Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted over two days: December 9, 2017 and December 10, 2017
Edits and introduction written July 31, 2019
With the premiere of the final act of Kentucky Route Zero increasingly close at hand, I revisited old conversations with composer Ben Babbitt that we shared back in 2017, just weeks before the official release of the short interlude Un Pueblo de Nada between the acts of the main game. One third of developer trio Cardboard Computer—alongside Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy—Ben Babbitt caught up with me at the PlayStation Experience showcase and followed up afterward for a long conversation about Kentucky Route Zero and his work. Structured around five acts with short, standalone interludes that divide each release, Kentucky Route Zero continues to beguile audiences with its decelerated approach to gameplay and its quietly surreal and folkloric narrative of a crumbling, magical realist South. The game has enjoyed no shortage of critical praise (including my own) since the first act was released in January 2013, and anticipation for the long-awaited conclusion for a game almost a decade in the making is palpable among those players who have plunged deeply into the game’s mythic vision of rural Kentucky after dark.
Part of the excitement among audiences can be attributed to Ben Babbitt’s accomplished score, remarkable for its chameleonic quality and stirring in its moments of catharsis, which the game deploys as a crucial thematic and stylistic component of the overall experience. Set to sounds as wide-ranging as a twanging bluegrass guitar and a ghostly theremin solo, the travails of protagonists Conway, Shannon, Ezra, and others carry a melancholy quality as Babbitt’s music builds a sense of both regional flavors and otherworldly atmospheres. The lonesome, unplugged vocals and banjo of “Long Journey Home (Solo),” for example, hauntingly echoes as though recorded in the underground river of Act IV or the Mammoth Cave system that lies beneath Kentucky. The gentle synthesizers and lap steel guitar of “Dark Rum Noir” hypnotizes listeners in its slow, hazy crawl, complementing the imagery of rhythmic tidewater licking the shores of the candlelit Rum Colony tiki bar and a protagonist increasingly seduced by drink. Kentucky Route Zero’s musical centerpiece “Too Late to Love You” found considerable acclaim in singer Junebug, whose heartbroken vocals pine for unrequited romance but soar with such exuberance that the scene’s ceilings open up into a star-spangled nighttime sky. “That’s always really gratifying, regardless of what people are saying,” reflects Babbitt on the positive reactions he’s witnessed since the game’s debut. “We made a thing in this little cave of development for long periods of time and released it, and it’s cool to see how people react to it.”
While much time has passed since we initially met to talk in southern California, Cardboard Computer has not released any new acts or interludes since Un Pueblo de Nada. These periods of downtime can serve as productive moments of reflection, as memories of the game’s nighttime odyssey blurs in the interim. Ben Babbitt and I search for these clouded memories to cast light on a game often discussed as mystifying and dreamlike. We discuss the nature of a collaborative process that extends outward from Kentucky to Chicago to Los Angeles, the commonalities between the ambient music of Brian Eno and the country and bluegrass music of Loretta Lynn and Bill Monroe, Kentucky Route Zero’s early years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bonnie “Prince” Billy show, the possibilities of public access television in nurturing rural art communities, crafting analog video with a Sandin Image Processor, and composing music for weather forecasts. Below is our interview (conducted over two days on December 9, 2017 and December 10, 2017), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you talk us through your work process for the game and its music? Because Jake and Tamas live elsewhere—not in Los Angeles—what is the nature of your collaboration?
It’s evolved over the past few years. At this point, it’s super collaborative. We try and meet up with each other, usually in Chicago, at least once every other month or so. That doesn’t always happen, but for the longest time, we were just communicating over email. Until recently, I was making the music, doing the sound, and just passing off the sound files to Jake and Tamas, who then placed them into Unity. Now, however, I’ve started to work with Unity directly, and we’re all working on the same things simultaneously. We use Slack now and are sharing files and chatting in real time more often. Usually, we have conversations about what music is going to happen where, and I throw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall. The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh iteration is what I end up developing into the final game. There are a lot of conversations between the three of us. I live in Los Angeles, and I have a studio and work there. For a collaborative where everyone is living in a different city, it feels pretty tight knit and we’re all sort of up-to-date with each other in a way that helps the project.
