The Making Of: Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero

Point-and-click interface? Check. Dialogue options? Check. Decision-driven narrative? Check. You’d be forgiven for thinking Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero might be kissing cousins with The Walking Dead. Both are interactive fictions designed to let players choose a path through their stories. Both are set in the American South. And both are episodic releases. But mention Telltale’s best-selling, award-winning mainstream zombie hit to Cardboard Computer and the reaction is a little frosty.

“The moral decisions, the need to be strategic: it’s at the other end of the spectrum to what we’re doing in Kentucky Route Zero,” says Tamas Kemenczy, who handles art and visuals at the two-man Chicago micro studio. His partner, Jake Elliott, who covers programming, design and writing, agrees: “The ’big choices’ thing – do you want to save this child or this adult? – is not very interesting to me personally in the context of The Walking Dead.”

Pitched as “a magical-realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it”, Kentucky Route Zero is a refreshingly avant-garde take on the point-and-click adventure genre. Devoid of logic puzzles, strategy and Big Decisions™, it’s true that it actually has less in common with Telltale’s zombie opus than one might initially think. In fact, it might be a mistake to even put it in the same genre.

“I’m a big fan of point-and-click adventure games,” writes disgruntled player 0macfrank0 on Steam’s community forums. “KRZ is not a game. It’s an interactive short story. A very short and thin short story indeed. Which I didn’t know before I bought it and now I feel ripped off.” Gamer expectation – especially when coupled with that other troublesome ’e’, entitlement – can be a powerful force. Challenge it too often and you’ll end up facing a backlash. For Cardboard Computer, though, Kentucky Route Zero’s challenge to mainstream expectations was accidental, not planned. “It wasn’t something we started doing as a provocation,” Elliott explains. “We weren’t trying to throw people off.”

Cardboard Computer’s Jake Elliot (left) and Tamas Kemenczy (right).

Instead, he believes it comes down to a clash of two different worlds: indie gamemakers from an art background, inspired by interactive fiction, and a mainstream audience primed for a more conventional approach. “This game has been more successful in reaching a larger audience than a lot of interactive fiction has. So that puts it into this other cultural sphere where it might look like a really weird thing. Where we’re coming from, it’s not so strange.”

Cardboard Computer traces its roots back to Chicago’s new-media art scene. Elliott and Kemenczy met as undergraduates at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 2000s. Interested in interactive media art, they collaborated on a series of installations with Jon Cates. Among them was Sidequest! in 2009, a “classic cyberpsychedelic text adventure” inspired by the work of pioneering programmer and caver Will Crowther. Back in 1976, Crowther wrote Colossal Cave Adventure to run on a PDP-10 mainframe. The game was inspired by his spelunking experiences in Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves. Inviting players into a dark and labyrinthine collection of “twisty little passages, all alike”, Colossal Cave Adventure became the granddaddy of computer-based interactive fiction.

Elliott had played CCA as a kid, when his dad was at college, on a dial-up terminal. “I was really small and my dad was helping me play it, because it’s really hard. I couldn’t even figure out how to quit! It wouldn’t recognise any quit commands, so I started trying to kill myself to get myself out of the game. My dad suggested that I try eating the lamp. I typed in ’EAT LAMP’ and the computer just totally chastised me and said, ’Don’t be ridiculous!’ I was so embarrassed, being scolded by this computer.”

Although the sting of the rebuke faded, Elliott’s interest in interactive fiction didn’t. That early brush with branching narrative sowed the seeds for what, decades later, would become Kentucky Route Zero. After working together on Sidequest!, Elliott and Kemenczy decided to collaborate again in October 2010.

This time it wouldn’t be an art project but a marketable game. It wouldn’t just riff on Colossal Cave Adventure but also the real-life cave system Crowther explored, with a story about a secret highway hidden in Kentucky’s caves. But more than that, it would explore the culture of Kentucky – the site of the first interactive text adventure. When it first appeared on Kickstarter in January 2011, Kentucky Route Zero was pitched as a side-scrolling platformer. The original video pitch shows a more conventional game than the one that would eventually be released: Conway, a giant of a man, wanders through moonlit Kentucky backdrops carrying a child on his back and solving puzzles.

“We had this idea that [his] companions, the friends, kind of acted like power-ups – you’d equip two of them and then use them to get through puzzles,” says Elliott. “But it sort of fell away.” As development progressed, what started as a side-scrolling platform game was transformed, stripped of all strategising until all that was left was its dialogue trees and nocturnal, ghostly atmosphere. “It was pretty gradual. We wanted you to be able to control the platforming with the mouse, so you wouldn’t have to do careful jump timing. You could just click and you would jump across a gap. We didn’t want it to be challenge-orientated. So, as we fleshed out that movement mechanic with the mouse, it gradually evolved into a point-and-click adventure structure.”

The first prototype was an expansive cave system featuring lots of climbing and jumping. But while iterating on the art style, the spaces began to become smaller, more intimate and theatrical. “There was less space to cover and the game became less about exploring – [at least] in the sense of wandering through a maze and finding dead ends,” Kemenczy says. To underline the shift away from platforming, Conway was transformed from the muscled giant of the early iteration into a puny, more abstract figure. “We actually break Conway’s leg almost immediately [in Act One],” laughs Elliott, noting that the original animations still exist in the game under the hood. “It’s not like he’s going to be able to do any jumping.”

