Interview

Jake Elliott

Jake Elliott, writer and designer of Kentucky Route Zero

An indie game developer goes spelunking in his most ambitious title yet.

By Ryan Smith • January 22, 2013

For more on Kentucky Route Zero, read Ryan Smith’s review.

Jake Elliott’s two-man outfit, Cardboard Computer, makes adventures games that focus on exploring ideas rather than solving puzzles or beating up bad guys. Last year’s Ruins is a thematically sad but simple game about a dog chasing rabbits through a sparse desert. Balloon Disapora is about making new friends while riding a hot-air balloon through the clouds. Elliott and art director Tamas Kemenczy are currently hard at work on the second episode of their newest adventure game, Kentucky Route Zero. The Gameological Society spoke to Elliott about his experiments with dialogue and text and his efforts to depict the rural South in a more humane way.

The Gameological Society: Where did the idea for Kentucky Route Zero come from?

Jake Elliott: I spent a lot of time in Kentucky, and so did Tamas. My girlfriend’s from there, so I go down there to visit. So it was just being in Kentucky—and the state also has an interesting history with video games. The first text adventure, Colossal Cave Adventure, took place there, and it’s a game where you explore the Mammoth Cave through text simulation. Later, people edited it and put in monsters and stuff like that. Kentucky Route Zero is also largely set in Mammoth Cave. So I kind of sketched out a story, and it went from there.

Gameological: You mention this old text game—is that the inspiration for the side areas in Kentucky Route Zero, where the game switches to text-based play?

Elliott: There’s that, and I’ve also been playing a lot of these hypertext, choose-your-own adventure browser games made with a tool called Twine. It’s cool. There’s a real community around it where people make these short, usually very weird and original hypertext games. It draws in people who aren’t usually programmers. I’ve played a lot of those games, so I wanted to play around with hypertext adventures.

Kentucky Route Zero

Gameological: The text-only sections really creeped me out sometimes, especially feeling around in the fish tanks. Are there moments where you think text is better at evoking certain ideas or moods?

We don’t give players a lot of clues. We want them to engage kind of poetically.

Elliott: Yeah, you can be provocative and vague in a way. There are also moments in the game that are purely visual and are also vague in their own way because the characters don’t talk about it. Tamas does all the art, and I do all the writing, and it’s a close collaboration, but we do find moments where we go off on our own a little bit.

Gameological: The game has changed a lot in the last year and a half since I first saw it. Can you talk about the direction that it took?

Elliott: We were experimenting with the art direction in a couple different ways, and we went through a couple different ideas about what it should look like. Somewhere in there, I started looking closely at theatrical set design and using that as a way to build these virtual spaces. It changed the look of the game a lot, and the way that we thought it would play, so we started putting mechanics in the game a little bit more theatrically.

I think it ended up being a lot better because originally, we thought this game would work more as an exploratory platform game like Metroid or Castlevania, but being totally nonviolent and having a lot of conversations in it, so the spaces would be these huge maze-like caves you’d explore. Now they’re these really focused areas with very clear boundaries with all these conversations that happen inside these sets.

Gameological: The game follows the perspective of the main characters, Conway, most of the time, but it’s interesting how it jumps into the body of a completely different character for awhile.

Elliott: It’s sort of an experiment, and there’s a few ways we’re experimenting with dialogue where you switch perspectives. There’s another one, where Conway is talking to the dog, where only he speaks, and he’s kind of answering himself. It’s a chance to give a character his own monologue. There are a few more formal experiments we’re trying to play around with in Act II as well. Dialogue happens a lot in role-playing and adventure games, but there are very few formal experiments. In mainstream games, it’s usually only a company like BioWare, who are kind of prodding and tweaking the dialogue in their games. You see in Mass Effect 3 how it changes and does all this very subtle stuff. I think there’s a lot of room still for experimentation with dialogue in games now.

Kentucky Route Zero

Gameological: I’ve played through the first episode twice, and I noticed there are times you make different dialogue choices, and it leads you to the same place, and nothing else changes. Other times, it takes you to different outcomes.

Elliott: Yeah, we don’t like giving the players a lot of clues about what the effects of their dialogue is going to be. We want them to be engaging with the stuff kind of poetically but not strategizing over best choices. That’s a pretty natural instinct. Most games encourage their players to think that way.

