Do you remember your life in January 2011?
Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy were a pair of video game creators going by the name Cardboard Computer. Their experimental point-and-click adventure A House in California had been nominated for an Independent Games Festival Nuovo Award, an annual honor that highlights experimental and innovative games.
The pair had a plan for a more ambitious follow-up called Kentucky Route Zero, but they needed cash. So, lacking options, they launched a campaign on the relatively new and untested crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Their goal: $6,500. With 205 backers, they raised $8,583, a number that felt, at the time, like a spectacular success.
The Kickstarter included a video of the game’s strange platformer gameplay and promised “a magic realist adventure game about a secret highway in Kentucky and the mysterious folks who travel it. The player controls Conway, an antique furniture deliveryman, as he attempts to complete the final delivery for his financially troubled employer. Along the way he’ll meet dozens of strange characters and make a few new friends to help him overcome the obstacles in his path. We’re raising money to fund development of this game, and planning to release it around the Fall of 2011.”
The game didn’t ship in 2011. Or 2012. In January 2013, Cardboard Computer launched Act 1 of Kentucky Route Zero. Gone was the platforming gameplay and colorful art design, replaced with a more inventive point-and-click adventure format and a visual style that stands somewhere between vector art and scrap-paper cutouts. The studio brought on musician Ben Babbitt, whose role would expand with the scope of the game.
The fifth and final act was released in January 2020. Along the way, the developers had constructed five intermissions and stand-alone vignettes that experiment with technology. They participated in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s first grand video game exhibition. The game was taking far longer than expected, but from the outside, the project never seemed to be slowed down. Its completion was never in doubt. Instead, watching the development process was watching its creators experience the changes that come with a decadelong artistic endeavor.
Months after Cardboard Computer launched the Kentucky Route Zero Kickstarter, it would need help from its fans to raise the $95 entry fee so it could submit another game, Ruins, for the following year’s IGF. Now, the developer has released a game in partnership with Annapurna Interactive, one of the most promising independent game publishers of this moment, helping to bring the project to consoles.
Ahead of the game’s release, I had a chance to speak with the trio about the nine-year journey to create the entirety of Kentucky Route Zero. For folks who haven’t played the final act, I’ve saved a spoiler discussion for the end of the interview and added a warning ahead of their answers.
Here’s the story behind one of the best games of the last decade — that didn’t end until this decade.
Is Kentucky Route Zero a point-and-click adventure or has it become something entirely new?
Polygon: While playing through the first act for the first time in a few years, I was thinking about Kentucky Route Zero contemporaries from the early 2010s. Act 1 debuted in January 2013, a little less than a year after the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
I remember critics dropping the two in the same bucket. They were both episodic, when that felt like a promising trend. They both appeared to be reviving the adventure genre of the ’80s and early ’90s. They both experimented with the player directing the story.
But now having completed both series, and with history running its course, I’m realizing how these two big games took very different creative paths. In hindsight, Walking Dead represents what most storytelling games try to accomplish: It’s almost like a magic trick, convincing the player that they have a significant amount of influence on the story. The player is inside the game, making decisions that have life-and-death consequences. The game explicitly communicates to the player that characters will “remember” important choices.
Kentucky Route Zero has done something different from the majority of mainstream story-driven games. The player’s role is less impactful to the narrative; they define mood and background more than steer the direction of the plot.
Y’all are the authors of this story, and that the player has the opportunity to... Other people have made this comparison: The player acts like a director, providing some background to the characters, choosing the setting, the tone. The player may decide the feeling of a given scene, but overall, the game’s creators have control of the story.
So, sorry, that’s a long walk, small glass of water, but I’m curious: When you set out to make this project, way back in 2012, looking at interactive storytelling, did you intentionally try to break away from the traditional storytelling model? To put aside this idea that the player is the agent of the story, and make a game in which the designers are the explicit author, and the player is along for the ride — more of the director executing on your script?
