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Heavy metal and video games

A screenshot from the kind of Sleeping Dogs sequence you might want to soundtrack with power chords

I’m in the process of playing through Sleeping Dogs, an open world action-adventure game developed by United Front Games and published by Square Enix. The game straddles the line between a gritty police procedural (it was originally incubated by Activision as the next instalment in their True Crime series of games, before being cancelled and bought by Square Enix) and violent free-for-all in the style of Grand Theft Auto. Your character is an undercover cop, and deep cover at that, infiltrating a powerful organized crime syndicate in Hong Kong. As a player, you split your time between setting up the bad guys and performing good deeds (such as finding your former kung-fu teacher’s stolen jade statues, for which he repays you by teaching you special moves) and convincing your fellow gang members that you are one of them, which means engaging in acts of violence, extortion and theft. It’s morally complex and a hell of a lot of fun.

Like many open world or “sandbox” style games, the world in which you play is not rigidly defined like the side-scrollers of old. The map is huge and you are free to explore at your own pace, taking on missions as they come up, either following the main narrative arc or going off on endless side quests, both virtuous and vile. This means a lot of driving around, either in a vehicle that you hijacked from an unsuspecting NPC or purchased with your gains, ill-gotten or lawful.

One of the things that defines Sleeping Dogs is an exquisite attention to detail, so while the player is cruising around virtual Hong Kong, adding dents to your current vehicle as you eke your way through the back allies of the city (I’m not a very good driver), you have several radio stations to choose between, keeping the travel aspect of the game more interesting and pleasurable. There are channels devoted entirely to classical, electronic, hip-hip, J-Pop and old-school rock and roll.

The channel that my car radio is permanently tuned to, however, is Roadrunner Radio, the heavy metal channel. Featuring tracks from bands like Machine Head, Truvium, Opeth and DevilDriver, the channel adds a sense of urgency and intense energy to the driving experience, even when I am on the most mundane mission. The channel features a total of thirteen tracks, all licensed from the impressive back catalogue of metal-friendly label Roadrunner Records; though I have listened to then dozens of times, I rarely change the channel to see what else is on.

My fixation on the one heavy metal radio channel in Sleeping Dogs - and the degree to which this self-selected soundtrack has come to be an integral element of the exploratory gameplay for me – caused me to realize just how hungry I am for more of a heavy metal influence within video games.

Video games and metal have a rather strange history of interaction, and tend to eye each other askance. Despite the long, spotty history of intersection between these two cultural spheres and their communities (a huge number of metalheads also play video games), the relationship between them remains somewhat tentative. When video games and heavy metal do align forces, the result tends to engage with the stereotypes and overused tropes of both genres, and as a result both become cartoons of themselves in the process.

That said, there has been more and more production and subtle integration of heavy metal and video games of late, of which the Sleeping Dogs radio station is an excellent example. By examining the way in heavy metal and video games have traditionally interacted, it’s possible to get a sense of exactly what elements of past collaborations have been most effective, and how to make games metaller — and better! — in the future.

Video Games Structured Around Heavy Metal Music

This is by far and away the rarest form of interaction between heavy metal and video games. While heavy metal is gaining more and more cultural cache all the time, there are surprisingly few video game offerings tailored exclusively for metalheads (at least when it comes to major console and PC releases). When it does tend to happen, the results are more often than not extremely derivative and stereotypical, with an emphasis on humour over gameplay and story.

The most popular example of a video game engaging directly with heavy metal culture is Brütal Legend, an RTS/action-adventure game that stands as the one mediocre offering on the excellent reputation of the otherwise sterling Double Fine Productions. Creator Tim Schafer wanted to design a game about the music he loved; in it, roadie Eddie Riggs (voiced by and modeled after Jack Black) is transported to a fantasy realm whose aesthetic and characters are inspired by heavy metal album covers and music videos. Eddie becomes the saviour of humanity, using his hot rod, guitar and a battle axe as magical weapons.

A huge amount of this game is excellent. Over a hundred metal tracks are featured in the game, and genre icons like Rob Halford, Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osborne and Lita Ford provide voice work. The atmosphere is great and the design in incredibly imaginative, and one of the great pleasures for metal fans is playing a game of “spot the reference.” In the end, however, the game was bogged down by a couple of major flaws. First, the combination of action-adventure and real-time strategy was often clunky and difficult, and neither element was rendered finely enough for truly enjoyable gameplay.

