KILL SCREEN 017: Alex Kulick of HORRENDOUS Knows Their Role Includes Playing Video Games

Photo by Hillarie Jason

The co-nerds that helm Kill Screen are getting older. Chances are, so are you. With that relentless march of time comes an ever-increasing list of responsibilities, whether it be our jobs, our families or our social lives and pastimes. Even as a duo who have somehow landed careers focused on extreme metal and video games—effectively making us professional teenagers—it can be incredibly difficult to keep up with all of our interests. We can’t help but consider our work schedules when planning how best to min-max our free time to cram in as many titles as possible. With AAA studios interested in bringing their audiences increasingly expansive and drawn-out games to the tune of 100+ hours in some cases, the investment feels… intimidating. There are only so many hours in a day and often the shorter adventure can be more appealing than a grandiose epic.

For Alex Kulick—bassist for the latest Decibel cover stars and strong contenders for 2023’s album of the year Horrendous—quality will always win out over quantity. Their life-long fandom of story-driven RPGs and need for immersive, emotional storytelling has prepared them for some of the genre’s lengthiest playtimes. Kulick also credits role-playing games for their emotional maturity, developing strong empathetic values modeled after his digital counterparts’ trials and tribulations. Sadly, the very real financial investment that gaming often requires proves to be a hurdle for them, turning those triple digit game lengths into less of a bug and more of a welcome feature. Just days before heading out to the American Southwest to tour on their phenomenal new album Ontological Mysterium (and in between rounds of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate), Kulick sat down with us to chronicle their gaming tale.

What was your first video game experience?
The first memory I have of video games being introduced to my life was my mom talking about growing up playing Centipede. She did not have Centipede for a while, but she always talked about it. Eventually, she was like, “I do have a Super Nintendo. It’s not the game that I grew up with, but I do love all these other ones.” I think the earliest age I can remember playing a Super Nintendo was around my fifth birthday, maybe even slightly later. My mom had just a handful of games. It was Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, some of the other Super Mario games on Super Nintendo. A really weird game called Revolution X that Aerosmith did the soundtrack to. Kirby Super Star, game that has [eight] games. I love playing that game. I love playing the reaction-time game. You’re, like, ninjas or something and you have to hit the button faster than the computer. I played a lot of those games.

My favorite we didn’t own, but there was a rental store right next to the apartment complex that we lived in. It was a Blockbuster. It was great. They had a whole wall of Super Nintendo games. I couldn’t even reach most of them at the time that I used to be able to go there. I used to rent Mega Man X from there. That was my favorite game. I rented it over and over. I actually ended up keeping it for an absurd amount of time and because the guy knew that we were right next to the store, kind of just let it slide. But I must have had it for, like, six months or something. I used to write down all the codes. When I was a kid, I actually never beat Mega Man X. It was way too hard.

This was also around the birth of my love of music, too. I actually had a tiny little rectangular tape recorder. I loved the soundtrack to Mega Man X so much. When we didn’t have the game from renting it, I was pissed that I couldn’t just turn it on and hear the stuff. I used to record the songs on the tape recorder; just hold it up to the T.V. I loved Spark Mandrill’s stage. The Zero theme, when he saves you in the beginning, was such a loved theme for me as a kid that I just had to have it. It was all chopped up, too, because I didn’t know how tape recorders worked, so it was super terribly recorded. But those are my earliest memories, for sure. It’s all Super Nintendo-based.

Were there any other soundtracks that caught your ear back in the day or was it primarily Mega Man X?
That was definitely the one that I was enamored with the most as a really young kid. But I got a GameCube not that many years after my long love affair with Super Nintendo. Like, right when it came out. I had Super Smash Bros. Melee. I’m a huge Smash fan. I had Super Mario Sunshine, the Lord of the Rings game, Robotech: Battlecry. All of these really early GameCube games. I loved the Super Mario Sunshine soundtrack.