Jake Elliott: Yeah, I think so. I think that that way of thinking about it — I remember us talking about it in those terms pretty early on, thinking about the player as a performer of the story. Just like an actor in a play, in a performance of any kind, has a lot of influence over how the performance functions, but they don’t write the script still. So yeah, that’s definitely something we thought about early on.
And also this idea of what it means to have agency in a story. A lot of the times when players talk about agency, they’re more talking about control over the strategy of the game. They’re saying, “Do I have the option to sort of minimize and maximize, and employ a strategy to make this story go the way that I want it to?”
We didn’t want to let the player be strategic or play strategically. And that shows up in a lot of different ways in the game, and it’s been something that has been a design guideline that we’ve come back to a lot. We’re presenting the player with different choices but not really giving them the data to know which choice will impact the narrative, or even what’s going to happen when you make those choices.
We want the player to make choices a lot of the time out of curiosity, or out of following their interest, or as a way of doing this performance, adding certain inflection to the story.
Is Kentucky Route Zero autobiographical?
Having completed the game, the middle act, Act 3, resonates in a new way. As with so many stories, the midpoint is when our characters are in the thick of it. Conway’s initial goal to deliver a package to an address via the mystery Route Zero has been complicated by folks who have joined him for the journey: the struggling TV repair person Shannon Marqueze; the seemingly abandoned young boy, Ezra; and robotic musicians Johnny and Junebug.
The group comes across a cave called the Hall of the Mountain King, where they meet a scientist named Donald. He’s working with other researchers to create a computer program called Xanadu that simulates the real world.
It’s all deeply weird and, I’m sure, to someone who hasn’t played the game, will sound impossibly complex. And yet, the moment feels so grounded, so personal, so autobiographical.
Obviously the Samuel Coleridge poem comes to mind. “Kubla Khan.” I think at one point Donald even quotes it.
[Note: “Kubla Khan” is one of Coleridge’s most famous poems. In its preface, Coleridge claims he wrote the piece after reading about Kublai Khan’s palace Xanadu, having an opium dream, and awakening in a writing frenzy. He notoriously dubs the poem incomplete, part of a larger work that never materialized. The poem explores the friction between the human-made pleasures of Xanadu and the timeless natural marvels that surround it, wall it in, and will inevitably outlast it. As far as poems about the existential weight of the creative process go, you’re unlikely to find many better.]
These vagabonds deep in a cave, itself littered with the husks of dead computers and other technology, quoting Coleridge — it felt very anxious. Here are these scientists deep in a cave trying to create their masterpiece, while also coming to terms with the reality that it’ll probably never be complete.
And again, this is Act 3, y’all were yourselves right in the middle of making this nearly decade long project. So I’m wondering, now that you actually have finished development, how autobiographical is that section of the story? How much of that is y’all in there?
Elliott: For me in Act 3 with Xanadu, I think a lot about this character Ted Nelson. He worked on the Xanadu Project. It was, like, an alternate idea of the internet, right? He came up with it in the 1960s. And he has worked on this project for his whole life and is still working on it. And it’s one of these legendary — there’s a lot of projects like this in games and software — these legendary projects that just go on because of the vision of one or a small group of people at the top who have this unachievable, incredible vision. And I always think, when I read about projects like that, I’m like, “Oh shit, that could be me. I can’t let that happen. I can’t do that.”
And so yeah, this is something that we think about along with our work for sure.
But I feel like we have been good about releasing something every couple of years just to keep it going. Whenever we release something, it’s like planting a flag in the ground. Like, “This part is done and we’re not changing it anymore, and so we have to move on to the next.” So, it is a fear of ours, what you’re describing. This is something we’ve been tackling pragmatically this whole time.
In Act 3, the researchers in the cave fear a group of outsiders who, they suspect, come at night to damage their work on the Xanadu software. Later in the act, we discover the outsiders are living, glowing skeletons that work in an underground alcohol factory. The skeletons are indentured servants to the factory, enslaved by debt they can never pay off.
