If Kill Screen is a testament to anything, it’s that the worlds of extreme music and digital entertainment share a number of parallels. Video games continue to shed the stigma of its past as a not-so-cheap babysitter and prove to be a titan of the entertainment industry—reported to make more money than movies and music combined—so it’s no wonder that those of us who grew up during this explosion in popularity are more visible in the heavy music underground. Devin Shidaker, guitarist for road warriors and down-tuned destroyers The Acacia Strain, minces no words when it comes to his feelings about the subject: “Video games are the highest form of art, in my mind.” Does vocalist Vincent Bennett feel the same way? “Absolutely.” Both have been digital die-hards as hobbyists, streamers and retailers throughout their lives in addition to their highly prolific careers making music, recently announcing their upcoming album Step Into the Light. “[Hideo] Kojima could probably paint ‘The Mona Lisa,’ but da Vinci could never make Metal Gear,” claims Shidaker. Bennett plainly states, “[da Vinci]’s dead.” “Exactly,” Shidaker replies. “That fucking idiot.”
High praise for the art, however, comes with deep-seated frustrations for both the industry and culture surrounding it; frustrations that could easily be analogous to their 22-year experience as a band in the metal community. Similarly this week, the gaming world has been taking a long, hard look at the term “JRPG” after Naoki “Yoshi-P” Yoshida, a prominent game producer most well-known for his work on Final Fantasy XIV and the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, expressed his concern with the term for its sometimes derogatory usage as well as ill-defined parameters. Bennett and Shidaker—though not having taken the “JRPG” label into consideration at the time of our interview—share similar grievances with other lazy colloquialisms, both in their personal and professional lives. Ill-defined genre labels only serve to build walls—whether it be for music, gaming or any other interest—and our only interest is to break them down. Though the band (sans Shidaker) has just returned stateside after a month-long tour in Europe and is just today starting another three week trek across North America with Fit For An Autopsy, Full of Hell and Primitive Man, Kill Screen caught up with the duo in late January for a lengthy chat about the culture and art of video games. Let this interview shed some light on these two—you may find something you like.
What were your first gaming experiences?
Bennett: The first time I ever saw a video game was The Smurfs for the Atari 2600.I was, like, 5. My cousin was playing it at their house and I couldn’t believe it. But my first actual video game experience was Super Mario Bros. for the original NES. And it was all downhill from there.
Shidaker: My family had an NES before I was born. Super Mario Bros. was likely my first experience. As far as what I remember being me playing a game on my own and having some sort of grasp of it is probably Super Mario World. My stepdad got the Super NES the weekend it came out; I was allowed to play it. That was more I know what I’m doing and not just chewing on the controller.
What are the games that you’ve been playing lately and what are the games that you tend to gravitate towards?
Bennett: I just re-picked up Final Fantasy VII. Again. For the third time in my life. I played it when it came out when I was a teenager. I got to the second disc and then I just kind of gave up. I don’t know why. And then I picked it up again when Final Fantasy VII Remake came out. I was very disappointed that it wasn’t a turn-based JRPG. I’m not a big action RPG fan, so I was fucking bummed. I bought the game and someone told me, “It’s an action RPG, but there’s a classic mode.” I thought classic mode meant JRPG turn-based stuff. Everything I looked up online was a fucking lie, because everything said that it was that. I started playing it again and then I went on tour, and I just kind of gave up. This is my third return to the game and I’m determined to beat it this time.
Games that I gravitate towards can be anything, really. I don’t like fighting games, I don’t like first-person shooters, but I love action platformers. I hate terminology for stuff. I love “Metroidvanias,” but I hate that fucking word. There’s gotta be a better word for that. And I love “Soulslikes,” whatever that means. I love a good pick-up-and-play, like Mario World or anything that hits you in the nostalgia. I don’t have any nostalgia for the N64, but I love the Super Nintendo and I love the Sega Genesis.
There’s a lot of indie devs right now making really good throwback-style games with more of a now-style approach to it. Hollow Knight is awesome, Axiom Verge is awesome. [Hollow Knight] is such a good game. I got super far into it and hit a dead end. I was like, “I’m gonna walk away for a little while.” You can’t walk away from a game like that for more than, like, a week or you just forget where you are. You just have to head down, power through if you get stuck. Just keep trying. I have to start the game over again, I haven’t beat it.
