Much to the chagrin of purist elements within it, metal has long been a cultural artifact. While it’s true that it obeys rules of its own in relation to that definition, it still plays into mass media, cross-media and culture. One of the avenues with which it communicates with mainstream culture is video games. Metal has been featured on numerous games in the last two decades, from games based around it to simple cameos as background music for their virtual escapades. However, one example shines the brightest in terms of both popularity and technical success: Doom. Released in 2016, this remake of a beloved, gory, violent, shooter classic needed an accomplished and fleshed out soundtrack in order to live up to its namesake’s legacy. Back in the day (the far away 1993), the original Doom’s soundtrack was more than just an accompaniment to the game. It firmly rooted it within the cultural milieu of its time, channeling the prominence of ultra-violence, fantasy influences (via the then surging obsession with D&D, strangely mirrored during the first few years of the 2010’s), and “references” to contemporary metal songs by giants like Metallica and Pantera to create a relevant and powerful vessel of cultural significance.
This made the original game much more than just an escapade but rather a statement, an exploration of the aesthetic of the period in which it was made. Through its soundtrack and design, the original Doom game gained the ability to mean something, something which took a complex perspective on the cultural contexts it was spun from. This is the only sense in which the 2016 version of the game is a remake; as far as gameplay, mechanics, skills required and even lore, not much of the original has actually been remade. However, the spirit of the game, and the place which the soundtrack takes in that spirit, has been maintained, tying the new version to the original through aesthetic and cultural avenues rather than literal or mechanical ones. The soundtrack, recorded by Australian composer Mick Gordon (who also worked on the soundtracks for the new Wolfenstein games and Edge of Twilight) once again serves as something more than just accompaniment to an entertainment package. Instead, it transcends and transforms the game into something more, garnering it an aesthetic all of its own.
Why metal though? What about the game’s story, mechanics and design creates such an affinity for metal music in general and the specific kind of metal utilized on the soundtrack (namely extremely percussive, 8 string guitars, dark, electronic ambiance and larger than life production)? More than that, how does metal facilitate Doom in creating an atmosphere, a unique visual and aural signature that is then translated into vibe, strong delivery of emotions to the player and a compelling narrative? We’ll begin our inquiry by looking at the mechanical aspects of the game and how they interact with the metal soundtrack. We’ll mostly focus on the “stop, build up, release” pattern of the game-play itself and how it’s mirrored in the soundtrack and metal in general. Then, we’ll turn our eyes to the ambiance created by the balance between grim electronics and high octane metal and see how it’s mirrored in the game itself. Finally, we’ll try and look at the content of the game and how it interacts with metal in saying something more about anger, violence and passion in our modern day lives.
Rip & Tear – Buildup and Release in Doom’s Mechanics and Metal
First person shooters always face, first and foremost, problems of flow. Violence, the main emotion which the games invoke as they play out, is inherently an unstoppable, hectic thing. Consider the better fight scenes in Hollywood or in books; they’re always those which are short, action packed, frenetic and fierce, carrying chaos and pain in equal degree. For a first person shooter to create this kind of intensity, graphical fluency, successful key binding paradigms and great design must all blend together to create a perfect, sinuous whole. Examples? Far Cry 4, Titanfall 2 and many more. Both examples which I cited above use unique mechanics to achieve this flow; they facilitate movement and interaction with enemies via lightning fast events, like the takedowns in Far Cry 4 or wall running and titan interaction in Titanfall 2. These get the player across the spaces of combat quicker and enable them to take out enemies with style and efficiency. The cooldown/animation delays of these abilities create a rhythm to combat, one which makes it feel extremely gratifying but also intense and breakneck.
Doom uses a similar (but different) mechanic to create the pace of its combat. “Glory kills” are an option toggled for the player once enough damage (mostly ranged) has been inflicted on an enemy. Once a player triggers a glory kill, the fabled Doom Slayer leaps or runs to close the distance with the targeted demon and proceeds to eviscerate, dismember or downright pulverize said monster. More than just dispatching the foe, regardless of size or power level, a glory kill also generates health and ammo. In fact, it’s one of the main ways to regain both in the game and an absolutely essential mechanic to master on higher difficulties if you wish to survive. The way in which glory kills are intrinsically linked to survival establishes the game’s staccato beat very, very quickly; every combat includes them and they dot the action with peaks of aggression and brutal efficiency. They also become something to look forward to as more powerful foes become common, as you wear down their defenses in preparation for the final, glorious kill.