I couldn’t help but read the outsiders and the factory as the pressure a creator feels from both their audience and their industry. I’m curious what pressure y’all felt from your audience while making this project, because you really were one of the first of what I’d call the big video game Kickstarters. Which sounds silly now, considering big Kickstarters can accumulate millions of dollars in support. But at the time, your Kickstarter was significant for a small indie team.
And that fan support has continued. Your studio has had the Patreon where you get financial support and provide updates. You’ve had the hotline that lets fans know when the next act gets a release date. How did you learn to negotiate the fandom around this game? Especially as they always want more. They want the complete game as soon as possible.
Elliott: Yeah. It’s been stressful at times. Yeah. It’s definitely been part of — I think that’s been probably the hardest part of this project running so long: the audience pressure for that sustained amount of time. I think we’ve got a really good audience. What do you guys think?
Tamas Kemenczy: Yeah, we’ve got a very supportive audience. I think the hard part is being able to share work in progress and be communicative. We have to be kind of cagey to not reveal spoilers. And we’d like to be less cagey with future projects. I’m interested in how we can engage with our audience that we’ve built.
It felt like you were really intent on experimenting with connecting with the audience in new ways. That they could call an answering machine and leave voicemails for an upcoming act. Was that the intent, to engage in a manner beyond “well, just retweet us on Twitter, and that’s engagement”?
Kemenczy: Yeah, definitely. I mean that’s sort of like those interludes — that’s our chance to get weird, you know? Sort of step away from the more traditionalist Kentucky Route Zero format and do transmedia stuff like that.
Where does a game like this fit into the games industry?
You’re right: The interludes have always felt like separate art projects. They don’t feel like a video game in the same way as the core five acts. They feel like something stand-alone, something I would play in a museum. That’s what I love about them.
The other side of that coin, in terms of pressure completing this project, is the industry. From my perspective, y’all have existed almost outside the video game industry at large. I don’t know if that is how you see yourselves, but it feels like, thanks to Kickstarter, you didn’t have to engage with it in certain capacities — namely, the financial ones.
Where do y’all feel your place is within the games industry? And has your relationship with it or your opinion of it changed since the beginning of the project?
Kemenczy: Yeah, it’s true. There’s some truth to that. I mean, I feel like I’ve just been in my cave working on this game for 20 years. So, I had my roadmap planned out for me for an indefinite amount of time. So, yeah, I’m not really sure. There was a lot of, I guess, game industry stuff that we didn’t have to focus on.
I don’t know. I don’t really know how to frame that.
Ben Babbitt: I think all three of us have pretty different relationships to it. Variously engaging with games culture: playing, working, paying attention to and participating in conversations. And that’s also really ebbed and flowed over the years.
I had almost no context for independent video games when I started working on the music and at the beginning of the process. I mean, I didn’t know that you could make a video game. Jake was the first person I ever met who had made a game. Obviously, now I know more. I know that that’s something people can do, that a lot of people are making games now and there’s so much interesting work being done.
But I still — I think maybe part of spending so much time working on a game, it can be, at least for me, kind of difficult to have the remaining energy to then play other games or pay attention to them.
Kemenczy: We were going to a lot of festivals and stuff like that.
Since it’s an ongoing project, we feel like we’ve actually made 10 games. But in terms of the game industry, it seems like it’s viewed as this one game, right? So the excitement to have us involved in industry stuff like festivals and whatnot mostly happened earlier on. But stuff like the Victoria & Albert exhibit was fantastic. It was a real ...
It’s fantastic to be a part of that. That was a really great show.
Babbitt: Yeah, that was an international independent video game community coming together. We went to see the show [in London]. I was at the opening and we met a lot of people — peers that maybe we’d only been interacting with on Twitter or something. And that was a really exciting moment.
Kemenczy: There’s an interesting cross-pollination between games industry proper and traditional art world stuff, you know?
What was the most difficult part of making Kentucky Route Zero?
