There’s a moment that happens early in Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero that should have been completely mundane. Truck driver Conway arrives at a remote petrol station called Equus Oils and in order to get directions, he does a favour for Joseph – the owner. He travels into the basement and resets the circuit breaker to turn on the power. In any other game, this would be just another point-and-click task to advance the story and keep things moving.
When Conway emerges, something subtle happens. The lights are on and only now can the player first see Conway, Joseph and the ambiguously named dog. But the most important appearance is that of Ben Babbitt, Kentucky Route Zero‘s composer. His minimalist electronic score is first heard in this moment. Up until now, the game has been silent, save for footsteps and the occasional low hum of the neighbouring highway. The game completely opens up through the use of Babbitt’s first piece – The Stars Drop Away (Equus Oils). It is magically nuanced and hints at the mysterious mood that the rest of the game will possess. As a result of how it is placed and how the track itself is constructed, the circuit breaker being reset becomes a truly special moment.
Based in Chicago, I talked to Babbitt about how this track and his overall score for the game was put together.
“(The developers) Jake (Elliott) and Tamas (Kememczy) wanted me to record about five or six bluegrass songs using old Bill Monroe recordings as a template and then make ambient/electronic abstractions of those songs in the same key, so that they could be blended or faded together in the game. Although Jake and Tamas gave me those parameters, I didn’t feel boxed in or that I had to produce a very specific result; I had quite a lot of freedom to explore and develop my own sound world for the soundtrack.”
“The Stars Drop Away (Equus Oils) was part of the original batch of music I made that corresponded directly to the bluegrass songs. This particular piece used ‘Just a Song of Old Kentucky’ as its starting point. At the time, I would often begin work on a piece by improvising on my keyboard and then responding to that, building up layers of keyboard tracks and then whittle that down to something I could consider finished. I think I used an old, half-broken Wurlitzer electric piano for some of this one. I live in a house with four of my best friends and they all play music as well, so there’s always a salvaged keyboard or strange piece of equipment to work with.”
Establishing mood for the player is crucial. Through level design, voice acting or gameplay mechanics, a sense of place can be easily achieved. But on some levels, the correct piece of music can do half the work for you. It can help set the tone for the player’s experience and sometimes if it is truly good, the player doesn’t even realise until afterwards.
“I was certainly aware of the intention to use music to establish mood,” says Babbitt. “I’ve always been drawn to music people often refer to as ‘mood music’, music that might be without narrative or lyrical content so it was great to have an opportunity to focus on that and get ‘moody’ with the music for the game.”
A welcome aspect in designing music for a game is that it can be more organic that the game itself. It can be dependent on where it fits into the player’s experience but it can also be free of any previously held restrictions throughout the composing process.
“The way the music is used now has changed considerably from how it was intended to function at the beginning of working on the game. When Jake and Tamas approached me about the music initially, they wanted the recordings of the bluegrass and hymn stuff to sort of fade out/into ambient versions of those songs, depending on where the player was in the game. That didn’t really happen and the vision for how music exists in the game has changed. I’m excited about how it’s going to play out in the remaining acts.”
Every inch of Kentucky Route Zero oozes mystery. Who are those barefoot men pushing that plane? What exactly happened deep in that mine? How did the third fish tank produce such effects on Conway? One of the most intriguing moments is the baffling conversation Conway has with a mysterious woman named Weaver. She is found at the Marquez Farmhouse and after Conway delivers and sets up her TV, she disappears. Completely vanished, along with her car. But not before some truly mind-bending dialogue and another remarkable piece of Babbitt’s music ties everything together to further push the player into this tale of remote loneliness and potential madness. Through the croaking frogs and hooting owls, comes Ghosts In The Static (Marquez Farm).
Episode 2 of Kentucky Route Zero does not yet have a release date but Babbitt tells me he’s on board for all five. Considering how intertwined the desolate vibe and mysterious foreboding both the game and music produce, this is a partnership that currently seems limitless.
“I will be making a lot more music for the future episodes of Kentucky Route Zero, probably much more than I’ve already made. I’m collaborating more closely now with Jake and Tamas, exploring a relationship between the development of the visual and narrative aspects of the game that is more integrated with the sonic/musical aspects.”
By the end of episode one, Kentucky Route Zero leaves a very strong impression. It keeps enough questions hanging to remain interesting without confusing the player outright. When it abruptly dumps you back to the desktop (I guess there’ll be credits at the end of episode five), it takes a moment or you to return to the real world that doesn’t have a burning tree, a church with a ghostly choir or a dog whose name may or may not be Blue. Or Homer.
A significant part of that final impression is Ben Babbitt’s score. It is convincing and beautiful. Every time it emerges throughout the game, it seems effortless. As if it completely belonged. You can’t ask for more from a video game soundtrack.