I forgot that I also had a Gameboy Color. I got Pokémon: Yellow and, once Gold and Silver came out, got Pokémon: Silver. I was obsessed with those soundtracks. I can probably sing them on cue. It kind of shocks me sometimes. I was not even really a fully-formed human being, and yet these melodies to this day are still burned into my brain. I actually think with the Pokémon series in particular, some of those melodies are especially infectious. As someone who still regularly composes things and is always interested in why things stick with you or don’t stick with you, sometimes I just get a hankering to return to those. Some of those melodies, there’s something creepily magical about them.

The only other one that I can think of right off the bat would be Legend of Zelda:[Oracle of] Seasons, the Gameboy Color game. Seasons and [Oracle of] Ages were a dual Zelda game that came out on Gameboy Color and I had Seasons. I just adored the soundtrack. I just heard it a couple of months ago after talking to a friend about it who was playing it on a real Gameboy Color again for the first time in 10 years.

It really points to what phenomenal composers these people are. When you have only a very limited number of sounds to make and you can compose a song that just sticks with not just us but generations of kids over decades, that’s incredible.
They’re such bangers. I really agree. I remember this also bled into my chasing after band-based music and metal music. I followed a lot of video game-based groups for a number of years. I remember when Armcannon put out a Mega Man medley, some kind of operatic smash-up of all of the songs. I love them so much.

A lot of these songs—I think Mega Man’s a great example—if you’re a metalhead or if you like heavy music, outside of there being a direct connection in terms of rhythms and melodies and the fact that some of the sound engines sound like guitars, but if you like those songs enough, you want them to be heard as full-blown metal songs. Your brain projects them onto full drum kits, distorted guitars, amazing lead tones; you’re just dying to hear that. Finding the bands who were doing that, even if some of them were a little bit cheesy, it was kind of like a dream come true.

You mentioned that you had a Super Nintendo and then you jumped to the GameCube. Was there any particular reason you missed Nintendo 64?
I always wondered this. This is a question for my mother, who was responsible for putting the Super Nintendo in front of me. She was a single mom and worked a lot. She didn’t even have a bedroom of her own in the house where I first played video games and she just slept on the couch, so I’m guessing it was something related to that. As someone who was so drawn to the Super Nintendo as a kid, [N64] never felt like it was missing. I also had this really good friend, Jesse, whose house I used to go to and we played a lot of N64. I used to be there for days. Maybe I got my fill there. But this is also fascinating because as I got older and started being a video game fan more intentionally—where you become cognizant of what games you have and haven’t played—I was like, I hadn’t played through Ocarina of Time from top to bottom. And then they re-released it on GameCube. There was definitely a gap there, including Smash. Smash 64 is the Smash that I am worst at. I got my tech footing in Smash 4 and Smash Ultimate. Once you’ve gotten [used] to the fast pace, even the way that characters travel—like the knock-back mechanics and stuff—and then you go back to N64, it feels like you’re in an alien universe.

There are two camps, I feel. There is the camp that is like, “Smash 64 is the greatest game of all time. The perfect roster, no confusing expansions.” Which is cool, I support it. And I think the other camp—which I am in—is, “Smash Ultimate is the absolute apex of the Smash format and we will never get a better version of it. Sakurai is a legend, he’s done it.” I’m waiting for a Smash killer, but I don’t know if it will ever happen.

Who’s your main in Super Smash Bros.?
Oh, god. I knew that this question was gonna show up eventually. I realized that the best answer I could think of is that my Smash Ultimate career is similar to my musical career in the fact that I have been a massive and unfailing chameleon. I play a lot of different styles that have nothing to do with each other. I think sometimes people are a little bit shocked to know that I do something that is way, way, way off of the metal path or vice versa. I’ve had a lot of dilemmas about a main. A lot of people judge me for not being able to figure it out. The characters I’ve played the most I would say over the last few years are Incineroar and Captain Falcon. I play a lot of Lucina, too. I’ve really tried to mess around. I never felt like I had a character that really clicked with me to the point where I could just get deeper and deeper down playing them. Incineroar’s the closest, which, I know he’s a low tier [character]. I follow competitive Smash, I’m a big Skyjay fan. The guy’s a genius. The pandemic really turned me into a Smash monster. I became a person I never thought I’d become. The hour count on Smash for me is a little bit embarrassing.

