Video games and metal have had a deep and vivid association ever since the latter became popular in the early 1980s, exchanging not only aesthetics but also a sense of community among their respective fans. Black metal’s fixation with Tolkienesque hinterlands and wars lends itself wonderfully to dark fantasy games or dungeon crawlers, while the splatter-heavy FPS universe, which made its breakthrough to the eSports and betting scenes (such as betting companies in Rwanda) could easily integrate much of its more blunt force trauma of death metal. The scope of their collaboration seems limitless.
Though less frequent than metalheads (such as ourselves) might like, such partnerships do exist. For example, tech-death legends Origin might choreograph jumpscares and flesh-ripping monsters for an elemental sci-fi horror experience, or a flamboyant power metal band might give an OTT soundtrack to a sword-and-sorcery RPG.
It has been evident since the inception of heavy metal, especially in the black and death subgenres, that a preoccupation with the strange, fantastical, and macabre has been a mainstay of heavy music. After all, demons, dungeons, snakes, and skulls as decorations can be found on many black and white covers.
Similar to this, video games have centered on the fantasized kingdoms, worlds, and alternate realities of their designers given their heavy reliance on escapism. Similar to the vivid and frequently astonishing picture hurled at the audience of conceptual death metal, positioning the player at the center of an unknown world is similar. There’s an unavoidable overlap between the two fields.
After all, just as essential music can be both thrilling and transformative, so too can video games.
The Influence of Metal
Gaming and metal have successfully merged for many years. Early examples include Holy Diver from 1989, which featured references to artists such as Slayer, King Crimson, Ozzy Osbourne, and of course Dio himself. Yet, if you’ve never heard of it, it’s due to the fact that the game has never been released outside of Japan. In the beginning, music and gaming collaborations were confined to tie-ins, such as the arcade game Journey Escape (1982) or Mötley Crüe pinball game Crüe Ball (1992). Later, bands like Iron Maiden and Queen would accomplish the same feat with their albums Ed Hunter from 1999 and Queen: The eYe, one year earlier.
Predictably, some of the first games worth considering are those developed by id Software, whose co-founder and designer, John Romero, essentially made a game by listening to techno and bands like Slayer, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden nonstop while creating 1993’s DOOM, a fleshy, gore-splattered work of art that has been producing its own mutated, blood-soaked offspring for decades. Bobby Prince, the soundtrack’s composer, created a mash-up of elements to go with the shooting and blood nearly oozing from the screen. The outcome is a churning, ominous soundtrack that continues to pound ears today. Later reimaginings, like Mick Gordon’s 2016 recording, are equally valid.
Additionally, vocalists from Frontierer, Aborted, Vault Dweller, Immortal Bird, Wildspeaker, Tengger Cavalry, Sectioned, The Anchor, and Black Crown Initiate were gathered to record screams and grunts as a heavy metal choir for the DOOM Eternal (2020) soundtrack. This continues the DOOM franchise’s connection to heavier music. Who else shouts this loudly and proficiently, after all?
Trent Reznor, who characterizes his contributions as “textures and ambiances”, contributed drone-driven soundscapes to Quake, the deeper, darker, and more ominous sensation from the same creators in 1996. The nailgun weaponry that appears in the game and whose ammunition boxes bear the recognizable NIN emblem is a reflection of his work. Duke Nukem 3D, the third and also most popular game of the series at the time, is another 1996 release worth taking a look at. The soundtrack included a mix of hip-hop and metal, with acts like Type O Negative, Megadeth, and Coal Chamber appearing for the latter genre.
Heavy Musical Accompaniment
Several teenagers’ metal or punk revivals in the 2000s have been the subject of entire stories, thanks to programs like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Its success reflected the growth of skateboarding as a sport as well as a DIY subculture that had its own clothes and aesthetic. The music, a mashup of hip-hop, skate punk, and alternative rock, may have been the most notable component of this.
Although there were hints of metal to be discovered and the games undoubtedly served as a launching pad for many aspiring metalheads, it’s noteworthy that metal was never fully embraced in the games. Considering that nu-metal was reaching its commercial apex at the time, it’s likely that this was a stroke of exceptional foresight in retrospect; nonetheless, it still begs the question of whether a game has ever genuinely adopted metal or heavy music at its base.
