KILL SCREEN 024: Ben Hutcherson of KHEMMIS Talks the Supermassive Impact of Rediscovering Gaming

Photo by Jason Sinn

Anyone with a passing familiarity of the Decibel brand knows the public bromance between us and Colorado doom wizards Khemmis. Not only have each of their releases been a dependable fixture of our Top 40 Albums of the Year feature with sophomore LP Hunted being ranked our second favorite album of the whole decade (2010-2019), they are a twotime contributor to the Decibel Flexi Series, an alumnus of the long-running Decibel Magazine Tour (2017) and are preparing to make their third Metal & Beer Fest appearance (and their first time in the fest headlining spot!) during our return trip to the Mile High City of Denver. For a not insignificant portion of their fanbase, however, this years-long relationship could very well be news to them. After their inarguably heavier and catchier interpretation of an old American folk song was picked up by growing U.K. developers Supermassive Games for a new horror anthology series—exposing them to nothing short of millions of new listeners with the help of YouTube’s Let’s Play community—the Denver quartet very quickly leveled up. But what of their relationship with games?

“There is an awareness that I do this sometimes and I don’t want to try to posit myself as something that I’m not,” ponders Ben Hutcherson, Khemmis’ backing vocalist and guitarist as well as today’s player character. “I wouldn’t want to try to seem like I’m staking turf maybe that isn’t mine or that I’m laying claim to some foundational knowledge of the gaming world that I absolutely don’t have.” When the co-nerds of Kill Screen caught up with Hutcherson last year at Decibel’s premiere Denver Fest outing—his death metal band Glacial Tomb kicking off the second day’s festivities—he outright denied any interest in the medium. Despite the band’s successful debut in The Dark Pictures Anthology series, Hutcherson was largely removed from the world of digital escapism, focusing instead on his musical endeavors. That all quickly changed, however, as his bandmate’s noticeable interest in the From Software catalog lead him to explore the unforgiving streets of Yharnam in the PlayStation 4 classic Bloodborne. Having consumed enough insight to see beyond the veil and understand the appeal of these recurring column favorites, Hutcherson welcomed gaming back into his life after a decade-long hiatus, even incorporating it into his Twitch stream—albeit cautiously. “Do I like video games as a whole? Probably not,” he continues. “I don’t like most things that I’ve played. But the things that I have played, I really, really, really, really like. Although, as I say that, I also probably don’t like most metal that I’ve ever listened to, but I love metal and it is a central part of my life. Hmm.” Seeing as we love Hutcherson, we are thrilled to welcome him into the Kill Screen arcade.

What was your first gaming experience?
It would have either been something on the Atari 2600: [Combat], where there were literally just two tanks that you drove around. It was somewhere at that point in my life that someone gifted me an Atari 2600, but my parents also bought me the original Nintendo. This would have been ’89-ish, ’90, something like that. Also Super Mario/Duck Hunt, because that was the game that came with [it]. Although, we got one other game that almost no one I’ve ever met has ever heard of. And it was this game called Amagon on the Nintendo, and it was a side-scroller game. You were a guy that crash-landed on a jungle island and you had a little pea shooter and there were all these mutants and demon birds and stuff. But eventually you could power up and turn into Amagon, which obviously had something to do with the word Amazon. You were just big and strong and you’d run around and punch birds out of the sky and stuff. I’ve never met anyone that has ever played this game, that knows anything about it. I have verified it exists, that it wasn’t a thing I made up. But any time I tell anyone about that game, they’re like, “That’s not a real thing.”

What have you been playing lately?
That question is interesting, because as of December last year, the answer was “nothing.” And it had been nothing for a decade or so. The last game I’d played had been BioShock Infinite when it came out. I just fell off playing video games. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was like, I need something to do aside from just play guitar all day. [Khemmis drummer] Zach [Coleman] and [Khemmis vocalist/guitarist] Phil [Pendergast] have been talking about this Dark Souls game. I’ll try it. I dug my old Xbox 360 out of the closet, fired it up, bought a copy of DS I: Prepare to Die Edition on eBay for, like, two dollars and hated it. I died all the time and I was like, This isn’t fun. I don’t know what the appeal is. That was at the end of 2020, beginning of 2021. I said, The hell with it.

