KILL SCREEN 014: Meet A.L.N. of MIZMOR, the God of Puzzles

Photo by Shimon Karmel

A biased opinion, I know, but I can’t stress this enough: Go read Jonathan Horsley’s cover feature on this month’s player character A.L.N. and his phenomenal one-man band Mizmor. A contemporary of the Pacific Northwest’s ever-growing extreme metal scene, Mizmor’s unique blend of funeral doom, drone and black metal is one of bleak, unrelenting despair made all the more real by very deep, very personal and very real lyrics pulled from A.L.N.’s experiences of being drawn to and then straying from the Christian faith. His latest full-length offering—2023’s black metal-leaning Prosaic—is his first album that begins the process of moving on from this trauma and exploring other avenues of his curiosity. Even with God dead and buried in the past, Prosaic proves to be no less angry, biting and woeful than what one would come to expect from the same person who crafted 2019’s Cairn. All of which begs the question: Why the hell is he talking to the video game guys?

Those who have been following Kill Screen for a while—and I certainly hope that includes you—know that Adam Bartlett, head of Mizmor’s previous label home Gilead Media, mentioned that he and A.L.N. are PSN friends, despite Bartlett’s preference for PC gaming. Curiosities were piqued, emails were sent and an interview was arranged for after A.L.N.’s four week run as Hell’s live drummer, which included a one-off Mizmor set at Metal & Beer Fest: Philly 2023. For someone who crafts such somber dirges, A.L.N. proved to be nothing but kind, affable and, er, patient with a couple of excitable East Coast nerds. It’s of no surprise that his tastes trend towards the intellectually stimulating, but that certainly makes him no less devoted to one of the medium’s most celebrated high fantasy series as well as two of gaming’s closest friends, “hack” and “slash.” Doom and gloom has arrived at Kill Screen, and we are more than happy to welcome him in.

What was your first video game experience?
The first video game experience that I can remember having was probably when my parents got my brothers and I a Sega Genesis for Christmas when we were kids. They did that whole thing where they were like, “That’s all the presents we have! It’s done!” And then it was like, “Oh, what’s that sound from the other room?” And we went in and I want to say it had Jurassic Park up on the screen. My oldest brother straight up cried. I was a little too young to cry over that. [Laughs] But yeah, definitely remember playing Sega a lot as a kid. Lion King, Jurassic Park and stuff like that. NBA Jam. All those old Sega games are so hard. I think there was an Earthworm Jim video game that we had, too.

Did you and your oldest brother spend a lot of time gaming together?
Yeah, a decent amount. I have two older brothers. I’m the youngest one. My middle brother is four years older than me and my oldest brother is six years older than me. So, I think it was a biggest cultural impact for him to get the game console that was out that was hot that other kids had. We played games together, for sure. We were a Sega family for a while. We had the Sega Saturn and the Sega Dreamcast. We got a PlayStation 1 and a PlayStation 2 in the mix. Then it more just became my thing as my brothers grew up, lost interest and moved out of the house. At that point, I was playing the PlayStation and the Xbox in concert back and forth.

What were the big games with you and your brothers?
Probably biggest game for us—or at least a big moment—was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. Really, really big games. I would often play whatever version of the NBA game was popular at the time with my middle brother. That was his thing and I didn’t really care about it as much, but you need someone to play that game with, so I would get my ass whooped all the time at that. [Laughs]

What have you been playing lately and what are the games that you typically prefer?
I have a PlayStation 5. I kind of stopped the Xbox thing at the last gen, although I’m curious if I’ll have to buy one again at all in my life because I heard that all the Bethesda games are exclusive with Microsoft now and I’m a big fan of The Elder Scrolls and the Fallout series. I just started a game yesterday because I really need one. I’ll keep up on what PlayStation Plus games are free. I just downloaded and started this game called Trek to Yomi; that’s this samurai game that’s hard, but in a good way. Before that, I played this game called RiME, which is a simple puzzler game, indie game. Before that, I just finished this game that I enjoyed quite a lot called Tails of Iron. You’re a rat in a rat kingdom that’s defending itself from frogs and mosquitos, but it plays kind of like Dark Souls, where it’s challenging, brutal combat that you have to do really tactically. But it’s all beautifully drawn and animated, like an indie game.

Do you prefer the indies to the AAA titles, or is it just kind of whatever strikes your fancy?
It’s whatever strikes my fancy, but there is a pattern and I think I do like the indie games a little more. My favorite type of game is a puzzle game. I like action games, too. I love the God of War series and, like I mentioned, Skyrim, Oblivion, Fallout. I like some of the major games, for sure, but I always come back to puzzle games and those tend to be indie. They’re not flashy, but they’re my favorite kind of games, for sure.

