Kentucky Route Zero is immersive theater for your Nintendo Switch

An epic episodic art piece comes to a conclusion, and is now available for consoles: The game's creators talk to CNET about what comes next.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
8 min read

Kentucky Route Zero's latest act completes the strange saga.

Annapurna Interactive

It took me a week to realize what playing Kentucky Route Zero for the last week made me think of. On a train ride while calling in to a phone number with a mysterious recorded interlude (a real phone number, 270-301-5797, that guided me through a dreamlike series of choices), I realized: It's immersive theater. But in game form.

I miss out on a lot of great indie games by not being a Steam PC gamer. Kentucky Route Zero is a series I've been dying to play since it launched in 2013. As the episodic, David Lynchian point-and-click game drifted through strange iterations, a promise of a console release lingered for years. It's finally arrived on Nintendo Switch , PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in a "TV Edition," along with the game's long-awaited final act.

"We started calling the console version of the game the TV edition, trying to think of a way to differentiate how to talk about it, " Jake Elliott, one of Kentucky Route Zero's three creators, told me in a video chat."We're also really interested in televisions as an object, and TV as a medium, you know, and there's a lot of stuff about TV in the game." 

I've been immersing myself in KRZ on a Nintendo Switch, on train commutes and in bed, or huddled in the corners of my office. Sometimes I've been playing on a TV. It's my new favorite book... or TV show... but in game form. Because, really, it isn't entirely a game. It's a branching novel as a point-and-click game, a narrative that pulls you along in a foggy, mysterious slide. It feels like a half-remembered dream. with elements that bring me back to feelings I had watching Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017. It's unnerving. Is it a game, or a narrative experience? Am I interacting, or submitting?

Maybe it's no accident that Kentucky Route Zero's been evolving over a period of time where immersive theater and art pieces have blossomed. The buried stories-within-stories, the wandering sense of discovery, and that sense of submission to a world I can't entirely control feels right at home with the most profound theater and VR experiences I've ever had.

A lot of the game is text-based, and point-and-click. On the Switch, I can tap the screen to move around, which helps. Text can be made larger to read better on the small screen, but the larger-scale art would be better on a bigger display. The audio is consistently immersive and unsettling, sometimes painting scenes that aren't seen onscreen. Wear good headphones.

While Kentucky Route Zero may have felt unlike anything else when it debuted in 2013, I now see lots of parallels to other wonderful indie art games with minimalist style, but many of these games have been inspired by what KRZ has already done. In 2020, this type of game feels right at home on consoles and on the Switch.

The members of the game's creative team are visual artists who also happen to make games. I spoke with Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt -- collectively, Cardboard Computer -- on what making the game's been like, and where things will go next.

Annapurna Interactive

Q: How would you describe the evolution of the game over the years?
Jake Elliott: I think it's really exciting that it can be handheld now, because you could take it into all the weird ... the same kind of places that you go to read a book or something like that, which kind of works for the game, because it's sort of slow-paced, and kind of lean back more than lean forward, so that's nice that it can kind of fit into people's lives in different ways now. But the game as a whole, I feel like there's a lot of consistency with it from Act One to Act Five even though it's covered such a long period in our lives. I think it's the largest project any of the three of us have ever worked on. 

Did you expect the game development to span this long a period of time, and did it change the way you thought about the story?
Elliott: We learned early on that we had a kind of pretty intense experience. We really trying to hit these really short turnarounds then, like three to five months or something. We had to kind of like relax that pace for ourselves and and give ourselves more time to kind of develop each piece at a pace that was sustainable...

...all of that kind of dilated it out into this big sprawling project that ended up taking basically nine years from conception to completion.

What inspired this game in the first place?
Jake Elliott: Tamas and I worked on a project with a friend of ours John Cates, who's a video art history guy, and an artist. The three of us built an installation piece that was sort of a remix of this old adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure from the mid-'70s. People talk about [it] as the first text adventure ... a game that established a lot of vocabulary of a lot of games that we play now. Tamas and I were coming down to Kentucky a lot. We were driving past Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is where Colossal Cave Adventure is set. The guy, Will Crowther, who made that game, he was a cave enthusiast, and his wife at the time made some important discoveries in the caves. 