And then at the very beginning of this year, I got it in my head that maybe I wanted to try Bloodborne because I love the vibe. I’m familiar with these games. I’ve seen people speed run these games. Even though I wasn’t playing games, I liked watching people speed run [them] because I thought it was interesting to see how they would deconstruct these games and do all this sequence breaking and digging into the code of really old games. All this stuff is fascinating to me. There’s this one runner, heyZeusHeresToast, that does a ton of Bloodborne stuff. I got a real kick out of watching him. And I said, You know what? I’ll give it a shot. I went bought a PS4. You could download Bloodborne as part of the [PS4 Essentials Collection]. About an hour in, I was like, This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. This game is amazing. I beat it and then I beat New Game + and then I started on New Game +2. I was like, I should do something else instead of just playing this until the end of time. Let me go back and try Dark Souls again. I plugged up the Xbox 360 and I still hated it. I realized, though, after playing Bloodborne, part of what I hate is I feel like the game is so old and laggy and it’s dropping so many frames, I can’t understand what I’m doing. I went and got Dark Souls I Remastered for PS4—and that was it. That was the difference it made. I couldn’t get past Capra Demon and it took me, like, 50 tries to kill the gargoyles on the Prepare to Die Edition because it would drop down to, like, 10 frames a second. The A.I. already knew what it was doing, but I was responding in real time, so I was just dying nonstop. [I] got it on PS4 and it’s still old and it’s kind of janky, but it’s amazing and the world is amazing. The more I got into it, the more I loved it and the more I understood about the verticality of the world. And I was like, This is fantastic.

And Elden Ring. I mean, who doesn’t love Elden Ring? I did that on stream when we got back from this last tour. I hurt my hand the last day of tour, so I couldn’t play guitar for a few weeks. I was like, Well, let’s play Elden Ring on stream. I didn’t sink as much time into it as a lot of people, but I put, like, 130 hours on my first playthrough. And then I was like, All right, what else? I got Dark Souls III and I was like, I think I’m encountering FromSoft fatigue. I think I’m overdoing it. Dark Souls III was fine, but it didn’t do it for me like the older ones. I’ve tried a few other things since then, and I was like, Nothing’s scratching the itch. And then y’all talked to the dudes in Tomb Mold and [Tomb Mold guitarist] Derek [Vella] was talking about Dark Souls II vanilla edition and how amazing it is. So, I found a copy of that on eBay. That’s going to be here tomorrow and that’s going to be what I do for the next couple of weeks. We’ll see. I know it’s the most maligned entry in the series, but I really want something that’s FromSoft and I don’t want to go play the ones I’ve already played.

I’ve [James] got a couple of friends who are major FromSoft junkies and will say that II is their favorite in the series. I know it’s kind of a different beast, but it certainly has its major supporters.
And from what I understand, The Scholar of the First Sin edition, some of the changes with that put in more enemies and stuff and one of my favorite things about Dark Souls I is how a lot of it feels kind of empty. It doesn’t feel as video game-y as Dark Souls III, where there’ll be a mob of, like, six or seven little enemies coming at you. There’s a lot of two- or three-on-one kind of things. You’re going down a long haul with nothing for a long time, and then there’s an enemy. I like that vibe so much. And according to Derek, at least. If he’s wrong, I’m going to text him and be like, “I hate you. You made me waste seven dollars on eBay.” [Laughs] But the vanilla edition is supposed to be closer to Dark Souls I in that respect: Fewer swarms of enemies coming at you, more space to explore. It’s still supposed to be hard as hell, but I’m looking forward to it.

I tell people I like these games and it’s the same as when I tell them I like Weakling or I like Three 6 Mafia. They can’t just say, “That’s cool.” They’re like, “Oh, then you’ll like these things.” No, no, no. I like this thing, and this is the thing I like. And so, when people are like, “What about this Soulslike?” I don’t like it because it’s not the thing I like. “What about Lies of P?” I don’t want to play Pinocchio. I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s good. I don’t care. “What about Armored Core?” I don’t care about robots. I just want to replay Bloodborne for the first time again. If I could Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind] myself and just go have that experience again, I would do it.