Is there a particular reason that the puzzle games seem to catch your interest?
I’ve always liked puzzles. I do the crossword everyday and I like to do the Wordle. Specifically word puzzles I enjoy quite a bit. I don’t know why; I’ve never dissected it too deeply. I like for my brain to be engaged that way and if it’s not, it’s an exerted effort to focus and not have some problem in my life start to, “Hey, you should solve this puzzle!” in the back of your mind right now.

When I’m in the mood to play a game—meaning I want to sit on the couch and be entertained by a screen but T.V.’s not engaging enough—I’m typically trying to engage a puzzle-solving part of my brain. But, of course, I love to hack ‘n’ slash and stuff, too, sometimes.

You specifically mentioned The Elder Scrolls. What would you say is your favorite title from that series?
[Heavy sigh] It’s a tie between Skyrim and Oblivion for me, just because Oblivion was the game I got into and sank the most hours in. Skyrim I think is a better game in general, but you know how it is. It’s like with music, too, where you’re like, “This is the album I got into of this band, so forever it’s gonna be my favorite, even though it’s kinda crappy.” I think I have to say Oblivion, but Skyrim is so amazing and I just can’t wait for the next one, if it’s ever gonna happen.

You had mentioned that the last Xbox generation was your last. What was it about Xbox that kinda turned you off? Do you do any PC gaming?
There was nothing specific about Xbox that turned me off. Most of the games I wanted to play came out for both PlayStation and Xbox and a lot of games that I wanted to play only came out for PlayStation. At the time that I made the switch, Bethesda was not exclusive to Microsoft. So… that sucks. Except for that, I can’t really think of any other reason to get a Microsoft console. [Laughs]

PC gaming, I don’t do right now but I did have a phase with it, for sure. There was a game or two that you could only play on computer that I really wanted to play, so I got a Steam account and went down that path for a while. But it’s been a long time. I’ve just been stuck on my PlayStation, as of late.

Do you find yourself more drawn to the console side of things? And, if so, do you think that’s because you had a long history with it or do you just enjoy getting away from the computer?
I think both of those things are important. I feel like if you get into computer gaming, then the next thing is you want to play on a customizable rig, where you’re upgrading your graphics card and your processing and all this kind of stuff. I’ve always been the guy that has a decent Apple computer that’s really user friendly that gets the job done for me. I think I like the user experience of a console a little more because I’m just not as smart or have a refined palate enough to get into computers to the point where it becomes my main thing.

You were outed to us as a nerd by mutual friend Adam Bartlett when he said that you were PSN friends. Do you do a lot of social gaming?
Man, I haven’t in a while. I had a phase where I was big into Destiny, where I was playing that socially with a couple friends. Even some of my really close friends, every once in a while we’ll be playing separate games but be like, “Hey, I see you’re just sitting on your couch. Do you wanna chat while you’re playing a game?” I was doing it a bit in the first year of the pandemic because that was a time to be digitally social.

But I don’t know if I’ve ever actually played a game with Adam. He mainly plays on his computer. Yeah, we’re PSN friends, but I never see him online and don’t know what he’s up to.

[In a prior conversation], you mentioned that you’re a fan of The Last Guardian. Does that extend to Fumito Ueda’s other works, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus?
Yes, and in fact I like those games much more than The Last Guardian. The first game I played in that series—if you can call it a series—was Shadow of the Colossus. That really drew me in because that was one of the first titles I got on my PlayStation 2. For some reason—I mean, it’s a made up pattern, there’s nothing to this—I was playing all these games that were “Something of Something.” I liked God of War, Prince of Persia, Shadow of the Colossus. The Last of Us, but this was before that. So when I saw that, I was like, Oh, I’m gonna like it, because it’s an “of” thing. [Laughs] Totally stupid.

Everything’s so massive. I think what I like about those games is mainly the aesthetic. Sometimes the gameplay is a little clunky, but there was something about the massive colossi and figuring out how to take each one down, figuring out each one’s idiosyncrasies. And the music. The music is so phenomenal. I just really loved that. Then I learned about Ico and I liked that game a lot because of the team effort that’s there with your partner that is CPU. That was a little bit more puzzle-y, so I was like, “OK, this is great.” It’s like Shadow of the Colossus with the aesthetic and the music, but more cerebral.

