environment is always dark, stormy, and isolated. When the surface world recedes, the other world leaks out, and the result is both surreally magical and authentic, hence the game’s magical realist style. Despite the bleakness of the narrative, KRZ never fails to include serendipitous moments of hope. Throughout their journey, players will meet a diverse cast of friendly strangers who offer support and guidance to Conway and each other. The Zero itself is an obvious metaphor for grassroots communities that exist “underground,” separate from the pompous and utilitarian world of the surface.
Sentimentality is a recurring theme in Kentucky Route Zero. Characters cling to their memories of happier times. The game also explores both the past and present of the region, providing commentary on the natural resources of Kentucky and the ongoing social and environmental struggles in the area. Kentucky Route Zero is a captivating and thought-provoking game that explores these hugely themes through the lens of a surreal and dreamlike landscape. Through its narrative, it sheds light on the social issues we face and how we might overcome them. While the game may be dark and unsettling at times, it also offers plenty of beautiful moments and insights. It excels in all fields, and its focus on common people and their struggles makes it an artistic masterpiece.
The Semester So Far Across KSEC
The movement marches on in 2020! As February nears its close, we want to take a look back on the first few weeks of this semester to review the highlights of our work.
We began our year in Richmond for KSEC’s Annual Planning Meeting. We gathered fifteen leaders in KSEC’s network to set down plans for the year. We set our focus on statewide collaboration around fossil fuel divestment and building new campaigns with our working groups. Our 2020 Steering Committee met for the first time to continue building the organizational sustainability to keep KSEC on its mission. Our 2020 Catalyst Directors also met and laid down plans for our biggest and best Catalyst yet.
What we planned at the Annual Meeting came to life quickly. On February 13, members of KSEC’s state network at University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and Western Kentucky University joined dozens of other campuses across the country for Divestment Day, demanding that their schools end their investments in the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in their communities.
KSEC’s working groups have also been busy. Out of discussions with members in the last year, we realized a need for and a desire to build networks for mutual aid in Kentucky. Accordingly, KSEC has convened the first meetings of its new Mutual Aid Working Group (MAWG). As its first task, MAWG has set out to direct resources to regions of Eastern Kentucky recently impacted by flash flooding. MAWG is also working to direct resources toward the Wet’suwet’an Nation, who are combating an illegal natural gas pipeline on their line. A tool kit for supporters of their fight can be found at this link.
The Political Working Group (PWG) has also begun laying the groundwork for a campaign to bring accountability and democracy to the Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC is a regulatory agency with the mandate to set the rates Kentuckians pay to utility companies. It is immensely powerful, but it is also obscure and difficult to access for the public.
Members of the PWG lobbied in Frankfort on February 18 to ask legislators to support House Bill 126, which would require the PSC to consider whether a rate increase would be affordable to the folks who have to pay it; the bill also give the PSC more power to audit the rates and practices of utility companies. The Political Working Group will continue to fight for this bill and other reforms to the PSC in the year ahead.
Catalyst 2020 is also off to a swift start. Our directors have selected our training team for the annual summer camp. An application to attend Catalyst and grow all the basic grassroots organizing skills a student could need will be available soon -- watch this space!
In all of this, KSEC has also started a book club in Central Kentucky, given trainings to our campus affiliates, hired an organizing fellow, sent representatives to Power Shift Network’s annual meeting, and so much!
We’re only getting started, too. All of our teams have plans for the rest of the semester, including talking with candidates for office, offering more trainings at campuses, hosting our Spring Summit in Bowling Green, and rising up for many enormous actions on Earth Day and the week around it.
We hope you’ll join us.
Note: KSEC's Fall Fund Drive is happening right now! We're raising funds to support our upcoming in-person programming later this semester and into Spring 2020. Make a contribution to our efforts on our donation page.
Beginning on October 11, members of the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition gathered in Barbourville, Kentucky at Union College for KSEC’s Fall Summit. Sadie Lawrence, a participant this year from duPont Manual High School in Louisville, had this to say about the summit:
For me, KSEC spaces always feel like I’m going back to a second home. The spaces are safe, inclusive, welcoming, friendly, and full of food, laughter, and good conversations. I almost never miss a summit just for those reasons. But a couple of other exciting also drew me to the 2019 Fall Summit.