The pandemic really turned me into a Smash monster. I became a person I never thought I’d become.

What have you been playing lately and what are the games you typically prefer to play?
This is an easy one just because I have a particular obsession with this franchise. I just finished Xenoblade Chronicles 3, including the expansion pass, Future Redeemed, a couple of weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the Xenoblade series. I played Xenoblade Chronicles when it first got released on Wii in the U.S. I anticipated the hell out of that game. I legitimately waited on it and would intermittently look up how it was developing and when it was gonna come out, which is not usual for me. Other than Smash characters getting released, I wasn’t really a person tracking games super hard. I definitely had them on my radar, but this was one that was like, The second it comes out, I’m on it.

I definitely prefer to play long-form, story-based, character-building and class-building games. I love organizing stuff and I love getting invested in characters and universes. I think I was programmed at a young age to have a certain part of my emotional self only accessible through the process of investing in digital characters, which I know is an odd thing to say but such a formative experience for me. I seek that out. It gets harder and harder as you get older. There’s a lot of big RPGs out there that I haven’t hit yet. That’s usually what I’m looking for: Something with an expansive world and characters that are gonna make me cry eventually. That’s kind of the criteria. RPGs and JRPGs in particular are pretty foundational, I would think, to my life. But I didn’t have a PlayStation or a PlayStation 2 growing up. I was in a huge Nintendo house and we all know until recently that Nintendo has been not the greatest at bringing us the cream of the crop when it comes to RPGs. At least, not always.

I [James] haven’t played any of the Xenoblade games, but I’ve been hearing about them for years. Tell me why I’m dropping the ball.
I am truly of the belief that the deep framework of the Xenoblade series is one of the most brilliant ever thought up. It’s one of those things where I truly can’t risk spoiling anything for you because if you play Xenoblade Chronicles, I believe whole-heartedly that you will most likely end up going down the entire rabbit hole and playing the rest. Something that I always look for in these RPGs is, How well can the story up the stakes as it progresses? You always move from this very local set of concerns to a set of concerns that is as large as you can possibly imagine. To the most divine, universal mysteries-of-life shit. If you could be involved in the construction of the human genome on a mythological level, this game succeeds in dragging you along to a point where you are imagining things at a scale you haven’t before and surprising you to get there. And then, at the end of it, understanding that the framework of those games and also the way that the endings for 2 and 3 have happened, anything is possible. Xenoblade could continue forever, ostensibly. This is maybe questionable now that the very final installation of this expansion pass has just finished. There always remains a question and always remains an itch that you cannot scratch, to a point where it still haunts me. And that’s just story!

If you’re a person who really likes to go super deep in battle mechanics, taking on super bosses, finding the best possible equipment, doing challenges and stuff like that, it has it all. They’ve taken what other people have developed and mastered over many, many years and just turned it into something that is just so god damned good and enjoyable. For different kinds of players as well. They’re my favorite games, by far. Xenoblade 2 has some things that I find problematic. It’s the most fan service-y game out of the three. 1 doesn’t have any of it and 3 doesn’t really have any of it. I don’t know what the fuck happened with 2 where they just went real anime perv with it in certain corners of the game. It’s really strange. For no good reason, either. But other than that, perfect games, in my opinion.