You get to a certain age, too, where you don’t get as many new experiences when you hit the midpoint of life. At best, it’s like, Oh, that’s a pepper slightly hotter than a pepper I’ve eaten before. To have an experience fundamentally unlike anything you’ve had before, which is what I definitely had with Bloodborne and also playing Dark Souls I at 30 FPS and being able to enjoy it. I just never experienced a video game world that immersive that was also so up my alley in terms of the aesthetic and the restrained storytelling. I love it.

Were there other types of games that you explored at that time?
I played Hollow Knight, which was amazing. A lot of people had recommended that. I put a lot of time into that—80, 90 hours or something like that. That one, I really, really, really liked. I tried a bunch of roguelike… Roguelite? Roguelike? Whatever the term is. And it turns out those aren’t for me. I tried Enter the Gungeon. I got about 30 minutes into that—did not enjoy that. I tried Dead Cells. I “beat” Dead Cells the first time through and I was like, Eh. It’s not like those things are bad, it’s just fundamentally not for me. Even though I love these FromSoft games, my other favorite games are very far from FromSoft games. Like Fallout: New Vegas, which—until Bloodborne—was my end all be all of games. And before that, I was always a big fan of point-and-click Sierra adventures, like the Quest for Glory series. I loved those. I’m sure there’s some amount of retro point-and-click resurgence or something, but I’m not trying to chase that dragon. Those games were fun when I was 12. I don’t really care to shatter that illusion for myself and be like, Oh boy, it turns out this was really a piece of shit. So, I just let that be. I’ve tried a bunch of things and none of them have really stuck. [Thinking] You can tell that they really landed with me if I can’t even remember what they were. I downloaded Outer Wilds, started playing it and I was like, Maybe if I was in a different mood, I would enjoy this. And then I think at some point in there, I was like, Well, I’ll just do another playthrough Dark Souls I. And I did.

Is there anything in particular that causes you to check out?
The FromSoft games—with the exception of Sekiro: [Shadows Die Twice], which I have no interest in playing because I know it doesn’t play the same way and I don’t like parrying, I’m not good at parrying and I don’t want to play a game that’s based around the thing that I suck at—they are the intersection of things that I like: high fantasy or industrial age, Lovecraftian settings combined with difficult gameplay. I understand that these games have a reputation as being punishing, but there’s something about the roguelike genre where it’s so punishing for dying and you literally start over the game with brand new everything. I can appreciate abstractly the appeal of that, but it is incredibly unsatisfying to me and it keeps me from being invested in the game.

I think that’s part of the reason why I did really like Hollow Knight. I like the aesthetic. I like the cute/gross vibe that it had going on. But it was also still very much a Souls-y/Metroidvania kind of thing. Whenever I play a roguelike game, I feel like the game hates me and I don’t need that. I don’t need more things that make it hard to be in this world and those games don’t feel like my friends. FromSoft games, I don’t know if they feel like my friends, but they feel like they’re not bummed I’m there, if I’m going to continue this bizarre analogy of humanizing video games. There are kinds of storytelling that I like in games. The Fallout approach to this versus the FromSoft approach are very different, but they’re still very immersive to me. I feel absolutely like I’m in those worlds—for different reasons, but I’m in there. Whereas I feel like with those roguelike games or a lot of the other games I’ve tried to play, the story is secondary to what’s going on. There’s a story and that’s fine. But it’s almost like it’s an excuse for the game to exist more so than it is an integral element.

Tell us the tale of Garlic Man. How did he come about?
My Twitch chat is going to love this. Before the headlining tour that we did this spring with Conjurer and Wake, I’d said, “Maybe I’ll do some gaming on stream when I get back. What do y’all want to do?” Everyone was like, “Since you’re getting into the FromSoft stuff, do Elden Ring!” Like I said, somehow I hurt my hand at Milwaukee Metal Fest. I don’t know if I picked a case up funny or something. It wasn’t an issue then, but I got home the next day and my left hand was just fried. Fingers were fine, but I wasn’t going to be playing guitar. So I was like, All right, let’s do Elden Ring. That seems fun. When it comes to naming characters, it’s just stream of consciousness. And I wanted to name him Garlicson Mantera. I don’t know why, but that’s what I wanted. And there weren’t enough characters, so he became Garlic Man. That’s what I did on stream for several weeks and also off stream because I really, really liked it. I couldn’t pace myself. I couldn’t be like, I won’t play this again for three days. It’s like, I’ll just tell people what I did. I’ll tell them all the bosses I killed since then. And people seem to really enjoy it.

