Illustration by John Garrison
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the games for which Gordon McGladdery hired John Robert Matz to compose.
Ben Babbitt created the soundtrack for one of the most critically acclaimed indie video games of the past decade, but it wasn't the fulfillment of a long-standing aspiration: he didn't even consider the possibility of working in games till his second year in the sound department at the School of the Art Institute. And even then, it wasn't his idea.
In 2011 his classmate Jake Elliott, who'd launched an embryonic game studio called Cardboard Computer, asked Babbitt if he wanted to compose something. Babbitt, now 31, didn't play video games growing up—his parents wouldn't let him—and he still hadn't had much experience with them in college. But he knew music. His father, Frank, plays viola in the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and his mother, Cornelia, is a cellist with the Chicago Philharmonic. Babbitt rebelled as a preteen by playing pop-punk and emo, but his parents stayed supportive—when he was 16, they made guest appearances on the self-titled debut by his indie-rock band, This Is Cinema.
By the time Babbitt met Elliott in 2011, he'd become part of Chicago's indie-rock community. He lived in Logan Square, in a coach house behind Mark Trecka, front man of Pillars & Tongues, and Babbitt joined that mystical avant-folk group. Babbitt also turned his basement into a DIY show space called Hotel Earth, which most notably hosted Angel Olsen. Everything about Babbitt's musical life up to that point had epitomized the typical Logan Square indie-scene experience—but then he played some of his compositions in an SAIC class called Electronic Writing. Elliott liked what he heard and offered to hire Babbitt to soundtrack a game that he and an SAIC grad named Tamas Kemenczy had been working on. It was called Kentucky Route Zero, and it would end up consuming nine years of Babbitt's professional life.
No one had ever commissioned Babbitt to write music, and he'd never collaborated with people who didn't make music themselves. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. "It was like, 'Why wouldn't I want to write a couple pieces of music for this thing and get paid a bit of money? That sounds cool.'"
The job turned out to involve far more than a couple pieces of music. As Kentucky Route Zero evolved, Elliott and Kemenczy realized it needed to be a multivolume game. They released what became the first act in January 2013, and the fifth and final act came out January 28, 2020. Early in this protracted process, Babbitt became part of Cardboard Computer, and his work with the two developers became far more collaborative.
Kentucky Route Zero is a sprawling, surrealist point-and-click journey through backroads and subterranean tunnels, and it had earned extraordinary acclaim even before Cardboard Computer finished the game. Wired recently invoked "the next Great American Novel" to praise the complex storytelling of Kentucky Route Zero, whose elegantly blocky 3-D environments evoke the hard-to-pin-down feelings of economic and communal decline.
Babbitt's music, which includes immersive ambient soundscapes and rustic folk numbers, plays a central role in the game's world-building. Babbitt recruited his ex-girlfriend Emily Cross (of Cross Record) and his old Logan Square housemate Bob Buckstaff (of Mutts) to support his acoustic guitar on the folky material, which they recorded under the name the Bedquilt Ramblers; the band's onscreen avatars appear as background characters throughout Kentucky Route Zero.
I first heard of Kentucky Route Zero because of Babbitt's music. In 2014, I found his score for Act III while doing one of my regular Bandcamp searches for music tagged "Chicago." (Babbitt lives in Los Angeles now, and Elliott is in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, but Kemenczy—the only other employee of Cardboard Computer—remains based here.) I was smitten with the song "Too Late to Love You," whose whale-call vocals undulate atop chintzy lounge-music claves and thin, crystalline synths. Babbitt is singing, but he's processed his voice to sound feminine, alien, and a little robotic—the song is credited to a game character named Junebug.
Babbitt has since made an entire album as Junebug, separate from his Kentucky Route Zero work. He finished the record in 2015, and it finally comes out later this year on an LA-based label called iam8bit, which specializes in video-game music. Vinyl preorders have already sold out.
Discovering Babbitt piqued my curiosity about other Chicagoans in his field. I wondered if there were places where composers go to meet one another and exchange ideas, the way game developers do. Columbia College and DePaul University offer game-design degrees—the latter advertises the program's connection to Chicago indie company Young Horses, whose founders made the cheeky 2010 hit Octodad while at DePaul. Those schools provide built-in opportunities for in-person networking, and several other organizations—including Indie City Co-op and Cards Against Humanity—rent space to programmers and upstart game companies.
