How the creators of Kentucky Route Zero ended their seven-year saga

For the past nine years, Cardboard Computer has been careful about not tipping its hand. That’s no longer the case.

“Elated,” says Tamas Kemenczy. “I am ecstatic! I am happy!”

Up until the very end, the creators of Kentucky Route Zero might still surprise you. With the conclusion of their nine-year production — and seven since the first episode’s release — the three-person game studio is finally ready to discuss what it took to see it through.

Responsible for their game’s eye-catching aesthetic and its visual programming, Kemenczy makes up one-third of the team behind the critically-acclaimed point-and-click adventure game. Writer & co-developer, Jake Elliott, and musician & sound designer, Ben Babbitt, make up its remaining two-thirds. Indicative of their collaborative spirit, each is credited with the game’s design.

Set mostly within and inspired by the real-world Mammoth Cave, the enigmatic title has rolled-out over five distinct but serialized acts. Act I debuted in 2013. And as of today, Act V is finally here.

A lot can happen in seven years.

For Cardboard Computer, among the biggest changes were two kids and more than one relocation. In the face of such tectonic shifts, both the survival and evolution of Kentucky Route Zero hinged on its elasticity. “Whatever kind of life changes have happened, it just kind of has followed us, wherever, whatever,” says Elliott. The trio, quickly and jokingly, notices a parallel with the 2014 horror film, It Follows. “No matter where they go, this thing follows them,” recalls Kemenczy. “It just always walks to them.”

As the wait between acts has unspooled from months to years, many fans wondered what to make of it all. Many others spared themselves the agony, opting to wait for the complete set.

Perhaps that’s because of how precious everyone’s time on Route Zero truly is, leisurely as each trip has gone. Like tours of Emerald City, there’s so much to see, but so little time to take it all in. Yet within the hollowed-out earth beneath Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky, the flow of time is unhurried. Merchants drift along ancient waterways. Musicians live favor-to-favor. Rum-soaked bureaucrats peer into the abyss of its limestone halls. Most are just passing through, but many call it home.

Now at the end of their magical highway, Cardboard Computer is reflective with a similar calm. Call their “Development Status Hotline” at 1-858-WHEN-KRZ, and you can hear it for yourself.

Even as the bearer of bad news, Kemenczy sounds unphased. “We just found a bug, even just today,” he says, speaking a couple weeks before the release. “So, yeah — it is kind of never ending.”

But it must end.

“We’re really happy with Act V and everything else about how the final version of the game has come together, though,” says Elliott. “This is definitely the ending we wanted to make.”

So what did it take to finish Kentucky Route Zero?

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna

Where it all started, and then nearly stopped

Kentucky Route Zero found an audience before it was available, thanks in part to a Kickstarter campaign that ran in 2011. The team originally asked for $6,500. It received roughly an additional $2,000.

The Kickstarter funds would only go so far as to support necessary and costly software licenses, allow the team to expand on the game’s existing art assets, and buy some time. They were enough to get Act I done by 2013, and the game made an immediate and lasting impression.

[The rest of this story contains spoilers for Acts I-IV.]

As the sun set on Equus Oils, a mid-century gas station nestled in the hills of Kentucky, the game’s protagonist, Conway, was just stopping for directions. One final delivery. Where it sent him, and players, was on a Rubik’s Cube of a road trip. The only way there was through Route Zero.

The act’s final and haunting shot, of Conway’s delivery truck being quietly swallowed by the fleeting maw of Mammoth Cave, left players hooked and ready for more. Whether or not Cardboard Computer was ready, too, is another story.

“Act II was really intense,” says Elliott.

The four-month turnaround on Act II built on the team’s newfound momentum — an anomaly in hindsight. “We felt that we had made a commitment to a certain timeline, and we really did our best to stick to it for that one.”

However, getting Act II into the hands of players so quickly came at great personal cost to the team’s quality of life. With the company still a two-person team at the time, “it was way too much to take on,” says Kemenczy. “It was an inappropriate workload with just the two of us. It didn’t add up. It was really unhealthy.”

While it can be hard to spot in any creative endeavor, sometimes there is a difference between a problem and a choice. “We backed off after that. ‘We can’t work like that anymore,’” says Elliott of the futility to press on through indefinite crunch.

Sales of Kentucky Route Zero were enough to support the team for a significant period of its protracted development. “That was the case for a few years there, which was awesome,” says Elliott. But nothing lasts forever.

Citing more recent support from publishing partner Annapurna Interactive, a Patreon page, and previous traditional forms of income, “it was different things at different times,” says Elliott. “When Tamas and I were first working on it, we basically had day jobs for the first few years. At some point, we were able to switch to not doing that for awhile.”

The search for additional funds eventually sent the team across the world. Much of Act V was completed in an Airbnb the team shared while briefly living in Milan.

What called them to northern Italy was a suite of teaching gigs on art, sound, and writing for video games, as part of a master’s program at IULM University. While fresh lessons were being pruned from the development of Kentucky Route Zero for those interested in bringing their own games to life, the team’s reunion came at a crucial point in the production of its own. “[That] was, I think, one of the only times we had all been in the same space like that,” says Babbitt.