Are you more seeking an incredible story or incredible mechanics within games? Obviously, both are important, but are you more apologetic to one than the other?
I would say at the end of the day, I am absolutely a literature person. I’m a big reader today and I do a lot of things that people consider academic. But when I was growing up, I didn’t read at all. I legitimately didn’t read for pleasure. I owned no books. The only things that I read were for school. This was always sort of a wonder: My writing comprehension was pretty strong, my vocabulary was pretty strong. Where did this come from? I was like, Ah! Reading hours and hours of linguistically complex speech or text between characters in these video games. It was a lot of stuff vocabulary-wise or even in terms of emotionally maturity that is happening in complex role-playing games that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. I learned conflict resolution and moralities—literally—from playing JRPGs. Tales of Symphonia probably is the biggest thing for me. I was studying that game on an emotional level. Characters were having problems with each other and relating to each other in different ways. Good guys turned out to be bad guys and the other way around. I will put up with mechanics that I hate if the story is absolutely phenomenal. Any day. To be honest, I play the game for the story. I really love playing, too. Don’t get me wrong. But I will slog through some messy mechanics for a damn good story.

You mentioned Tales of Symphonia. Are there any other stories that come to mind that really helped shape you?
Yeah, for sure. Tales of Symphonia was the first JRPG I ever played top to bottom multiple times and was super, super deep in because I also got that on GameCube. There’s a couple of others that did come a little bit later. Xenoblade Chronicles is huge. I must have only been a mid-teenager when I played that. Final Fantasy IX, too. I want to give a shout out to one of my closest childhood friends who was sort of my brother in arms in being a video game nerd, this guy Evan Miller. He gave me his PlayStation 2 to keep at my house for a long period of time. He heard what I had to say about the JRPGs I had played. He was like, “Dude, you deserve to be able to play these. You need this.” So, I played Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy VII all because of him lending me his PS2. Final Fantasy IX and X were really big for me. My stepdad—this is so weird—years and years before I ever actually got to play Final Fantasy X, he had, for some reason, a DVD. It was all Japanese and it was in a beautiful slipcase. And it was all of Final Fantasy X turned into a fake movie. It’s essentially the early equivalent of YouTube cutscene edits. For so long, I was like, “What is this movie? Why does it look like this? Why is the soundtrack making me cry?” I feel like I can’t hear “To Zanarkand” without fucking losing my shit still. I will well up if that song comes on anywhere. And then I got to play it maybe five years later. Those really stuck with me on a story level, on a musical level and got me through some hard times, too. Definitely kept me company.

Your friend Evan, that is a great friend.
We did everything in this realm together. We used to go to MAGFest together, not because we were game collectors but because Nobuo Uematsu was gonna be there, or Koji Kondo has commissioned some band to be able to play X, Y and Z. We went literally mostly for the music. I saw the Final Fantasy symphony with him in Baltimore, I think the first iteration of that. The first iteration of the Zelda symphony I saw with him. He’s literally one of the best friends I had specifically in relation to video games. I owe a lot to him.

What would you suggest to people as an entry point for turn-based RPGs as a good place to start?
I would maybe recommend an old one and recommend a newer one to show the contrast between the two. Go play Final Fantasy VI. It feels nostalgic in all the right ways. Honestly, anything between Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy IX would be great. Maybe I would even include X. I know that’s a cheesy answer, but I feel like there’s some great introductions there. And then for something newer, maybe something like Persona 5 or even a Fire Emblem game. I feel like Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is great, if you’re into that sort of tactics-y thing. It’s hard not to say Xenoblade, but technically those aren’t turn-based games at all. I definitely have an affinity for real-time fighting systems, where you’re moving around in a field and you’re able to respond on the go.

I really loved the original Golden Sun as a kid. I think that’s a really great balance of a game. It has a lot of platforming elements in the overworld and the use of skills and powers and stuff. The battle scenes—for the time on Gameboy Advance—they’re so interesting. The art style of using magic or using attacks, it’s almost like they were drawn with graphite or something. They’re super, super theatrical. I would say simple to follow, but also complex enough where you can get into some of the deeper stuff if you’re just going into it. There’s so many things I’m forgetting, I’m sure. I still think a lot of the time when it comes that turn-based stuff, you can’t go wrong with the victories that Square have pulled off. I still love everything they make. I hate to admit it, but it’s true.