DePaul's games degree includes a mandated sound-design course; Columbia requires a two-semester course sequence in video-game music as part of its Music Composition for the Screen MFA, and offers a survey course for composers in production for games, augmented reality, and virtual reality. But in general, game music is an appendage to game development, not a discipline with its own parallel infrastructure. Musicians usually collaborate with programming teams, rather than writing independently and then looking for buyers. And given that programming teams, like the one at Cardboard Computer, can be spread across the country, can a "scene" of game composers emerge anywhere but online?
My question brought me to Marc Junker, a game composer who lives in Vancouver, B.C., and works for a company in Aurora called the Yetee that specializes in video-game merchandise: T-shirts, plush toys, enamel pins, music, and more. Junker joined the Yetee team in 2014 and oversees its record label, which launched the same year. "A lot of the games we work with, they're famous indie games," Junker says. "They have huge audiences and their soundtrack is only available through Steam or on the artist's Bandcamp, and it's not necessarily getting the pomp and circumstance it totally deserves."
Yetee Records has released more than 50 records and cassettes, including a seven-inch of music from Octodad sequel Dadliest Catch, a 12-inch of the score from 80s Konami arcade classic Gradius, and the soundtrack for TumbleSeed, a two-dimensional game in which a tottering seedling ascends a mountain pockmarked with holes and traps.
TumbleSeed is the creation of developers Benedict Fritz and Greg Wohlwend, who made it at the Cards Against Humanity incubator. Composer Joel Corelitz, who created the game's soundtrack, met them there in 2014 and soon began collaborating. I found him, like Babbitt, by cross-referencing the "video game" and "Chicago" tags on Bandcamp. That technique also led me to two other Chicago-area composers, John Robert Matz and Charles Heinrich (who makes music as ec2151). Each of them took a different path into the industry, which didn't help my attempts to locate a community of composers, but they all had useful information to share about shaping the sound of video games.
Heinrich, 28, grew up in the Jefferson Park area and began his formal music education at age eight. He took ten years of piano lessons and also picked up cornet and trumpet, which he played in school jazz bands and orchestras. He also joined the marching band at the De La Salle Institute, where he graduated in 2009.
As much time as Heinrich spent on music, he also played a lot of video games. He grew up on Super Nintendo, then moved to the Nintendo 64, cycling through the system's classic characters—Mario, Zelda, Kirby. In high school, as Heinrich began dabbling in composition, he dreamed of learning to shape the mood of a narrative with music. Even at that age, though, he was pretty sure the world of film music was out of his reach. "I want to create those emotional moments and help tell stories through sound," he says. "Video games seemed like the avenue—that was a step I could take."
In 2007, Heinrich started making rudimentary compositions with free multitrack music software—especially one developed by Russian composer Shiru8bit, which emulated the sound of the Sega Genesis. It reminded Heinrich of the Yamaha YM2151 sound chip, which he particularly liked—it was used in many 80s arcade games, and Heinrich's "ec2151" alias is in part a reference to it.
As a student at Loyola, Heinrich bought a copy of FL Studio on sale. "I've been riding off of that $100 purchase now for over ten years," he says. "That's the best $100 I've ever spent yet." He majored in history (he now works as an archivist for the Archdiocese of Chicago), and he confined music to his free time. He also did most of his gaming alone or with select friends, and he didn't care for the online multiplayer experience. "I never got involved in meetups, competitive gaming, or gaming clubs," he says. "I always preferred playing at my own pace, and I usually prefer single-player games to begin with."
Heinrich has sought out communities of composers, though, and the closest he's come to finding them has been in Internet forums—especially Reddit and OverClocked ReMix, a long-running site dedicated to video-game music. "The OC ReMix forum was very good for learning music production and compositional skills, as well as getting general 'business' advice from composers who would go on to be bigger names in the industry (such as Andrew Aversa, alias Zircon, and Jake Kaufman, aka Virt)," he says. "Nowadays I mostly interact in chiptune-making communities, indie-game dev communities, and one very small community of rhythm-game/indie-game composers."
Heinrich began uploading his music to Soundcloud about nine years ago. His first paid opportunities came via blind messages from developers who'd found his Soundcloud page—that's how he ended up working on the 2019 digital pinball game Demon's Tilt. "Three of my four projects were from people reaching out, out of the blue: 'I heard your music online, I'm interested in you working on my game,'" Heinrich says. "The first of those, the guy messaged me: 'I'm working on this game, I really like the sound that you make'—referring to my chiptune music. 'I think this would be a perfect fit.'"
