Kentucky Route Zero interview: choice and introspection in the magic realist adventure

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Interview by Philippa Warr

Kentucky Route Zero is a poetic point-and-click adventure featuring dreamscapes, predatory debt and, a few episodes down the line, a gigantic eagle. It's a delicately balanced title whose Kickstarter roots serve to echo two of the game's key themes - financial limitations and connecting with others. After reviewing the game, I got in touch with developer Jake Elliott (with whose previous title, A House In California, you may already be familiar) and artist Tamas Kemenczy to discuss pointing, clicking, and channelling the power of bluegrass for an introspective exploration of people living on the margins of society.

So, tell me about the basic concept behind Kentucky Route Zero.

It's a game about hard times, and people trying to connect with each other. It's also about the culture of Kentucky.

And you chose to explore all those ideas through a point and click-style game - why was that?

They're slow-paced by design, which is attractive, and also tend to be really character-oriented. The mouse-driven interface seems less specialized and friendlier to non-gamers than, for example, a WASD+mouse interface for a FPS. We hope to find an audience among people who don't necessarily think of themselves as 'gamers', but are interested in the kind of themes and aesthetics we're exploring.

It's a genre you seem to naturally gravitate towards.

Yeah maybe it is - in this case it really was a 'gravitation' as you say. We initially thought the game would play more like a sort of exploratory, mouse-controlled Metroidvania with a lot of dialogue. But as we developed the content, the platformer elements started to change and fall away, and now it's easier for us to describe what it's grown into as a point-and-click adventure. So it's been a very organic process.

One of the things I noticed while playing was that often all the options would have the same eventual outcome but altered the story slightly just in terms of Conway's character. Is that fair or will the differences lead to more concrete payoffs later in the series?

It's a bit of both - there are choices the player makes in act one that do have fairly dramatic impacts on the plot later in the game (this is what you mean by "concrete", right?), but they're not really framed that way. We're less interested in giving the player ethical or strategic choices, and more interested in giving them poetic or performative choices.

Many of the decisions the player makes in the game are like when an actor in a play can choose how to inflect a line of dialogue, how and when to pause, or what kind of backstory to draw on for the character they're playing in order to perform with honesty and authenticity.

When I was trying to choose how Conway was breathing in the mineshaft section I ended up focusing more on my own breathing - it got strangely meditative! Is introspection a conscious part of the game setup?

Ha, that's great! We do take a few opportunities to sort of hint the player towards an introspective or pensive state. There's also the sign in the gas station basement, and some text in the readme...

It's also a game steeped in nostalgia - what inspired the music and the visual style?

Musically we were of course inspired by bluegrass, and by Ben Babbitt's electronic music (Ben is writing the original score for the game). Visually, we've taken a lot of inspiration from theatrical set design, in the way the environments are structured and presented. Also Eric Chahi's "Another World" is a huge influence on us, as many have noticed!

Then there's the magic realist backdrop which automatically brings a touch of unreality. Is that why you chose it - to set the tone from the start?

The subject matter of Kentucky Route Zero is really pretty dark, and pretty serious: it's about predatory debt, displacement, unfair labour conditions, and other ways that people at the margins are affected by economic decline and austerity. Magical realism is a way of exploring these dark and serious realities playfully, imaginatively, and respectfully.

Does the magical part of magic realism become more overt as the series goes on? I saw a giant eagle in the Kickstarter trailer...

There's a fair amount of magic in act one, especially if you dig for it. But yeah, later on some of these more overtly fantastic elements come out, like the eagle character!

Speaking of Kickstarter, why did you choose the crowdfunded route?

We had fairly pragmatic reasons: we needed some financial support to purchase the licenses for the game engine we use, and to pay the band to record the game's music. We ended up raising about $8,500. This was in January 2011.

The platform feels very different now.

[Kickstarter] seems to have changed quite a lot: the dollar amounts are higher, and the projects that get a lot of attention are more focused on established names than newcomers.

What was the Kickstarter experience like?

The response to the early teaser/concept trailer and the project's description was really positive and encouraging. As a solution to our financial roadblocks in getting the game made, it worked very well, but the continuing support from folks who backed the Kickstarter drive has ended up being the most valuable part of the experience for us. Some of them helped beta test the game, or just provided feedback and encouragement as we updated them on our progress.

Did it feel different in terms of responsibilities towards supporters rather than traditional customers?

We explicitly made regular updates on the game's progress a part of our promise to supporters, so we did have some extra responsibility to our audience that a more traditional customer model doesn't bring with it. But we never seemed to run afoul of supporters' expectations - even when the release of the game was delayed, we just communicated frankly about it with our supporters, and they were all very understanding in their responses to us. Whether this relationship scales up to million-dollar campaigns without changing, we really can't say!