But the other element of this game that failed, to me, was its self-deprecation. Heavy metal can be silly, sure; it can also be intense, visceral, cathartic and emotionally authentic. Brütal Legend focused almost entirely on the silliest aspects of metal culture, and as a result made a game that mocked more than it celebrated. This tendency to poke fun at heavy metal in video game form has been a roadblock in the way of the two forms working as well together as they should, and no other game so neatly encapsulated that problem as this one.

I’m not even going to talk about the horrors of the first-person shooter KISS: Psycho Circus: Nightmare Child, developed for PC and Dreamcast in 2000. Based on Todd McFarlane’s abysmal comic book series KISS: Psycho Circus, the game features members of a KISS tribute band (not even the original members) who gain magical powers and fight monsters. It is a shitty DOOM clone with KISS references, and the less said about it the better.

Oddly, two of the most successful games with strong ties to heavy metal were racing games: Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing (Blizzard Entertainment, 1993) and the Twister Metal series (launched in 1995, Sony). Both titles/series are battle-based racing games where you’re not only using speed and driving skills to beat your opponents to the finish line, but also attacking each other’s cars with a variety of weapons. Both of these games made metal music a key part of their aesthetic (not to mention the soundtracks), and both understand the power that it can have when driving a game forward: the energy, the tension, the blood-stirring battle-readiness of it. Heavy metal furnishes the perfect soundtrack for high speed racing (and crashing).

Heavy Metal Video Game Soundtracks

While few games draw on heavy metal for their story, structure and visual aesthetic, many more have soundtracks that do. Unsurprisingly, most of the games that turn to metal for their music are high-energy and violent. A perfect example is Splatterhouse, the 2010 remake of the classic 1993 horror game. In the game, you die while trying to rescue your girlfriend from an evil doctor; you are then resurrected as a demon and kill monsters. You gain powers and upgrades by spilling blood; as you can imagine, this is an incredibly gory undertaking. The soundtrack is provided by a number of excellent heavy metal bands, including High On Fire, Goatwhore, Mastodon and Municipal Waste. One of the reasons it’s so excellent may have something to do with the fact that co-producer Dan Tovar is a member of the band Wolfshirt (who also contribute a song).

Sometimes, the collaborations between metal and video games, at least when it comes to the form of the soundtrack, develops more slowly and indirectly. Take the album God of War: Blood & Metal, based on the incredibly successful God of War games. In this series, the main character Kratos is a Spartan warrior wronged by the gods, and seeking revenge against them. He’s a stoic figure who fights with a controlled kind of viciousness, and his bald, muscular form conjures the image of a hardcore frontman. Unsurprisingly, the games became incredibly popular in the metal community, and eventually a record emerged. Blood & Metal is a six-sing EP containing music from bands like Killswitch Engage, Taking Dawn and Dream Theatre, and what sets it apart from other metal soundtracks (which often license pre-existing songs) is that every single one of the tracks was inspired by the game and composed specifically in response to it.

Heavy Metal Video Game Covers

Video games and heavy metal interact most frequently, however, in the form of metal covers of video game music. Some of these projects are complex, ongoing engagements, like Metroid Metal, a celebration and interpretation of the Metroid soundtrack. The band Powerglove have made a career of developing heavy metal versions of saturday morning cartoon themes and video game music. Similarly, the band Vomitron released an album called No NES For The Wicked that is entirely composed of covers of famous video game themes. And more recently, the epic fantasy game Skyrim’s soundtrack has been subject to several harder-edged fan renditions. The love between Skyrim and heavy metal flows two ways, as the game designers included a decidedly metal Easter Egg within the game. In the quest “Darkness Returns,” players must retrieve Nystrom’s journal, which is a reference to Katatonia guitarist Anders Nystrom; additionally, the text in the journal includes several references to Katatonia albums and song titles.

In a lot of ways, it is these heavy metal covers of original video game soundtracks that represent the most effective interaction between metal and games. These covers tend to be joyful, respectful reinterpretations of recognizable classics, celebrating both the qualities of the original music (whether that be the nostalgia of classic titles or the epic scope of contemporary game narratives) and the power of heavy metal.

Heavy metal and video games continue to feel each other out, as art forms that have a great deal in common (including fans) but still aren’t quite sure how to work best together. One thing, however, is clear: when the collaboration between games and metal strays into stereotype, self-deprecation and mockery it’s at its least compelling. The moments where both forms celebrate and respect each other the results tend to be much more nuanced, intelligent and well-constructed.

____

Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.

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