Shidaker: When I have time, pretty much Elden Ring. That’s my first “Soulslike” game. Back in the day, a good friend of mine was like, “You have to play Dark Souls.” I picked it up on Xbox 360 and I hated it. It wasn’t fun. I was like, Fuck these games. I have very little time to actually sit and play games. I don’t want to have to put 70 hours into a game just to be good enough to play it. But Elden Ring, I had a lot of time and I was like, Let’s try this. I feel like it controls a lot better than the older games. I’m kind of going back. I’m gonna start Bloodborne and I have Dark Souls 3.
Mainly, I like single player stuff; I don’t play online a whole lot. When I used to play games online with my friends in high school—when Xbox Live first came out—that’s all we did. I don’t have that anymore. For my friends that play online, it’s like, “You’re setting up this time, I don’t know that I’m going to be free that evening at that time.”
I like games that I can play for a long time. I also like things I can pick up and play for 15 minutes. To kind of piggyback on what Vincent said, I hate the term “shmup,” but I like space shooters. I can play for 15 minutes and be like, “Cool.”
By the time this is published, you’ll have finished your European tour and you’ll be getting ready to start your North American tour with Fit For An Autopsy, Full of Hell and Primitive Man. Do you guys do any gaming on the road?
Bennett: I’m gonna be playing Final Fantasy VII the entire time I’m in Europe. I want it to be done. I have it for Switch; I bought it for Switch on purpose. I knew I was gonna start it last week and I wasn’t gonna finish it in two weeks. I’m just gonna bring it to Europe and hopefully beat it there. I don’t usually game on tour. Me and Devin are the same in this respect. We bring our Switches on tour and then they stay in our bags the entire time we’re gone.
Shidaker: One of three things will happen; I’ll bring my Switch and I’ll pull it out at some point and it’ll be dead and I’m like, “OK, I need to charge this.” And then by the time it’s done charging, I don’t feel like playing it anymore; I’ll start a game and not be able to focus and play for 5 minutes before I turn it off and put it back in my bag; Or there will be somebody else on the tour that brought a Switch that is like, “Hey, who wants to play Mario Kart?” And I’m just like, “OK… let’s shut this guy up.” Because I’m a bad person.
Bennett: Devin’s really good at Mario Kart.
Do you bond frequently with tour mates over gaming?
Bennett: There’s a lot of dudes that play video games that tour. It’s our generation, you know? We just love playing video games. Not necessarily bond over it, but I know a lot of people who play World of Warcraft that I’ve talked about it at length with on tour. Every once in a while, you’ll see someone who has brought their Switch on tour and you’re like, “Damn, you are more dedicated than me.” I have to be in a quiet room, I can’t concentrate with people around. Which is why I’m bringing my Switch to Europe, because I don’t really wanna be there. I’m just gonna unplug by going in Final Fantasy VII, just staying away from everything.
Shidaker: When it comes to bonding over games with people on tour, you’ll see somebody else with a Switch and you have a moment where you’re like, “Oh, cool.” And then you’re like, “Well, what are they playing?” Because nine times out of ten they’re playing something that I’m like, “I hate that game.”
Bennett: I enjoy playing in a quiet room by myself so I can just focus. This is a gamer household. My girlfriend and I have side-by-side T.V.s so we can just play video games at the same time. My main reason for having a Twitch stream is because I know I will play video games from 7 o’clock until 10 o’clock. I at least have three hours of playing video games. But, yeah, I need to focus. I can’t do it with a bunch of people around, looking over your shoulder, like, “What game is this? Have you played Pokémon?” I don’t want to talk to you if I’m playing this.
Is there was any particular gaming routine? Especially having an active touring schedule, much less all of the other million things going on.
Bennett: I don’t really do a lot during the day. [Laughs] I just like being home when I’m home. If the chance arises, I just look at my girlfriend and I go, “Do you want to play video games right now?” And then we just do. Every once in a while, we’ll get into a routine where we’ll wake up, we’ll drink coffee and eat breakfast, we’ll shower, we’ll get all of our stuff out of the way, we’ll clean the house or whatever. 1 or 2 o’clock rolls around, we’re just like, “I don’t want to watch T.V. Do you want to play video games?” And then we just play video games. We’re not necessarily playing with one another, but we’re in the same room and it’s quality time that way.
