When most people think of video games, they think in terms of accomplishments: princesses rescued, dragons slain, cars stolen, houses upgraded. The vast majority of games provide a quick little pleasure boost for our brains each time we complete a task, whether it’s assassinating a target at close range or stealing the groundskeeper’s rake.
But a new breed of indie games has emerged in which it’s not so much about winning or losing as participating in a story. Inspired by text-based adventure games of the 1970s and 80s, games like these are often dialogue-heavy and atmospheric, lacking the sense of easy victory offered by more traditional video games. But they have their own richer rewards, closer as they are to the messy, strange reality of being a human being living through uncertain times.
At the forefront of the oddball, story-driven genre is “Kentucky Route Zero,” an adventure game set in and around the highways and backroads of rural Kentucky — both the real, aboveground ones and a secret, hidden one deep in the substrata of Mammoth Cave. Developed by three-person outfit Cardboard Computer, the game was released in five “acts” over the course of seven years, the first in 2013 and the last in January 2020. Initially released on Mac, Windows, and Linux, the game is now also available in its entirety on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox One.
Following down-and-out antiques truck driver Conway and the fellow travelers he meets along the way, “Kentucky Route Zero” tells a dreamy, devastating story of rural America in the grips of the Great Recession. With a stylish design, thoughtfully crafted dialogue, and a score that’s equal parts electronica and back-porch folk, “Kentucky Route Zero” feels like nothing else out there. And the story of how it came to be is as strange and meandering as the game itself.
Co-creators Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt first met when they were students at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 2000s. When the trio decided to collaborate on a video game, it was new territory for all of them. “We had hoped and planned in the beginning that this would be, like, a two-year project,” said Elliott, speaking by phone from his home in Kentucky. “We were pretty inexperienced — this was the first game anywhere near this scope that any of us had worked on.”
“Kentucky Route Zero”’s singular flavor is thanks to the tight collaboration between the three — a very small team for any game, but especially one as ambitious as this one. Elliott was in charge of writing, Kemenczy art and animation, and Babbitt music and sound design. After a few years of work, they decided to release their project as a series of episodes in order to get what they’d already built into the hands of gamers sooner. “These games don’t really exist unless someone is playing them, you know? So it’s nice to get them being played by the audience even while they’re in development,” said Elliott.
Once that decision was made, however, “Kentucky Route Zero” began to balloon into a project much bigger than any of them had anticipated. But the time between each act allowed anticipation to build, and for the game to become a cult sensation among indie-loving players.
Coming from the art world, Elliott said that the reach of video games is something that appeals to him about the form. “There’s a huge audience, which is pretty amazing,” he explained. “When we were making these weird, noisy installations and performances, it was great, and we had a small community of people who were interested in that work. But it wasn’t like hundreds of thousands of players the way it is now.”
Elliott said that the trio drew inspiration from influences as diverse as the Chicago and Louisville music scenes, the theatrical set design of Beowulf Boritt, classic 1970s game “Colossal Cave Adventure,” and magical realist novels like Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” But the seed for “Kentucky Route Zero” initially came from Elliott’s fascination with Mammoth Cave, the longest-known cave system on the planet, and the communities that have sprung up around it.
“I was in Elizabethtown, which is pretty close to Mammoth Cave, and I would drive down to Nashville a lot to visit family,” Elliott recalled. “I’d be traveling on I-65, this massive highway running through lots of beautiful hills. It’s a really interesting landscape, especially at night. Mammoth Cave has been a tourism destination for, like, 200 years. And there’s all these tourist traps around it and a lot of haunted houses. I guess there’s just something spooky about caves.”
The other half of the inspiration for “Kentucky Route Zero” was the 2008 financial crisis, which weighed heavily on the national psyche around the time Cardboard Computer began working on the game in 2010.
“That sense of everything falling apart was in our heads when we started working on the project,” Elliott explained.
“We were watching all the people who had bought into these systems just get totally fucked by this house of cards collapsing. And it wasn’t their fault; they were just being exploited. If you’ve ever been in debt — your debt just gets kicked around like a football between these different companies. It’s like none of the reality of where this debt came from matters anymore. That’s the kind of disempowered, lost experience we were trying to evoke.”
That atmosphere of uncertainty hangs like fog over “Kentucky Route Zero,” as the game’s cast of characters navigates abandoned mines and sprawling bureaucracies, crumbling roadside storefronts and memories they’d sooner forget. But there’s a lot beauty and humor to be found too, like when the ceiling of a tavern floats away to reveal the night sky above, or when one floor of an office building is inexplicably filled with grizzly bears. It’s a game about the devastation of loss and uncertainty, but it’s also about finding hope and friendship in unexpected places — whether that friend is an itinerant punk musician or a 30-foot-tall bald eagle.
Though it was conceived with a different global crisis in mind, “Kentucky Route Zero” resonates with our current climate of unease, isolation, and economic anxiety. There’s something soothing about immersing yourself in a virtual world that’s its own kind of out of control, but that does us the mercy of ending.
“Looking at the disastrous government response [to COVID-19], it’s like we’re really on our own,” Elliott said. “But a lot of the game is about finding and building a family and a community for yourself, especially when you’re in a position where you kind of have to do that, because the system is not meeting your needs. But we have to look to each other. That’s something that I’m really feeling right now.”
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