So, I was really excited for Last Guardian. I did enjoy that game, but it seemed a little broken and unfinished to me. And, in fact, I never actually finished it because I literally got stuck in a glitch in the game. I think I’m two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through and I’ve gone back to it so many times and been like, What am I missing here? But I’m actually just stuck up in a tree, and you’re supposed to be able to get the creature to come interact with you and get you down and it won’t. It isn’t registering where I am. I’m like, OK, well, I can’t waste any more time. I want to finish this game really bad. I guess I could start it over. I’ve probably spent a collective hour of turning it back on, trying literally everything and being like, It’s fucking broken, dude! That disappoints me. But I love the idea of The Last Guardian and I enjoyed it up until that point.

It’s a shame. We definitely heard a lot of the same complaints: The AI for the companion animal was just too glitchy; not responsive; would just do things that people weren’t asking for. It seems like it’s one of those games that had really high ambitions and on paper is amazing, but the technology isn’t quite there. It’s fun in the sense of trying to figure out, How do I get to this? How do I make this happen? But when it’s not responding in the way that it seems like it should, it’s frustrating.
I totally agree. I’m playing a game to solve the problem to figure out, Well, what’s the thing I need to do? But once you figure that out and can see that, and you’re just trying to physically make it happen and it won’t work, I have a pretty short threshold. That makes me pretty angry. I’m like, It’s a game. I’m trying to have fun or engage my brain in a certain way, and now I’m just wasting time and getting frustrated because it’s not working the right way. Oof. That gets me mad.

You mentioned that you’re a big fan of the music from those games. Are there any other memorable soundtracks that stand out to you?
Yeah, a lot. Probably my favorite game of I want to say of all time—big claim, I know—but is this game called Braid that was made by Jonathan Blow. I also love his second game The Witness, which has no music. The soundtrack to Braid, it’s by a couple different artists. It’s really phenomenal. This game came out when I still had an iPod, so this was a soundtrack that I put on my iPod and listened to all the time. There were a couple other games like that. Obviously the Skyrim soundtrack is incredible. I really liked the soundtrack to this game called Journey; really beautiful music to that one. This artist Disasterpiece does soundtracks for movies, games and has original albums, too. He did Fez and he did Hyperlight Drifter and that company’s other game, Solar Ash. I like his music a lot. I actually have the Fez soundtrack on vinyl. That game, though, seriously, it’s one of the best puzzle games of all time. It’s so good.

Do you find that there’s a particular tone or mood or anything that causes a soundtrack to stick in your head? What is it that makes one stand out as particularly good?
I think it has to fit the aesthetic of the game perfectly. And then you’re totally immersed in the experience and you realize that the music’s part of that and is really good. Of all the soundtracks that I named, half of them are cinematic sounding and string-based and the other half are synthesizers. I don’t think there’s necessarily a recipe in terms of the sonic components other than it just has to be the perfect ingredient and then you love that world and you want to dip into it when you’re not in front of the screen, too.

Lyrics for Mizmor are very deep, involved, personal, heavy. Do you seek that kind of storytelling in games or are you trying use video games more as a pastime to distract yourself from that?
I think more as an escape, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my fair share of heavy games. We talked about The Last of Us already a little bit. That game is really awesome. There’s this other game I played called Heavy Rain. I’m down for it if it’s a really well made game. But a lot of times… Like this game Trek to Yomi I’m playing right now; it’s fun and engaging and cool and I’m not very far, but so far the idea is that your village in feudal Japan has just been attacked and you’re defending it and killing the bad guys. In the background, just the ambient sounds, everyone is just crying and wailing. I’m like, Man, I wonder if I’m gonna be able to handle this the whole time. [Laughs] It’s just… so brutal. With what I do with music, I’ve got plenty of brutal sounds in my life already and brutal thoughts in my head and stuff like that. Sometimes I can really appreciate that on the screen and other times I’m just like, “That’s great… but I just want to do something more innocent right now, or simpler, or happier.”

Sometimes it’s time to switch over to that Sonic game from your Genesis years.
Seriously! Ooo, also, forgot to mention that: Huge, huge game from when I was growing up, Sonic.