Chiptune pays tribute to the sounds of outmoded video games, whose technological limitations severely restricted their music but also forced a lot of make-do ingenuity. By the late 90s, when John Robert Matz was old enough to start taking inspiration from games, those limitations were long gone; Lennie Moore's music for the 1999 intergalactic adventure Outcast involved a choir and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
"It was the first score where I remember hearing an orchestra of this scope before—a live-performance capture that fits so well with the game," says Matz, 34. "It sounded like a really, really good film score. As someone who'd been playing in orchestras in high school and was a huge film-score nerd, it was really kind of mind-blowing."
In his early teens, Matz played cornet and trumpet in an ensemble for home-schooled students. In the mid-2000s he studied music education at Elmhurst College, focusing on brass and vocal performance. While he nursed his ambitions as a composer, he supported himself teaching. He found his window into game music after discovering a 2010 demo version of the multiplayer sci-fi game Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator.
Artemis developer Thom Robertson had offered to send gamers a free copy of the finished game if they filmed themselves playing with friends, uploaded the video to YouTube, and sent him the link. Matz watched some of those YouTube videos and noticed that they were soundtracked with simple ambient tones or borrowed music from Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek.
"It told me something very interesting, and playing the game confirmed it: there was no music in this game," Matz says. "It's a very neat game, and it has no music. I had this terrible, terrible idea—what if we film this, then I write music for this video and send it to the developer, who's going to look at it anyway, and say, 'Hey, if you like the music here, I wrote it. I couldn't help but notice your game has no music. If you like this, I'd love to maybe work with you on this.'" Robertson hired Matz to create an orchestral score for Artemis, and it was added to the game in 2011.
"My first job was actually writing music for commercials—it took me a long time to find video games," says Joel Corelitz. "I knew I wanted to do it; I just didn't know how. Nobody has a road map."
Corelitz, 40, had already spent about a decade in music when Sony enlisted him to compose for The Unfinished Swan, a 2012 adventure game about a child tracking down a renegade swan that's escaped from a painting. Corelitz had been in the field since he graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in 2002, first working for the commercial composition studio Steve Ford Music and then becoming a freelancer five years later. When Sony offered him that first video-game job, he was in his early 30s.
"By the time I finally got to write music for a video game, I was ready," he says. "I had enough iteration under my belt. I'd figured out how to take feedback, how to revise things, how to not take feedback personally, how to execute revisions quickly. I've gotten a lot of experience learning the skill that I think is the most important for any composer. It's not about creating the best piece of music; it's about creating the right piece of music."
In 2018, Columbia College hired Corelitz to teach its two-semester course on music for games. Last year the Hollywood Reporter ranked Columbia's program third in the world, behind Juilliard and the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Film is its central focus, but Corelitz has pushed it further into the world of video-game music.
None of the people I interviewed had anyone to show them how to become a professional video-game composer. But Corelitz can now show students that there is a pathway—and that it's open to them.
"Most of the music that's written over the course of a game's development never gets heard by the audience," Corelitz says. "Most of it ends up on the cutting-room floor, so to speak."
One of the factors that makes game music so labor intensive is the necessity for it to respond to a player's decisions. Matz makes the task sound like toddler-proofing a kitchen. "It's a tricky thing to kind of wrap your head around sometimes, because it's basically not unlike writing for film—or more accurately, not unlike writing for live theater productions, where things aren't perfect. Except you're writing for the least cooperative actor in existence, who is the player," he says. "You are thinking about writing interactive music in a way that's like, 'OK, what's the worst way the player can break this? What can they do? They could stop at this point and make a sandwich, and we have to make the music work.'"
Playing the game also helps a composer find the right tone for its music. As Corelitz explains, this also takes time. "You have to learn about the lore of the game, the story, the characters, the way the game feels," he says. "If you're writing a piece of music for a certain place in the game, you have to figure out where that piece lives in the game, why it's being used there, and what it's communicating. The only way to do that, I think, is to just live with it for a while."
