Prepare to Die: An In-Depth Look at the Shared Aesthetics and Communal Commonalities Between Metal and the Soulsborne Series
An in-depth look at how the Soulsborne series has begun to creep into heavy metal.
An in-depth look at how the Soulsborne series has begun to creep into heavy metal.
When I finally came to the end of my third playthrough of Bloodborne, having reached all three of the game’s endings and jumping through a variety of hoops to unlock all of the game’s “Trophies”, I finally sat it down and sought a similarly enveloping experience elsewhere. I spent time with several games – some deeply flawed, some critically acclaimed – but alas nothing could hold a candle to the experience I had playing FromSoftware’s 2015 masterpiece. It didn’t matter what I played – it wasn’t Bloodborne, so it wasn’t enough. Like all FromSoftware titles, it’s a challenging experience, oozing atmosphere and texture, but one that’s never cheap or, crucially, insurmountable. The Japanese developers are masters when it comes to creating games that stick with you, the way all good fiction can. They get stuck under your skin, and just as you may become enamoured when reading a book, desperate to see what happens in the next chapter, it can be hard not to find your mind wandering to these games whenever you can’t be in front of a screen playing them.
With such an enduring ability to captivate, perhaps it should come as no surprise that musicians have started turning to these games for inspiration. Where once Geezer Butler wrote lyrics about wizards and the devil under the influence of the works of JRR Tolkien and Dennis Wheatley, a growing legion of metal performers are now writing about games that have had a similar impact on them, with titles from FromSoftware’s Soulsborne series (comprised of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I-III and Bloodborne, all but one directed by company president Hidetaka Miyazaki), cropping up more than any other.
Heavy metal and video games have had numerous crossovers over the past several decades, spanning all the way back to games like 1989’s Holy Diver (three guesses where they got that name) and 1993’s DOOM, but whilst the imagery of the loud has long inspired games of their type it is in recent years that the reverse – that is, metal inspired by games – has become increasingly regular. It’s a trend that’s long overdue.
“I’ve always gravitated toward metal music’s penchant for using fantasy, science fiction, history and other literary themes to convey relatable emotional and philosophical subtexts that we can connect to our immediate everyday experiences,” Visigoth’s Jake Rogers tells us. “Because I feel that Dark Souls in particular achieves a similar goal through a similar lens, it only makes sense to me that metal would gravitate toward it as a source of inspiration.”
The Salt Lake City power metal outfit released their latest EP, Bells Of Awakening, back in May, and its two thunderous tracks took inspiration solely from Dark Souls. “I’ve been wanting to touch on Dark Souls musically for a long time now,” the frontman tells us. “This EP felt like the perfect opportunity to finally do so, as it meant being able to dedicate the art and aesthetic of the packaging to the theme as well.”
For a band with a fondness for fantastical tales of epic proportions, Dark Souls certainly seems a fitting source of inspiration. The game carries on its predecessor Demon’s Souls’ pioneering blend of unforgiving gameplay and a lonely, brooding gameworld, with the band’s triumphant metal certainly proving grand enough to encapsulate the game’s vast scope. The EP in question’s cover, designed by Karmazid, also pays reference to the game by depicting Artorias the Abysswalker from the original Dark Souls’ add-on downloadable content (DLC). The infamous in-game boss is a popular source of inspiration for metal artists, it seems. Canadian death metal outfit Tomb Mold, for instance, also referenced Artorias on ‘Abysswalker’, taken from their lauded 2018 album Manor Of Infinite Forms, but it’s far from the band’s only foray into Soulsborne-inspired music. After all, their name itself is taken from an item in Bloodborne.
Among FromSoftware’s very best work, Bloodborne weaves an existential cosmic horror story through a vast gameworld so bewitching that it’d blow H.P. Lovecraft’s tiny racist mind. It was an entry into the series for Ivan Belcic, one half of atmospheric black metal outfit Kosmogyr, whose debut album, Eviternity, is a Bloodborne concept album in disguise. In fact, this is the first time the band have spoken openly about the inspirations, with Belcic explaining that they initially remained quiet out of a desire not to influence anyone’s interpretation of their songs. “Even now, over a year later, with this article, I’m still not comfortable talking about it,” he tells us.