So we were thinking, we should make another game set in Mammoth Cave, and had kind of another concept. But we also really wanted to make it a very contemporary game that was about what was going on and the country at that time, and is still going on now. At that moment in 2010, everything was about the financial crisis of 2009, so that was a big part of our thinking about it then. Thinking about debt, and these kind of weird invisible corporations that have their fingers in our lives in all kinds of different ways, these big monopolies that control all these different aspects of our lives at once. We didn't imagine it as an episodic game at first, but after working on it for a year and a half or something, we were really struggling with the scale of it. Breaking it up into these episodes seemed like a good way to get something out rather than holding on to it and keeping it secret until it was all done. If it ended up being nine years of nothing and then releasing the game at the end, that would have been pretty stressful and unpleasant.

What were themes running in the new, final Act V that drove you?
Elliott: Yeah, Act Five had a lot about history and transitions from darkness to light. Those were two big themes we were trying to work in, but yeah, I think history was kind of mainly the one that we were thinking about there, this accumulation of histories, different histories. Yeah, I should say histories plural, because it's also about how all these different kinds of histories kind of cohabit in one place. We're thinking a lot about all these repetitions in history- there are patterns, even for one very small place with a small group of people living there.

Do you have any plans to move a game like this to Android or iOS , for tablets and phones ?
Tamas Kemenczy: Tablets appeal to me as like another place to present the game. After this [console] experience, porting it to mobile platforms, like tablets -- I feel like maybe a phone is so tiny, it might be a hurdle to be able to read it -- but tablets… that's appealing to me.

Is this the absolute end of Kentucky Route Zero? 
Elliott: This is the end I think, pretty definitively.

Do you know what you'll work on next? Would it be games, or other types of media?
Elliott: We're going to work on another game, we're kind of planning it out now. It's a really cool medium to work in. We've thought of ourselves as, like, basically software artists for a long time, and video games feel very continuous with that, so I feel like we're continuing the practice that we started. Tamas and I started working together on weird software art since I think like 2006 or something, so I feel like it feels continuous with that, and we've been working with Ben, the three of us, on this for so long.

Is there anything you can share about it? Would it be episodic?
Kemenczy: Not episodic (laughs).

Elliott: There's some things that we really want to do differently and explore different ways of working. The episodic thing, that's something we don't want to do again right away: we've had to be very cagey about the content, and it's been hard to share anything with our fans in advance of an episode coming out because we don't want to spoil anything. I think in the new project, we would really like to explore something that is less sensitive to spoilers, and more open that we can just share as we go.

You explored VR before in one of your interlude projects between acts, called The Entertainment. Will you explore VR and AR more?
Kemenczy: AR is definitely cool. I don't have any AR gear personally. But if we would have time, any of us, to work with that more, that would be great. Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I was looking forward to CastAR, and then that fell through. And there's HoloLens. There's probably other ones too. And just like, using your smartphone. Yeah, we haven't really thought so much about it. We're thinking about narrative stuff mostly as a starting point, you know, versus, "we really want to work with AR, let's do something in AR." I'm curious about motion capture stuff, even just as a developer in this sort of making motion capture stuff more accessible.

Is there any other stuff out there now that you're excited about?
Kemenczy: Modding is cool, just like, making a game malleable and accessible. That's sort of fun to me, encouraging that culture ... I don't know how we would ever incorporate that -- you don't really see that sort of thing in smaller software art.

What do you think about the world now in 2020 vs when your game started in 2013?
Ben Babbitt: Reality is pretty experimental right now. Maybe that changes the meaning of experimental art.

Elliott: There have been some big political moments that have happened during the development of the game ... but it's important to us to look at those and to maintain some continuity of our understanding of what's happening now with what's happened in the past -- keep everything in context and recognize these patterns of cycles or motifs throughout history. Wealth, inequality, anti-immigrant rhetoric, demagogues and stuff like that.

Is there a favorite or ideal way to play Kentucky Route Zero? Like a filmmaker suggests an ideal way to watch their films? PC or console? Handheld?
Kemenczy: No, and I don't agree with filmmakers like that. You'll be horrified by how I watch stuff ... yeah, I'm the most terrible consumer of fine media like that. 

Ben Babbitt: And I don't play video games. The last video game I played was Mario Kart 64. I don't own [a TV].

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Originally published Jan. 27.
Update, Jan. 28, 7:54am PT: Adds references to immersive theater, and a mention of the free dial-in number for one of the game's interludes.