Zero Dark Purdy
Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer
Published: March 21. 2013
Behind the screens of Cardboard Computer’s extraordinary audiovisual creation, Kentucky Route Zero.
Kentucky Route Zero is not the type of game that falls neatly into existing industry classifications. On its face, the game plays out much like a point-and-click adventure: Puzzles and conversation trees slowly reveal bits and pieces about the world, and traversal is accomplished by, well, pointing and clicking. But the freedom to explore a small network of roads, combined with a general avoidance of the traditional “right/wrong” gameplay structure, give the experience a vibe and pacing all its own. There are many blanks left unfilled in Kentucky Route Zero, making it feel perhaps more like the work of David Lynch than anything else.
The episodic five-part game, the first of which was released last month, comes from micro studio Cardboard Computer. The duo of Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy met at art school years back, and have been collaborating on projects ever since. KRZ flowed naturally from this partnership, and one specific expedition. “It mostly came from our travels in and through Kentucky, visiting family or passing through,” says Kemenczy, who also points to the 1976 title Colossal Cave Adventure as a point of inspiration in more ways than one. “It's set in Kentucky, in the same area as KRZ, and it has this seminal role as basically the first adventure game,” he says.
How do the creators describe their project, then? “We use the term ‘magical realist adventure game,’” says Elliott. “We draw on a lot of literary sources—magical realism, southern gothic, and American tragic theatre—but the game is also very visual. That comes from it being a collaboration between the two of us: we both do programming, design and story treatment, but also Tamas is a 3D artist and animator, and I'm a writer.” For the game’s fantastic soundscapes, the duo collaborated with composer Ben Babbitt and a band he put together called The Bedquilt Ramblers.
Bringing Kentucky Route Zero to life began on February 6, 2011, when the studio managed to surpass its rather modest Kickstarter goal of $6500 by a couple thousand bucks. “The game definitely went through a transformation from start to finish,” says Kemenczy. “At the time of the Kickstarter, it started off as sort of a ‘Metroidvania’ platformer, and over time it slowly evolved into a point-and-click adventure.” The art style underwent the same sort of discovery process, distilling what the duo thought best conveyed the tone and gameplay. “It was a process of discovery and there were a few dead ends, but we're definitely better for it,” he says.
With minimal funding, keeping the budget low was a necessity. “Using Unity was the plan to begin with, and part of the Kickstarter funding was to pay for the Pro license,” says Kemenczy. “It's been a great not having to sink time into solving certain problems, like pathfinding, or cross-platform/hardware support from the ground up. Most of these are already solved problems, and maybe only a question of integrating disparate libraries and tools together, but that's still a lot of work in itself. So Unity's integrated approach really helped us focus on content creation instead.”
When development started, the NavMesh system in Unity wasn't available yet, so Kemenczy and Elliott had to cobble together their own pathfinding system. “It went through a couple of iterations, but it was a product of the original gameplay style which wasn't really working anymore,” says Kemenczy. “But then the new navigation system was added, and that helped us steer the game in the direction we wanted to go. It actually felt pretty good to throw away our own pathfinding code and not have to worry about adapting and maintaining it. We were able to focus on solving other problems.”
Unity 4 was released as the duo was wrapping up development of Act I, but they look to make use of its new features on upcoming episodes. “The new Mesh API is absolutely perfect for the art style of the game, since there's so much line rendering,” says Kemenczy. “With Unity 3 we depended on gl.Vertex, and so that was pretty CPU-bound. It's been liberating to migrate all that stuff over to the new setup.”
This all fed into a general approach taken by the team to achieve the highest possible production values with its limited resources. “I think a sentiment that really resonated with us that seems to come up often is that shortcuts are okay,” says Kemenczy. “Maybe one of the unexpected limitations, as a small team, was having so many great features and tools to work with in Unity, and it's tempting to want to take advantage of all of them. But there's overhead in taking that sort of simulationist approach. It can be a lot of work setting up generalized lighting, shaders or components that you hope to use across the board, and that would give you the right results every time. At the end of the day, one-off scripts and shaders were our friends, lighting was done with pre-painted vertex colors, and we ended up with a lot less prefabs than we imagined we would going into it. We liken our current workflow to theatrical set design.”
The same sensibilities applied to game’s rather measured, unhurried sense of pacing. “The kind of theatrical or cinematic pacing is a pretty deliberate goal of ours,” says Kemenczy. “We’re really into filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog who are masters of pacing.” They liken the way the player interacts with Kentucky Route Zero to how an actor interacts with a play: He or she makes decisions about how and when to move, what sorts of emotions to inject into their spoken dialogue, and what sort of back-story to bring to the character they’re embodying.
The first chapter of Kentucky Route Zero is available on Mac and PC, but versions for additional platforms should arrive fairly soon. “We had actually designed the UI and interaction with touch devices in mind, and we'd love to have the game available on tablets,” says Kemenczy. “Our preliminary tests are promising, but for some reason, iOS disabled Vertex Texture Fetch beginning with iOS 5, so that's the main roadblock preventing us from releasing on that platform.”
Still, the promise of new platforms remains a hopeful one for the duo behind KRZ. “New platforms could mean new contexts in which to play games, which hopefully will continue to attract a more diverse group of designers,” says Elliott. “Devices like tablets could start to suggest games we play while reclining, in a posture borrowed from reading, instead of hunched anxiously over a controller.”
The Cardboard Computer Archives
For those looking to dig a little deeper into the history of Cardboard Computer, it’s worth checking out its collaboration with jonCates on another game project about Mammoth Cave, which they dubbed "Sidequest" (see: tgott.wordpress.com). “That's been on our minds,” says Tamas Kemenczy. “It was a really rewarding experience, and we felt like there was more to explore [with Kentucky Route Zero].”