What was the most challenging moment making this game? Was there a point you thought, “Oh shit, what have we gotten ourselves into?”
Babbitt: While we were making the interlude between Acts 4 and 5. “Un Pueblo de Nada.” That interlude ballooned more than any of the others. We had budgeted a certain amount of time, and then we ended up working on it for a year. And that is when it felt like, “Oh my God, this will never end.”
Kemenczy: I’ve got a couple of examples. The interlude before that was “Here and There Along the Echo.” The interlude projects were really fun, and they allowed us to work with other media. With “Here and There,” we ended up making physical phones for the game —
Elliott: You did that.
Kemenczy: — and doing, like, a four-hour live video stream for the game. That sort of stuff. That was like, “Oh no.”
Babbitt: But then, also, those are some of the most fun things about the project!
Kemenczy: Yeah. And it’d be nice to get back to that, because I still have all the hardware for that. Crates of old phones ready to be converted for [something new].
Another good example happened really early on when we were in pre-production. This was before we even decided to take an episodic route. There had been several iterations of the project in both art style and — we’d changed mechanically what we wanted to do with the game.
We thought, What have we gotten ourselves into? How are we going to manage this work that we promised and that we want to do? We have this idea, and it doesn’t feel right to just make it this really short game.
During that time, we’d begun looking at and researching episodic games. We thought this could be a good format for a small team, in the sense that we could produce a — we could do the whole thing and give it the attention we wanted. We could spend the time we wanted with it. But we’d also have these flag posts where we could make releases, instead of just working on one idea for however long it would take [to finish the entire game].
Having those goals — releasing the episodes and interludes — became really useful to us.
How did nearly a decade of development change the vision of Kentucky Route Zero?
Before this interview, I scrolled through the original Kickstarter from 2011, and it’s incredible how the game changed from that initial pitch. In the Kickstarter video, my favorite character, Junebug, was depicted as a Southern belle.
Junebug didn’t even appear in the actual game until years later, in Act 3. She’s now an avant-garde artist who is traveling with effectively a robotic Klaus Nomi-type. Using Junebug as an example, how did the lengthy development process change the vision of the game?
Elliott: We went through, like, three versions of Junebug. The character in the game now is the third iteration. Loretta Lynn is the original inspiration for that character, and the original version [in the Kickstarter video] looks a lot like Loretta Lynn. And then in between that, there was this one that was, like, Loretta Lynn meets [Rosie] the robot maid from the Jetsons. It was really cool. But it was ... yeah.
By the time we got to Act 3, and [Junebug] actually shows up [for the first time], we had really discovered the game’s tone.
It was so different when we started working. We’d thought, OK, you meet these different people and they travel with you. You can have two of them with you at a time, and they give you different power-ups. And so Junebug’s power-up was that she could talk to computers, and you’d want to bring her in whenever you needed to talk to computers.
It’s this totally instrumentalized, video gamey kind of idea of what this character would be. And [those mechanics were] completely gone by the time we got to actually introducing Junebug. So we totally reworked the character, totally redesigned her and her partner, Johnny. How she evolved was a part of this whole larger shift in how we looked at all the characters for this game.
Kemenczy: The visuals changed, too. The second version was even more robotic: She had wheels, and it was really strange. By the time we made the third version, we’d established the tone. There was an emphasis on theater — I don’t know how to explain, but basically, it was like our characters were people acting on a theater stage. [So for Junebug and Johnny, we asked] What would they look like if they were actors playing androids? It’s a little more toned down.
In terms of design, did theater become a beacon for you?
Kemenczy: Yeah, it was a deliberate thing that Jake and I had talked about before releasing Act 1. [During the Kickstarter] we had the platformer-style environments. You were just traveling through scenery, and that didn’t feel appropriate mechanically or functionally with this story anymore. So we started looking at theater.
We were already treating the writing and narrative stuff as theater. Jake had already been researching playwrights. So we were looking at stage design. We thought that going back to a more traditional point-and-click graphics interface could allow for exploring denser scenes, smaller scenes that are more approachable.