Have there been any kinds of clashes or things where you had to negotiate or compromise because they had another vision of what the game should be, or are they more hands off in their approach?
I think that because of the way the project evolved over such a long period of time, there’s a really nice balance between intense collaboration where everybody makes creative decisions together through conversations, and also a lot of space to make our own decisions and bring what we want. Honestly, once somebody has presented an idea that’s sort of like, “Hey, I want to try this,” I can’t remember a time where any of us have ever been like, “No, that’s terrible. That’s a bad idea. I don’t want to do that.” We all hear each other out and try things together. Usually, it’s evident when something doesn’t work, and that doesn’t necessarily require any kind of pushback from anybody.
Can you talk more about the long development process? I really like that aspect of Kentucky Route Zero because all the things that I remember are the essential things when another Act starts up, and it’s more dreamlike in a way because I’ve forgotten some other things. Are there ways in which your ideas have changed over that development time?
Right, that’s cool. I scrap ideas all the time. One of the things that I think we’re fiercely protective of at this point—despite being criticized sometimes for the long development process—is the opportunity to follow tangents and explore creative ideas even if we don’t necessarily know how they immediately relate to the rest of the project. There’s a lot of trial and error, and of course, ideas end up getting discarded, falling by the wayside, or not working out the way you imagine at the beginning. That’s just become what our process is.
A lot of Kentucky Route Zero’s soundtrack is ambient, and then there are also folk and bluegrass tracks. How do you negotiate those two varying differences? Do you find commonality in the two?
Yeah, definitely commonality. Emotionally and atmospherically, both ambient and folk music have the ability to create a sense of warmth and comfort, and also a kind of dreamlike removal from mundane reality. The folk music in the game feels out of time, old-fashioned, and really traditional, and maybe the ambient electronic music sounds more contemporary and even futuristic, but both share the same kind of removal from the immediate mundaneness of reality. They both feel like color filters over the whole experience, in a way. But both styles are connected also in the sense that all music is arguably becoming familiar to everyone because of accessibility on the Internet. Ambient music can be just as familiar and even traditional as folk music, and there isn’t necessarily a divide that needs to exist between them anymore.
“Both ambient and folk music have the ability to create a sense of warmth and comfort, and also a kind of dreamlike removal from mundane reality.”
I really enjoyed a lot of the pieces that you did for Kentucky Route Zero Act IV, specifically with the lap steel guitar. It reminds me a lot of Brian Eno’s work on his Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record.
Yeah, I love that soundtrack. That was a huge point of reference, definitely.
For me, that’s where the folksy guitar and the ambient music come together. Can you talk more about how you construct that dreamy atmosphere? What constitutes that for you?
Like you were saying, something like that Brian Eno record is really evocative, and it was made to soundtrack a mission into space. That’s fantastical and grandiose and removed from everyday reality in a way that I think is very compelling. In terms of making it myself, the tiki music in Act IV is definitely an extension of the kind of drone-y, ambient electronic stuff. That means using a lot of the same tools and techniques, the same synthesizers and approaches to processing, editing, and collaging stuff, and then incorporating the slide guitar. I had never really played that instrument, so it was definitely a process of trial and error.
What was your musical background and education? How did you get into working in videogames?
I come from a traditional music background. My parents are classical musicians. I grew up playing instruments, studying music, playing in bands, and I went to music school in Chicago where I studied composition. I then left my program and ended up going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and enrolling in the Sound Department there, and that’s where I met Jake, in a class. Jake and Tamas both went to SAIC. I met Tamas through Jake, as Tamas had already finished by the time I got there, but Jake was still enrolled. They were friends and had worked on some art projects together already, and I think they had already started working on Kentucky Route Zero at that time. Jake heard some sound pieces I had made, and we ran into each other at a show outside of school. Because of those connections—the work I did in this class and the revelation that we shared similar tastes in music—he ended up asking me to be involved with the project. We didn’t know each other at all outside of class, so I started working on it then, and that was around back in 2010.
So this was before the Kickstarter?
This was right around the time of the Kickstarter, yeah. I think right beforehand, maybe, was when I started talking to Jake about it. They did the Kickstarter, and I started working on it then. But I had never worked on anything! I never worked on a videogame. Honestly, at that time, I didn’t know that people made videogames that weren’t made by big corporations and studios. I really had no idea. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play videogames, so I was just totally removed from the history and the way they’re developed.
