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'Kentucky Route Zero' explores a hidden highway running through Mammoth Cave

A stylized image of a horse head appears in white and grey on a black backdrop. It's an image associated with the video game "Kentucky Route Zero."
Courtesy Cardboard Computer
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LPM
"Kentucky Route Zero" ask players to imagine what lies below as they explore a mysterious highway running in Mammoth Cave.

Imagine you’re Conway, the long-time employee of an antique shop. Your job is simple: Deliver a piece of furniture to 5 Dogwood Drive. But there’s a problem, you can’t find it.

Pulling over at gas station Equus Oils, the attendant tells you the only way to reach Dogwood Drive is via Kentucky Route Zero, a circular highway running through Mammoth Cave.

That’s where the game really begins.

“Kentucky Route Zero” is what its creators call a magical realist adventure game, told in narrative style over the course of five episodes, which vary in length.

Jake Elliott, Ben Babbitt and Tamas Kemenczy, the game’s developers, released episodes episodically over several years. In the end, they created five episodes and four interludes. Last December, they released the game to Android and iPhone devices in partnership with Netflix.

The team sat down with LPM News to discuss how the project came together.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You all were really able to capture the weirdness of parts of the backwoods of Kentucky and the Mammoth Cave area. Did you take trips out to those parts of Kentucky to get a sense of how you could integrate that into the game?

Elliot: My wife Kacenda is from here [Elizabethtown, Ky.], which is pretty close to Mammoth Cave. So we would basically drive from E-town to Nashville, and that’s the stretch road that in the game, I-65 passing Mammoth Cave. It's a really striking area. Around Mammoth Cave there’s all these tourist traps, maybe half of them are about ghosts. It just has this aura of the supernatural around it. I think being on the highways a lot in Kentucky gave us that half of the perspective.

Playing “Kentucky Route Zero,” you can see the work that went into it. It was released episodically over several years. Why take that approach, and what kept y’all working through it?

Kemenczy: Originally it wasn’t episodic. We had a narrative reason to do that because Jake [Elliot] was looking at the structure of Greek tragedies early on, but also it was very practical. We could sort of just break up the work and make it more approachable. There were a few iterations at the beginning where we weren’t actually thinking of it as an episodic game, and it was just sort of overwhelming. We sort of zoomed out a bit and considered what if we break it up into smaller games and release them in sequence.

There’s a scene at a bar with characters Junebug and Johnny, which includes a choose-your-own-adventure, lyrics-style performance. What inspired that scene?

Babbitt: Originally, Junebug was going to be more of an animatronic, less mobile being and be more of like you put the nickel in the slot, and then then the character will come alive and sing this pre-recorded song. I took the initial prompt very literally and wrote a really stiff and very kitschy little song. And I just hated it. And I thought, there's no way Jake and Tamas are gonna go for this. And they, in their always very open and polite and sweet and supportive nature, did not reject it. And so, I think we had a conversation about it, and by the end of it, it was clear that we all thought it could develop and shift a little bit. I was drawn to maybe at the time, more grand and sweeping and dramatic sort of songs in, more, in the vein of Angelo Badalamenti and his work with Julee Cruise. This sort of dreamy, dark, murky, tragic kind of palette.

Do you all have any specific scenes that you really enjoyed creating?

Elliott: The telephone scene for me as it still was one of my favorites to build that to work on. It's called “Here and There Along the Echo,” and you have this virtual telephone that you can dial this number, and then there's another way to access it, which is actually dialing the number on your phone. The number is 270 -301-5797. And when you dial the number, you get a guide to secret tourism. That's narrated by Will Oldham, a musician from Louisville also known as Bonnie Prince Billy.

Kentucky Route Zero” is available for play on mobile devices, consoles and PC.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.