One may argue that the Super Nintendo game Rock N’ Roll Racing from 1993 was an early instance of an idea being run with. The chiptune versions of “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath and “Highway Star” by Deep Purple used in the racing game are still instantly recognizable today, and they give the game’s 16-bit legend a furious pace.
There are also games like Carmageddon (1997), which was notorious for being restricted owing to its violence and incorporated three tracks from Fear Factory’s Demanufacture, giving the already highly controversial game a certain edge. In addition to giving the genre its name, the Twisted Metal series featured both original heavy tracks and later songs by artists like One Minute Silence and Rob Zombie. While it’s a shame the game itself doesn’t quite live up to the soundtrack, 2010’s Splatterhouse, with a soundtrack that includes Lamb of God, Mastodon, Municipal Waste, Goatwhore, High on Fire, and more, deserves a mention.
The heavier OSTs of the Metal Gear series and the pummeling dance music of the WipeOut series are just a couple examples of games that have drawn inspiration from the darker edges of music, but there are innumerable other franchises that have endorsed heavier sounds to soundtrack their franchises without going full metal too.
So yes, there’s heavy metal in games, but it’s not usually the main attraction. Up until you take a peek at Brütal Legend from 2010. With a playful yet impassioned examination of the genre, the video game is a heavy music-targeted love letter and the pinnacle of metal as a game concept. The protagonist Eddie Riggs, a roadie who goes to rescue a mythological land that appears to come to life in iconic ’80s record covers, is controlled by the player (excellently voiced by Jack Black). To emphasize the novelty, one of the player’s armaments is a flying V that they can employ to roast opponents with fiery chords. Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy (RIP), Lita Ford, Tim Curry, and Rob Halford were all featured in the game’s outstanding voice cast, which was also full of metal royalty.
The Influence of Gaming
Incidentally, metal has influenced games such as Brütal Legend in the opposite direction as well. Bands have either adopted the story or discovered gaming features that fit their artistic ambitions for every game that uses metal as an influence.
The odd chirps and beeps of dungeon synth have recently undergone a comeback, drawing inspiration from the 8-bit and personal computer period. The mood of skeleton-filled and text-based mazes continues to be mysterious, and there is an undeniable connection between the two.
The “Nintendocore“ style was created by artists such Horse the Band, who incorporated chiptune and synthesizer components that were directly influenced either by the 8- and 16-bit era within their hardcore-influenced sound, during a brief fad in the early 2000s. Even songs on characters from video games appeared, such as “Cutsman“ from the Mega Man franchise. This combination was fantastic, but it eventually lost its appeal when the novelty wore off.
Bands that have recently adopted gaming may have created the closest thing to a direct connection that is conceivable. A prime example is the amazing Firelink, whose entire body of work is based on the Soulsborne video games from FromSoftware. It’s wonderful that they have chosen to use the games’ tale as a blank canvas on which to draw their own storylines rather than directly retelling it. Their own mix of atmospheric black metal and slashing, vicious death metal is relentless in a way that echoes the series’ renownedly difficult gameplay. There’s obviously something about the Soulsborne game series that appeals to metal musicians as seen by the fact that Garden of Eyes, Kosmogyr, Putrescine, Visigoth, Vicar Amelia, Orphanofkos, Plagis, Soulmass, Antre Tomb, Cainhurst, Mold, and many, many others have all embraced the franchise.
Another excellent example is the Texas-based metal band Cara Neir, who just released the amazing Phase Out, an homage to the 8-bit era. It already ranks among the most talked-about releases this year thanks to the use of chiptune and a complete conceptual surrender to making a record full of references to fantasy and role-playing games. Recently, one band member also issued a companion solo project under the pseudonym Gonemage.
Similar to Noctule, a Skyrim-inspired black metal group from Svalbard guitarist and vocalist Serena Cherry, a fondness for complex, lore-rich gaming experiences also inspired it. This is also emphasized in Cherry’s own record-related marketing: ”I have always associated Skyrim with black metal. The snowy mountain settings, the morbid themes, the Norse mythology backbone – it just goes hand in hand for me.” UK misfits Morag Tong also have their name from the Elder Scrolls video game series.
Is this the first genuine group of artists that desire to pursue this path seriously, maybe as a result of their practitioners’ exposure to both hobbies as children? With such deep ideas to explore, it makes sense that gaming-related art has recently exploded. If the polar opposite can also happen more frequently, then we are in for a tremendous treat.
What we can aspire for is a further expansion of this level of creative freedom.