“At that time, I didn’t know that people made videogames that weren’t made by big corporations and studios.”
Do you remember what the class was, where you met Jake?
It was an experimental writing class, in undergrad. I think it was called Electronic Writing. I remember Jake was doing a lot of stuff that involved browser-based text pieces. I had no programming skills, so I was doing just the most rudimentary WordPress with embedded audio files. It was a totally new world to me.
Do you remember the show you met at?
Yeah, it was a Bonnie “Prince” Billy show. The musician Will Oldham is from Kentucky, and his music is more in the traditional folk music. So I was making this more electronic ambient music in the class, and I saw Jake at this Bonnie “Prince” Billy show.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Will Oldham appear in Kentucky Route Zero?
Yeah, we did work with him in the third interlude, Here and There Along the Echo. He is the voice actor.
I’m curious about your role as a “character” as well, because there’s a character named Ben in the game. The other two characters you’re with, Emily and Bob, are also part of the team, yes?
Yeah, so in the game, they’re the band, The Bedquilt Ramblers. They show up and play these folk songs. Those are all the names of the actual people that made that music with me, and that stuff was completed years ago right after the Kickstarter when I started working on Kentucky Route Zero. I recorded all of the songs that they show up and sing in the game right at the beginning. At the time, I was living with my friend Bob, who was a bass player, and got him involved. My girlfriend at the time, Emily, was a singer, and I guess Jake and Tamas decided to use the actual names of people in the game. And now Will is a character in the game. I’m going to be working with another voice actor whose name is Poppy [Golland], and she plays the telephone operator in Here and There Along the Echo. She ends up as a character in Act IV, so we’ve continued to incorporate real names for the most part.
Can you talk about your influences at all? What kinds of things were you thinking about or listening to in coming up with your work for the game?
I mean, in the years of living and working with the game, of course it’s changed a lot. There’s been so much stuff. In some ways, it’s been about using the palette that was established at the very beginning and following through with that for the scope of the whole game. We add and subtract things, and things morph and change. It’s been about figuring out how to work with that palette of drone-y ambient music and folk music while also incorporating the stuff I’m into at the moment I’m working on it. That ends up coinciding with opportunities in the story for new musical things to happen, like Junebug’s song in Act III.
Tell us more about that “Too Late to Love You” centerpiece in Act III. What was the process for writing those lyrics, and what was it like working on this interactive approach for that portion of the game?
Jake wrote the lyrics for that song, and we were talking a lot about this song while I was writing the music. It was a really interesting and enjoyable process of making that and discovering this other musical world that opened up in the game. We were going back and forth exchanging references and stuff, and Junebug the character was loosely based on this archetype of an older generation of country singers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Junebug went through a few different iterations and is maybe not as close to that original archetypical version at the beginning of the project.
I remember she has the blue dress like Loretta Lynn.
Right, so the scene at the bar where she performs “Too Late to Love You,” she does have on that dress, and we were using the language of heartbreak country songs as a point of reference for what ended up being in the game. I actually made a version of this song, and then we ended up throwing the whole thing away. So I recorded, scrapped, and then re-recorded the whole thing, and the song went through a few different iterations before it ended up in the scene.
“We were using the language of heartbreak country songs.”
What was the reason for the reworking?
It was kind of a hard thing to crack, in a way. The form of it was strange. I had never written a piece of music that needed to be “interactive” where the different lines of each verse were lyrical choices that the player was able to make. That affected the way that we wrote and recorded the music. The first version of it just didn’t work. I ended up breaking it up into chunks that are selectable by the player, so it was about making it as good as I could make it.
It’s interesting to me, given the regional specificity of Kentucky and the South, that this project was conceived in Chicago and worked on partly in Los Angeles. How do you negotiate the regional sounds of the game? Did you feel that you had a responsibility to be authentic, or to approach representing the South in a specific way?
