Indie developers are sprouting up all over the Chicagoland area, but none seemed to blossom in 2013 quite like Cardboard Computer. Their game Kentucky Route Zero started out as a modest Kickstarter project in early 2012. What they've released so far in 2013 is such a unique and powerful experience that, even though this episodic game isn't yet finished, the Polygon team felt it belonged here among our top 10 list.
It begins at a gas station on a lonely stretch of Kentucky highway. A man and his lame old dog step out of their delivery truck to ask for directions, only to find a blind man spouting riddles. The gas station is only one of the scenes that Cardboard Computer has built, and over the course of the next few hours the player is treated to a storyline that could be straight from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel or a Eugene O'Neill play.
Kentucky Route Zero is above all approachable, since it plays like a classic adventure game. But what is buried inside those mechanics is a rich, challenging story structured as if it were a cycle of one-act plays.
And they are lavishly set plays at that. Fully three-dimensional characters move into two-dimensional scenes rather than merely across them. Cardboard Computer uses light in remarkable ways, showing at times a sense of restraint and at others a willingness to step beyond what is normal and expected. The score, assembled by Ben Babbitt, ranges from melodic electronica and noise music to mournful bluegrass.
As the year has gone on it feels like Cardboard Computer is branching out. Other indie studios might suffer from feature creep, as more and more little chunks of game get added on and bolted to the whole. Designers Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy seem to suffer from story creep. But instead of making the game larger and longer, they have seeded their website with what they call "interludes."
After the first act they released an interlude called Limits and Demonstrations, an art installation that exists inside the world of Kentucky Route Zero but takes place outside the main storyline. Later they put out The Entertainment, a bold experiment built for the Oculus Rift and then ported to mouse and keyboard. It puts the player in the middle of an actual theatrical production, literally giving them a role to play.
What makes Kentucky Route Zero and the interludes that accompany it so enjoyable is that Elliott and Kemenczy seem to have something to say, a message for the player. It's a message about the American experience, about debt and loss, about community and how the gutting of rural places is really the gutting of our country's soul.
Elliott and Kemenczy call their game "writerly." It's far easier to call it art. And perhaps the best is yet to come, as the final three acts are due some time in 2014.