We could create [individual] stage designs that have a lot of different things going on.
[Stage design can be] very layered in one little space. So we were looking at Death of a Salesman, both the theatrical versions of it, how they would present the Loman family’s house. And we looked at the film version, I think from 1985 or something like that. They had a structure that was not realistic. It had all these folds in it, and you could see the backyard [through it]. It was very muted. Stuff like that became the inspiration. Like, there’s a launching pad.
The world has changed a great deal since y’all started on this game. The Trump presidency. Brexit. The opioid epidemic isn’t new, but it’s been covered nationally in a way it wasn’t in 2011.
The game itself has always had a point of view on the world. Act 1 makes a clear critique on institutionalized power. But as you were making it, did you begin to feel an even greater urgency or need to bend the game toward a political commentary? I personally felt it stronger in the later acts.
Elliott: Yeah, I think that’s fair. We’ve been learning a lot about how to work creatively and how to just make a video game. We’ve also been growing as artists and learning about how to be, sort of, politically responsible artists. So I think that’s a development. We kind of grew in our capacity to explore some of those ideas in more detail, and we... It’s important to us to contextualize the terrible stuff that’s happening right now, and also the good stuff that’s happening right now, within that broader history of American capitalism.
There’s a lot of historical references in the game to earlier periods in American history where people are grappling with similar things. Because these things have happened here repeatedly.
[Ed. note: The following questions and screenshots contain information from Kentucky Route Zero Act 5.]
Why is Act 5 how it is?
The final act begins with the cast climbing back to earth and finding not just 5 Dogwood Drive, their original goal, but a small community soaked in sunlight. Until this point, the game has been set at night.
The act takes place across one uninterrupted scene. The player has an omniscient view at the center of the little town. It’s like a mix between being a god and also being a security camera.
Babbitt: Interesting read.
Yeah, but the presentation is more merciful or benevolent than a security camera suggests.
The way that the player influences the script has changed to selecting highlighted words from the characters’ dialogue to shift the conversations’ focus. It all feels very refined and streamlined.
Obviously there’s evolution between each act, but this one felt the most dramatically different. Did you originally want the final act to make significant departures from the established formula? Or did certain creative decisions naturally lead you to this conclusion?
Elliott: Yeah, we had this idea of the story first being centered around one person, then being about a small group, and then focusing on a community of people. So we definitely wanted the storytelling to reflect that formally. We wanted [Act 5] to feel like a cacophony of voices.
In this act, you’re hearing a lot of different kinds of voices speaking in really different ways. Some of those voices are literally people talking, and some of those voices are just the histories of this place. History speaks in a different way than the people in the moment.
What were your inspirations for the design of 5 Dogwood Drive? The thing that immediately came to mind for me was Brechtian theater.
Kemenczy: Yeah. I mean, we had a few different thoughts. We wanted the house really stand out from the rest of the architecture in this old company town.
You know, designing the town was a very involved task — to make it organic and feel like a lived-in place with all these different moments in history dating all the way back to the mound builders. So we wanted the house to feel sort of out of place compared to everything else.
We didn’t want it to look like a regular house. We didn’t want it to blend in or just be one of the other houses in the company town, or this sort of new utopian town or whatever. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be too pristine. That’s why it’s a little weathered.
So it’s a little... It’s supposed to be pretty surreal, and supposed to look kind of like a gate. It’s like a template. The community will be deciding what they want to use the structure for.
So that made it feel, if it were someone’s dwelling, where they live, that might not work well with the ending we wanted. Yeah, I mean, it starts getting... That was one of the things that we’d sorted out early on.
My memory’s already failing me. Maybe Jake... Do you remember anything else that we were talking about there?
Elliott: Yeah, I remember some kind of practical... There was this idea of the house being, like, a cutaway, because we were thinking about wanting to see the furniture layout. I think the cutaway idea changed it into something a little more dramatic.
