A few weeks after the Death of a Salesman opened it’s doors at the Morosco Theater in 1949, Arthur Miller ruminated in the New York Times,
“There is a misconception of tragedy with which I have been struck in review after review, and in many conversations with writers and readers alike. It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to pessimism. Even the dictionary says nothing more about the word than that it means a story with a sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.”
Tragedy, to Miller, is essentially hopeful. The tragic hero is someone who attempts to assert their place in the world and to affirm their existence, whether for the first time or to recapture something once possessed and now lost. The protagonist’s determination to act rather than submit when confronting insurmountable odds often leads them to disaster, yet at the same time tests the basic substance of humanity, proving its worth. Miller’s article goes on to reject a stiff Aristotelian tradition which specified that the hero must be of high social standing and intellectual power. There is dignity in failure, and Miller suggests that dignity should not be limited to those on the top of the social hierarchy. The “common man” is as apt as any monarch to evoke the tragic feeling within an audience – perhaps even more so. We no longer need kings to exalt us. Even the average of those among us carries the potential to illuminate what’s tragic about being human, “The disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”
In Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman, a successful traveling salesman loses everything; a story more common now than when Miller first scripted it. The U.S. is one of the biggest debtors in the world, and we each in effect become debtors. Debt discards people across the country peremptorily from a productive way of life. From the credit schemes used to approve or disapprove us for services to political leaders telling us to spend more after a big disaster to prove our patriotism – our entire infrastructure is set up to support, maintain and encourage debt. A system which often victimized users and gives them no options to help themselves. Miller theorized that there was a tendency to view life on purely psychiatric or sociological grounds. This in turn overwhelms and makes heroic action seem impossible. As the financialization of our world develops Miller’s ideas ring hauntingly resonant. These truths are as absurd as they are daunting. It is, perhaps, indisputable to say that America is enveloped in an ambience of debt. The atmosphere that develops out of a debt-ridden economy is inherently fragile and volatile. These adjectives seep down into our lives in unknowable and ubiquitous ways. Sometimes only perceptible if you listen carefully in conversation with others.
In a world burdened by disempowerment, comes a hopefully impelling computer game in which the only control players get to have is in the characters’ inflection.
Kentucky Route Zero, initially released in 2013, is a point and click adventure game developed by Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott,Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt). Part metafiction part play-you-play, the game takes cues from a dizzying array of sources such as American theater, magical realism, electronic music, slow cinema, early gaming history, and on and on. The story begins at dusk somewhere on the back roads of rural Kentucky. Conway, an antique delivery truck driver and recovering alcoholic is on his last job of the evening,delivering something to someone – although the details are not important. He pulls in at a gas station in the shape of a gigantic horse, half hidden underground, to ask for directions. The old man that runs the place hasn’t heard of the address but suggests he takes the Zero, a magical elusive highway. And the quest begins.
The unpredictability of the world in the game is out of sync with traditional gaming and regularly seeks to subvert your expectations. The game exists in five acts (three have been released to date) and the player becomes both audience member and participant. Your role, unlike other games that are typically goal or task oriented, is to idle and talk to strangers. Since most of the game play happens at night, no one is preoccupied with a sense of urgency and given the setting is Southern America, Southern hospitality makes these encounters normal and believable. Along the way you encounter a cast of damaged characters: A TV repair woman whose parents died in a flood, a conceptual artist with a full time job, a boy with a gigantic eagle, a nomadic android and her keytar playing sidekick. Each of them has lost something and wants to tell you about it but only if you implore them. During game play you switch between characters sometimes speaking as more than one at a time. Occasionally you are something other than a character, playing hypertext games within the game, interacting with computers or picking song lyrics during a bar band performance. These conversations and moments are not about what happens next but instead you chat about what’s happened before. Rather than seeking an obtainable resolution, you listen in on the memories that shape and haunt the lives of those around you.
Even though the world you explore is familiar to the inhabitants, as a player you are estranged. People give you directions to get around – often similar to those someone would give an out-of-towner driving around rural America – relying on landmarks and strange visual cues or things not rooted in reality at all. The Zero is mysterious and unpredictable. Along the roadways vignettes and scenes pop up: a drive-in movie theater, hidden moments you read, beautiful landscapes. To reveal them you must go off the suggested path. But the map is vast. Once you’ve come across a few you are left with a somber sense of missed opportunity.
Conversations take place on small sets; places that seem abandoned but full with the residue of once being used. Pulling from a history of modern theater set design, the lighting (what this refers to in virtual reality I am unsure?) is what guides our eye and signals certain moods in the story. Spaces are designed, not for characters to inhabit, but to move through. There is always a sense of the past concurring within the present moment. The world we sift through is a disaster at rest imbedded with the aftermath of tragedy: A Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, A Museum of Dwellings where people who used to live in the neighborhood on display remain within their houses, a cave full of trapped graduate students. Tamas Kemenczy’s visual design is both eerily spare and generous. Figures are usually distant, away from us, and lacking faces. Reinforcing a sense of watching a theater production from a bad seat in an auditorium, but you don’t care because you waited all month to be there. Their bodies are delicately balanced geometric shapes – lacking specificity allowing the player to project onto them. Moments between dialogue carry equal weight of emotional potency. An ambient score by composer Ben Babbitt fills the silences, and traditional bluegrass songs covered by the fictitious Bedquilt Ramblers croon between scene shifts, hinting at how we should feel.
Writer, Jake Elliott modeled the design of the game from an idea adopted from U.S. national security expert, Gregory Treverton. A puzzle is different from a mystery. A puzzle can be solved – a solution exists and there is pleasure to be gained in finding the solution. A mystery, on the other hand, poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on the future interaction of many different factors, known and unknown.
As the end of Act three closes on Kentucky Route Zero, Conway and his collected friends are in pretty bad shape. Without giving too much away, Conway has weathered a ruinous leg injury and has been duped into being indebted. The delivery still has yet to be made. And we are full of questions about an alternate reality full of offbeats and folks dealing with hard times not so different from our own.