Do you have any care energy for Final Fantasy XVI?
This is what sucks about being in this version of my life where I don’t own a television. The only system I have right now is a Switch Lite. I watched all of the trailers for the new Final Fantasy. I’ve been reading up on it. To be quite frank with you, I am poor as fuck. I made an absurdly small amount of money last year. And I’m still obsessed with video games! I do a lot of this window shopping. When Xenoblade Chronicles 2 came out, I watched the entire game on YouTube. The entire thing. I was so obsessed. I’ve now played the game top to bottom.

I will say—this is maybe a hot opinion—I resent Final Fantasy’s slow movement into the gray, gritty video game territory. The new Final Fantasy kind of matches the color and atmospheric environment that a lot of modern RPGs are known for. It has this sort of Renaissance-y feel that is almost Skyrim-esque. I think that they’re very open to being like, “We’ve done the super high colorful, cel-shaded, anime-adjacent stuff. We’ve done that already, so we’re gonna do new things.” I’m not as drawn to it. But also, everything that I’ve seen, I can tell that I would be so invested in the story and the characters based off of just the trailers and the gameplay. Maybe I’ll come into a place where I’m comfortable enough to buy the system and play it, or borrow it from a friend or something. Either way, I’ll probably end up watching the whole thing. That’s what I’ve done with every Final Fantasy game that I haven’t had the system to play. [Laughs]

Do you find yourself more drawn to stuff that’s brightly-colored and cel-shaded in comparison to something that’s a little more gritty,  grainy and gray?
Yeah, I just have to admit it. It just comes from the way that I grew up. The Tales series usually exists in this realm. Tales of Arise started to just break out of this. I feel like Tales of Arise is kind of a parallel development to the new Final Fantasy, kind of starting to just push out of that a little bit. I like a healthy balance. I think Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a really great balance of these two things. It doesn’t adhere completely to the tropes of design with the anime-adjacent RPGs, but has enough of it in there where it has that spirit in it. I’m trying to get out of that, too. I’m also recognizing that I played a lot of the classics in this. I wish I could return to a state in which I hadn’t played Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade, some of the early Final Fantasys. But I can’t, so it’s time to expand. I know that there are great stories out there that don’t exist in this realm that I haven’t played and I would really like to.

The length of these RPGs is pretty daunting to a lot of people, typically ranging between 60 and 100 hours. Has that ever been a negative factor for you?
I am so obsessive and reliant on these experiences as the ways that I can relax. I have this feeling of being like, I have much less time to play video games than I have ever had. However, I’m always going to find time with it. Honestly, the longer the game is, the less games I need to buy. [Laughs] I don’t want these experiences to end. I was devastated when Xenoblade Chronicles 3 ended. I know they’ve done a really great job of wrapping all of the Xenoblade Chronicles games into one. That doesn’t bother me at all. If it’s longer, then more time will lapse before I have to mourn, before I need to let go of this thing that I’ve embedded myself in. I am a little afraid of it, I think, at this stage of life. I know myself. I’m time-blind, is really what it is. I can sink four hours into a game and look at the clock and be like, Jesus Christ, I need to eat dinner. If anything, it doesn’t bother me, it’s just that I have to be careful.

You guys are about to embark on a Southwestern U.S. tour. Do you have any plans to do any gaming while you’re on the road?
Although I am a carsick person, I was really hoping that I could crack into [Legend of Zelda:] Tears of the Kingdom, at least a little bit on the road. [Guitarist/vocalist] Damien [Herring] has an actual Switch and he has brought it with him on the road in the past. He has Smash. I don’t think all the characters are unlocked on his game, though, so we’d have to figure that out. I think that that’s a possibility. There’s a couple of titles on the Super Nintendo emulator that’s on the Switch. Breath of Fire is on there, I and II. I’m always looking for the next time that I will just play through Super Metroid for fun. Maybe just take some time to play some games that are super nostalgic for me. I don’t think [guitarist/vocalist] Matt [Knox] and [drummer] Jamie [Knox] have any explicit plans, but I’m definitely trying to get Smash going in the car. I know that no one can beat me, so it’ll be great fun for me. [Laughs] Matt’s gotten very close, but he still hasn’t taken a game off me.

