This is the end of 'Kentucky Route Zero'
I interviewed Jake Elliott at GDC 2013, in between the debut of acts one and two, and I asked him about the game’s release schedule, its themes and its ending. Seven years later and on the eve of the final episode’s launch, I read bits of this interview back to the Cardboard Computer team.
Here, Elliott and Kemenczy react to their 2013 goals for Kentucky Route Zero, starting with the pledge to release all five episodes within one year:
This puts the final episode of Kentucky Route Zero out in January 2014, one year after the launch of episode one. “It’s pretty aggressive, but I think we’ve got our workflow down so well now that we feel good about it still,” Elliott says.
First, Elliott laughed. Then he said, “I think a lot of that was coming from a couple different things, one of which is obviously inexperience. I don’t know if it would have been possible to have any experience that would have prepared us for the way the project took shape. Very early on, we had this idea about this platformer, and we had all these mechanical constraints, like about a fixed number of levels and stuff. Even when that started to fall away and the game changed shape, I think we hung on to the idea of the scope somehow magically remaining the same, even though it was a different game underneath it.”
To hit this initial goal, the Cardboard Computer crew would’ve had to develop one episode every three to five months. Looking back, Elliott calls that plan absurd.
“We just physically couldn’t do it,” Elliott said. “We really put ourselves through a lot of pain there. Like, Tamas developed repetitive strain injuries in his wrists and stuff from making all the art for act two in such a short period of time.”
The only way the original schedule might-have-maybe worked would’ve been with a sudden infusion of cash-driven focus.
“Maybe if we had found a way to do it like that — I don’t know, maybe we would have taken on some investors and hired some more people or something,” Elliott said. “Or I don’t know, we could have maybe found some solutions to hit that timeframe. But it would’ve been a really different game, and I’m glad we were able to slow down a little bit.”
Next, I asked Elliott about the message behind the game. Back in 2013, he said it was all about our real-world capitalist dystopia:
At its heart, Kentucky Route Zero is a game about credit default swaps, payday loans, sub-prime mortgages and health insurance loopholes. Really. “It’s in there,” Elliott says. “Those are the esoteric devices that express themselves in some of the situations that you do, these people who are dealing with all these credit problems, dealing with debt. Those are these things that, by design, are too mysterious and we can’t understand them. In finance, they do that on purpose.”
“I probably played it up and was too specific about that stuff, but I don’t know,” Elliott said, pausing to consider the words of his ghost. “I still feel that way, through these weird esoteric instruments that just immiserate us from the darkness. It is a sort of supernatural experience to be getting these weird bills in the mail with all this magical writing on them that’s just going to fuck up your life for a little while. It’s sort of the way that this weird — structures and physical power and how they feel, you know?”
Game developers have a similar power, with the ability to shape a player’s reality and then impose hidden restrictions on it. Elliott continued, “I like tabletop games, too, but in video games, I like that you can have secret rules that the player doesn’t know about. You can’t really do that in a tabletop game because the players are the ones responsible for adjudicating the rules. But in a video game, you can do this weird, mysterious, mechanical stuff that the player maybe never understands.”
And finally, we talked about the end. In 2013, I asked Elliott if he knew how Kentucky Route Zero was going to conclude, and he said yes:
“It’s a tragedy,” Elliott says. “The story’s a tragedy, it’s a tragic ending. Hopefully it won’t be too bleak, but it’s in that tradition.”
Tamas Kemenczy answered this one first.
“There’s a tragic ending out of other endings, yeah,” he said. “There’s an ensemble cast in the game. You start with Conway as sort of the person that you are operating with, but very deliberately the end, it’s just an ensemble cast. Even by act four, you can get the sense that there’s a tragic ending for some of the characters.”
Elliott agreed, and then clarified that tragedy doesn’t equate hopelessness, in his mind.
“It’s not pessimistic to me. Tragedy is not pessimistic,” he said. “A lot of literary tragedies or dramatic tragedies, at the end the character who has made all these terrible mistakes or who has these terrible flaws… they usually have this moment where they sort of take responsibility for it, or in some other way transcend it. Spiritually, at least. Like Oedipus has this horrible disfiguration in the end, but he does it in order to sort of reconcile himself with fate, which was his mistake to start with.”
Tragedy is the logical conclusion to many of life’s paths, so it’s also infused in Kentucky Route Zero. In both places — in reality and on-screen — it’s eerily beautiful.
“Similarly in Kentucky Route Zero, the characters are put in these terrible positions,” Elliott said. “Conway gives himself over to this debt situation. But he’s also done something really good, because this community has formed around him, and then he’s moved himself out of the way in order for this community to thrive. That sort of built up around him. Tragedy can have a sad ending, but it doesn’t mean that things are hopeless.”
Sometimes, they’re just real.