Doom and the normalization of metal

Main menu from Doom (1993)

The year was 1993, and Western society’s appetite for ultraviolence was steadily growing, as perhaps evidenced by our knowledge of the period’s death metal. Besides the music industry, other forms of entertainment embraced this, including Id Software, which at the time was a small but successful video game developer who increasingly specialized in first person shooters. Doom used much of the same technology as Id’s previous games in the genre, but due to better technology and marketing, it sold enormously more copies and understandably exerted more influence on game culture. Particularly interesting to us at DMU was Id’s decision to incorporate metal music into Doom. This wasn’t the first video game to showcase a straight up heavy metal soundtrack; that honor most likely goes to Rock’n’Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo, six months before the release of Doom. Rock’n’Roll Racing used synthesized covers of several popular heavy metal and hard rock tunes, but Doom arguably went a step further by using nominally original music. Robert Prince’s compositions for the game (and its immediate sequel, Doom II) are split between these ‘metal’ tracks and more ambient, downtempo tracks.

The music of Doom is definitely inspired by contemporary popular metal works to the point of near plagiarism; Prince mentions on the fan site Doomworld that Id initially asked him to do a contemporary metal soundtrack. Other sources mention that Prince relied primarily on the game’s design documents to inform his efforts and had limited contact with Id’s employees during the process. Regardless, tracks here are often just a few notes off from literally being rehashed Slayer or Metallica or one of the other popular bands that inspired this music. Song structures and everything else is understandably simplified, as video game music generally has to loop and can’t afford to be too prominent or obnoxious lest it be muted by an irritated player. It is still a reasonably appropriate backdrop to Doom‘s mixture of gun combat and labyrinthine exploration, although some players here will just use their death metal collections instead.

While streamed, sampled audio was common in video games by 1993, Doom initially used sequenced music, presumably to save on storage space and to avoid locking out potential buyers without access to a CD-ROM drive. The soundtrack was originally composed for General MIDI-compatible devices like Prince’s synthesizers, but on the average computer of the time, it’s most likely the soundtrack’s metal simulacra would play through one of Yamaha’s FM synthesis chips. The main problem with the OPL3 version of this soundtrack is a hardware one – while capable of producing a wide variety of sounds, the OPL3 suffers from severe anemia, particularly because of its weak percussion abilities, and therefore this version belies the music’s instrumentation.

Doom was, however, quickly ported to many other computers and consoles in light of its commercial success, where it would run into all sorts of technical limitations. Everyone involved in the ports handled the soundtrack differently, ranging from the complete omission of music on the Atari Jaguar, to rearrangements of various quality, including the infamously bad Sega 32X version, and even the Playstation port, notable as its main composer (Aubrey Hodges) contributed his own, original soundtrack of dark ambient music instead of using Prince’s work. The most “authentic” way to experience the soundtrack is probably Prince’s Doom Music compilation, which showcases much of the music performed on its original synthesizers; any additions are at least intended by the original author, although I still find the ability of mid-90’s electronics to mimic a distorted guitar underwhelming at best.

I doubt Id was specifically planning to popularize metal music when they released Doom, but they probably did a great deal in that regard, even though by 1993, mainstream metal was on the verge of commercial collapse and/or Pantera. The correspondence between common metal imagery, and the game’s demon-slaughtering violence and hellscapes is too obvious to ignore, though. Doom presumably sold more copies for pushing computers to their limit and being graphically violent, but the soundtrack’s decisions definitely paved the way for more and better-known works to feature metal as a soundtrack. In the process, it’s won such fans as Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who even made his own content for the game (although unfortunately, he didn’t bother to include his band’s music).


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11 thoughts on “Doom and the normalization of metal”

  1. Spike says:

    The PC hardware at the time definitely did its best to misconvey the intentions of the game’s soundtrack. Although to be fair, it mostly felt very loopy and droney.

  2. Daniel Maarat says:

    The game still holds up today due to the excellent breakneck gameplay and level design.

  3. Narcot says:

    Brett Stevens.

    Dude please, you have got to listen to Beyond Possession (1986)!

    It’s one of the best thrash bands ever. Much better than Corrosion of Conformity and better than Fearless Iranians.

    1. canadaspaceman says:

      Beyond Possession were pretty cool skate thrash/crossover/hardcore, but even their best tracks can not top Corrosion of Conformity’s “Animosity” LP or the Fearless Iranians 7″ EP
      Fearless Iranians From Hell – Blow Up The Embassy
      Fearless Iranians From Hell – Iranian Klan
      Fearless Iranians From Hell – Theme

  4. TCCN says:

    I remember playing Quake during the late nineties, covered in goosebumps and cold sweat. It exhibited an unparalleled dense and claustrophobic atmosphere, and had all the Lovecraftian references (it had a boss called Shub-Niggurath). And then there was the “Zerstörer” expansion, which saw the axe replaced by a chainsaw, and the blood spray effect replaced by chunks of flesh flying around. A true classic of the genre oozing of death metal!

  5. James says:

    Hey Gabe, Enforcer released and álbum this year, best heavy metal out there, if you could please review their 2015 álbum:

  6. Nuclear Whore says:

    People, please check the mod “Brutal Doom”. It made me pick up interest in Doom again after like 20 years.

    It’s brutal *ahem*
    And modern!

  7. thomasw says:

    DooM and QuakeWorld deathmatch are still the finest game physics yet made.

  8. Until they make a version of Doom where I can commit war crimes and atrocities,
    I am not motivated. And fuck all mobile versions of games. Only trve keybvoard is real.

    1. Concerned Citizen says:

      The genocide Doomguy brings upon demonkin is very atrocious and criminal. This must be stopped!

  9. canadaspaceman says:

    Installing DOOM on my PC.

    All your fault !

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