The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Kentucky Route Zero

Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy of Cardboard Computer discuss the mad horse race of artistic game development and IGF nominations with Kentucky Route Zero.

The Joystiq Indie Pitch Kentucky Route Zero

What's your game called and what's it about?

Kentucky Route Zero is game about exploring a secret highway in Kentucky that runs through Mammoth Cave, and meeting the unusual characters who live and work there. We call it a "magical realist adventure game." Like most magical realist literature, it blends realism and fantasy pretty evenly. Like most adventure games, it's focused on story and characterization over tests of skill.

How did you find out about your IGF nods including one for the Seumas McNally grand prize and what was your reaction?

We released the game the same Monday morning that the IGF finalist announcements were made, with very little sleep the whole weekend prior, so it's kind of a blur! We're really honored to be in such fine company. Some of the other finalists – particularly Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia and Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life – have been our favorite games of the last year or two, so it's very meaningful for us to be placed alongside them in the IGF this year.

Has this burst of attention affected how you view or work on Kentucky Route Zero?

It's very encouraging to know that people are excited about the game. We do have a pretty specific vision for it, and workflow that's evolved in relative obscurity and that we're committed to now, so this new attention probably won't affect the game's direction in any really substantive ways. It's maybe a bit more stressful to know that more people are watching – but also encouraging.

It's maybe a bit more stressful to know that more people are watching – but also encouraging.

What inspired you to make Kentucky Route Zero?

The most direct inspiration for the game was just traveling around Kentucky. We live in Chicago but both spend time staying there, or just traveling through there a few times a year. Another important catalyst for the game was an art installation we did a few years ago with our friend jonCates, about the 1976 text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther. That's kind of the first "adventure game" as such, and it's set in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

Did you draw any influence from other games? Maybe Out of this World?

Absolutely. Out of this World is big touchstone for us, both in its art treatment and in its really cinematic pacing. Also its subject matter – it's a sort of beautifully quiet story about two people who meet and have trouble communicating, but find ways to help each other, and become friends.

Also we're really excited about this flood of interesting games coming out over the last year or two made in the Twine engine – all these small, personal, and experimental hypertext games.

The Joystiq Indie Pitch Kentucky Route Zero

What's the coolest aspect of Kentucky Route Zero?

Since starting work on the game about two years ago, it's really evolved and drawn in influence from a lot of different forms outside of video games, particularly theater, new media art and film. So Kentucky Route Zero has some unusual pacing, art direction, environmental design and audio. That's been keeping it really fresh and exciting for us to work on, being able to draw from our backgrounds outside of video games and also explore things that are new to us.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

Working for an established game development company was never really part of the equation for us. Our background is in software art, performance and installation. So we're coming to making video games now more as a function of having worked as new media artists, rather than coming out of (or seeking out) the game industry.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Maybe not a "movement," but we definitely feel like we're part of a community. We're always in conversation with other game designers and artists who work outside the game industry,
giving feedback on works-in-progress, or discussing games after they've been released, or just getting to know where other folks are coming from who are in positions similar to ours with respect to video games.

Sell Kentucky Route Zero in one sentence:

Kentucky Route Zero is not a real highway, so the only way to travel it is to play this game.

What's next?

We're working on Act 2 right now! The remaining four acts will come out over the next year or so.

Kentucky Route Zero Act 1 is available now for PC, Mac and Linux via the Humble Store for $7, or purchase all five acts now for $25. For those not sure if it's worth a bet, try Kentucky Route Zero's free, semi-demo Limits and Demonstrations.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.