Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy’s developed Kentucky Route Zero, one of our very favorite games of recent days. Our editor-in-chief recently had the privilege of chatting with Kemenczy and Elliot about what motivates them, their creative process, and religion in games.
What are the core beliefs that motivate you as creators?
Tamas: It’s hard for me to essentialize my core beliefs into talking points.
Jake: I think we kinda grow up in culture and it kind of constructs the way we interact with culture and relate to culture. So as a person making culture you think about how our culture is influenced by what is going on around us. Culture making and art making I think fulfills a similar role for me that religious practice fills for a lot of people where it’s about making sense and exploring value systems and moral issues, sharing value, and drawing from human history.
For instance, the subject matter of our game is about different kinds of crises and different kinds of parities of being a person in the 21st Century. So it is important for me in thinking about working on a videogame that it be about being alive right now.
We are also careful about thinking about social issues in our game. Its a pretty important part of how we talk about what we do.
It almost seems like KRZ is trying to help players process the way they understand the world. Is that fair to say?
Jake – Yeah, or to give them some material to process it with. A lot of great children’s books are about giving kids stories to refer to when they are trying to process something. Where the Wild Things Are is about giving children a fantasy framework to think about when they feel angry. The framework gives them some material to play with so that they don’t feel totally lost. So maybe KRZ could work that way. I think it at least reflects something back at people about how they are feeling.
How have your core beliefs changed over time? Or have they?
Jake: Tamas and I know each other from working in experimental music and the new media art world that is pretty niche compared to videogames. It’s a pretty small community of people and it’s pretty social. The same five or six people are at all the shows. So I think maybe before getting involved with that stuff, personally I had a less socially grounded idea of what I was doing.
But it became a thing where I would be playing weird music for these specific people and that was enough. It was part of a friendship that I had with a guy who ran a really important space in Chicago for noise music. Me playing at his space and playing this certain kind of music was part of our friendship. Or playing with you (Tamas) doing an installation with you is part of our friendship; it was a social thing.
Tamas: Yeah, our process is a very socially collaborative process.
Jake: And collaboration was a new thing for me. Before coming to Chicago and starting to work with Tamas, I think I approached art as an individual, but now it is really important to me to make art as a group. In like a band. Like a videogame band (laughs).
So your friendship began in music?
Jake: Yeah and art. Noise music has a lot of connection to digital art.
So why did you feel like you needed to create a game as opposed to continuing to make music together? Is there something in particular about games that made you want to create something in that space?
Tamas: I don’t know if it was like some kind of epiphany where we set out on a mission. It was just really natural for us. We had a lot of trust built up as collaborators and we have very similar paths and a similar interest in games. We were both interested in weird art games like JODI.
Jake: JODI is a dutch duo that makes really weird artistic mods of games and software. The stuff that we were doing — building software for performance — was already very similar to games because it was about interactivity and real-time feedback, so it wasn’t a huge leap for us to begin working on a game together. And we did an interactive art installation with our music together before making KRZ, so making the game felt really organic.
If there is one thing or one value you hope players get from playing KRZ, what would it be?
Tamas: When I am designing, I am not thinking about wedging one value into the game. It is this chaotic process where there are a lot of things happening in this world that we are building, and it’s not about building for this one linear path even though that is the way a lot of people are playing KRZ. I think that is important to try to perceive life rather than seeking out a particular narrative.
How do you feel about games addressing religious, philosophical, or spiritual questions?
Jake: I think it happens a lot. A lot of games wrestle with or explore philosophical issues of perception, that is a pretty common one. Especially indie games often start with a particular question about the way a perception works. Its seems almost scientific as opposed to philosophical. And there are games that are about these monumental moral choices that are these kind of really inductive and very simplified moral philosophy games but they don’t really go anywhere interesting with it. They just let you save a puppy or kill the puppy. You know, moral choices (laughs).
Tomas: A lot of games are struggling to understand goodness or mortality. Those are pretty spiritual subjects.
Have you guys gotten any feedback from religious or spiritual people about their experience playing KRZ?
Jake: I don’t think we have and there is a lot of that in the game. I am curious to know how it reads for people for whom that is a big part of their life. Its not a big part of my life. I mean its not a big part of your life is it (to Tamas)?
Jake: We don’t really talk about it (laughs).
For me a lot of that imagery is about a certain idea: people struggling with what Tamas was describing as spiritual uncertainty with regard to mortality and purpose, exploring, “What am I doing here?” I kinda use religious spaces like churches as the kind of place this guy might go to get some answers about some of these things. What he encounters there speaks to where he is at and to the impossibility of getting an answer on these questions.
So the churches in the game. I am not thinking of them as specifically Christian spaces, but they are. That is what they are. So I would be interested to hear what people of a Christian perspective think.