Is it pretty one-sided?
Well, we haven’t played that much together. It’s been very, very light. [Vocalist] Nick [Duchemin] from The Silver, his brother had a Switch at his house for a while. We played one night. There was this whole hubbub because Matt and Jay know that I take pride in my Smash skills. They’d be like, “Oh, you gotta play! I bet he can beat you!” [Shakes head] Nothing. It’s kind of embarrassing, to a certain degree. I know that I tell you that I play Smash a lot, but I don’t know if you realize how often. I play online matches just to chill. I will probably do that after this interview just to decompress. I think it would be fun. I don’t have anything to be this confident about very often. I wonder if, on this tour, we’re gonna see who can take a game off of me between when we leave and when we come back. My vote’s on Matt, for sure.

You guys don’t tour often, but have you ever bonded with anybody in other bands over gaming?
Intermittently. There’s definitely been a few people out there who, just by pure chance, in a conversation someone brings up the topic of video games. My ears kind of perk up as someone who has this in their back pocket. I can’t think of anyone in particular, but there have definitely been just some random times of having a drink either before or after a set and hearing people talk or people coming to the merch table and these things coming up.

We played a show in Chicago with a band [Burned in Effigy]. They brought a Super Nintendo set-up with one of those smaller Super Nintendo and it has a giant library of Super Nintendo games in it. I just played Mega Man X at their merch table for, like, 20 minutes. Matt knows this about me and I think it was one of those moments of watching me play and being like, “He knows all of it!” [Laughs] I can play through Mega Man X in a little over an hour. Definitely nowhere [near] speedrun territory, but I know where everything is, I know all the weaknesses.

That’s the closest thing. Like, Alright, there’s other metalheads that literally have gone through the trouble of bringing my favorite equipment to the table? I am going to spend some time with these folks.

Any upcoming games that you’re looking forward to?
They just released the Mega Man Battle Network Collection. I was a huge Mega Man Battle Network fan. I played through the first five games and maybe one other. I played through the Star Force games. I’m really looking forward to buying that and maybe revisiting it. That’s a game where I actually like the gameplay mechanics more than the story. People had been doing this in an emulated way, where you can play online competitive matches using the battle system in that game. They actually included it in the collection, so now through Switch’s online system, you can play competitively, which I think would be a fun thing to try out.

With the new Final Fantasy VII Remake stuff rolling, I still haven’t played the first installation. I’ve read a lot about it and watched a good bit from it and I’m really excited for the second installment because it looks super wild. There is one that I’ve been reckoning with: I can sometimes have an aversion to new games that are rehashing a super old formula, but the Super Mario Wonder trailer looked great and I’m like, Maybe there’s some part of me that really wants a new side-scrolling Mario game.

I think that’s just about it. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was really my most anticipated game, and now it’s over, which is… depressing. It was so good. It fell just a tiny bit short of my expectations on an ending, but the expansion pass really took it to a whole new level. I’m obviously not going to spoil anything, but for anyone out there who has played through Future Redeemed and saw the final scenes of technically what they say this thread of the story—Xenoblade through Xenoblade 3—is technically closed. But there’s some haunting questions about unexplained final visual cues that could say that maybe there is a new chapter of the Xenoblade saga that could potentially happen in the future. If the speculations are true, then I will wait and wait and wait for that to happen, for sure.

Ontological Mysterium is out August 18 via Season of Mist and can be pre-ordered here.
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