“I was deep into Bloodborne when we got working on this band,” Belcic says. “But we didn’t reach to the game until it was time to write lyrics. Lyrics come last for us – the music is written first, then I come up with the rhythms for the vocals and fit lyrics to those patterns. I didn’t plan on using Bloodborne at all for the lyrics. I started writing generally at first, but as I progressed, my thoughts turned to Micolash and The Choir, and their fervent search for Insight, the way they ended up petrified as monuments to their rituals, and the game’s overriding theme of ‘eyes on the inside’. Things sort of came together on their own. From that point, we decided to make it a full concept record.”
“I’ve played others [in the series] since,” he adds. “But it remains the only one to really hook me. It didn’t click right away. I played a bit, got pretty far, but grew frustrated, put it down, and moved on. It was months later that a friend convinced me to try again, and this time, I was hooked.”
This is a familiar route into the series. The Soulsborne games’ unforgiving gameplay and aversion to so-called “hand-holding” means many find them frustratingly challenging at first, but once you learn their patterns and approach them in the right mindset, it’s impossible not to be enraptured by the difficult gameplay – which can be immensely rewarding – as well as the gorgeous but gloomy worlds FromSoftware have created and the breadcrumb storytelling that offers only droplets of information then forces players to come to their own conclusions.
“The way Miyazaki tells the story of Dark Souls is absolutely fascinating and is the ideal as my expectation of a timeless work,” says Xander Cheng, who makes up the other half of Kosmogyr. Cheng has not played Bloodborne due to it only being available on Playstation, but he knows it well through the wonders of YouTube. As for Belcic, its aesthetic was all-too enthralling: “The game begins in a meticulously-crafted Victorian Gothic setting, all cobbled streets and gnarled spires before expanding, subtly at first and then – with a few specific enemies in the forest, I know you know who I mean – headlong into Lovecraftian territory. The game pulls this bait-and-switch on you, leading you to believe that it’s going to be a relatively conventional urban horror story, before upending the entire world around you and leaving you grasping for any sense at what’s going on. It’s ingenious. And that’s not even touching on the mechanical aspects that make it such a joy.”
Speaking to multiple artists reveals a pattern in this regard, though there’s no consensus on a favourite in the series. “I was introduced to the games by watching a friend play Demon’s Souls years ago,” Rogers reflects. “The grim atmosphere and aesthetic immediately drew me in. Dark Souls is the game in the series that has the largest part of my heart though; the game absolutely bleeds with an understated sense of scope that lurks beneath the initially oppressive gloom, and I felt utterly immersed in the experience of unveiling small glimpses into the world’s history, arcana and characters.”
It’s easy to see – from the way these artists talk about the games alone – what it is about the series that inspires so many musicians. “What really ended up grabbing me was the way the entire world was fleshed out so entirely and how all these small stories added up to create this beautiful whole,” says Dan Lee of Minnesota sludge outfit Grogus, who reference the Soulsborne series throughout their work, with their latest album Four Kings being named after a Dark Souls boss, and a few of its tracks referencing Bloodborne boss Ebreitas specifically.
Lee introduced his bandmates, Jonas Kromer Yela and Boone Epstein, to Dark Souls five years ago, when the trio lived together. They would play the game constantly, and bonded over the community aspect of the series. ”When you have a community built around that game you can share tips and information,” Epstein explains. “And it lets you dig way deeper into the lore and gameplay than you ever could on your own. I love when writers leave a lot to the imagination and give you ability to interpret things multiple ways. Plus I think we all got really addicted to the high you feel when you defeat a hard boss.”
Like Kosmogyr, the band more-or-less stumbled into writing about Soulsborne. “Originally we were writing songs about [card game] Magic The Gathering’s multiverse for Grogus,” says Epstein. “But over time we decided to incorporate other fantasy worlds we liked too. [Dark Souls’] Lordran and [Bloodborne’s] Yharnam kind of took over by accident.”