“Again, as our lives have changed in different ways, the project has always kind of been there,” says Elliott. “We’ve had to make it work.”

The game’s early episodes sport a distinctive dark color scheme
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna

Feeling around in the dark

If their timeline was going to suffer instead of their wellbeing, the team figured their ideas should also become liberated along the way.

Elliott recalls a breakthrough prior to Act III that helped the team lean into the pivot. “We were thinking about the idea that these episodes should be of a similar length and scope, [and] it was sort of like, ‘Where did that idea come from? Why would that be the case?’”

Whatever rules Cardboard Computer assumed applied to the team, or to video games for that matter, suddenly didn’t.

“[We didn’t want to] give ourselves a big homework assignment that we wrote nine years ago, and now it’s just we’re doing our homework ever since,” says Elliott. “We wanted to leave some of it open to making decisions when we got there.”

The team members decided to let their game mature alongside them, giving them space to explore whatever ideas felt most urgent. New obsessions, such as the untapped theatre of Mammoth Cave’s Echo River, created inroads for life outside of Kentucky Route Zero.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I’m really into this philosophy of forgetting right now, but I’m still making this game that’s just about driving a truck and making deliveries, so there’s no way I can work that in,’” says Elliott.

Creatively, Cardboard Computer was anything but painted into a corner. Even the slow twist surrounding Conway’s autonomy in Acts III & IV was on-deck long before. “We were planning that pretty early on. Since Act II, at least,” says Kemenczy. “That lines up with what happens [in Act III]: you just can’t control him anymore.”

In order to both earn these moments and make room for new stories along the way, they’d have to gain control of whatever was driving them all forward.

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna

Technical debt

Video games tend to serve as technical benchmarks for the entertainment industry. Yet even the most acclaimed studios often breathe new life into dying technology.

Elliott refers to a developer-friendly term, “technical debt.” Simply put, this is the cost of building software without the foresight, or patience, to account for future needs.

“That’s kind of what this project has become,” he says.

One of the most troublesome issues involved a rather unlikely suspect: text. The toolset pumping blood to the game’s heart, its prose, was repeatedly shattered from consecutive updates to Unity, the engine Kentucky Route Zero is built on.

Eventually, the support beams Cardboard Computer’s artistically-aliased typography relied on were removed entirely. “It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, we’re just changing how it works under the hood,’ [something] that we could adapt to,” says Kemenczy. “They were finally just like, ‘Nope, this is finally gone.’”

New twists on how to engage with dialogue and the added task of localization compounded things further. “Links in the middle of a sentence were working great,” says Elliott. “And then we tried running them with Japanese text and Korean text. They were totally broken again.”

Frustrating as these obstacles became, they laid the foundation for making some quality-of-life improvements to the team’s design over time.

Along with Act V and the newly minted “TV Edition” of the game, a new “Ephemera” menu visually catalogs the player’s odyssey through Kentucky, offering useful (albeit cryptic) hints along the way. Meanwhile, a push for accessibility resulted in options for resizable text and a variety of inputs.

With the extra time Cardboard Computer bought itself, the game’s artistic ambitions also outgrew its technical confines. Today, you can see this in the game’s steady evolution of its atmosphere and visual storytelling.

“I was really anticipating being able to work on a bright light scene,” says Kemenczy. After the first two acts spent time in subterranean dwellings, on deserted streets, and in dive-bars, Act III quickly established an unfamiliar tone. Under the guise of a daydream, a rare slice of Conway’s past is drenched in an even rarer sunrise. “Working with that sort of bright scene really took me out; it was like a breath of fresh air.”

These creative impulses planted the seeds for ones further down the road. While dynamic sources of light had been a presence throughout, environmental shadows were originally painted onto their minimalist 3D models by hand. “We always would do fake shadows, and just cut them out into the polygons,” says Kemenczy. “We’d have a lot of control.”

This manual approach guaranteed Kemenczy the crisp linework that makes Kentucky Route Zero instantly recognizable, but it had to mature if bolder sources of light were to ever reach the needs of the story.

”It’s like meat and potatoes for most video games,” says Kemenczy. “Shadows aren’t even next-gen any more, but they felt like next-gen for us! I’m not formally trained as a computer scientist or programmer, so I just had to sort of slog through all of that and figure it out.”

“It’s like Kentucky Route Zero: Remastered at this point,” says Elliott.

“It feels like we actually made 10 games that are just called Kentucky Route Zero,” says Babbitt.

Babbitt is referring to the additional “interludes” that arrived between acts to satiate expectant players. In hindsight, the interludes served a greater purpose as vertical slices of new features and world-building for the game.

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna

“Limits & Demonstrations,” for example, offered a voyeuristic window into the life of a forthcoming character by way of an interactive art exhibit. But the menagerie had a second purpose: testing and resolving specific graphics issues being reported by players.

