The long road to Kentucky Route Zero
Act V closes out a nearly decade-long saga
By Andrew Webster Jan 28, 2020, 3:52pm EST
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It took a few years, but the end of Kentucky Route Zero is finally here. Today sees the launch of Act V of the haunting, surreal adventure game, closing out a protracted saga for both players of the game and the characters in its world. KRZ originally debuted in 2011 as a Kickstarter project, and its first act launched in 2013. The plan was to release subsequent acts — for a total of five — every few months. But the scope of the game proved a bit larger than that schedule. Ultimately, it took seven years to complete the experience.
“I think the main reason it takes the amount of time that it does is that there’s just three of us,” Jake Elliott, one-third of developer Cardboard Computer, tells The Verge. “When we started on the game, we committed ourselves to releasing a new episode every three months or so. And that was a really bad decision, and we totally killed ourselves to get Act II done in four months. After that, we decided not to pursue that commitment any more, not to get these out at that industrial pace that we’d set for ourselves.”
Kentucky Route Zero is a narrative-driven adventure game where players travel through a strange version of America alongside an eclectic cast of characters, each of whom is struggling in some way. It blends elements of magical realism with a powerful criticism of modern capitalism to create something profound, odd, and soulful. (For more on the game, be sure to check out our review.)
Elliott says that hiring outside help was never really an option given the team’s financial situation. So the creation of Kentucky Route Zero was left to just three people: Elliott, who handled the writing; Tamas Kemenczy, who was in charge of art and animation; and musician Ben Babbitt. There was no full-time programmer on the team. Instead, Elliott and Kemenczy split coding duties between them. Besides the financial commitment, Kemenczy says, bringing an outside programmer would have its own challenges because of the nature of the project. Each member of the small studio comes from an art background, and they say that, because of their unique approach, the game’s code is difficult to understand.
“THERE ARE SOME WEIRD DECISIONS THAT ARE MORE CONCEPTUAL THAN PRACTICAL.”
“By this point, our codebase is so old and idiosyncratic; some of it is totally inscrutable,” Kemenczy explains. “I had a lot of anxiety about, even if we could afford hiring a programmer or a technical artist, the whole pipeline, and our code, is just so weird and custom-built that I was worried how weird it would look to another person.” Elliott adds, “We were always approaching this game as a kind of software art project, so there are some weird decisions that are more conceptual than practical.” (That said, the team did bring on a single programmer to help port the game to consoles; today KRZ makes its debut on the Xbox One, PS4, and Switch after years of PC exclusivity.)
It wasn’t just technical issues that led to KRZ’s many delays. In fact, the team doesn’t really view them as delays at all. Instead, the creators took a somewhat experimental approach to development, which made it nearly impossible to predict when a new episode would be ready. “We’re just sort of following where the work goes,” Elliott says. “In some cases, we end up throwing away a lot of stuff, abandoning directions that didn’t work. It’s always been important for us to think of it like the game isn’t done until the experiment has reached its logical conclusion. There’s not really a sense of it being delayed or anything on our part. Sometimes you take a weird route to get to the end.”
That said, the team had a strong outline for how events would unfold that remained largely in tact. The main storyline of Kentucky Route Zero — which involves an antique delivery man searching for a magical highway to make one last delivery — was outlined before development began. And Elliott says the team mostly stuck to that plan, while giving themselves freedom to try new ideas. For instance, in between each episode the team released a short, experimental interlude that further fleshed out the game’s strange world. Those weren’t part of the initial plan. “We tried to leave a lot of the specifics not filled in until we got there, so we weren’t giving ourselves homework early in the process,” Elliott says. “We wanted to follow our interests as the game developed.”
“THIS HAS BEEN PART OF AMERICA FOR A REALLY LONG TIME.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the game’s focus on tackling social and economic issues, as Kentucky Route Zero was initially inspired in part by the 2008 financial crisis. Certain elements of the game have been impacted by more recent developments — Elliott says that the interlude between Act IV and V was specifically designed to address the impact of President Trump — but otherwise, the themes have remained consistent despite the constantly shifting outside world. “A lot of people keep saying in the age of Trump that ‘this is not normal.’ But a lot of this for us is about how this is normal,” Elliott explains. “This crazy income inequality, anti-immigrant rhetoric, this has been part of America for a really long time. Especially in Act V, you can see how we’re looking at how these things recur and how people work to resist these things and keep trying to make a better world, whether it works or not.”
One of the most striking things about Kentucky Route Zero is its strangeness. Its characters and world feel grounded in the everyday, but they’re surrounded by surreal elements. There are skeletons who run an underground whiskey distillery, forced to work in order to pay off an unclear debt, and a museum that displays what appear to be repossessed homes that have to sleep in a forest at night. At one point, you find a supercomputer powered in part by mold. According to Elliott, these elements add an important dimension to the story. “We can talk about things that people are dealing with every day, like debt and dealing with health care,” he says. “But if we just stick to the facts of everyday experience, we’re missing the spiritual quality of those experiences, which is real. It’s totally immiserating to be trapped in debt in a way that you can’t really capture by showing statistics.”
Right now, Cardboard Computer faces a somewhat unique situation. Not only is it ending a long-running saga, one that some fans have been following for close to a decade. It’s also introducing a brand-new audience to Kentucky Route Zero as the game makes its console debut. However, despite all of this built-in baggage, Elliott says, he isn’t particularly nervous about how the final act of the game will be received.
“There are no compromises in Act V,” he says. “It’s exactly what we wanted to do.”