The way in which metal and, specifically, Mick Gordon’s soundtrack, fit into this scheme has to do with the inherent mechanics of buildup and release which metal utilizes. While other genres use those tools as well, namely post-rock, metal’s approach to delaying and fulfilling gratification are second to none. Post-rock, for example, has long, sprawling build-ups which result in huge and overpowering releases. Metal, on the other hand, is all about dozens of micro build-ups, born from extended repetition, off-kilter riffs and patterns which constantly delay and then fulfill gratification. Check out “Rip & Tear” from this soundtrack for example: it starts off with faint distortion and guitar whine, expertly giving you a few seconds to draw your breath before exploding into the main riff of the track. The riff then does its thing for a few dozen seconds before suddenly stopping, the faint whine returning to haunt you before you dive back into the track again. This start and stop happens many times during the track, prominently with heavier and heavier iterations on the original riff. Each time it stops to collect its bearings, your breath quickens, your pulse jumps just a bit before the track explodes and gratifies you for waiting once again.
These moments of thrill and lull within the musical action are direct parallels of the same patterns within the game’s combat. The pauses simulate first the moment when you size up a situation, when enemies flood into an arena and the technical part of your brain begins to designate targets of opportunity. Secondly, they echo the moments after a significant foe has been felled and the character moves on to the next assailant. This movement is no shamble or lazy walk; it’s all intent and contained energy, just like the energy hiding in the musical pauses of “Rip & Tear”. The other parts of the equation, the impact rather than the wait, are also beautifully mirrored within the track. Gordon’s approach to guitar tone on this album is incredibly percussive: guitars hit hard and you can almost hear their strings snap as treble and distortion create a “thrump” sort of sound that reverberates crisply in the mix. This type of timbre naturally compliments gun feedback; the vibrations of a controller, the sound of ricochets, the explosion of ammunition and the elation of impact. Timing a shot with a well placed guitar chord is an incredibly satisfying feeling, as the game’s sound effects blend with Gordon’s music.
Not to mention glory kills coinciding with those huge chords. Beyond the “pure” mechanical aspects of the game, glory kills are meant to make you feel awesome and all-powerful. That’s why they’re melee; your very hands (that is, the Doom Slayer’s hands which, by sympathetic extension, become your own) are those who wield such world-shattering power. What other emotion than personal power are huge power chords trying to convey? Metal feeds off of these moments of awesome, engineered to make you feel larger and more powerful than you might be. The game channels these emotions as well, blending mechanical beat, percussive delivery and larger-than-life scale into one incredibly satisfying experience. The soundtrack picks up on all three of these sweet spots, and thus the main aspects of how Doom works are married to the ways in which the soundtrack is delivered. By playing into the basic rhythms of the game, the soundtrack is able to create an echo chamber, a powerful feedback loop which picks up on the emotions which the game broadcasts and sends them back, magnified a hundred fold. Just listen to “Hellwalker” and imagine the dusty plains of Hell and a gun in your hand.
Rust, Dust & Guts – The Importance of Contrast for Doom and Metal
Metal’s dedication to over-the-top antics also breeds one of its most prominent pitfalls — fatigue. Just like anything in life, too much of a good thing can leave you complacent, unable to appreciate what was once a highly satisfying experience. In metal, too many climaxes over a too short period of time can lead to the music becoming stale, emotional punch and delivery lost in endless repetition. Thus, contrast is a highly sought after commodity in metal bands. This drive for dynamism and chiaroscuro is perhaps what leads metal to branch off so much, in search for newer and more exciting sounds to pit against its highest points. Video games are no different; there’s very little to be gained in a game which starts you off on the highest difficulty and constantly rewards you. Good games make you work for your payoff and include calmer stretches of game-play to contrast with action-packed culminations of the player’s skill, making the eventual payoff all the more satisfying in light of how long it took to get to it.
Doom is no different. If the game was one constant mass melee, the moments of defeat and victory would feel cheaper, less earned. That’s why plenty of the combatants in front of you are mere fodder and why a platforming aspect exists to the game; as subtle as these two things are, they add much contrast and variation to the game. However, these breaks shouldn’t be considered only as packing material, pointless on their own and only meaningful in relation to the electric moments which they contrast. That would be the case for a lesser game, simply satisfied with bridging the gaps between summit and summit. The developers of Doom, on the other hand, utilize these moments to engage in world building. Even if a fight doesn’t carry much challenge or a walk from place to place doesn’t hold the player’s complete attention, Doom takes the chance to usher us further and further into its hellish (literally) landscapes. Towering architectures, minuscule personal details, and overbearing ambiance are all utilized to flesh out the world and give the contrasting moments of relative quiet a context and meaning of their own.