Kemenczy: Yes, and also the sunlight. The sunlight was definitely something that we wanted to be dramatic. This is the first time — like you said — after this long journey that you see it. There have been these cutout buildings throughout the rest of the game, but this one we wanted to feel more concrete and less dreamy.
The lighting is clear and crisp, like you’ve woken up from a dream. We didn’t want to have cutouts fading in and out. Or theatrical effects, like you saw with the gas station [in Act 1]. We just wanted it to feel very present and real, like you’ve arrived in a real space, a real town.
So when we were looking at the Dogwood house, we were thinking, How could we show it? We decided on an architectural style that would really let you just see right into it without it feeling incomplete or out of place.
That’s why it does have some wear and tear. You can see the mud [from the flood that takes place before the act] having washed past and around the building. So it feels planted in the space.
Probably the most important question I’ll ask: Is the cat based off a real cat?
Oh, thank goodness.
Kemenczy: I’ve had a black cat for — it passed away, actually, while we were working on the final act, so...
I’m sorry to hear that.
Kemenczy: No, he got a good long life. Where I live now, I have a nice yard. He had good golden years just sunning out there.
Elliott: So now he lives on forever in the town.
Kemenczy: Actually, there is a black cat all the way back in Act 1. You’ll see him in the bureau and on the tugboat. and it’s like an Easter egg through the whole game.
Just one final question, and then I’ll let y’all go. How has making the game over the past decade or so changed your lives?
Kemenczy: Jake, you want to start? I don’t know.
Elliott: Sure. Yeah. It’s kind of been our big... It’s been our... I’m close to saying it’s been our lives, but that’s too much to take. We still have lives, but it’s been an epicenter, really. It’s been so much of how we’ve organized our lives for the last 10 years that it’s hard to imagine not having worked on this game for the last 10 years.
Simply in terms of where we were before we started versus now... Yeah, I don’t know. I guess we were making a lot of art before, and it has more of an audience now — or a different kind of audience. Our audience was pretty local before. At least, I’ll speak for myself in, a lot of the work I did with Tamas before work on games was, like, local performance installation stuff, and the audiences were very, very small and local. They were people that we knew. And now we’re artists working in a different mode where we have this big audience, most of whom we don’t know. So that’s a pretty different kind of way to relate to your work.
Babbitt: Yeah, I mean, it’s completely changed. I live in Los Angeles now, and I came to live here because of something that I was working on that was part of the game. When I started working on the game, I was 22, in college, and had never made music for anything.
Everything is different. Everything is different. I mean, of course things would change just because of time passing. But it’s touched every part of life, and kind of effected change in every part of life.
To have had this much time to spend honing a craft and little multiple crafts; to learn this set of creative tools is just, I mean, I feel like there’s just been such a crazy evolution over the course of the project, I think, for all of us.
At the beginning of Act 2, I had never... I made the music that was in Act 1 with Jake doing the sound design, and I kind of took over doing sound design at the start of Act 2. That was the first time I’d ever tried to do any kind of sound design, or foley, or sound effects, or anything like that. I learned how to do it in the process of working on Act 2 and continued to learn, and I’m still, of course, continuing to learn.
But now I feel roughly comfortable approaching any given task except for the ones that involve heavy programming stuff, which I still have yet to learn how to do properly. I feel so much more confident now as an artist, as a musician, as a sound-maker than I did at the beginning. And I think if it hadn’t been for this project, there’s no way I would’ve been able to spend as much time honing those crafts. I would’ve probably been working a day job.
Kemenczy: To the point Jake made: Working as an artist on a local level and then transitioning to an audience in a different place and in a different scope was really rewarding for me personally as well.
I love making video games. It’s great. I like to count my blessings with that.
Babbitt: Absolutely. I think it’s brought ... a lot more positive than anything else. For sure.
Kemenczy: But to be able to work on our own ideas.
Babbitt: It’s a very lucky situation.