Depictions of hell, and similar demon dimensions, are common in video games — we delved into the depths to find some devilishly dark music that’s been used to soundtracked virtual hellscapes.
By Thomas Quillfeldt (with help from Steve Vancouver)
As I write this, it’s a blissfully sunny day in my quiet suburban neighbourhood. A perfect setting in which to contemplate damnation, and explore the darkest corners of the fantastical hell dimensions that video game creators have depicted over the years.
Game composers often find themselves having to soundtrack hellscapes and demonic infestations — here’s a round-up of some sizzling examples of such music, to help you fire up your day. 🤘😈🤘
“Damnation” by Mick Gordon from DOOM (2016)
Mick Gordon’s groundbreaking score for 2016’s DOOM (Spotify, Apple Music) is perfectly tuned to encourage you to do a bit of ripping — and, after lunch, maybe engage in a little light tearing. A blend of ambient electronica and industrial metal, the moment-to-moment music is carefully crafted to keep you pushing you forward with tactical aggression. To to Aussie composer, the sound of hell is a woozy, gloomy thrum punctuated by violent bursts of repetitive, machine gun rhythms.
True to his generous spirit, Gordon reveals plenty about his many scoring tricks and tools in his GDC developer talk; also in an interview with the Noclip documentarians; as well as during numerous other interviews and talks on the web. He’s forthcoming about wonderful details like how he tuned his 9-string guitar, pitch-shifted the sound of a chainsaw, and ran sine waves through monstrous chains of effects.
(In case you missed it, Laced announced that DOOM (2016) is coming to vinyl and CD — check out the various editions at Bit.ly/DOOMOST.)
“Devil's Laughter” by Akira Yamaoka from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)
Many love Akira Yamaoka’s music from across the Silent Hill series because of the many chilled-out, downtempo electronica tracks. They can be, if not pleasant, then emotive and relaxing in their own way (stand out track “Betrayal” from Silent Hill 2 made it into our Halloween 2017 list).
But many of his most effective in-game cues are made up of aurally repulsive sounds — lopsided loops of sirens, metal clanging, ethereal voices, low drones — something that Yamaoka established from the very start of the series during the first hell dimension sequence in 1999’s Silent Hill.
Yamaoka was still at it for the 2009 title Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Spotify, Apple Music), freaking players out with discordant drone noises, loops of gates squeaking, and murderous clown laughter stuck on repeat like a broken toy with faltering batteries.
(I toyed with including “Wings of Hell” from Silent Hill, but it’s too much of an unlistenable onslaught even for this list!)
“Tristram Village” by Matt Uelmen from Diablo (1996)
With the titular baddie Diablo unleashed on the mortal realm, the town of Tristram has become a fearful place, with nighttime abductions and no ruler — and accompanying army — to protect the inhabitants. It’s a memorable location from the series, the enjoys a central place in the lore.
Not everything hell-related has to be fire and brimstone: here, Matt Uelmen layers acoustic guitar parts featuring tricks like harmonics, bends and slides; he then employs delay effects and supporting digital instrument parts to create the haunting atmosphere of a town ravaged by the Lord of Hell’s awakening. (Apple Music)
“Absorptio Bullenscens Fatiscores Daemona” by Jared Emerson-Johnson from Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space (2007)
**Spoilers for the second season of Telltale’s Sam & Max series**
Daft, silly, random, puerile, ridiculous: all these adjectives and more apply to the Sam & Max series, and composer Jared Emerson-Johnson’s scores for the Telltale entries perfectly support the madcap characters, storylines, and gags.
Indeed, the composer was on fine form for the hilarious second season: the final episode sees Sam and Max travel to hell, depicted as a typical office workplace where it’s always 4:59pm and Satan is the boss. For this cue, Emerson-Johnson throws every condiment into the pot: latin chanting, discordant stabs, honky tonk piano, and a hundred different lines of mad-sounding melodies cascading over one another.
The track plays as Satan and our heroes confront the real bad guys — three squirty former child stars called The Soda Poppers — who don burger joint uniforms (and S&M gear) in the process of revealing their demon forms. It makes sense in context of the game. Sort of.
“Inferno” aka “The Depths” by Rei Kondoh from Bayonetta 2 (2014)
One of my favourite things about video games is that, in parallel with the trend towards more arty and serious works in recent years, certain developers are still dedicated to packing as much over-the-top nonsense into their games as possible. And, if anyone could be said to have mastered the art of video game bombast, it’s Platinum with its Bayonetta series.