It seems many artists find their minds turning to the series when looking for inspiration. Indeed, the list of outwardly Soulsborne-influenced artists is by this point too long to list. Alongside Grogus, Visigoth and Kosmogyr are Putrescine, whose debut EP The One Reborn is named after a Bloodborne boss, as well as Artorias, Micolash, Host Of The Nightmare, Vicar Amelia and the now-defunct Orphanofkos, all also named after bosses from the Soulsborne series. Landmarks from the games are also prominent, as bands like Firelink, Lothric and Yahar’gul demonstrate. On top of that, there’s Plagis, Soulmass and Kingdoms Of Flesh, who have all written work revolving entirely around Dark Souls lore, and elsewhere, the series is thematically popular in the dungeon synth scene as well – with artists like Dungeons of Irithyll and Bellkeeper. Not to mention the wealth of bands who have taken from Soulsborne influence only in part, such as UK black metallers Antre, whose song ‘Fear The Old Blood’ is named after an infamous line from Bloodborne, or Blacksoul Seraphim, who released a two-song EP dedicated to both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.
It’s clear something about these games causes them to stick around in people’s minds, so much so that artists are finding it necessary to explore them in their music. For Kosmogyr, for instance, Eviternity was a chance to explore the complex world of Bloodborne and its themes in more depth. “For example, Ludwig’s story is one of good intentions gone wrong and later, redemption, forgiveness and self-acceptance,” says Belcic. “Lady Maria and the Fishing Hamlet explore the ravages and consequences of unchecked imperialist exploitation, while Father Gascoigne can be read as a reminder not to take for granted the ones who love you.”
It is these interpretations of the games’ splintered stories and lore, which can vary from player to player, that allow for such deep thought about their themes. Whilst Belcic draws mainly from Bloodborne, for his bandmate, Dark Souls is a greater source of inspiration. “To me, the story of the Dark Souls trilogy is an abject tragedy, and I loved it,” says Cheng. “But the story itself doesn’t mean anything at all, it is shattered into thousands of fragments. You can feel the plot as a history study, and the emotion hidden behind is actually sad and cold. I don’t think Miyazaki is trying to teach a lesson; neither is our work. I hope the audience can feel the other world while listening to our music. What it’s ‘about’ isn’t important; just feel the strength and construct your own scene.”
Visigoth’s Jake Rogers seemingly agrees: “I think one of the things that makes Dark Souls such a special success in terms of being a communicative piece of art is that the way its narrative is not immediately apparent but rather revealed to the player through exploring the world and examining artifacts and equipment. It means that each player will have a different experience and glean a different meaning from that experience. Personally – and this may also have something to do with the time in my life during which I initially played through Dark Souls – I view it as an analogy for struggling with and, eventually, overcoming depression. There’s an inherent lugubriousness to Lordran. from the crumbling edifices of the stone walls, to the isolation of traversing the castle’s sprawl, to the sparse and usually morose dialogue with the few characters who populate its depths.”
“But I think one of the most brilliant things about the game is that the oppressive, consuming bleakness is built into the gameplay itself,” he continues. “Dark Souls’ oft-referenced difficulty is essential to its success, as it makes every victory feel meaningful. And as you die, and die and die over and over again, and then finally have a breakthrough moment and progress, it means that you improved your read of the environment and your foes. This feeling of persevering when the situation feels hopeless only to finally triumph provided by the gameplay itself, combined with the pervasive atmosphere of sorrow and darkness provided by the setting and dialogue (which occasionally discusses mental health directly – read: Solaire of Astora) makes it feel analogous, at least from my perspective, to the idea that no matter how dark things may feel during the lowest points in one’s life, it can be conquered and overcome with perseverance, self-reflection, and self-improvement. There are certainly other ways to read the narrative of Dark Souls, this is just the takeaway that I personally rendered and it’s precisely why I found the game to be so viscerally and emotionally engaging.”
The game’s powerful storytelling can clearly have an impact, and its vast yet vague world is instrumental in this. For Grogus, such stunning worldbuilding has inspired them to create their own mythology, with the interpretive angle of lore in the Soulsborne series allowing the band to play around with its world and characters. The band are named after an “interdimensional fungus wizard” for whom they have built their own lore – Soulsborne’s world and characters, they say, simply fit neatly into that canon. “Since a lot of the concepts and characters from Soulsborne aren’t fully fleshed out, we get to interpret them the way we want for our songs,” says Epstein. “If I want to make up some lyrics about Ebrietas’ past I can say whatever I want and no one can tell me I’m wrong.”
