Bright light filters in from the wide front windows of the Emporium Arcade Bar in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, the two halves of indie developer Cardboard Computer, sit next to each other, each nursing a pint full of dark beer. The pair are silhouetted by a late snow stuck to the street outside, itself busily reflecting the soft box of a grey sky.
In a few weeks they'll go on to win their first Independent Games Festival award, for Excellence in Visual Art. But today they're in their hometown, at their favorite bar, taking time from their full-time jobs to discuss their after-hours passion, a game that has changed considerably since it was first conceived. And while the style of their game is stunning, it's the story behind these artists and behind their latest piece, Kentucky Route Zero, that deserves telling.
As one of their characters tells every player that sits down to play that game, "It's time to start paying attention."
Elliott spins his glass on the table, looking into it as he begins. "We [Northerners] have this relationship to the South … for a really long time … where it was ... almost ... being managed by colonial powers in the North. There's this sort of economic relationship between the two."
The story of America, from the Civil War to present day, is the story of mending that relationship writ large, at times a furtive task that has taken generations. The country's journey is along for the ride every time the men cross into the South to visit family (they're both in relationships with Southern women). They are fascinated with the echoes of that past in our politics, our social structures and our economy.
Magic realism blends the fantastic with the mundane.
When conceiving their game, the men thought on these and other road trips they had taken over the years, a major reason that much of the game's first act takes place on an abstracted road map.
"My girlfriend and I stopped at this gas station," Elliott says. "It was like a gas station but, like, the family who ran it also lived there. So there's a place set up for their kids to play. … People were buying T-shirts and underwear there. I just got a sense of so much ... social depth in this gas station space."
Kentucky Route Zero, Act I Scene II.
Kentucky Route Zero plays with that sense of depth in common spaces, its major scenes taking place at a bait shop, a farmhouse, a gas station. It's the characters that bring the places to life. "All of these people are living here," says Elliott, "just all this residue because of people spending so much time there. That's something … with a lot of the locations in the game, that I think is the feeling of this space having history, having residue."
While struggling with a way to represent that residue in a game, they struck upon an obscure genre of literature, magic realism. Best exemplified by the author Gabriel García Márquez, it's a kind of storytelling that seamlessly blends the fantastic with the mundane. Characters are themselves complicit in the sometimes hallucinatory tableaus this genre allows writers to create. The past and the present can be together in the same room, and the disorder that that creates is a personification of the helplessness characters feel. In a way, magic realism mirrors the kind of escapism some say gamers themselves indulge in with their hobby.
After a break for another round, the men that make up Cardboard Computer are again swallowed up by the noise at the Emporium Arcade Bar, their conversation punctuated with decades-old bleeps and bloops.
"We hang out here a lot lately because of that thing," Elliot says.
He motions towards an arcade cabinet snugged up tight against the bar. "Indie City Arcade," it says, superimposed over an 8-bit skyline, the pale blue field of the Chicago flag splashed across the side. The cabinet project was about building community among Chicago indie developers, about fixing the scene's active present alongside gaming's past. It's one of the many electronics installations Elliott and Kemenczy have been part of over their careers as artists, creating devices that are more like totems.
The cliffs are CRTs, the clouds projectors. It's as mesmerizing as it is inscrutable.
The pair met during their undergraduate work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) while working together in an art collective led by their instructor, Jon Cates. "I think it was around 2004," Elliott looks to his friend, who nods. Kemenczy is the quieter of the two, his boyish face contrasting with Elliott's full, reddish-brown beard. Called Critical Artware, the collective made software-art pieces, some of them existing only inside a web browser, others taking shape as installations and noise performances.
One of the most striking pieces they collaborated on was an installation called Magic Matrix Mixer Mountain, or MMMM. The foothills of this mountain are Elliott, Kemenczy, Cates and others at laptops. The cliffs of MMMM are comprised of a tower of wildly flickering CRTs, its shifting clouds and echoes leach from LCD projectors while along the valley wall a rapt audience looks on. It's as mesmerizing as it is inscrutable.
But Critical Artware was about more than just installations, just like Elliott and Kemenczy are about more than just arcade cabinets.
"Part of the group was this art history thing about doing interviews with people who were video artists in the '70s and '80s," Elliott explains. Critical Artware used its own new media art to consciously build upon the now decades-old work of overlooked video artists. Making connections to these artists, codifying their history, was as important to Critical Artware as exploring meaning through its own pieces.
