A History of Heavy Metal Gaming

Since their inception into the mainstream during the 1980s, metal and video games have had a close and vivid relationship, sharing not only aesthetics but a sense of camaraderie among their respective enthusiasts. The potential for their collaboration seems endless, black metal’s obsession with Tolkienesque hinterlands and battles lends itself perfectly to dungeon crawlers or dark fantasy games and the splatter-heavy FPS world could easily incorporate much of the more blunt force trauma of death metal. Such collaborations are less common than us metalheads might wish – imagine for a moment an elemental sci-fi horror experience, with jumpscares and flesh-ripping monsters choreographed by tech-death legends Origin, or a sword-and-sorcery RPG given an OTT score by a flamboyant power metal band – but nevertheless they have been around for decades.

Since the dawn of heavy metal, particularly the death and black subgenres, it’s been clear that an obsession with the uncanny, fantastical and macabre have been staples in the heavy music playbook. How many black and white covers are adorned with skulls, dungeons, snakes and demons? Similarly, video games, given much of their reliance on escapism, have also focused on the imagined kingdoms, galaxies and alternative realities of their creators. Placing the player at the heart of an unknown world is much like the vivid and often breathtaking imagery thrown at the listeners of conceptual death metal. The two fields have inescapable common ground. 

After all, an essential album can be transformative as well as thrilling, and so it is with games.

Metal as influence

Metal and gaming have crossed over to great effect for decades now. Early examples include 1989’s Holy Diver, which included references to the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Slayer, King Crimson and of course Dio himself – but if you’ve never heard of it, it’s because the game was never released outside of Japan. Beyond that, early collaborations between music and gaming were limited to tie-ins like the Mötley Crüe pinball game Crüe Ball (1992) or the arcadey Journey Escape (1982). The likes of Queen and Iron Maiden would later do something similar, with 1998’s Queen: The eYe and 1999’s Ed Hunter respectively.

Unsurprisingly, some of the first games worth looking at are those of id Software, who’s co-founder and designer, John Romero, practically created a game from listening non-stop to the likes of Slayer, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden as well as techno to create 1993’s DOOM, a fleshy, gore-splattered masterpiece that has been spawning its own mutated, bloody offspring for decades. Its soundtrack was a mash-up of influences, which composer Bobby Prince made to complement the bullets and blood practically spilling from the screen. The result is a chugging, malevolent soundtrack that still pounds ears to this day. Subsequent re-imaginings, such as Mick Gordon’s 2016 recording, also hold weight. 

And the link with heavier music for the DOOM franchise doesn’t stop there, with vocalists from Aborted, Frontierer, Immortal Bird, Vault Dweller, Tengger Cavalry, Wildspeaker, Black Crown Initiate, Sectioned and The Anchor all being assembled to record screams and grunts as a heavy metal choir for the DOOM Eternal (2020) soundtrack. After all, who else screams this much professionally?

Similarly, Quake, the murky, darker and more sinister experience from the same developers in 1996 features drone-led soundscapes from none other than Trent Reznor, who describes his contributions as “textures and ambiences”. His contributions are reflected in the nailgun weapons that feature in the game, the ammo boxes of which feature the iconic NIN logo. Another 1996 title worth looking at is Duke Nukem 3D, the third and most successful game in the series at the time, which boasted a mix of hip-hop and metal in its soundtrack, with the likes of Coal Chamber, Type O Negative and Megadeth making an appearance for the latter genre.

Heaviness via soundtracks

Entire yarns have been written about many a ‘00s teenager’s metal or punk awakenings via the likes of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series. Its success mirrored the popularity of skateboarding not only as a sport but as a subculture with its own fashion and DIY aesthetic, and perhaps the most prominent aspect of this was the soundtrack, a mix of hip-hop, skate punk and alternative rock. Shades of metal could be found and the games were certainly a gateway for many budding metalheads, but it’s notable that the games never fully embraced metal. In hindsight this was probably a stroke of remarkable foresight, given that nu-metal was at its commercial peak at the time, but it nevertheless raises the question of whether a game ever has truly embraced metal or heavy music at its core.