The dark fantasy settings of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, as well as the cosmic horror of Bloodborne, certainly all touch on elements that have been explored in metal for decades. Magic, the occult and all things gloomy have been explored at length in the metal scene – in that sense perhaps the games’ crossover into the world of heavy music was inevitable. “Aesthetically, there’s a clear match,” agrees Belcic, and Grogus’ Kromer Yela makes a similar point, pointing out that fantasy and science fiction have always been a big part of metal music. “There’s a pretty clear tradition of writing songs about popular fiction universes,” he adds. “So with that in mind I think writing metal songs about Dark Souls just makes sense. Also, shit like ‘Lightning Spear’ and ‘Altar Of Despair’ just sound like metal songs, so why not?”
Indeed, looking at both metal and Soulsborne aesthetically, the reasons for their convergence seem clear. There is much in these games that’s intrinsically “metal”, and metal itself has a long history of drawing from fictional worlds such as those in FromSoftware’s output. But this coming together seems to go deeper than most. There is music out there about games other than those in the Soulsborne series, of course – Visigoth themselves have written songs about The Witcher, a fantasy series based on a line of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, which has also been explored in more depth by bands like Monte Luna. Then there is Morag Tong, a doom metal outfit named after an ancient guild of assassins featured in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls series. However, these influences never seem to run quite as deep, or be quite as extensive, as the growing list of artists inspired by Soulsborne.
It is apparent, then, that there is more in common between the two than mere aesthetics. Belcic, for one, notes that the communities around the two wider mediums share some common ground: “Metal and video games are both things that many fans take seriously (perhaps too seriously), but that people outside those subcultures often mock. In that sense, maybe they’re a good fit for each other.”
But as for what brings Soulsborne and metal together specifically, Epstein points out that fans of both interact with them in similar ways: “A lot of metal and hardcore music requires the listener to do some work themselves, and actively try to hear what’s happening through all the distortion. With Soulsborne games you also have to do the work yourself. Everything from the game mechanics to the story is obfuscated and a little frustrating, but there are these really beautiful moments in there for the people who like piecing it together. Discovering Dark Souls lore reminds me of sitting down with the lyrics to Jane Doe or Through Silver In Blood and figuring out what those albums might be about. It doesn’t surprise me at all that a specific kind of person really likes both of those mediums.”
This point is echoed by Cheng, who claims that he plays the games as a sort of learning experience rather than for entertainment in the traditional sense. “I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed playing the games,” he admits. “Rather, I considered them serious challenges. Playing video games is more like a learning process for me, the same as listening to music. I won’t play a video game just to kill time, but to overcome an obstacle through practice while experiencing a good story.”
This notion of both the Soulsborne games and heavy metal being challenging in some way is something that seems to captivate those who are into them – it makes it more rewarding when you do finally progress, be that through a game or with a song. “I would say my interest in the Soulsborne series and what I am looking for out of playing music are fairly interconnected in that I just love a challenge,” admits Grogus’ Dan Lee, for example. “I want the music I’m playing to feel like I’m fighting a really hard boss.”
Just as Lee and his bandmates struggle over writing music, Soulsborne players come up against brick wall after brick wall, banging their head against each one until it finally caves in. There is an entire community dedicated to playing the games and unravelling their mysteries – are YouTube channels and entire essays dedicated to lore really that different from those slaving over new music or, ahem, writing extensively about music for zines and blogs?
There’s certainly more in common between the two communities than it may first seem, but the devotion that fans show to the Soulsborne games may come as a shock to those who still perceive video games as relatively shallow pieces of entertainment. Indeed, the Soulsborne series is an excellent example of video games as art. But despite the huge strides made in the gaming industry, despite the touching story of The Last Of Us, the vast, desolate and poignant tales of Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, the tear-jerking beauty of Journey or even the emotive storytelling of mobile game Florence, there remains only a handful of musicians writing about such games, at least in comparison to those taking influences from film and literature. This isn’t for lack of a fan-base – gaming is a monolithic industry – so why is it still the case?