“Inferno” is a *relatively* subdued cue, that leaves you in no doubt that the Hell of this particular universe is an especially dingy and dangerous place. With its atmospheric synths, anxious groove, repeating string patterns, and choral parts, the track is one part James Bond and two parts o.g. God of War.
“Ambush” by Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan from Hellgate: London (2007)
If you were to judge by the video games of the day, the noughties would seem like a dark time. Dark and broody. With lots of (dark) grey, dusky brown, and shadowy blue corridors.
Now, as a Londoner, I can appreciate the resonance of an overbearingly grim vision of the UK capital — although the darkest and broodiest thing to ever happen to me near St Paul’s Cathedral (depicted in the game with a broken dome under a bruised skyline) was getting in a flap with a barista at Costa (I definitely said ‘latte’!)
I could make a semi-serious point about how uncomfortable it feels to see a portrayal of a major European city needing to be saved from an ‘invasion’ (as envisioned by a team based in San Francisco.) Or how poorly this premise and setting fare in light of a certain president’s attempts to paint UK cities as hotbeds of racially/religiously-motivated violence…
I could make those points, but then I think about how the Grand Theft Auto series — made in Scotland — negatively reflects on American culture and I just shrug.
Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan’s score is pretty standard dark fantasy action fare, but “Ambush” is an impressive example of how to blend orchestral, electronic, and industrial rock elements for a powerful sound.
“The Underworld” by Scott Lloyd Shelly from Terraria (2011)
The deepest layer of Terraria’s 2D procedurally generated world is hell to play, as well as being a lava-filled depiction of the underworld. The hardest area in the game proper, it is where players can trigger ‘Hardmode’ by defeating the Wall of Flesh boss — a charming, screen-filling mass of exposed blobbery and bloodshot eyeballs.
With his Terraria soundtrack (Spotify, Apple Music), Scott Lloyd Shelly brings together recognisable chiptune sounds with more modern electronica and orchestral elements, skillfully weaving together musical lines into a cohesive whole.
“Trailer theme” by Wikluh Sky from Scorn (upcoming)
The Kickstarter for the as-yet-unreleased first-person death-metal-album-cover shooter Scorn caught a lot of people’s attention for the game’s striking visuals, which strongly evoke artists H.R. Giger (of Alien fame) and Zdzisław Beksiński.
The dark ambient soundscape presented in the initial trailer was especially effective in setting the mood. Composer Đorđe Miljenović — aka Wikluh Sky — also composed the soundtrack to Serbian film A Serbian Film, which… look, just don’t look it up. Trust me.
Seriously — don’t.
“Melody of Pandora” by Cris Velasco from God of War III (2010)
As Kratos makes his way through Hades to face the god of the underworld in God of War III, a haunting melody is sung by Pandora, whom he briefly mistakes for his daughter Calliope. The storyline is meant to be a heart-tugger amidst all the general ripping and tearing. At various points during the stage, lost souls randomly fall from the sky, their faint cries heard briefly as they sail past — a morbidly comic touch.
This fan-favourite version of Pandora’s song is sadly not on the official soundtrack release (Spotify, Apple Music) — although a more fully fleshed-out is. The melody is so utterly minor and mournful that it reminds me of music for media associated with the Holocaust, for instance John Williams’ score for Schindler’s List.
“Neverending Void of Hades” by Tetsuya Shibata from Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (2005)
Perhaps the most beloved of the Devil May Cry series, Dante’s Awakening (Spotify, Apple Music) is a story prequel that explores the dysfunctional sibling relationship between Dante and Vergil. The demon world of the DMC universe is a fairly straightforward rendition of the underworld from Abrahamic religions, and also conveniently allows for gameplay sections with Escher-esque gravitational and space-time wonkiness.
“Neverending Void of Hades”, also more prosaically known as “Stage Music 10”, is a throbbing dirge of drones, distortion and dirty loops that perfectly conjures a dark and dangerous devil dimension.
“Disco Inferno!” by Peter McConnell from Afterlife (1996)
Perhaps one of his lesser-known scores, Peter McConnell composed the soundtrack for the satirical LucasArts god game Afterlife. The player takes on the role of a demigod trying to manage Heaven and Hell effectively.
As with the natural disasters in SimCity, ‘Bad Things’ can happen at random, for instance when Hell literally freezes over; or the Disco Inferno occurence, where a giant demon dances across Hell demolishing anything in its path. You has to admire the lengths LucasArts employees went to in trying to work jokes and puns into their products.