Even some of these games that I’ve already mentioned that aren’t dark on their surface are actually pretty heavy. This game I just finished called RiME—this simple puzzler game—it’s very cute-looking. The aesthetic reminds me of Zelda or The Witness; the graphic style. Pretty innocent puzzle solving as you go through it. But then, they start to reveal this vague plot line of this shadowy character that you’re seeing every once in a while. Near the end of the game, it flips over the plot and you realize that it’s actually this character’s father and the character—the son—died in a boat accident and the dad is exploring his dreams of longing after his son. They just drop little bombs like that in some of these indie games. Braid is about a devastating end of a relationship. I like that kind of stuff. I like the head-y. They’re dropping plot breadcrumbs and at the end you see how it pieces all together. It’s usually something that has some weight to it, even if it’s like The Witness and the message is very Zen in this way. It engages my brain in a philosophical way, an existential way, which, to me, even though it’s not necessarily dark, it’s still heavy. It just depends on the game. Often I’m not in it to get totally floored. [Laughs]

That’s kind of the headspace that I’m [Michael] in right now. I’m like, I want something colorful and as kid’s gloves as I can get right now.
A game I got really kind of addicted to over the pandemic that’s very colorful was Hades. I got so into Hades. I did everything that you can do in the game. Eventually, you get where you can “turn up the heat” of your run by making it more challenging by tweaking different factors and you get trophies for turning up the heat at different levels. The highest you can go is 32 and I did it at 32. It’s like the same thing over and over again, but it’s not; it’s different every time. I really fell in love with the Rouge-like format of that game and I just couldn’t stop.

In your Decibel cover story, you had mentioned that you wanted Prosaic to be an album that you didn’t want to obsess over; be a little bit more slice-of-life, from-the-hip. You were described as a “reformed perfectionist.” Does that perfectionism extend into the games that you play—i.e. by being a completionist—or is that specifically for the art that you create?
I think it goes into gaming a little bit. I can’t typically 100 percent a game because some of the trophies are just so ridiculous and I’m just not willing to use my time that way. But I do like to check every possible path you can take and find the hidden things that you’re just gonna brush past. Sometimes that’s annoying because I get frozen and I’m just like, Ahh, there’s too many paths! I go down one and I’m like, Well, this is clearly the one I’m supposed to take, so now I have to turn around and go scour all this other shit. I can see it in my gaming a bit, but I can’t go full-on platinum everything because it just takes too much time and it’s too annoying. And I’m not that good, you know? [Laughs]

I know I keep bringing this game up, I’m not even recommending it. I thought it was eh, it was pretty good, but I just played it, so it’s in my brain, this game RiME. You collect these little toys and other things that look like they’re secrets and there’s no payoff. They don’t acknowledge them whatsoever. And you can see an inventory of ones you didn’t find and they don’t reference it whatsoever in the game. I’m like, “Well, I’m not gonna play it again and try to find them all.” There’s no, like, Increase my health or some thing. Some thing. It’s just, “You can find other stuff.” And I’m like, “Well… I’m not going to.” [Laughs]

Also in the cover story, you discussed Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Camus as being literary influences to your lyrics and your world-building. Have you ever experienced any influence from a game’s world-building?
Not in the same way. I think I feel inspired by certain games that feel compelling to me, like a game like Braid. But I don’t think that that’s ever caused me to write a certain way in my music. I just really appreciate the work of art that it is. There could be some subconscious influences there, but I can’t draw a through line from a game into my art like I can with books and other music.

Mizmor has documented your journey from being a Christian to being an atheist and you’ve been playing games for the vast majority of your life. Over that journey, would you say that you approach games and other media in a different way now than when you did at the beginning of Mizmor in terms of what you’re looking for, what you appreciate, what connects with you?
With games, not so much. I think I just played less games when I was a super devout Christian. But Skyrim came out during that time for me and I dropped everything and lost my life to that for a little while. But I can definitely relate more with music and movies to not being attracted to certain types of media when I was very religious. I think music was the biggest thing. At least for my own personal creation, I didn’t want to make music for myself anymore; I only wanted to make it for God. Music became worship instead of creative exploration or anything that could be foreseen as prideful or self-aggrandizing. My consumption of music… I still listened to secular stuff, but I didn’t want to feel like it was evil or blasphemous or had a message that I couldn’t get behind. Mostly neutral stuff or fantasy stuff was what I pressed into more. And I think with movies, too: Stuff that seemed gratuitous with sex and violence. I didn’t abstain from R-rated movies, for example, or anything like that. But I think I just wasn’t as attracted to things where, like, I’m getting my violent kick or my sexual innuendo kick from watching this. I’m scratching this itch this way. I would not be attracted to that 10, 12 years ago as much. But if it’s in there in a necessary way to tell a compelling story, that seemed OK.

You never bumped up into any titles that you were like, “This really doesn’t fit in with what I feel is OK”?
I didn’t really bump into that because I don’t think I played very many games at that time. I’m a weird kind of gamer; I’m still like this a little bit, but I think more so back then. I’ve got my series or my developers, my franchises, that I really care about that I wait for the next title to come out and in between I try other things and I might find some good stuff. I don’t play games all the time. I think it takes a lot to really hook me into one and like, “OK, here goes 60 to 120 hours!” I’m picky, in a way. I don’t really remember there being any restricted games, so to speak, back then for me because I just wasn’t playing as many games. I was playing Braid and Journey and Skyrim and that’s all really innocent stuff.

