A Game of Death Metal: Putting Heavy Metal Soul in Video Games

Kyle B. Stiff, the Sage of Darkness, makes the boldly idiotic claim that video games need to become more "metal" if they want to remain relevant.

on December 16, 2009 10:25 PM

There’s just something about heavy metal music.  For one, there’s the dark imagery that brings to mind modern day Satanism as well as ancient pre-Christian paganism.  Like video games, heavy metal is a representation of modern man’s battle against nihilism through ancient heroism.  Heavy metal is like the sound of Jung speaking the language of symbols, if Jung had lived in Tolkien’s land of Mordor during a black renaissance.

And because of metal, I think I’ve finally put my finger on the problem I have with gaming.  It’s a problem that’s becoming increasingly worse, and it has nothing to do with gameplay.  It’s the imagery that’s used; it’s a problem of aesthetics.  I’m a fan of heavy metal music because it’s the most intense form of music and, in the same way, I think video games could stand to be a lot more “metal” than they are now.  In fact, video games need to go even further, and adopt some of the flavors of Scandinavian black metal and death metal, which are the most extreme forms within an already-extreme genre.

What do I mean?  Do I want games to be more violent?  More “shocking”?  No, not exactly.  This might sound strange, but I think that games need to explore the darker regions of the soul if they’re going to have any chance of giving players a meaningful experience of truly badass, thought-provoking heroism.  Heroism in a goofy cartoon world is not really heroism.  A hero is not a hero unless he’s surrounded by darkness, despair, and depravity.

But black metal games wouldn’t be emotionless games intent on trying to up the ante on Mature-rated content, all violence and no story.  I’m not talking about giving all video games the “psycho clown” treatment.  That might sound metal, but it isn’t truly black metal – in fact, black metal and death metal songs lyrics are often snap shots of emotional states.  Many times those emotional states are complex, deeply moving, and honest.

Sometimes it’s easier to show something rather than talk about it, so I’ll give some examples of what some popular games would be like if given the black metal treatment.  (Don’t worry, only the first example contains a spoiler.)

Metal Gear Solid 4: Metal Gear Black (SPOILER WARNING): In the end of the newly revised MGS4, Snake meets the end that was promised us near the beginning.  He becomes a danger to the human species, a walking biohazard.  Like his mentor Big Boss, and like Big Boss’s mentor The Joy, Snake makes the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.  He executes his final orders by putting a gun in his mouth; the camera pans up, a thunderclap shatters the peace of the cemetery grounds, and a legendary soldier falls.

This isn’t some twisted, morbid nonsense that comes out of left field.  This is, in fact, the only way to salvage the story and give a meaningful end to the series.  Otherwise, why did we sit through a twenty minute dialogue between Otacon and Sonny in which he tries to explain to her the nature of what Snake had to do?  Imagine trying to explain to a child that the hero who just saved the world is going to be repaid by dying alone, and by his own hand.  That’s some of the most hardcore emotional material that video games have ever dealt with – and it gets completely castrated when we find out that Snake doesn’t really have to kill himself.  Instead he can sit back, relax, hang out with Otacon, and live out the rest of his days in peace.

What a cop-out.

Also, Otacon wouldn’t have been having his conversation with Sonny at a marriage, it would have been at a funeral because Meryl and whats-his-face wouldn’t have survived the final battle.  Their lives are meaningless outside of battle; only battle, and death in battle, gives their lives meaning.  Perhaps, after being drilled by a hail of gunfire, the Colonel could have talked to his niece via codec, apologizing for his perceived misconduct while she is unable to respond, eyes glossed over in death, her pale face a checkerboard of lacerations and cascading torrents of blood.

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Valkyria Chronicles: Black Metal Valkyrie: Wow, this game’s atmosphere needs a lot of work.  Now, don’t think for a minute that I’m going to complain that the visual style needs to be changed into more of a Western first-person patriotic marine jarhead “hoo-ah” style of game.  No, it’s the characters and the simpering, whining morality that drives them, that needs to be changed.  In this game, the main characters are hardcore, brutal killers; it’s their job to kill people all day long, and they do this gladly.  But then there’s this schizophrenic split with it’s own theme every time any character opens his mouth; I often turned down the volume during cutscenes and prayed to Odin that none of my roommates could hear the childish Pokemon-meets-Power Rangers dialogue.

It’s fine to start things out light and breezy, but as soon as an invading army rolls into town and Welkin picks up his first gun and fires and ends up with some foreigner’s brains and pieces of skull and jawbone all over his face and in his hair, some themes need to grow some testicles real quick.  Welkin was a lover of nature; could he not have adopted the sort of cunning and mercilessness that Mother Nature herself practices, and which is praised in plenty of Scandinavian viking metal songs?

And then there’s Alicia.  I’m fine with her starting out as a girlish simpleton who thinks it’s her job to nag Welkin every chance she gets, but she should have learned to embrace her special powers.  In real life, people who are born with gifts but refuse to use them are soon branded as failures.  We might brand these people unconsciously, but we still do it, and they know it.  Alicia doesn’t need to be dreaming of baking bread out of the back of some run-down van, she needs to be defending her nation like the living god she is.  A god who dispenses death and justice with the sweep of her lance, like a reincarnated Wotan himself, who lives on to this day in black metal anthems.

Final Fantasy Tactics: His Holiness Satan: Was Final Fantasy Tactics a game about a band of warriors who discover that the teachings of the church are a lie, and that the heads of church and state are possessed by demonic forces and thus have to be assassinated in order for peace and prosperity to return to a war-ravaged land, or was it a cartoony level-grinder that kind of looked like Pokemon, and everyone is (for some strange reason) walking in place?  Because I get confused when I play it.  The challenge and the mature content is there, but the visuals aren’t exactly something I’d be proud to show off to another adult.

So far I’ve done little besides give a few examples of how some great (but thematically flawed) games could stand to be blackened for the sake of honest storytelling.  In the next installment, I’ll talk about what an original black metal game might look like if built from the ground up with METAL in mind.