Every composer I interviewed echoed Heinrich's rule of thumb: "The client's needs come first." That can require composers to leave their comfort zones or work outside styles they find personally interesting. It's difficult enough to make a piece of interactive mood music interesting in a vacuum, and taking into account the gameplay and the designers' tastes makes it even trickier.
The frequently protracted process of writing music for a game does have an upside: it gives composers lots of time to refine the textures of their soundtracks. As Babbitt worked on Kentucky Route Zero, he found inventive ways to broaden his palette. While he was writing for Act II, for instance, his mom put him in touch with the musical director of Highland Park Presbyterian Church so he could use its organ. "Probably the most extreme example was attempting to learn the theremin for the fourth chapter of the game—it's incredibly difficult," he says. "I got one at Guitar Center, basically got what I needed out of it, and returned it."
"Video-game music has always been, in my opinion, in a limbo state," says Marc Junker of Yetee Records. "When I was younger, I would look really, really, really deep for downloads of all these Japanese CD releases of, like, orchestration for Final Fantasy soundtracks—like Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon, this Celtic chamber ensemble recording of the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack. It was the coolest thing ever. In terms of where you'd find that, outside of some Angelfire, Geocities zip file downloads—it was impossible. Nowadays it's obviously better than that."
Yetee has helped improve the availability of video-game soundtracks, in the process demonstrating the healthy overlap between gamers and collectors of vinyl and cassettes. For its vinyl release of Corelitz's TumbleSeed music, the label provided all the ideas for art and presentation. "They really understand the audience for vinyl, especially for video-game vinyl," Corelitz says. "They basically said, 'We'll do this—edit down 40 minutes of material, and we'll throw it on a piece of vinyl and sell it.'" In 2018, Yetee released the TumbleSeed soundtrack on a picture disc emblazoned with the game's titular seed.
Yetee's catalog also demonstrates the overlap between video-game music and more conventional pop. It includes music from Junker's vaporwave project, R23X—his EP Re-Gen came out in 2017 on picture disc and VHS. The label's 2018 release Synthetic Core 88, issued on vinyl, cassette, CD, and 3.5-inch floppy diskette, embodies an even more intimate symbiosis between video-game music and contemporary electronic music: it presents itself as a classic early-90s video-game soundtrack, but the game doesn't actually exist. The music is the work of Chicago producer and composer Equip, who's since released an album via the 100% Electronica label run by New York cult favorite George Clanton.
Video-game music obviously communicates with adjacent pop styles, so I asked Babbitt whether he carried over anything from Kentucky Route Zero when he contributed synths, string arrangements, and other auxiliary instrumentation to Angel Olsen's recent fourth album, All Mirrors. "I have my aesthetic interests and tendencies," he says. "I worked on both projects, so they come through in some way."
Corelitz knew he wanted to make music for video games before The Unfinished Swan, but he also knew he wanted to work in more than one medium—and be able to call his own shots. "I wanted to find a job where I could experiment with lots of different styles, where I could do it by myself, in a room by myself," he says. "For me, that's where I feel most at home. It's like a lab."
I approached this story looking for a community of Chicago game composers, and though I found one, it's impossible to separate from the community of Chicago game developers. And since composition work can be siloed—Corelitz does in fact work in a room by himself—location doesn't necessarily matter. Matz has done much of his professional networking online: "I definitely lurked around the Northern Sounds forums back in the day, picking up some early knowledge," he says. "But mostly I frequent various Facebook groups for game-audio folks nowadays. Great folks, useful sounding boards, and solid advice."
Matz met his friend Gordon McGladdery, director and composer for Vancouver studio A Shell in the Pit, at the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. McGladdery ended up hiring him to make the music for the 2017 adventure game For the King and the 2019 collectible card game Mythgard. He's currently composing for games being developed by teams based in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Bordeaux, France.
Indie games can be developed anywhere, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have colleagues in your backyard. To push back against the atomized nature of the business, Matz is helping build more local infrastructure for video-game composers. He's a collaborator in Chicago collective Unlock Audio, which outsources sound and voice-over work for game developers from all over.
Corelitz may not share his workspace, but he appreciates community. For much of his life, he had wanderlust, and often imagined living anywhere but Chicago. But while working on TumbleSeed, he became a regular at the Cards Against Humanity incubator, where the developers rented space—he liked talking shop and meeting other game designers. "That's when Chicago really felt like home," he says. "I just stopped wondering what it would be like to live somewhere else." v