Shidaker: I had a kid this year, so there’s very little planned free time. It’s basically been, “It’s nap time and I’m awake enough that I’m not going to also try and take a nap. Let’s try to play a game.” The other day, I had resubscribed to PlayStation Plus because I let it lapse. I was like, “Let’s get back on this and play Elden Ring for a bit.” I turned it on and then everything needed to update. By the time it was done, the kid woke up and I’m like, “OK, well, we’ll do this later.” It’ll come back. I was streaming for a bit, but again, that was when I was able to say, “I’m going to have this time allotted to do this.” Now it’s like, “When do I need to make dinner? When do I need to get this kid to bed? I need to go to bed, too, because she’s going to wake up at 6 A.M., if not earlier.” I will go back to streaming at some point once the routine evens out.
As you mentioned, both of you have Twitch channels. Vincent, you’re incredibly consistent; you stream multiple times a week, you stream for long amounts of time. Devin, you used to stream and you’re hoping to get back into. How has streaming changed your appreciation or approach—if at all—to video games?
Bennett: It just gives me a reason to play and it gives me a reason to seek out new things. Anybody who has ever been in any Twitch channel ever has been part of a recommending party, whether you know it or not. Someone’s always in the channel like, “Have you heard of this game?” Nine times out of ten, I’ll look into it. Red Dead Redemption 2, obviously, I’ve heard of before, but I would never have planned on playing it in a thousand years. It was an ongoing joke for a long time where people would come into my channel—randomly—and just ask me, “Have you ever played Red Dead Redemption 2?” And finally I was like, “Fine, I’ll play Red Dead Redemption 2!” And it’s one of my favorite games now. I would have never done that had I not been pestered and annoyed by random people on the internet. That, in itself, has given me just more games to play that I normally wouldn’t have played. I get out of my comfort zone.
In the year 2020, I beat more games in that year than I did the other previous years in my entire life combined. I have a checklist—just like Gunface [Mike McKenzie, the Red Chord guitarist] has—of how many games he’s beaten just by being on Twitch. Going to shows is good for music; having a Twitch channel is good for video games. Even just watching Twitch, you learn about new things. I’ve bought a lot of new games just by watching Games Done Quick and all of their sister channels and watching new streamers. I found a lot of games that I never thought I would have even heard of—even though they came out 20, 30 years ago—just via that. I love Red Dead Redemption now. And I hate Doom Eternal. And I probably would have really liked Doom Eternal if I didn’t play it on my stream and constantly gotten fucking yelled at by people telling me that I suck, you know? That’s not my kind of game. I’ve realized through Twitch that I do not like first-person shooters.
Shidaker: For me, like Vincent, I’ve completed more games on Twitch than I probably have in most of my life. Even if there’s only a handful of people watching, you can’t just be like, “Eh, I’m bored of this,” and turn it off. You have to power through. I tend to get bored easily if it takes too long for a game to start up. I bought Pokémon: Sword when that came out. I was like, I haven’t played a Pokémon game in a long time. I felt like I had my hand held for the first four hours. I gave up on it. I kind of do that a lot where I’m like, “There’s other games I want to play, this is taking too long.” If I’m doing it on Twitch, there’s somebody going, “Don’t worry, it gets good.” I get to that point, I’m like, “Oh, wow, this is a great game. I love this, this is fun,” and then I beat it.
A lot of times, I don’t beat games. I will play for a good chunk of time and then go on tour or do something and then come back and, “I wanna play something else. This came out.” So it’s been nice to have a reason to complete something and find out about new games from people saying, “If you like that, you’ll love this.” On YouTube, you see people talking about a game. On Twitch, you have your friends that you follow and you talk to and interact with that you find, “We kind of like similar things. They really like this game, I want to try that.” Whereas there’s somebody on YouTube who will talk about, “Friday the 13th on NES is the worst game ever made.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s my favorite game, so you’re an idiot.”
I believe this is something that was said in Vincent’s stream a while ago: Devin, did you own a video game store or work at a video game store?