This year’s summit theme was Transforming Climate Grief Into Climate Action. The first training we received was about Radical Imagination, and I was so grateful to be reminded of how much creativity and the arts connect to activism. They both seek to change and improve the world around them, require talent and teamwork, and can be incredibly powerful. It's why the two so easily intertwine. It was a great way to then apply radical imagination to our ideas for the next strategic plan. It was really exciting to be able to collectively brainstorm what KSEC could be doing in the next 2 years. We have so much potential to grow and mobilize as the youth climate movement gets stronger.
Finally, the last part of the summit I could stay for was the training on turning climate grief into action. This is by far one of my favorite KSEC trainings. I finally learned how to define all of the feelings that come from living in a world where my future has literally been cut short by decisions made before I was even born. I realized all of these feelings that had been swirling around in me were part of the stages of grief. I was remembering how hopeless the climate crisis made me feel.
But at the same time, I realized I wasn’t alone in this struggle. I realized my reactions were normal and understandable, and that people, especially indigenous peoples, have been experiencing this time of grief for centuries. And I remembered that there were people out there, young people like me employing revolutionary optimism and and radical imagination to combat climate grief. And most importantly, I was able to recognize that the climate crisis is here, but so are we.
We’re glad to have hosted Sadie and the rest of our participants this year, and we look forward to seeing everyone again at Spring Summit 2020 in Bowling Green! Details will be coming soon, so stay up to date with us on our social media pages and in our newsletter.
It's Time to Join the Movement
A new semester has begun for students across Kentucky, and that means one thing: it’s time to join the movement. KSEC is building a strong, united youth movement to fight for a just and environmentally sustainable future in our communities and beyond.
All this work contributes to the movement. Success in the movement, however, requires contributions from many people like you. Our movement has a role for everyone, so what’s your role?
Your role may be to join an environmental group on your campus; it may be to start one! KSEC can help you do that. We have a toolkit of resources with all the information you need to get a group off the ground, and our campus organizers are happy to guide you along the way.
Joining a campus group offers a variety of roles you can adopt depending on your ability and capacity.
Your role may be to improve the effectiveness of your campus group. Once again, KSEC can help. Our campus organizers can train your members in everything from how to run a meeting, how to recruit new members, how to effectively run social media, and beyond.
If any of these campaigns speak to the needs on your campus, KSEC can help get you begin to address those needs.
All of the roles discussed above are vital to the health and success of the movement for a just and sustainable future. Whatever role in the movement you choose, we have a way to help you succeed. All you have to do is join up and try on a role.
By Cara Cooper
To be honest, four months later and I am still processing what I’ve learned and how I feel about my transition out of KSEC. One thing I know for sure is that I will always remember those years as some of the best years of my life.
What we have accomplished together is more than I could have ever dreamed. Together we grew KSEC from a loose coalition of students on a handful of campuses to a thriving statewide organization with national recognition. And while the overall growth of the organization is exciting, it is not what I think about as the most important work that we’ve done.
Because when I think about what I’ve learned through organizing with KSEC, it is the individual relationships, friendships and mentorships that are what is really important. And I cherish those relationships more than you know. It is through our deep ways of being together and being in community that we are going to really change the world.
Sure there are impressive numbers. Together over the past six years we raised over $250,000, trained 1,200 young people in grassroots organizing, mobilized 2,000+ people to take action, won 6 campus campaigns, tripled our staff size, etc, etc. And I’m damn proud of that, too. But mostly…. Mostly I’m proud of each of you.
It is so much easier to stay jaded, to (falsely) assume that there is nothing we can do to fix the problems that we see around us and to just exist in our bubbles. But you have risen to the call for more. You have seen the vision that we’ve dreamed together of a Kentucky where we can not only stay but thrive, where we have a liveable planet and justice for all. You are the reason that this hard work has all been worth it. I am eternally thankful for you believing in me, believing in us and believing in KSEC.
I thought I would be nervous to leave. I worried that I would worry about the organization that I poured so much of my heart, sweat and tears into. But the truth is I am not worried. I am proud, I am excited and I 100% believe that our KSEC community will continue to kick ass long into the future. I’m so sure in fact, that I am pledging to increase my monthly donation to KSEC this Spring Fund Drive. We all know money isn’t everything but it does help make this work possible. If you believe in KSEC and the power of young Kentuckians, pledge a few bucks each month and show it!
I’ll leave you with a couple of things that I have distilled from my time in the youth environmental movement.
The Young Kentuckian is a blog of the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition where youth share their work and ideas for Kentucky's bright future.
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