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Why Kentucky Route Zero is the most important game of the decade

The ‘unfinished’ indie casts a long, affecting shadow into 2020 and beyond

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 as editor-at-large and is now editor-in-chief. He also created and occasionally teaches NYU’s Introduction to Games Journalism course.

The creators of Kentucky Route Zero, who run the game studio Cardboard Computer, present themselves as artists more so than designers. They’re industry outsiders who began the project in Chicago, far from the AAA enclaves of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Montreal. So why is it that when I attempt to summarize the games industry of the past decade, they’re the studio that comes to mind?

I think it’s because, perhaps unintentionally, the long road of Kentucky Route Zero — across five separately released acts and multiple interludes — has reflected video games in a period of immense tumult and change. Alongside this game, the industry has begun to grow up, often for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Crowdfunded in 2011, the genre-bending adventure game was one of the first Kickstarter success stories… and one of the first Kickstarters to miss its promised deadlines. The first act debuted on its own in 2013, years before the current trend of games being released in incomplete states or through early access programs.

In the years following the launch of Act 1, Cardboard Computer released more acts on more storefronts, from the huge AAA-friendly Steam service to the smaller indie-friendly to everything in between. The game itself is simple enough on paper: a point-and-click adventure, a throwback of sorts to the story-driven games of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But its creators have scrapped the puzzles (and really any friction) of its predecessors. The genre is merely a delivery mechanism for the creators’ art and ideas.

Between acts, the studio experimented with free, supplemental projects, most notably The Entertainment. One of the best (albeit underrated) virtual reality experiences from these early days of VR, The Entertainment toys with our assumptions of audience, performer, and perspective.

In fact, had the rest of Kentucky Route Zero never existed, any individual part would make our game of the decade list on its own. And yet, it benefits holistically from its parts being able to stand on their own, to comment on the years in which they were made.

If Kentucky Route Zero’s development holds a mirror to the games industry, then the game itself reflects the real world of this decade. The project began after the recession of 2008, and imagines an America from the perspective of a sociological amnesiac. Walking its world is eerie, like visiting a place that feels like your hometown, but isn’t. A town full of familiar symbols and people, and yet, those symbols are hard to parse, the people, full of contradictions.

You get the sense that someone, or some thing, haunts this world — some malicious, mysterious force hidden just beneath the fabric of reality. Is it a supernatural power? Or is it just the past, which has left these places as empty shadows of themselves?

While later acts favor more beautiful locations, Act 1 has entire stretches set on a minimal, monochrome map, the adventure told through text. It fits. There’s nothing left of this town beyond a map of where good things used to be.

Cardboard Computer expected Act 5, the conclusion, to launch in early 2018. The company set up a Twitter account and Patreon for updates — once again evolving with the trends of the decade — but the release date has long since passed, and info has been sparse.

Maybe the game comes to an end this year, a fitting conclusion to the decade. Or maybe the game never really ends. What is an ending anyway? This decade will end when the calendar turns into January, but life continues, unshaded by our need to make meaning of a messy, chaotic, beautiful, dumbfounding, indifferent world.

The most influential video games aren’t always the most popular, and rankings never tell the whole story. To mark the end of the decade, our editorial team published a list of the top 100 games. We’ve also created this supplemental series, in which individual Polygon writers get to talk about the most important games from that same period, and exactly how they changed the course of the industry.

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