Shidaker: When I still lived in Ohio, I managed a retro and import store called Warp Zone – Video Games & Beyond. I still think the best video game store in central Ohio. One of the few places that actually has a big focus on import because there’s so much cool stuff there. If you’re a collector—especially if you’re just into retro games in general—there’s so many games that never came out here. It’s the logical next step where you’re like, “I can collect this stuff. Famicom games are not that expensive.” Where if I’m an NES collector, I’m like, “Wait, this game five years ago was $20 and now it’s $200. What the hell happened?” That’s really the big thing I miss about being in Ohio, that shop. Darrin, he’s the owner of the place and it’s completely driven by his passion for everything. It’s very community-based. It’s not there to rip people off, like some game stores are. It was a cool place to be able to work. I have a buddy up here who’s trying to open a game store, so I’ve been helping him out with what I learned from there, the do’s and don’ts. I’ve seen a lot of the don’ts from other shops where you’re like, “Why are you doing this? Stop. This place sucks.”
Vincent, you help out Forgotten Freshness Classic Gaming from time to time at video game conventions. How has that been and have you ever been recognized at a convention?
Bennett: I love video games and one of my best friends [Frank D’Aloia] owns a video game store in Mechanicville, New York. I just like to go to help because it’s fun. He doesn’t necessarily ask us to come help, but we’re just like, “Dude, we want to.” I love doing cons. I just did MAGFest.
How was that?
Bennett: That was ridiculous. I was unaware. All of the vendors, they do a lottery and you enter your name every year. They only have one room for vendors. They pulled Frank’s name and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m doing MAGFest with you.” He’s been talking it up for five years, I’m really excited. So, I looked it up: “Music And Games.” And I was like, “OK, I can do this.”
Nah, dude. It’s, like, furry con fest. It’s 24 hours a day for 4 days. 24 hours a day for 4 days. I thought I was a nerd and I thought all of my friends were nerds. This is some next-level nerdery that I can’t even touch. There were furries. There were anime cosplays that I’ve never seen before in my life. There were girl butts. There were guy butts. There were people doing cocaine. There were people doing molly. There were people raving at 4 o’clock in the morning to chiptune music. There were people who would come up to the table and not believe that people give a fuck about retro gaming. It’s crazy. It’s 24 hours and everyone’s gacked out of their fucking mind. And I did get recognized, though. There were people there who were Acacia Strain fans, which makes me think, “…Is this OK?”
I do TooManyGames every year that I can. I think TooManyGames is the best retro game con there is, especially on the east coast. Anything you want to find, you will find at TooManyGames. Someone will have it. I’ve seen the craziest shit there. TooManyGames is awesome. I help Forgotten Freshness completely out of friendship and just my love for hanging out with my friends in that kind of environment.
But it is cool because I do these conventions, I do these festivals, unassuming that anyone there will know who I am because it’s a completely different world. And there is crossover, which I think is really cool because there are people just like me who like my band.
The Acacia Strain has payed homage to a number of video games—including Elden Ring, Castlevania, Donkey Kong and Untitled Goose Game, among many others—via merch designs. What are some of your favorites and what are some titles in the future that you would like to pay tribute to?
Bennett: I like anything Dark Souls-related that we do. Here’s another good thing about Twitch: You meet people who are creators as well. One of my Twitch followers designed [an Elden Ring shirt] for us, which is cool. We did a Dark Souls 3 bonfire shirt that’s probably one of my favorite things that we’ve ever done. In the future? I don’t know. There’s just so much. It’s always hard.
The person who prints our merch is like, “Alright, give me another video game idea. They do really well.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what to do!” It’s like option paralysis. I have too many games to play myself and there’s too many games I have played where I want to make all of the cool video game merch that people will want to buy and like wearing. I would like to do a Dragon Quest shirt. I love Dragon Quest. Maybe Final Fantasy VII. Maybe we’ll do a shirt where Aerith is dead and on the back of the shirt is just says, “Good,” because Aerith sucks. Sorry, spoilers: Aerith dies.
Shidaker: My favorite shirt we’ve done gaming-wise is probably the Friday the 13th NES shirt. The long sleeve has all the dead campers down the sleeve.
Bennett: That was a collaboration with Dead End Threads, who’s Frank’s brother. Shout out Dead End Threads.