As a no-longer-young guy rediscovering a love of video games, I hope there’s something entertaining and genuine about that. There’s no precedent for a lot of the game mechanics or enemy attack patterns or anything for me, because it goes BioShock Infinite, nooothing and then Bloodborne, DS I, Elden Ring. Even just getting used to playing with a controller that wasn’t an Xbox 360 controller was a bit of a task for me. Watching me do things like huck myself off a cliff because I didn’t know which button I had mapped to backstep versus jump and do that over and over or ride my horse off a cliff. I killed that horse a lot. I’m glad he’s magical and comes back. I felt bad every time. I felt worse about the horse dying than about Garlic Man dying.

But Garlic Man, he’s an everyman, you know? He’s all of us struggling in a world he doesn’t understand as a middle-aged would-be hero. A person who wishes magic was real. I’m definitely not projecting or anything there. [Laughs] One of my regulars in my Twitch stream basically Photoshopped a giant nightmare garlic bulb onto the head of some kind of character model from Elden Ring or some FromSoft thing and then put a smiley face on it. It’s truly horrifying, but I love it so much. And so Garlic Man, even though I haven’t played Elden Ring in a while, his legacy lives on. When I started a new DS I playthrough, that was Garlic Man Sr. DS III, I think his name was [in a bad French accent] Garlique Junior, because I thought it sounded like if Jim Carrey’s The Mask was coming up with a French name for a child. This is what happens when you when you get sober, right? All those years of not being sober still affect your brain. You’re like, Well, I don’t know where these thoughts come from. But, eh, Garlique Junior. And that Garlique Junior got his ass beat in DS III because I’d already started to lose interest. And I was like, Yeah, yeah, we’ll finish the game. Whatever. Midir can kill us. That’s fine. Garlic Man lives inside all of us.

Image by Phil Heller

People often mention that it’s difficult to maintain commentary while they’re playing games on Twitch. Have you found that difficult at all? Do you think your experience as a performing musician has helped with being able to be on camera?
At no point am I self-conscious or uncomfortable being on camera because whether there’s 15 people or 500 people watching, I’ve been in front of people nonstop for a sizable chunk of my life. I mean, it’s better on a stage, but it would be weird to play Elden Ring on a stage for me because I’m not a pro gamer. I know a lot of people when they first start streaming are even hesitant to have a webcam, which for me—as someone who’s not particularly good at video games—I think you need to see my reaction to sucking at games to enjoy what you’re seeing. Otherwise, you’re just watching bad video.

And for the commentary part, again, I’m bad at video games. I can’t overstate this enough. If I was really intense, if I was trying to get a speed run down or do a challenge run, I think it would be a lot more difficult. But I’m already dying pretty often in these games and I’m there to have fun. I’m not trying to prove how great I am at any of these games. I want to beat them, but if it takes me one try, if it takes me 30 tries—whatever, I’m having a good time. It’s more about the experience of engaging with folks and—even if it’s done virtually—that shared experience. Then it is like a full-on performance for me, which reflects how I think about being on stage. Yeah, I’m on stage, but it’s the interaction of me and the guys and the crowd that makes it a thing. Otherwise, I’m just some jerk-off on stage. It’s the same with Twitch. I would rather miss an attack or step off a cliff or whatever and be engaged with the people that are there to hang out than I would like try to show them how great I am at parrying—because I’m not.

I still struggle with it in large part because technology is suddenly confusing to me. It used to not be and then I got older and then suddenly it’s hard. People are like, “Oh, you get this peripheral and you get a stream deck and you get a third monitor.” I’m like, I just want to be here with the thing and do the thing. I know I miss comments sometimes, but I try to make that a priority over having a polished performative aspect of the thing, which is also kind of the whole point of streaming for me in the first place, to have this human connection. And that means it’s always going to be a little bit rough. I’m going to click the wrong scene transition. So many times I’ve muted myself while we watch something and then not unmuted myself. And I’m talking and they’re like, “Dude, you gotta unmute the mic. You gotta unmute your guitar, man. We can’t hear anything.” I’m like, “Oh god, oh god.” I unplug things, I knock the camera over, that kind of stuff. And just letting it be what it is has made it a lot less stressful than it otherwise could have been.