Instead of exploring caves, Kentucky Route Zero spelunks into an emotional “maze of twisty little passages, all alike”. It’s a game about interior space, old souls and lost souls – Kentuckians struggling through an economic downturn, saddled with debts. Conway, the hero, is a delivery driver lost late at night on an errand to drop some antique furniture off in the Kentucky backwoods. Stopping at a gas station to ask for directions, he finds himself embarking on an unlikely quest involving abandoned mines, giant eagles and a magical underground interstate known as Route 0.

The atmosphere evokes the blue-collar oral histories of Studs Terkel and the Southern Gothic of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. As Conway tries to find his way to the elusive 5 Dogwood Drive, the conversations you have immerse you in the supporting cast’s histories and stories: Joseph, a blind gas station attendant with a love of poetry; Lula Chamberlain, an installation artist suffering from rejection and working a pen-pushing desk job; Shannon, who fixes TVs and whose family is deep in debt. It’s a drama that is told through dialogue, the player sometimes switching between different characters like Faulkner’s impressionistic shifts of perspective. As the conversation options play out, the sense is that every character is an actor and the dynamic nocturnal environments are a theatre stage that twists and shifts to accommodate their moods.

Kemenczy’s abstract and ethereal low-poly art, which looks back to ’90s action adventure Another World, plays with lighting and perspective to create backdrops that feel inherently theatrical. “They’re spaces you explore emotionally and they’re really streamlined to show only the really important props and aspects to the frame and the conversations between the characters,” Kentucky Route Zero’s artist explains.

He cites Obie Award-winning Broadway set designer Beowulf Boritt, whose credits include Rock Of Ages and a version of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona set in Rat Pack era Las Vegas, as a big influence. In Rock Of Ages, Boritt’s acclaimed single set combines several locations simultaneously as the neon-lit Sunset Strip is transformed into the interior of fictional Sunset Boulevard dive The Bourbon Room. “We looked at how Boritt simplifies and merges really complex spaces into one set,” Kemenczy explains. “The way he bleeds interiors and exteriors together architecturally is something that we’re drawing a lot of inspiration from.”

If the game environments are stages, is the player an actor? Elliott certainly thinks so, although he stresses it’s a performance that emerges through mood and dialogue rather than action. “In a lot of games you’re more like a stuntman than an actor,” he says. “You watch a cutscene where characters talk about their feelings or whatever. Then you jump in and [play] the fight scene and then jump back out again. In Kentucky Route Zero we were looking at theatre and the idea of letting the player sort of inflect the character. It uses a conversation mechanic familiar from RPGs and point-and-click adventures. But it prioritises emotional sensitivity and emotional or poetic decisionmaking rather than research – the priority of most RPG dialogue – or logic-puzzling – the priority of most classical adventure dialogue.”

Trivial decisions – like choosing whether to call your hat-wearing dog Blue or Homer – don’t make the narrative branch in different directions. Instead, they flavour the story and how the player sees Conway himself. Dialogue and locations change depending on the player’s response but there are no dramatic shifts or big moral decisions. “You have two choices and they might not be narratively that different,” Elliott says, “but they’re sort of emotionally different. Or, they give you two different reasons for doing something and you pick why the character did it.”

Working out how to prod and poke players’ emotions involves more than just a series of binary values, though. “We’re still figuring it out,” Elliot says of Cardboard Computer’s approach to giving players emotional feedback. “We only have two episodes out now, and the choices and inflections are starting to pile up. We’re about halfway [through] trying to figure out new ways of working with those choices and how to…” he pauses, uncertain. “Have those choices coalesce,” Kemenczy says, finishing his partner’s sentence for him. “Yeah,” Elliott agrees. “It needs more figuring out. We talk about it quite a lot.”

The touchstone that Cardboard Computer returns to again and again is interactive fiction. Colossal Cave Adventure spawned a genre that has survived the exponential growth in processing power that has happened since 1976. In fact, the genre has been enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to Twine, the HTML text game generator that lets anyone make interactive fiction with just a few clicks of the mouse. “Twine games are what Tamas and I follow the most closely from videogames,” Elliott says. “Generally a lot of Twine games privilege personal storytelling above any mechanical conceit. There’s [often] only ever one option. You just sort of click through it and it’s basically like a poem or something. We’re not working in a vacuum in that regard.”

Since its release in January, Kentucky Route Zero has given Cardboard Computer its biggest audience to date – although it’s reticent about sharing exact sales figures – and won it an award for Excellence in Visual Art at the 15th annual Independent Games Festival in March. Its success – much like that of Dear Esther last year – demonstrates the effects that digital distribution and new funding models have had on the gaming landscape. Games that don’t rely on conventional run-shoot-puzzle-jump interactions are now able to reach a much broader audience. It’s an ongoing revolution that has the power
to change player tastes, too, as the friction between the margins and mainstream bites.

“We have seen people on forums talk through their change in perspective from playing the game,” Elliott says. “Some people react with hostility, for sure. There was one guy who left a comment on a forum that I read. He was feeling very betrayed because Kentucky Route Zero was representing itself as a videogame, but it wasn’t really a videogame.” A little later, the poster left another message on the thread. “He’d played the second episode and came back to follow up,” the designer continues. “He said, ’Well, since I had my expectation changed this time, I kind of enjoyed it a lot more.” Elliott laughs, proudly. “So, I guess, the game’s doing something to him.”