Making ‘Kentucky Route Zero,’ a Magical Realist Adventure in Five Acts

12.12.13 Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy of Chicago indie studio Cardboard Computer about Kentucky Route Zero, a nontraditional adventure game set on magical and mundane Kentucky highways.

Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy have made two fifths of an incredible video game called Kentucky Route Zero, but their interests and expertise reach beyond just game development. The five-part game (of which two parts have so far been released) is inspired by theater, literature, filmmaking, music, architecture, composition, and more. These influences come across in countless ways, from the cinematic ways the game’s slightly surreal world is framed to the vague but meaningful conversations players have with its inhabitants. But one chief inspiration was none other than the first great American tragedy, Elliott tells Animal:

I’ve always been fascinated with Arthur Miller’s treatment of tragedy in the 20th century, like with Death of a Salesman. He did some writing about the idea of tragedy and how it changes to suit the times. I think we’re in a different moment now than Arthur Miller was when he wrote Death of a Salesman, certainly, so we’re trying to explore that form a little bit. It’s not just about people being sad.

With Kentucky Route Zero, Elliott said, the duo wanted to explore contemporary tragedies: debt, predatory lending, people being displaced from their homes. That sort of thing. The game is set in Kentucky, where an aging delivery man named Conway searches for an address no one’s ever heard of. He travels highways both real and fictitious, conversing with the locals and exploring abandoned houses, caved-in mines, and underground office complexes. The game effortlessly merges traditional and experimental gameplay. Elliott says:

We started with this idea about the game being set in Kentucky and being traveling highways in Kentucky, one of which is this magical secret highway that runs through Mammoth Cave [National Park]. Originally we were thinking about it being sort of a puzzle-oriented game, still kind of nonviolent but where you would solve puzzles and explore big spaces. Gradually as we worked on it it kind of contracted in physical scale until it became this more intimate game that’s mostly about conversations on these small sets.

They sought to make something unpredictable. Gameplay takes a number of forms, from traditional point-and-click adventuring to text-only exploration where you navigate environments described only in words. Early on it was almost a platformer, like Mario, but they decided that didn’t fit the tone. Elliott and Kemenczy play a lot of games on Twine, a new-ish platform and tool for creating “hypertext” games that has recently attracted a significant, if niche, following, and that proved a source of inspiration as well, Elliott says:

It was kind of jarring for some people to see those text-only parts of the game. We’ve definitely had people asking us a lot if we did that to save time or something. But it wasn’t really about saving time; it’s a form that we are interested in.

Kentucky is saturated with an old-fashioned sort of country romanticism, with recognizable roots in nostalgic-feeling southern literature like Huck Finn. It takes shapes in frog choruses, bluegrass, church choirs, and dusty gas stations; a haggard old hound dog in a floppy straw hat follows you everywhere. But in true southern gothic style there’s an As I Lay Dying vibe to KRZ as well; everything is slightly off, the church’s pews empty and askew, the highways and diners all but abandoned, the tanks at the local bait shop filled with unseen stinking things that bite your hand. This familiar but unsettling setting is absolutely essential to the experience, and Elliott says it’s close to home:

Both of us spend a lot of time down in that part of the country visiting family, so it’s pretty close personally for us. There’s a lot of stereotypes about the south and Kentucky…it’s a lot more real for us than some of these stereotypes. The portrayal of southern characters in video games has been pretty bad so far, generally speaking. But it’s always been kind of important for us because of this personal connection.

Kemenczy continues:

There’s a lot of grandiosity in graphical video game design. And you can see this element of fantasy [in Kentucky Route Zero], but the spaces that we have are more realistic and intimate. There’s a lot of stagecraft going on in these scenes because they’re purposely made to look like set designs. The scenes are not overly grandiose and there are a lot of mundane details that we focus on when designing these things; like in the mine there’s photography from the depression era and dustbowl era. Photographers would go through the midwest in the dustbowl and photograph coal mining communities and stuff like that, so we looked at a lot of those as historical reference points.

And that’s just Act I (the game is truly arranged like a play). Act II steers toward a totally different direction, shifting tone to focus on the subtle madness of corporate office life. It’s in this second part that Route Zero itself actually appears; it’s a twisting 3D wireframe vein filled with apparition shapes like constellations and cryptic zodiac signs. The grizzled, tired Conway and his hound dog drive a truck around it. Elliott says:

It’s supposed to be very much about real things that are happening in the world right now. There’s a little bit of the kind of fantastic in there but we’re using that technique, that kind of magical realism, hopefully to the same effect that people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie used it, where it’s about getting a kind of novel perspective on real social issues through the use of a little bit of fantasy merged with the mundane. Those issues for us are specifically American, I think.

Kentucky Route Zero Acts I and II are available now on Steam and kentuckyroutezero.com. It was recently nominated for best indie game of 2013 during the Spike TV VGX awards. The developers have not yet hinted at the release date of future acts, so for now we’re keeping one ear pressed to the tracks.