To unite such different titles may seem strange at first, perhaps it could be said that they only share in common their place as “indie games”, even though the reception of the two titles is far from being really alike. What I actually aim to do is to point out that these two games appear to have something other in common between them. In the way they deal with different pieces of the American landscape, KRZ and Firewatch are very close.
Of course it should be said that the strange and often magical approach to the construction of the roads, caves and fictional spaces of Kentucky route zero is very different from the cartoony, but beautifully colored art design from Firewatch. These two games intersect in their treatment of the outdoors, the rural and natural spaces of the USA. In both cases the landscape seems virginal, distant, evoking a kind of grandeur that evokes the old fictionalizations of the American countryside. Being from another country, I have been culturally bombarded with this kind of magnificent view of the American natural world, from the Western movies— of which I am not fond of, but still had my share— to the old cartoons like Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny, the great American landscape has marked its place in my own imaginary idea of the USA.
The big, near infinite cave systems of KRZ and the beautiful, fully colored woods of Firewatch are no strange signs for my own imagination. Those are landscapes I have visited many times, from movies, cartoons, literature and other video games. That very exposure to this kind of beautiful homage to nature has placed a certain longing in me to see one day the Great Outdoors that I have seen in the likes of Twin Peaks, Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake and other pieces of media. But as a history graduate I have begun to doubt myself, to question this feeling of engrandizing the American nature.
Even if KRZ and Firewatch present beautiful and poetic figuration of nature, they are tainted by something that is silenced in both games. The history of the United States is one of blood, one could say even of genocide against the Native Americans. The kind of landscape presented in Firewatch— a nature reserve made by the white man to protect and preserve the landscape — is empty of human presence, only your avatar, a temporary forest guard is really allowed to occupy the space of the woods. The magnificent nature of those reserves was only possible through the extermination and expulsion of the first nations people from their land. The guarded and preserved nature is a monument to the power of the white man. Its honor and humanity so great that it can protect nature from himself and from the others, even from the threat of the native Americans.
Kentucky Route Zero presents us with a different kind of landscape, one that is, of course, much less present in other American cultural objects. But its treatment is not far from that of Firewatch’s, even if its landscapes are often more deeply fantastical. The presence of the colonizer is effectively never contested, its use of nature in different forms never put into check. In its latest act, the fourth one in the series, the game also presents us with a natural preservation space. Deep in an underground river, a patch of the river with old trees has been designated for the preservation of a specific kind of bat, it tells us, even in the oddest and fantastical places, men still try to encapsulate natural life, to keep it away from himself, but also in a gesture of egocentric sense of divine mission to protect it.
The two games feed and corroborate the old history of narratives of the lonely, empty and poetic nature of the USA. Still trying, in its own ways, to keep alive the myth of manifest destiny and the very old and very common idea of the emptiness of nature that justifies men’s incursion ever forward. To say a few examples, Argentina, New Zealand and Chile have seen similar patterns of discourses over nature. The imaginary creation of a desert — not in its biome sense, but meaning an emptiness of civilization — makes colonization an endeavor that is morally necessary more than economically desired, masking the true purpose of these expansions into wild territory. Those discourses have served to justify the ever-advancing frontier of those still recently born nation-states in the 1800’s, but now, in the twentieth first century, they seem out of place. We may ask why would the creators of those video games still use and reinvent this kind of discourse; could it be a conscious utilization of easily recognized patterns of traditional fictionalization of nature? Or an unconscious repetition of this discourse of power that is already embedded in the very way we see the landscape of the USA? Those questions may never be answered but they are reminders of the power of traditional discourses and the power of fiction to create ways of seeing the world.