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'Kentucky Route Zero' is a bluegrass adventure with robots and cats

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The crowd-funded title launches a year late, and its developers explain why

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Kentucky Route Zero isn't your typical video game. It's set in Kentucky, for one thing, where players discover and explore a secret highway hidden in underground caves. The main character is a furniture delivery man and the game features bluegrass music and locations inspired by the world of theatre. But it's these unique traits that make the game so intriguing. Built by the two-man team at Cardboard Computer, the point-and-click adventure game is set to make its debut in December, when the first of five planned episodes is released.

The game was actually originally slated to launch last year. On January 7th, 2011, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign — which surpassed the relatively modest funding goal of $6,500 — with the intention of releasing that fall. While that obviously didn't happen, the extra time has been used to experiment with new ideas. Co-creator Jake Elliott says that a variety of factors led to the delay, but that "probably the most important one was us learning to be comfortable with taking more time to experiment and prototype, and also to throw away work we'd done in a direction that didn't feel right anymore — that can be hard but it's important to be able to make those decisions."

"It's important to be able to make those decisions."

The visual style, for instance, has been overhauled — it looks quite different compared to that initial Kickstarter trailer, with a new, Another World-inspired look. The extra time also allowed the team to incorporate its theatrical inspirations in new ways.

While the game's dialog and story include nods to American playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neil, and Arthur Miller, eventually Elliott and partner Tamas Kemenczy decided to expand that influence to other areas of the game. "At some point we started looking at theatrical set design and lighting also, as a way of thinking about the game visually and structurally," says Elliott. "Tamas overhauled the art treatment, and we started treating the game's environments less like simulated spaces and more like theatre sets."

"We started treating the game's environments less like simulated spaces and more like theatre sets."

According to Elliott, this change wouldn't have happened if the duo didn't have that extra time for "experimenting and discarding dead-ends." And the theatrical inspirations don't end there, also extending to the game's structure. Much like a play, Kentucky Route Zero is divided into five acts, which will be released as separate episodes similar to series like Telltale's The Walking Dead. While the episodic structure wasn't always part of the plan, Elliott feels like it's a good fit for Kentucky Route Zero. "I think it'll give the story some time to breathe," he says, "both for us making it and for folks playing it. Like everything, it's an experiment!"

Kentucky Route Zero follows the story of a delivery man named Conway, who stumbles across a number of different characters and scenarios while exploring the underground highway. The game is described as a "magic realist adventure" and it looks like Conway's journey will lead him into all manner of oddball situations — there's everything from rescuing a robotic country singer from a wayward security system to exploring a beached Civil War-era battleship that's now overrun with cats. Though how these seemingly disparate elements gel together won't be known until the game's release in a few weeks time.

"A large part of the game is spent just talking to people."

The game itself is appears to be a fairly standard adventure game, though it won't include at least one genre staple: an inventory system. Instead of focusing on items and clever puzzles, Elliott says, the team was more interested in creating an interesting world filled with compelling characters. And the gameplay reflects that. "A large part of the game is spent just talking to people," he says.

The two developers both hail from Chicago, but the game's Kentucky setting was inspired largely by visits with Elliott's girlfriend, who is originally from the state. "Tamas and I both love the culture of that area — bourbon and bluegrass, but also more contemporary stuff like indie music from Louisville," he says. "Musically, there's actually a lot of exchange between Louisville and Chicago." The game will feature a range of music, including "old hymns and bluegrass standards" by The Bedquilt Ramblers, as well as an ambient score from musician Ben Babbitt.

"We don't expect it to have a huge mass appeal."

Though there hasn't been much information released about the game to date, it's managed to gather a fair share of early hype, particularly among the indie developer community. When Cardboard Computer released the latest trailer for Kentucky Route Zero, a number of developers and industry notables expressed their excitement. In spite of this, though, the team is keeping its expectations in check, given what a unique experience the game is shaping up to be.

"We don't expect it to have a huge mass appeal," says Elliott, "but we hope it will find a niche of people who want to play it, think about it, and talk about it. We hope people will stick with it for the full five acts and see where it goes."