The first actual game Elliot and Kemenczy made together was in service to one of these histories, and it too was set in the American South. Again with their instructor Cates, the pair designed a text adventure called Sidequest! This art game digested the work of Will Crowther, whose Colossal Cave Adventure is the granddaddy of text adventure games. Using elements from Crowther's personal life, the game acknowledged the physicality of the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky alongside the physicality of the ARPANET, the progenitor of the internet as we know it. The result was a "randomized, responsive and psychotropic narrative environment" that spoke to discovery while spelunking inside caves, computers and a man's soul.
"The interactions are a little like memories. Our memories are so poetic."
Critical Artware eventually transformed into other collectives with other missions; members rolled over and moved on. Kemenczy eventually peeled off from the art world entirely and got a desk job. Elliott kept making games.
"It was like a point-and-click game," Elliott says. "It was sentimental … about exploring the memories of [my] relatives. There were four chapters and each of them was about one of my grandmothers or great-grandmothers. You moved around and solved puzzles, but the puzzles don't have any sort of ... " Elliott pauses, trying to describe in words the symbolic nuance that could only come from experiencing his game. "They don't even have any pretense that they're going to be logical [puzzles]. Just sort of trying things out and kinda getting surprised when something does something.
"That's how a lot of adventure games work anyway," Elliott laughs. "The actual interactions and stuff are a little sort of like memories. Our memories are so poetic."
Also around 2011, Elliott had begun experimenting with 3D graphics, becoming good enough to secure instructor positions at three Chicago-area universities, including his alma mater. But he was still having growing pains. Kemenczy had a background in computer graphics that went all the way back to high school, so their partnership in Cardboard Computer was a natural fit.
"Jake had been doing [other games along with] A House in California," Kemenczy says. "All those other projects [were] really an inspiration."
And so the pair came together once more, thoughts of the South and economic disparity swirling in their heads. They couldn't escape the call of Kentucky's Mammoth Caves. The seemingly endless environs, the ties to early gaming, dungeon crawling and the strong metaphors they'd previously been able to explore in Sidequest! still had meat left on the bone. But instead of reinterpreting the work of another artist, instead of retelling the story of another game designer, they wanted tell their own. That's when Kentucky Route Zero really began to take shape.
When you go back and look at the original pitch video Cardboard Computer put up on Kickstarter in January of 2011, you realize that the game began as a side-scrolling platformer. A Paul Bunyon-like Conway strides along in the video and bounds up a rocky path, floating in the air like a Mario brother. The Conway that emerged two years later feels smaller, more fragile. He does not jump and rarely moves at a pace faster than an eager mosey.
"It was going to be kinda like a Metroid/Castlevania kind of game," Elliott explains. "There was still no violence in it. You would talk to people and figure out things, but be side-scrolling in a cave system."
"There was this settlement," says Kemenczy. "The companions were there but they were a lot more mechanical. Originally you would be able to choose your companion … you would collect them as you explored. You could rely on their abilities."
"We were pretty good at throwing away things and just pursuing what felt right."
"Then it was really like Metroid," says Elliott. "Where there was a missile door, you had to have the missile to get through the missile door. [Our version would be a] pit that's too wide and you would have to have the eagle with you to get across the pit. So the companions, these really important characters in the game, were totally utilitarian, you know? They got really instrumentalized by the player."
That instrumentalization, the exploitation of character in service to the strategic layer of the game, worked against the kind of narrative experience they were trying to craft. The germ of the game was, after all, magic realism, and that vision was more important to them than the platforming game mechanic.
"It's also part of why this game takes place in the South," Elliott says. "Magical realism is a really interesting way of doing this … politically directed sort of exploration of what people's experiences are like when they're marginalized. That's, I guess, why we wanted to use that trope."
Assets from early iterations of Kentucky Route Zero.
And so they dropped platforming altogether. They didn't want to force the player through a process of trial and error, to make them backtrack from a locked door when instead they should be mulling over a bit of dialogue, relating to a character or a situation. The story they wanted to tell just flowed, with the player pushing things along as it moved, irrevocably, forward.
"There was this distilling process," Kemenczy says between sips of his beer, "considering that it came from a half a year to a [full] year into production. We were pretty good at throwing away things that didn't really feel relevant anymore and just pursuing what felt right." When they were done cutting, the only thing left, in that first act at least, was exploration and dialogue.
The positive feedback they got from their small community of Kickstarter participants buoyed them. "The backers are always incredibly supportive," Kemenczy says. "We've gotten some emails thanking us about how open we've been. ... People were really excited to hear about our thinking, our thought process ... the points of inspiration." Their experiment is paying off, and Cardboard Computer says the game is selling well.