Shidaker: As far as stuff to do in the future, who the hell knows? For me, I’ll randomly have an idea and text Vincent. Usually ,whenever I have a good idea, it’s like, “This would be really stupid and so absurd that somebody would buy it.” So, I don’t know. Tetris shirt. Who knows?
Bennett: I finally beat Breath of the Wild. Maybe we should do a Korok shirt.
Shidaker: Yeah, I beat Tetris, so…
Bennett: You beat Tetris? Man, you’re good at games.
You touched on this earlier: There are particular terms that you really don’t like, including “Metroidvania” and “shmup.” What is it about these terms that irritates you and why is the vernacular so important to you?
Shidaker: There is one “Metroidvania” game and that is [Castlevania:] Symphony of the Night. Beyond that, you have a game that is just similar to Metroid. Almost every time there is a game that is called a “Metroidvania,” there is zero Castlevania aspect to it whatsoever.
Bennett: Or zero Metroid!
Shidaker: It’s a 2D exploration game, exploration-adventure, action-exploration, whatever you want to call it. When I hear “Metroidvania,” it’s such a specific term that they just will apply to anything that has a map and you find new rooms.
Bennett: It’s just fucking annoying. It’s the same with anything. “Oh, a game’s hard? It’s a Soulslike.” No, it’s just hard. There are people who call Hollow Knight a “Soulslike Metroidvania” and I want to punch those people through their head. Before “first-person shooter” was a thing, everything was called a “Doom clone” and that sucks. And if you call something a “Doom clone” now, you would get made fun of. But for some reason, we have not adopted words past “Metroidvania” or “Soulslike” or “Soulsborne.” There has to be a better name for it.
It’s really frustrating because I feel like it pigeonholes a game. With genre-fying anything, it pigeonholes it to people who only like that kind of thing. For example, if you tell me a game is a “Rougelike,” I will not fucking play it. I don’t like “Rougelike” games. But I do like Hades and I do like Dead Cells and I like Binding of Isaac. But “Rouge-like” doesn’t really nail it down for you. And also, the word “shmup” is just a stupid word. That sounds like something somebody said by accident or mistyped.
The main problem with me and these words is the people that use them think they’re being fucking smart. They say them in such a way that they’re like, “Oh, you don’t like ‘Metroidvanias’?” Or if you call something something that it’s not. I call “shmups”—stupidly—“space shooters.” Not all of them are in space, whatever. But I call them “space shooters.” And if I call a game a “space shooter” to somebody that’s a condescending prick, they will go, [in a condescending tone] “Do you mean ‘shmup’?” There can’t be this kind of fandom.
I’ve worked enough cons where there will be douchebags that will come up to the table who know more than me and they will want me to know that they know more than me. And they’ll use words like “Metroidvania” and they’ll use words like “shmup” and they’ll use words like “Soulslike.” It’s infuriating because I’m being talked-down to by someone who is no better than me.
Shidaker: It’s the same thing with music. It’s the people that will insist we’re deathcore or we’re metalcore or whatever. Who gives a shit?
It’s an over-classification and there’s way too much time and energy put into something that just doesn’t matter. When people say something like, “It’s like a Souls game.” They say it with their whole chest. Something that’s hard is a “Soulslike” game. That’s not the first hard game that ever existed.
Bennett: Yeah, where’s the fucking Contra-like games? My favorite genre is Contra-like.“This game is a ‘Mario Contra.’ This is a ‘Mega Man-vania.’”
We’ve all been enjoying this hobby for the majority of our lives. What is it about video games that has stuck with you all of these years?
Bennett: Video games are just fun, you know? It’s a thing you can buy that makes you happy that you can have and display and then also be like, “This is a thing that is useful.” It’s an activity. Whereas collecting figures, you’re like, “Well, I’m not gonna play with this. This is just gonna go on my shelf.”
Stupidly, I’ve surrounded myself with people all my life who’ve just not understood. They think video games are pointless. But if it makes you happy and it gives you entertainment, is it any more pointless than watching a movie? What’s the difference? At least this is a thing that you’re controlling yourself. Everybody has their different likes and dislikes when it comes to video games. I know a lot of people who love fighting games and they make me very mad. But I’m not going to tell that person they’re wrong just because I don’t like that thing. It goes with anything. I don’t like fishing, but if you love fishing, if it gives you enjoyment, do it. That’s what video games are all about. It’s a thing that just makes me happy, even if I’m screaming at the television and throwing my controller and saying words that I wouldn’t be able to say in front of children, it’s still fun. The harder a game is, the more satisfying it is when you actually get further in it.