It could be argued that 1993’s Rock N’ Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo took a concept and ran with it as an early example. The racing romp’s chiptune versions of Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’ are still recognisable today and it lends a frenetic pace to what still stands up as a 16-bit legend now.

There’s also the likes of Carmageddon (1997), a game infamous for being censored due to its violence, which featured three tracks taken from Fear Factory’s Demanufacture, certainly giving even more of an edge to what was already a distinctly controversial game. The Twisted Metal franchise, in addition to sharing a name with the genre, also included both original heavy songs and, later on, songs from the likes of Rob Zombie and One Minute Silence. 2010’s Splatterhouse, with a soundtrack featuring Mastodon, Lamb Of God, High On Fire, Municipal Waste, Goatwhore and more, surely deserves a mention – though it’s a shame the game itself doesn’t quite live up to the soundtrack.

There are countless other franchises that have embraced heavier sounds to soundtrack their franchises without going full metal too, and the pounding dance music of the WipeOut series and the heavier OSTs of the Metal Gear series are merely a couple of examples of games that have taken notes from the darker edges of music.

Heavy metal in games certainly exists, then, but it’s not often been the central component. Until you look at 2010’s Brütal Legend, that is. The game is a love letter to heavy music and the epitome of metal as a game concept, with a light-hearted but passionate look at the genre. The player controls hero Eddie Riggs (voiced perfectly by Jack Black), a roadie who sets out to save a mythical realm that seems to bring classic ‘80s album covers to life. One of the player’s weapons is a flying V that they can use to toast enemies with scorching riffs, just to drive the gimmick home. The game’s impressive voice cast was equally bursting with metal royalty, featuring Lemmy (RIP), Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lita Ford and, uh, Tim Curry.

Gaming’s influence

Notably, the influence metal has had on games like Brütal Legend works the other way too. For every game that has incorporated metal as an influence, bands have either embraced lore or found elements from games that fit their creative endeavors. 

The ‘90s and a recent resurgence has seen the curious bleeps and bloops of dungeon synth take influence from the 8-bit and home computer era. The atmosphere of text-based and skeleton-filled labyrinths still holds a mystery and the two seem undeniably linked. 

A short-lived craze in the early ‘00s saw the “Nintendocore” subgenre emerge from the likes of Horse The Band, who inserted chiptune and elements of synth directly influenced by the 8- and 16-bit era into their hardcore-influenced sound. There were even songs about video game characters such as ‘Cutsman’ from the Mega Man series. This melding was brilliant, but ultimately faded as the novelty wore thin.

Bands that have recently embraced gaming have perhaps come as close to creating a direct link as is imaginable. The incredible Firelink, who base their entire output on FromSoftware’s Soulsborne games are a case-in-point. Choosing not to directly retell the games’ story, rather using it as a canvas on which to paint their own narratives, is something that’s admirable. Their brand of cutting, brutal death metal and atmospheric black metal is unrelenting in a way that mimics the notoriously challenging gameplay of the series. Kosmogyr, Garden Of Eyes, Visigoth, Putrescine, Orphanofkos, Vicar Amelia, Soulmass, Plagis, Tomb Mold, Antre, Cainhurst and many, many others have also all embraced the Soulsborne games in particular – clearly there is something about the series that chimes with metal musicians.

Another great example is the Texan metal duo Cara Neir, who recently released the incredible Phase Out, which stands as a paean to the 8-bit era. Using chiptune and a full conceptual surrender to creating a record full of nods to the RPG and fantasy genre has meant it is already one of the most talked about releases this year. One member of the band has also recently released an accompanying solo record under the name Gonemage.

Similarly, a love for dense, lore-rich gaming experiences has also led to Noctule, a Skyrim-influenced black metal project from Svalbard guitarist and vocalist Serena Cherry. Cherry’s own promotion for the record focuses on this too: “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.” The Elder Scrolls series also gives UK doomers Morag Tong their name.

Is this the first true wave of artists wanting to explore this avenue earnestly, perhaps due its practitioners having grown up with both pastimes? With such rich concepts to mine, no wonder there’s been a recent outpouring of art dedicated to gaming. If the opposite can also become a reality on a more regular basis, then we are truly in for a treat.

All we can hope for is this same level of creative freedom spilling out further.

Words: Mike Shields

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