The first three acts of the surrealist point and click adventure Kentucky Route Zero captivated players and went on to appear on numerous game of the year lists. Anticipation was high for Act IV, but the anticipation was met with silence. Almost a year went by between Acts II and III, and it’s been over a year and a half since the last installment. That’s created some negative attention for KRZ’s developer, Cardboard Computer. They’ve had to address the alleged abandonment of the project, refute accusations of a scam, and even deflate odd rumours that it’s all an elaborate performance art piece. Recently they’ve teased art assets from Act IV and promised that the project is coming soon, although no release date has been set. Have these ongoing delays, and the lack of transparency regarding them, disrupted their audience to the point that they no longer care?  

Delays are almost expected in video game development and most people understand that. The problem here isn’t so much the delays as it is Cardboard Computer’s lack of transparency regarding a product their audience has already paid for, and that’s lead to uncertainty and mistrust. No one needs to know the gory details of the development process, but there has been extended periods of silence throughout the delays. If they’d kept their audience engaged in the process, the subsequent rumours and doubt may not have been as aggressive.

krzoriginal

Original concept art from Kentucky Route Zero’s Kickstarter campaign.

Kickstarter backers and those who have purchased the game want to know where the return on their money is. Some people are fed up, and have posted negative reviews on the game’s Steam page, encouraging people not to purchase it and labelling the developers as scam artists. Others have posted on the game’s discussion forum detailing their failed attempts at receiving a refund on the undelivered portion. As a Kickstarter project, there has been no breach of contract. A Kickstarter project is only defaulted upon when the creator is unable to deliver the product, and Cardboard Computer have always maintained that the project is going ahead. They are, however, obliged to keep their backers in the loop regarding the status of their project, which they have largely failed to do.

In addition to disgruntled consumers, KRZ may have been hurt by this in other ways. The game has likely struggled to attract new players in its unfinished state, and existing players may feel their anticipation for the next act has completely dried up. KRZ also focuses on evoking a distinct mood rather than featuring the punchy narrative hooks and cliffhangers of series like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange. It’s understated tone coupled with the amount of time between releases may have reduced player’s investment, making them less inclined to continue with it when the new acts arrive. I enjoyed exploring KRZ’s wistful highways and shooting the breeze with its charming offbeat characters, but it’s more like a fever dream you forget upon waking up rather than a strong narrative that stays with you. My memory of the experience has faded over time and I’d have to replay the previous acts to know where everything stands.

The amount of thought I’ve dedicated to deciphering Kentucky Route Zero exceeds the five hours I’ve spent playing it.

But in a strange way, the delays of KRZ have added to its mystery. Its refusal to adhere to any expectations has made it more enigmatic. Really, when people are debating whether the absence of your game is an intentional statement, you know you’ve got something that can’t be labelled. It’s lateness may have even lead to it being considered more closely simply because of the amount of time it’s been around. It’s like when you binge watch a TV series over a couple of days and have forgotten about it before you’ve had time to appreciate it – there’s less affinity forged. The amount of thought and reading I’ve dedicated to deciphering KRZ over the years exceeds the five hours I’ve spent playing it.

While Cardboard Computer have taken an exceedingly long time to deliver their game and haven’t had clear lines of communication, it’s worth remembering that they are a small outfit, even by independent standards. They aren’t Telltale Games, who’ve grown into a huge business with over 200 employees. They aren’t Dontnod, whose own episodic Life is Strange was published by big budget powerhouse Square Enix. Cardboard Computer are two developers and a composer trying to make a game. It can’t be compared.

krz7

A post on their website following the delay of Act III reveals a lot about their development process:

“It’s crucial for our work that we reserve the right to throw things away, rework things as necessary, and allow the project to grow organically. Regularly, scenes that we imagined would be very simple and small-scale bloom into something much more complex as we work on them. In short, it’s difficult (or impossible) to really know what you’re working on until you’re really working on it, and it’s important to us that we err on the side of respecting the game rather than the timeline.”

It’s pretty clear that Cardboard Computer aren’t concerned with conforming to the expectations of an episodic format, they’re concerned with making art without compromise.

It’s uncomfortable to talk about art as a product, particularly in the indie space. We still think of games as commodities and expect them to adhere to a set of rules. It can be difficult to divorce that idea when a developer doesn’t play by them. Cardboard Computer instead choose to put their art first and refuse to compromise their vision, even though it may test our patience. It’s cliche, but a delayed game is merely late, a bad game stays that way forever. Kentucky Route Zero is, at the moment, a wonderful unfinished game and an experimental journey not just for its audience, but also its creators.

 

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

Related Posts