The criticisms of Kentucky Route Zero have been that Cardboard Computer cut too much, that there isn't any game left outside a creepy road trip simulation. Players feel that their choices aren't meaningful, that the dance of dialogue isn't as thrilling as a jump to a moving platform.
"We've gotten this critique a lot, that the decisions [the player makes in the game] are not meaningful," Elliott says. "It's a weird criticism because it's … what does that mean? Meaningful? … There's something that people want to talk about with regards to choices in video games that maybe they don't quite know how to talk about right now. I don't feel like [players and critics are] using the right language, to say that the decisions are meaningful [or not]."
As an example, in Kentucky Route Zero when players as Conway reach the Elkhorn Mine, the player's control shifts, jarringly, to another character entirely: Shannon Marquez.
The player is able to direct Shannon's telephone conversation, tasked with answering to the unintelligible caller on the other end of the line. Conway enters her scene from the left of the screen. He is labeled "a Stranger." Players are left wondering what, exactly, their role is in all this, why they're here pulling the strings of not one, but two avatars.
"A more human, sort of mysterious experience. It's not a power-trip fantasy."
Before this section of the game is over, players will have been able to choose the questions from one character as well as the answers of another. It's an interactive narrative that challenges players to bring their own interpretations to the scene.
"One of the things is this idea [that] when you're talking to somebody, the conversation is always moving forward," Elliott says. "Instead of having this hub-and-spoke kind of dialogue thing, where you're pumping someone for information and you keep coming back to them."
Other games where conversations are a play mechanic, games like the Elder Scrolls titles or the Mass Effect series, use dialogue very differently than do Elliott and Kemenczy. "Those games are really encouraging people to play strategically, and so the dialogue serves that," Elliott says. "You're trying to achieve things. We're not interested in getting the players to be strategists. We kind of want them to have this more human experience, more empathetic experience. Or also more kind of mysterious experience where they don't feel like they're in control. It's not a power-trip fantasy."
For Cardboard Computer, there is no such thing as ludonarrative dissonance. There is a game, in the team's perspective, within interactive fictions. There are four more acts to come over the next year of development, and Elliott and Kemenczy want players to follow it through to the end.
"The entire story is like that, there, set in stone and you're just kind of ... slowly you're influencing [it]. ... There's different truths to different stories there and, well ... you kind of drew back that [one] story [out of many].
"We're working with the player to tell a story," Kemenczy explains. "So there's a lot of it in the player's head, or the character's head."
Back at Emporium in Chicago, Elliott and Kemenczy's beers are running low. They push the nearly empty pints around the table, looking around at the living museum of classic games surrounding them, struggling to place Kentucky Route Zero within the history of gaming, generally.
"Burger Time is out of control," Elliott blurts out, pointing to the rare cabinet off to his right. "Burger Time is from a moment when we had no idea what video games were. … Just the freedom of the time when these games were getting designed, I feel drawn to that part of [game design]."
"There's obviously the nostalgic value," says Kemenczy. "For me, just playing Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man and stuff at the Greyhound station in Detroit. I would get stuck there so often, because the bus schedules would have me there for like six hours and I would just wait for the next one to come by. There's that kind of history for me. … It's a frustrating situation to be stuck in a Greyhound station and to be playing a really frustrating game."
Players need only lean into the dashboard and enjoy the ride.
After a moment, Elliott seems to find the thread again. "I love this game Dune. … Did you ever play that? Dune didn't know what it was. It follows the plot of the first book, and the film. It actually follows the David Lynch film pretty closely. The characters even look like the actors in the David Lynch film. … You play Paul Atreides and you have … multiple choice conversations, like an adventure game. You walk around between rooms like Myst, and then you have this strategy thing where you have to fly to different little [towns]. … So it has a bunch of these different parts in it and none of them really dominates. … And then there's these moments where you have to be just walking in the desert and have this vision. It just really felt like it didn't know what it was supposed to be.
"And then [game mechanics] started getting really codified over time, like now we have a pretty good sense of what a strategy game is and stuff, the genres that get really calcified into shapes."
For Cardboard Computer, this work is more than a game. Elliott and Kemenczy are artists doing what artists do best; illuminating meaning and telling stories. Kentucky Route Zero is its own thing. They know where it's going. Players need only lean into the dashboard and enjoy the ride.
"Kentucky Route Zero has just one ending because it's a tragedy," says Elliott. "And tragedies all end the same way."