More recently, the team struggled with its final trailer, hoping to both tease and protect Act V’s intrinsic surprises. Eventually, the members realized that the cover of rain storming their latest interlude afforded them a clever out. “Basically, what you’re seeing [in the trailer] is what’s happening right up [to] and during ‘Un Pueblo De Nada,’” says Kemenczy.

“That kind of stuff became a big part of our process,” says Elliott “[It was] a way of doing better work and doing smarter work. And making it not kill us.”

[The rest of this story contains light spoilers for Act V.]

Kentucky Route’s Zero’s most show-stopping moments often come down to the simple vulnerability of a song. The game’s soundtrack, equal parts grounded folk and spaced-out synth, rests in Babbitt’s and The Bedquilt Ramblers’ hands. But the degree to which music is a bonding agent between them all is evident.

“Sometimes, being in a DIY arts community was kind of like being part of a church or something,” says Elliott. “I would think about my work as a noise musician all the time. Every week, once a week or more, I’d be going to these similar venues and seeing the same people. I get a lot of value out of being a part of those kinds of communities.”

It’s personal stories like these that found their way into Kentucky Route Zero thanks to its unpredictable delivery, and have kept it relatable despite its density. “We wanted to honor that way of living: of being in a found family or in a found community. Our vision for it was that by the time you reach Act V, there’s really no central sort of ego,” says Elliott. “You’re really playing as the community.”

This playful sense of fellowship extended to the creative dynamic within Cardboard Computer, too. “Jake, you’ve always been good about communicating that to Tamas and I, when you’re working on a piece of writing for the game, and you feel sort of stuck,” says Babbitt.

“When I’m having a visual block, I just need some prompts to start working on some graphical detail,” says Kemenczy, equating it to Oblique Strategies, a card system co-developed by Brian Eno to exercise creative constraints. “Then I go look through the conversation files that Jake has written.”

“If it had just been any one of us trying to make this project [alone], we probably wouldn’t have made it to the finish line,” says Babbitt. “Things might have gone very differently.”

The way things have gone, the creators of Kentucky Route Zero were fortunate to have found each other, and to now find themselves in a unique position. Whatever ratio of hard work, creativity, luck, and success it took to keep all the moving parts together, it was enough.

Despite the delays, each act’s release imbued the long-term project with new vigor, glowing reviews, and reminded fans that they were not sitting idle in the dark.

“At that point, you’re all the way in the rabbit hole,” says Babbitt. “You’re in the caves, and there’s no way out but through.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=MjBUVdT-f1U%3Frel%3D0

Five and done

By now it’s clear that Cardboard Computer is ready to move past a time where Kentucky Route Zero was incomplete.

“It’s been really present in our minds this whole time,” says Elliott of the prolonged development. “Sometimes it kind of seems like we were working at a slow pace, or taking our time. But it’s felt pretty urgent.”

No longer introduced as “a game in five acts,” Kentucky Route Zero now boots up with the words “a game by Cardboard Computer.” As both the first and final change to its tagline, the amend is subtle but highly suggestive.

“I’m looking forward to working on another game,” says Kemenczy, though he admits, “we could be looking at things through rose colored glasses.”

“We can start fresh,” says Elliott.

Details are scarce on Cardboard Computer’s next project. For now, the team says it doesn’t intend to follow the episodic structure with this one. “It’ll be nice to be able to approach it where we’re not so invisible and cagey, and can share stuff with our audience,” says Kemenczy. “It was hard working on a mystery.”

But for the moment, all eyes are on KR0’s ending. Now officially the team’s best kept secret, “this ending more or less has been intact the whole time,” says Elliott. How that knowledge informs repeat playthroughs should give players much to discuss for years to come.

As with the in-game community players find themselves rallying into Act V, it makes sense for Cardboard Computer to turn towards the real-life one that took up residence along the way. “We’re curious about what the experience is going to be like for people,” says Elliott.

Act V introduces brighter colors to the series
Cardboard Computer/Annapurna

Even the player’s first choice, of which act to start with, raises new questions. Previously a simple list, both the main menu and the game’s narrative structure are now cyclical in their presentation — somewhere between a compass and a ouija board.

Start from the beginning? Jump to the end? Revisit whichever act you least remember? “It’s something that people ask us about,” says Kemenczy. ‘What’s the intended way to play it?’ Personally, I don’t have an answer.’”

Aptly, “memorializing and being forgotten,” are the core themes returning players have had to sit with since 2016’s Act IV, says Elliott. One such conversation appears early on.

“When you go into the kitchen for something, and as soon as you pass from one room to another, you forget what you wanted,” says Conway, enjoying a beer on his hollow victory lap aboard the Mucky Mammoth. “You have to walk back to remember.”

As the conversation shifts to the story’s other main role, Shannon — on edge over Conway’s newfound debt — the player is presented with two responses:

“I guess you owe them.”

“I think you do have a choice.”

Cardboard Computer has learned to live with its choices. The rest are in the hands of players.

But for those in need of a more empathetic set of instructions, the ancient vessel’s beer cooler offers some timely advice:

“Take what you need and leave the rest.”

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