While we started out making this game when all three of us were in Chicago, Jake has actually spent a good amount of time in Kentucky because his wife is from there, and now he lives out in Kentucky too. And I spent some amount of time there playing music on tour, so I was familiar to a certain extent with the region. Growing up in Chicago, it’s not that far—it’s by the Midwest. So in terms of approaching the regional specificity of the sound and music world, I think it really just came out of working with the music and sounds that were there in the first act of the game and following that trajectory that was suggested by everything that we did at the beginning. We knew that we were going to use these folk songs in a particular way in the story, and that there would be one in every act. We had some musical references, and at that time, it was the traditional folk songs performed by Bill Monroe, an old bluegrass and folk performer. So we listened to these old recordings and almost recreated them at the beginning of the process. And then, in terms of having a responsibility to be authentic, I don’t personally feel that much pressure to do that necessarily because there’s always going to be some amount of artifice and remove from any kind of authentic reality. We’re also definitely always trying to be respectful of these traditions and not offend anybody, understanding that something like folk music in this region is important to a lot of people who live and are from there.
I’m glad that you brought up the folk influence because I’ve noticed that these songs have some social and political charge, which I think fits with the game’s themes of economic downturn and labor issues. How did you select and develop these pieces, and what drew you to the lyrical content of these songs and the musicality of them?
Well, the songs that end up in each act were really chosen at the very beginning by Jake and Tamas when they were mapping out the arc of the whole story, and they kind of knew what the themes were going to be for each act and across the whole game. They were looking for songs with those themes and could be used for very intentional moments in each act that related to those themes and to things that were happening in the story. Because those decisions were made at the very beginning many years ago, that map was already there when I got involved. So I just became familiar with these songs and learned and recorded them as my own versions with some other people.
“There’s always going to be some amount of artifice and remove from any kind of authentic reality.”
Because you now live and work in Los Angeles, do you find yourself influenced by its music and its scene at all?
Yeah, sure. I haven’t lived in L.A. that long, and since I’ve moved there, we’ve made Kentucky Route Zero Act IV and this new interlude, Un Pueblo De Nada. I’m sure that there are things that I encountered in the last couple of years living in Los Angeles that ended up finding their way into my work in the game, and I’m sure that will just inevitably continue. But L.A. is a weird city as far as that stuff goes. There are so many different kinds of things happening and music being made. I do go out to hear music a lot and perform my own music with other people in L.A., so that’s part of my practice, for sure. There’s a great place called Zebulon that opened up in 2017 that used to be in New York City, a small bar and venue where a lot of people started out playing. They moved to L.A. in a neighborhood that’s really kind of in between where I live and where my studio is. I played at the old Zebulon in New York, so I got to know the people that run this place, and now they’re here. I love going there, and they happen to have really amazing curation and programming. There’s always something great to see there.
Can you talk about your work in the interludes? Did you approach these works with a different mindset, or as an extension of your work in Kentucky Route Zero?
Definitely as an extension of Kentucky Route Zero. I mean, it is Kentucky Route Zero; it’s part of it. One of the things we talked about after the release of the first interlude, Limits & Demonstrations, was what we were going to do for the second interlude, The Entertainment. We were becoming more and more interested in using the interludes as a way to explore formal and creative ideas that were in some instances outside of the kinds of decisions that govern how the acts were going to be treated and structured. We were interested in pushing certain limitations that we had set up. In some ways, those interludes were opportunities to try out an idea that we would probably not do in the acts themselves, or at least, wouldn’t have tried earlier on. At this point, we’ve set up a dynamic that we’re pretty happy with, in which the interludes usually have this kind of intermedia component that isn’t just a playable game. There’s the phone number you can call for Here and There Along the Echo, and now Un Pueblo de Nada takes place in a public access television station. You play as these characters producing this broadcast, and we shot a live-action version of the WEVP-TV broadcast with actors in Kentucky that is broadcast as well.
You brought up the public access aspect of Un Pueblo de Nada, and even in earlier acts, there’s this kind of do-it-yourself attitude and aesthetic. What was the impetus behind this public access aspect and aesthetic of the game?