Gordon’s soundtrack mirrors these ideas by dashing its metal on the rocks of austere electronic ambiance. These contained and darkly synthetic passages are first and foremost meant to make the more aggressive, explosive moments shine all that brighter, in the same way that metal seeks to build its music whenever it is played well. However, while they’re mainly meant to contrast the heavier moments of catharsis, much like the games lulls these electronic passages aren’t just filler. They’re handled and crafted with care, invoking their own sense of atmosphere and emotional connection. Check out “BFG Division”, one of the most lauded and famous tracks from the soundtrack. While it definitely contains one of the most accomplished and powerful riffs in the entire album, don’t overlook “the enabler” of that riff. That “enabler” can be found hiding in the many electronic segments scattered throughout the track, setting the stage perfectly for the different iterations of the much larger, and heavier, riff.
However, again, these moments aren’t just filler or a backdrop for more powerful chords. They mesh extremely well with the constant sense of contained dread which the Doom environments evoke in the game. Feeding off into the shorter “Residual” which follows it, these passages convey perfectly abandoned space bases, endless tunnels into Hell and the sterile environment of Mars, waiting just behind every airlock to end your life. By not overlooking these parts, and filling them with repetitive filler, Gordon’s soundtrack enables it to accompany the game even along its more imaginative and ethereal moments. The soundtrack doesn’t just turn on and off again when the game gets interesting, like many soundtracks do. Instead, it aims at containing the whole of the game, contrast between fast and slow, light and heavy, outwards and immediate included. For that, metal is second to none, perfectly playing off of the contrasting moving parts of the game’s design to create an effective and holistic soundtrack for all of its moments.
Death & Exhale – What Doom and Metal Have To Say About Violence and Power
Our last point leads us to consider more general ties between the Doom game (and, indeed, the entire franchise) and metal. These ties lie in the approaches both art forms take towards what violence and power mean and how we should encounter or understand them in our day to day lives. Video games and violence has been a subject mostly filled with misunderstanding and derision within the mainstream culture; the mistake of conflating exposure with endorsement is a mistake which the puritan, liberal media is often far too eager to make. That is to say, the very existence of violence in video games doesn’t necessarily translate to an endorsement or encouragement of such violence. On the contrary, portraying gratuitous, senseless violence can be used as a device to encourage looking past violence into the motivations and fears which make it such a prominent part of global history.
Which is exactly what metal and Doom both do, separately and together. Both preach violence as a sort of purifying force that is only an extent of will. If you pay attention, it’s more than obvious that neither Doom or metal preach violence as an actual, day to day solution to problems. For starters, the subjects of said violence are fantastically impossible; in Doom, enemies are demonic beasts from another realm trying to wipe out humanity in horrible ways. The violence of the Doom Slayer is righteous revenge writ larger than life, literally, as he goes beyond death to exact his judgement. Likewise, metal often deals with aggrandized or imagined foes, magnifying daily struggles into a theoretical plane and there, and not in day to day existence, solving them with violence. The violence, in both cases, is a device of will. It is determination against extreme odds, the absolute refusal to bow down. In Doom, that is the Doom Slayer. Sure, the hero is a competent soldier but, over and over again, the trait which most serves him is perseverance (the narration and texts throughout the game highlight this, again and again: he never stops, he will not stop, he cannot stop).
Thus, and for the other traits we have highlighted in this article, metal was the perfect choice for Doom’s soundtrack. It resonates with the approach to violence that the game has like no other genre of music could. Metal’s approach to violence also highlights the individual’s role in enacting it and hopes to stoke the fires of will and individuality by appealing to exaggerated desires for violence nascent within all of us. Metal, like Doom, would have us view violence not as an end but as a means to connecting with your own willpower, your own desire to affect and shape the world around you. Violence is simply a tool and one which is portrayed as useful only on an abstract, theoretical plane. However, the lessons of self actualization, the importance of confidence and the merits of sticking to your path are then easily traced back to our own lives, devoid of the violence which typified them in an album or game.
In music traits, timbre, balance and conceptual approach then, metal was the natural choice for this soundtrack and we’re grateful that Mick Gordon could capitalize on those natural ties and bring them into fruition. They push the game to new heights, magnifying its emotional impact. In return, the soundtrack receives a brilliant grounding, a nostalgic and interactive memory which accompanies it through future listens. Because of the harmonious nature of the marriage between metal and Doom’s glorious revival, both sides of the package benefit and are rendered in convincing, beautiful light.