Are you looking to play more games on stream in the future?
Yeah. Elden Ring DLC, when that comes out, oh, it’s on. This will be the first time a DLC has come out for a game that I’m actually playing at that point, maybe in my entire life. I’m excited about that. I want to play Baldur’s Gate 3, I think. I love [Dungeons & Dragons]. I don’t know how excited I am about the idea of playing D&D by myself for a long time on the computer. I’m sure it’s fun. People have seemed to really like it. I feel like I should be more excited about that game than I am, but I have intentionally not touched it because if I do like it, then that’s all I’ll do. And having just gotten done with the aforementioned FromSoft binge, I need to just not live in front of a computer or a PlayStation for six hours a day. Just give it a little breathing room for fear of burning myself out for another decade. Probably other stuff, too, but those are the two main things that I’ve been thinking about. I’m mildly interested in Diablo IV because I played Diablo II so much. But also, I feel like I could just go back and play Diablo II and I’d probably be just as happy. Again, a game that looks very dated, but how much do you really change the gameplay for an isometric dungeon crawler kind of thing? It’s a prettier version of the same game they’ve been making for 20 years.

It sounds like you played a lot of games when you were younger and then you stepped off for a little while. Were you pretty consistent leading up to that point? What caused you to step away?
There have been like chunks of life. When I was really little, [I] had the Nintendo. This is in the days of local video rental, like Blockbuster, but even the local business having Nintendo games and my parents let me rent one for the weekend. So, I’d rent Contra or Rambo. This is back in the day where you had no idea if a game was going to be any good. You got it based on the box art. I did a lot of that, probably up until around age 10 or 11. I started playing guitar, drinking beer and smoking weed and stuff when I was 12, so that ate up a lot of time. I got more into computer gaming, much more so than console gaming, in college and that’s when a lot of the Bethesda games were a thing for me until probably around 10 years ago—and now that I think about it, about the time Khemmis started to get pretty active. I guess I’m in my third gaming epoch of my life where I have some time and it’s nice to do something that isn’t play guitar now that guitar is work. I enjoy playing guitar all the time, but it’s more around a sense of self-awareness. If I play guitar with every free moment of every day, I’m going to be so one-dimensional. I have to have some other things I like to do. Also, it gets me out of the home studio. It certainly coincides with having some semblance of free time, time to actually have a hobby.

Khemmis supplied a song to the Dark Pictures Anthology with your cover of “A Conversation with Death” being the opening theme in four titles to date [Man of Medan, Little Hope, House of Ashes and The Devil in Me]. How did this come about?
Way back in 2016, we were going to do “Empty Throne” for the Decibel Flexi Series. We’re like, “We’re going to go into the studio and record with [producer Dave] Otero and we’re going to do just one song. We should do something else.” And [vocalist/guitarist] Nate [Garrett] from Spirit Adrift, who I’ve known for a long time at this point, 15 years, 16 years, had just started Spirit Adrift. I think he had just put out the first album [2016’s Chained to Oblivion] and we’d talked about doing a split 7-inch. We thought that’d be fun. You don’t see a lot of split 7-inches in general, but especially in things that aren’t punk or grindcore. And we’re like, “This could be kind of cool. What if we found some old songs?” We didn’t even establish old folk songs, just old songs and found an interesting way to approach it. And Zach had the idea of using Lloyd Chandler’s original version. People know “O Death” from Ralph Stanley’s version from [2000 movie] O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but the first recorded version is from this itinerant Appalachian preacher and it was completely a capella. Zach was like, “I think we do something with this.” I literally took his century-old recording, put it in my recording software, chopped it up and then worked out where chord changes would be. I brought to the guys with a rough structure and was like, “I think we could do this thing. We could take this thing that is a song, yes—but it has no chorus. There’s, like, 39 verses. It’s so far away from contemporary Western music. We could do something cool with it.” So, we jammed it out. We got it together and we’re like, “All right, we’re going to use this on this split with Spirit Adrift.” What’s fun about that is [I] hit Nate up after we’d gotten it together and he was like, “You’re not going to believe the song that I have for the split. It’s ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’’’ And we’re like, “What are the chances that we would both go to something that—although not originally from that soundtrack—were both featured on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?