In that same notion, between the way the young you—with your brand new, shiny Sega Genesis with Jurassic Park—versus current day you with your puzzle games and commitment to series, do you see an evolution in terms of appreciation in that way?
Oh, for sure. I think when you’re young and playing games, it’s more about what’s flashy and catchy and on-the-surface. It’s fun and looks cool and is not too hard, you know? One thing that’s definitely developed in me over time is playing cerebral video games and puzzles and things that are deliberately challenging—even with combat—and finding the right challenge level so that it’s stimulating and you’re competing with yourself, but you’re having fun and you’re not just burning steam and being extremely angry. I think that’s probably a natural arc. I don’t know of many kids that love playing a hard puzzle game. I see myself as moving away from basic action games, racing games and whatnot and more into stuff that’s about the story and about the aesthetic and about the subtleties and the nuances. And it’s not just an evolution in me; it’s an evolution in gaming, too. Now, you can tell a story in a much more complete way because you have the graphics to show really nuanced facial expressions and things like that. Now it’s this real storytelling medium. It’s not that there wasn’t any story before in video games, but I think it was much more about having fun pressing buttons.

You had mentioned that you often stick to certain developers or franchises and you listed a couple of names. Were there any other franchises that you keep an eye out for?
I keep tabs on Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness. I keep tabs on Playdead, [the developers that made] Limbo and Inside. I liked those games a lot. That game company makes good games. They’re a totally different kind of game, but I do enjoy them. I don’t think it has a release date yet, but the sequel to The Talos Principle, which is a puzzle game I really enjoyed. I highly recommend it. It’s not the most polished game, but the mechanics of the puzzles were really stimulating. Supergiant makes good games. The dudes that made Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac [Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes]. Fumito Ueda. Those are some of my favs that, every once in a while, I’m like, “I wonder what they’re up to,” and I look it up. Usually it’s like, “Still in development! It’s been 10 years, but it’s gotta be perfect!”

I’ll always play a new God of War game. I think they can do no wrong. I really enjoy God of War, the old and the new.

Do you have a preference between the more modern [titles] and the PS2/PS3 era?
They’re both so good. I think I do like the newer ones a little bit more in the sense that they’re more complex, but not overly complex. The combat is more detailed, there are skill trees and upgrades and things, but it’s not some of these massive open-world RPGs where it’s just like, I can’t even start on that because it’s just too much; I don’t want to get involved. I feel like the new God of Wars do that really well; kind of a streamlined complexity, if you will. But, man, those first few games on the PS2 where you just hack ‘n’ slash and kill gods, it’s so simple.

It certainly gives a sense of scale. In the cover story, you had mentioned one of the good things about doom being the epic sound or atmosphere or tone, a very big sense of scale, similar to be found in God of War.
So true, and that’s probably one of the things they do best.

Are there any franchises that you used to be into and kept checking in and eventually just kind of stopped?
Not really. I mean, definitely ones that I don’t play as much. I used to love playing Virtua Fighter. I love that arcade game. And Tekken; playing that on the console was really fun. And I just don’t really find myself as interested in playing that kind of game anymore. You can put Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter in there, too. It’s still fun, but it’s not what I’m really looking to do with a video game. I don’t think that it’s aged poorly or, like, I go back and I’m like, “Yeah, this isn’t good.” It’s just not what I’m after.

Are there any games that are coming up that you are looking forward to?
The game that I was really looking forward to recently came out, and that was the Hogwarts Legacy game. I massively enjoyed it and I just hope that they’re making some DLC for it. I was of that perfect age that I was very into Harry Potter—the books and the movies. There have been a couple games and I didn’t really like them very much. So when they started teasing this game, I was like, “Whoa, it’s open world and like Elder Scrolls-looking. That looks cool.” I got that game. That was the last big game that I shelled out for—that and God of War—that I sank a lot of hours in and thoroughly enjoyed.

This is also me being a “weird gamer”: I don’t know all of what’s on the horizon. I don’t seek out all the news. I don’t know what’s about to come out. There’s nothing on the horizon for me right now that I’m excited about except this vague notion of a new Elder Scrolls game that’ll probably still be another 5 years.

Prosaic is out July 21 via Profound Lore Records and can be pre-ordered here.
Follow Mizmor on Bandcamp, Instagram and Facebook.

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