Gameological: Have you gone back to Kentucky a lot during the making of the game, and did you draw any more inspiration from being in that area?

Elliott: For sure, I listened to the way people talked and the way the landscape looks, and Tamas is going through there a lot and taking photographs—not to represent it, but at least capture certain qualities about it. And then there’s stuff in the game, cultural touchstones, like coal mining. The whole coal mine areas are full of these models we directly borrowed from these old photographs of Kentucky coal mines. Tamas did a lot of research for a lot of the visual stuff.

Gameological: Pop culture isn’t always kind in its depictions of the South. Did you have an idea in mind about the way that you wanted to portray the rural South?

One of the main themes of the game is how people who are marginalized are affected by these big economic changes, by recession.

Elliott: Absolutely. There’s a group of writers with the same reaction, like Southern Gothic fiction writers. They were also reacting against the stereotypes and prejudices of the South. One thing they did really well was portraying the people as being very unique and also very complicated, not stereotypical. It’s important to us because one of the main themes of the game is how people who are marginalized are affected by these big economic changes, by recession. And how they’re affected from being displaced from their homes. That’s really important to us, ethically, to represent the fact that everyone has different ways of dealing with that.

Gameological: Did you make a decision about whether or not to include accents in the written dialogue?

Elliott: I’ve been trying not to. I don’t want it to come off like in Huckleberry Finn, like the awful way that Jim, the slave, speaks. I usually go with correct grammar even if it’s not locally so accurate, maybe.

Gameological: There have been comparisons between Kentucky Route Zero and the works of David Lynch. Do you think it’s an apt comparison?

Elliott: Tamas and I are always talking about David Lynch, and he’s a huge influence on us as far as tone. One thing about Lynch is the pacing of his stuff. It’s very slow. A lot of the funniest stuff—like in those last episodes of Twin Peaks, where there’s this old guy who works in the bank, it’s like this five minute scene of him walking to the safety deposit box and walking back, and the bank explodes. So his sense of pacing and sense of humor—it’s safe to say that it’s an influence.

Gameological: Without giving away too much, is there anything else we should expect from the next few episodes?

Elliott: It gets a little bit more fantastical. There are five different characters you meet, and Shannon so far is the most mundane—the rest are pretty fantastical, so I think that’s the direction it’s going to go.

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  • Oxperiment

    Thanks for putting this up back to back with the review. David Lynch atmosphere? Mixed play styles? Set design as influence? Yes.

    • GaryX

      Pretty much anything with a David Lynch influence gets an automatic check out from me. Guy’s a fucking hero.

  • Bad Horse

    I’m super excited by Twine, which I have never heard of before now. I’ve got at least one idea I want to play around with and see where it goes, and it’ll work awesomely well in text. 

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      I’ve been toying with idea of playing around with Ren’Py myself. (Twine is a pretty nifty tool, but it’s not very powerful.) In any case, I’m excited to explore interactive fiction a bit more; it’s not something that receives a lot of mainstream coverage.

      • Bad Horse

        I might graduate to Ren’Py at some point. But Twine has a certain Dogme 95 appeal – just the bare bones of interactivity, no tricks, no visuals.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I only learned about it very recently – though I think I’ve encountered things made in it before and not realized there was a tool out there that streamlined the creation of those things.

      It kind of makes me wish I were an English teacher, because oh heavens would it be fun to have kids write something in it.

  • rvb1023

    “We want them to be engaging with the stuff kind of poetically”

    I couldn’t agree with this more. One of my biggest problems with games that have dialogue choices is it just becomes another formula most people (Myself included) just end up memorizing to see more of the game. Some of my favorite games even do this, so the fact that they are actually trying to leave the future ambiguous to the player is great.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      That was something I always enjoyed about the dialogue trees in LucasArts games – yeah, there were dialogue puzzles (including the paragon of the form), but more often than not a dialogue tree was just there to be enjoyed or to flesh out the world. Admittedly, the aim there was generally to dispense jokes rather than poetic effects – it’s great to see this game going for something more evocative.

      • His_Space_Holiness

        How appropriate. You fight like a cow.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Oh, God. A gorgeous Lynch-toned graphical adventure with knowing (meta)textual and mechanical nods to text adventures? 

    Excuse me, I need to change…change my pants.