We put that split out on War Crime Recordings, a small side project label owned by Steve Joh from Prosthetic Records. And—kind of out of nowhere—we got an email from Supermassive Games. Phil was pumped because he’d played Until Dawn. I had no idea who these people were. I thought it was a scam or something. At that point, we didn’t have an attorney, we didn’t have a manager. I think they sent it to Dave Adelson at 20 Buck Spin and he sent it to us. And they’re like, “We’d like to talk to you about licensing the song. Here’s our attorney.” And we’re like, OK, I guess we gotta get an attorney. We got all the stuff worked out since 2017. Actually, the money that they paid us to license that song, we bought the van that we used—we still have [it] to this day—but it’s what we toured the [2017] Decibel Tour in. We bought that van, like, two months before that tour started, which was incredible. The van we had before was a ’76 Ford passenger van. There was no way it would have made it through that tour.

So, it happens. And then we just don’t hear anything. We’re like, “Cool, I guess we get paid.” The contracts [say] they get to use it in this video game series and if they don’t ever use it, it doesn’t matter—we get paid either way. Fast forward several years. We’re in the studio again with Otero recording our cover of Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark.” I think it was Otero, actually—his phone started blowing up and his kid who is very big into gaming and stuff is like, “You have to watch this video from this…” What’s the guy’s name? He’s, like, Swedish or something.

Yeah. So anyway, [they] sent this video and Dave brought it up. And it was him playing the game. I guess the review embargo had been lifted that day. And there was our song on this video that already had 1.5 million views or something. And we were like, Huh. No one told us the game was coming out. We just assumed that they forgot or the studio went under. And it came out and it is by far our most streamed song. It’s our hit single, we close our set with it. There are still people that will send us messages. They’re like, “I finally got to play this game. I can’t believe you guys are in it,” or, “I found you through this game.” So many people have found us through that, people who maybe aren’t as knowledgeable about the underground or maybe don’t even listen to a lot of metal got into Khemmis through that song. And it’s all because of what looked like a scam email from from some British people. Some truly delightful British people, don’t get me wrong. I want to be very clear. They’ve always been great with us and super, super nice. It’s cool. Even when the most recent one came out [The Devil in Me], my wife and I watched Jacksepticeye play it and he was rocking out. He apparently likes Khemmis and he was getting down to that song. And I was like, This is neat. This is just cool, man. This is a pretty cool feeling, you know?

But, for anybody wondering, “How does my band do that?” Pure dumb luck. There are institutional avenues and you can hire people to try to put this stuff together. But we just got lucky. I mean, that’s really what it comes down to.

“So many people have found us through that, people who maybe aren’t as knowledgeable about the underground or maybe don’t even listen to a lot of metal got into Khemmis through that song. And it’s all because of what looked like a scam email from from some British people. Some truly delightful British people, don’t get me wrong.”

Do you see gaming as part of your future? Will there be a fourth epoch in your future?
First of all, have you seen the state of the world today? I’m not making a whole lot of plans for the future, Hoss. I’m trying to live in the now.

I truly don’t know. I think that I’m at a point where I’m less concerned with keeping up with what’s new, to whatever extent I ever was. There’s certainly times where I wanted to know what was going on in the state of gaming. I like these things and if I have the time, I’ll keep doing it. But I don’t feel so invested in it as far as it being part of my identity, that if I don’t play games for six months or a year or five years, that I can’t just turn around and pick it right back up. In all seriousness, thinking about just where am I now in my life, at this age and having the career that I have, I have time to at least sometimes pretend I’m a dude in a crazy fantasy world and I fight monsters. And I think that any time that I have the time and energy to dedicate to that, I’ll keep doing that.

Tickets to see Khemmis at Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Denver 2023 are available here.
Follow Khemmis on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Follow Ben on Twitch here.

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