Shidaker: I don’t see it any differently than I would look at a movie or a book. I like the ability to immerse myself in a different world than my own. I can turn a game off and be like, “Alright, cool, I’m gonna go make dinner now.” I’m still at home. Because there are people that will be like, “Ugh, you’re wasting your time. You could be out exploring the world.” Blah, blah, blah. I can turn on Breath of the Wild and go run through this whole world, do all this fun stuff and not have to buy a plane ticket and fly to another continent and do all this crazy shit that costs a fortune. I can just do this a little bit and have fun.
There’s people that are like, “You have happy memories playing games? That’s sad.” I remember as a kid playing Final Fight with my stepdad on Super NES—which is a single player game, so I just had a second controller that wasn’t doing jack shit. But it’s a good memory. Everything kind of grows form there. I remember things I was doing around the time I was playing certain games, so it has those real world connections with it. “I played this game on tour.” “This game was what me and my friends would play. That was the last time we were really all spending a lot of time together before so-and-so went to college or before this idiot joined this band.”
A friend of mine in high school, I went to his house and we got stuck the whole weekend because it snowed real bad. We played all through Serious Sam on Xbox—which is not a game I would ever be like, I want to pick this up and play it—but we sat and just played through the whole thing. So I look fondly on that game, even though it’s not the best game I’ve ever played or anything like that; I still have a good memory associated with it. That’s what I like about gaming. It’ll provide good footnotes of things I was doing in my life at the time.
What are some titles that you’re looking forward to in 2023?
Bennett: [The Legend of Zelda:] Tears of the Kingdom, Dragon Quest XII. I heard Final Fantasy XVI is gonna be an action RPG, which bums me out. I want a turn-based JRPG. That’s why I’m excited for Dragon Quest XII. Even though they said, “We’re going to be taking the franchise in a different direction,” and that makes me mad. Those are the two that really have my attention and I can’t wait. Though there’s a new Yakuza that’s coming out, the samurai one [Like a Dragon: Ishin]. I think that’s it.
Shidaker: The new Zelda will either be the best game I’ve ever played or the worst game I’ve ever played and that hinges on whether or not it has fishing. Breath of the Wild did not have fishing and—I’m gonna be honest—it kind of ruined the game for me.
Bennett: Shut up. You’ve played through and beaten the game four times and you hate the game?
Think about how many more times he would have played if it had fishing.
Shidaker: It’s so close to perfect. There’s fish in the game and you can grab the fish, and I’m like, “Why is there not fishing?” There’s fishing in Ocarina of Time and that’s the best part of that game. Vincent doesn’t know because he’s never played a Nintendo 64.
Bennett: Can’t be me, dude. I don’t want to dirty these hands with that stupid controller.
Shidaker: I have not been keeping up super hard on things. There was a period where I was like, “I can’t wait this expansion for Ghost of Tsushima to come out.” And it’s like, “That’s been out.” The Resident Evil 4 Remake, that’s coming out.
Bennett: And this is the year where Konami can either do the right thing, or just continually fuck up. And that’s the Silent Hill 2 Remake and apparently they’re remaking Metal Gear Solid. And they’re making it without Kojima, which means it’s probably gonna suck shit through a straw.
Shidaker: Or be a pachinko machine.
Bennett: Metal Gear Survive? That game was a piece of shit. It’s a zombie survival game. It fucking sucks. They haven’t done anything good since they fired him. They have all of these IPs and they make me so mad because I just want to choke whoever’s in charge and be like, “Make a fucking Castlevania game. Make a fucking Contra game. Make a good game. Hire this man back, you need him!” This is Konami’s real year to either win everyone back or just fuck off forever. All they do is make pachinko games and then rerelease games in collections. If Silent Hill 2 is bad, then no one will ever forgive them.
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Get tickets for their upcoming tour with Fit For An Autopsy, Full of Hell and Primitive Man here.