“I think that’s simply because video games as an art medium haven’t been around for as long,” Rogers suggests. The Visigoth frontman believes that as the format expands, so will its influence on other media, which will prove particularly true as younger generations who grew up with video games begin creating their own art. “This is something we’re already seeing happen of course,” he adds. “I think it will just increase in scope with time.”
Kromer Yela agrees, adding that it’s only in the last decade or so that games have come to be understood as a literary form rather than frivolous entertainment: “Maybe there’s just a lot more to draw from now, or maybe it’s just that the people who grew up playing video games have just recently become adults in bands. Maybe the Zoomers will all be in video game inspired bands, who knows?”
Indeed, as the influence of games grow, the perception of them is slowly changing as people realise their potential for creativity and powerful storytelling. “I have a hard time believing that anybody who truly appreciates art or applies a critical eye to the analysis of texts would be so naive as to disregard the video game format as a way of conveying emotionally, socially, politically or philosophically engaging art,” says Rogers.
Cheng feels similarly about those who would dismiss their potential impact. “I think video games are either about telling a good story or creating a world we can’t reproduce in reality,” he says. “We don’t know if our world is a simulation like a video game, so those who perceive video games as childish are naive themselves. We must respect video games as a form of art along with painting and music.”
His bandmate adds to this with a couple of specific examples. “Despite there being a mountain of evidence, especially as tech improves, in favour of games as an artistic medium – God Of War as a story of parenthood, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s study of perception and the mind – video games are still used as a punchline by people who don’t play them,” Belcic says.
He adds, however, that gamers themselves don’t always help things in this regard: “The Gamer-with-a-capital-G folks certainly aren’t helping. The greatest stumbling block in the pathway towards a widespread acknowledgement of video-games-as-art is the gamer community itself.”
This much is certainly true, and perhaps even another shared aspect of both Soulsborne and metal. Just as Dark Souls players laugh at those who find the games too difficult, telling them simply to “git gud”, many metalheads adhere to superficial gatekeeping rules, for instance asking people (usually women) in metal shirts to “name three songs”.
Kromer Yela, meanwhile, points out that the shifting perception of games in general is likely to do with games maturing with the kids who they were once marketed to. “Or at least the people who decide what is admitted to the cultural canon today are the same people who grew up playing video games,” he adds. “You see a similar progression with comic books: gold and silver age comics seem really goofy and childishly simplistic at times (which isn’t to say that’s all they are), because they were for kids, but as that audience grew up, comics began dealing with more adult themes, became darker and more serious. It seems like it’s just the natural progression for these media to take.”
As such, he doesn’t think the music itself has anything to do with this maturation: “If anything, the causality is the other way around: music about video games won’t make people take them more seriously, but video games assuming a ‘higher’ cultural position might give rise to more music that draws inspiration from them.”
His bandmate expands on this point. “I’m not sure if music, especially metal and hardcore music, legitimises video games at all,” says Epstein. “But when musicians reference games it is evidence of their cultural impact. I think the most significant element changing the perception around video games is simply literacy. Younger people are growing up more literate in how video games work as an art medium and so they’re better at recognising what makes games special or important.”
This is a particularly relevant point. Whilst there’s a wealth of different academic and critical research into music, film, literature and other forms of art and entertainment, the means by which we discuss, dissect and critically assess video games is still evolving. It is only in recent years, for example, that we have started to talk about so-called “ludonarrative dissonance”, the still-debated notion that there can be a disconnect between a game’s gameplay mechanics and its narrative. This, of course, is likely because it is a concept resigned solely to the medium of video games. Where most modern filmmakers have learned cinema’s language by growing up watching films made by filmmakers who themselves grew up watching films (and so on), game developers are still largely in the first wave of creators who are asking questions of the format, working out kinks and figuring out what makes a game fundamentally good or bad. It therefore only follows that the format’s relative infancy should translate to games’ underdeveloped and untapped cultural impact. As games and their impact grow, so too will their influence on other aspects of our culture. What we perhaps have with Soulsborne and metal’s recent kinship, then, is an early indicator of what is to come.