One of the running themes of this project are forms of media and technology that are obsolete, old, and archaic, an interest that we have ourselves. These older forms of media technologies are used within the narrative, and there’s something that we find really compelling about this phenomenon that maybe doesn’t exist so much anymore. This was a really strong and vibrant practice in smaller communities where they have a public access television station, and that was a way of distributing information, keeping up with the news and local events, and having creative opportunities to show work, make videos, and do performances. So that was the idea, this kind of multipurpose space for a group of people to keep in touch with each other but also to show each other the work they’re doing in a kind of self-contained art community. That resonated a lot with the story and with the location, that there are public access television stations in rural Kentucky. As I was saying, we shot the live-action version of the broadcast at a small, public-access television studio where Jake lives in Elizabethtown, a small town in Kentucky. So that history does exist there; the game is a nod to that.
Because I work in a university, at a Film and Media Studies department, a lot of people are interested in those older forms of media too.
And that’s kind of what our background is too. We were all in the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and there’s a really strong history of using and investigating new, old, and obsolete forms of media and technology to make art there. So that had a huge presence in the game.
“We were becoming more and more interested in using the interludes as a way to explore formal and creative ideas that were in some instances outside of the kinds of decisions that govern how the acts were going to be treated and structured.”
I was also curious about the installation art that you’ve used to promote the game. It reminds me a lot of the work of Nam June Paik, which is referenced in Limits & Demonstrations. How has that artistic tradition flavored the game? One of the artworks featured within Limits & Demonstrations has an audio component as well, and I was curious about that.
We’re trying to acknowledge that there is a tradition and history of this kind of work outside of what we’re doing. The installation art aspect was something that Jake and Tamas were working with at that time, and throughout the game, specific works of art are referenced in some way, either relatively specifically or somewhat obliquely. There’s a lot of reaching outward from within the game world into actual histories of art. In this case, the video installation relates to what’s happening in Un Pueblo de Nada. One of the things in the public access studio of this interlude is this analog video synthesizer. It’s called the Sandin Image Processor, which is an actual video synthesizer that was built by this guy named Dan Sandin, and there is a Sandin Image Processor at SAIC where we all went to school. It’s this massive, old, analog synthesizer with lots of cables and modules. You make patches to either process a video input or create your own images. We used that to make a lot of video material for this live broadcast version, and Tamas ended up making some of these analog synth videos and adapting them to the playable scene. So this is a lot of the footage that we shot or created with the Sandin Image Processor at SAIC.
I really like how the fiction of the game bleeds over into the “real” and “physical” world.
That’s something that’s been exciting for us to push.
Another thing that’s striking for me is the sound design. Is that your work?
In Act I, Jake did the sound design, and I did the music. As I started working more closely with Jake and Tamas, I started doing the sound design. Everybody wears a lot of different hats, but Jake was writing, programming and working on sound design, and I was just making music. I wanted to become more involved and relieve Jake of some of that work, so I took over starting from Act II and have since done all the sound design and music.
Where do you get these recordings?
I like to make as many of these recordings as I can myself. I enjoy the process of forging for objects and going out to different locations and making my own field recordings. Sometimes, it’s weirdly more practical to do that, and at other times, it’s a creative decision. There are also instances where living in Los Angeles, for example, poses challenges. For example, it’s going to be difficult to get a good recording of a thunderstorm in L.A. But at this point, I have built over so many years a library of recordings that I made and collected myself. I end up going back to these to use, reuse, edit, and combine recordings with others, so things reappear in different forms throughout Kentucky Route Zero. There are sounds that I’ve recorded all over the world in this game.
“There’s a lot of reaching outward from within the game world into actual histories of art.”
I love the thunderstorm in Un Pueblo de Nada. With the headphones on, it’s binaural and really visceral. Another thing that struck me in the game was the weather report, this surreal and swirly imagery backed by eerie music. How do you compose for a weather forecast?
[laughs] Yeah, it was kind of tricky. We knew we wanted to have a weather forecast because this scene takes place during a storm. Tamas had the idea of using this older technique of this psychedelic liquid light show as a way to make the images and to roll with the do-it-yourself, handmade quality prevalent in this scene. We actually shot the live-action version of that particular thing before we made the playable scene. I play the character Cyrano, the lap steel guitar player in the live-action version. We shot that, and I was just improvising on the lap steel guitar. After we finished the video, I then went back and reverse-engineered a composition. [laughs] It’s almost like scoring a film: using the fixed duration of the video and observing the things I had done, and improvising to then write a composition under and around it.