The steady mechanical bang of the pistol. The agonised groans and unearthly wails of the zombies and imps. The solemn bloop of the ammo and health pick-ups. The Star-Trek whoosh and click of the lifts and doors. The propulsive minimalistic music and, of course, the grunts and growls of you – the Doom Guy – as you shrug off fireballs and gunshots like bee stings. None who have played Doom will ever forget how it sounds. Which is particularly remarkable in my case, as I generally play with the sound muted.
Blasphemy! But it's not just Doom that receives the silent treatment from me. I also mute Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Serious Sam, Unreal, Blood, Quake and any other early-to-mid FPS that asks you to battle armies of monsters with wonderfully unrealistic weaponry.
Modern shooters more or less oblige you to have the sound switched on, thanks to the introduction of the NPC and the custscene that's impossible to skip because you're forced to play through it. What are you supposed to do when those unshakable scientists and soldiers talk ceaselessly at you? Stand there and take it? Why do they never stop talking, not even when I circle strafe and jump around them and fire off rounds mere inches from their impassive faces? Seeing as their “briefings” never really extend beyond “go into that room there and kill everything”, there's never really any need to listen to them. Yet still, I listen. It just feels rude not to. Or perhaps the endless expository dialogue simply seems to drag on even longer when reduced to a moving mouth on an unfeeling face.
So it's only in the earlier shooters, those which are content to contain the entirety of the plot in a single paragraph in the manual, where I feel safe in pushing the volume slidebar all the way to the left. As the sound in these games is frequently succeeds in creating an immersive atmosphere, you might argue that I'm only getting half the experience by choosing to play with the sound switched-off. And you'd be right; but only to a certain extent.
You see, I don't sit in darkened rooms and play games such as Doom in total silence, like some kind of FPS warrior monk in training. Rather, I create my own soundtrack. So I'm not necessarily getting a watered-down experience. I'm just getting a different, more bespoke experience.
There's something about those early shooters. It would be a gross oversimplification to describe them as “brainless”, but they do allow you to at least switch-off a part of your brain. They don't necessarily require concentration so much as focus. As you sprint through dark spaces cleaving through endless droves of hell-spawn, you're largely running on instinct, muscle memory and pattern recognition. It can be beautifully therapeutic. If I had any idea what I was talking about, I might even compare it to meditation. Perfectly content with my own distracted focus, why would I want to break the spell with scary atmospheric sound-effects? Instead, I like to complement and augment the experience with carefully chosen music of my own. Most any music can work well in this context, but there are times when Sufjan Stevens just doesn't cut it, such as when you're taking on a room full of zombies and demons with a chainsaw.
With its pentagrams and cloven hoofs, Doom basically demands a metal soundtrack. Indeed, its original soundtrack is about as metal as early VGM gets. But when I choose my own headphone music for my late night Doom sessions, I want something that not only complements the arcane trimmings, but also the higher state of consciousness I frequently attain whilst playing. I want to lose myself in the music, as well as the game.
Which is why I play Doom almost exclusively to a prog-rock soundtrack.
The early, first wave prog is perfect. Try mixing E1M1 with Van Der Graaf Generator's Lemmings, for example, to feel a prevailing sense of doom to make the game worthy of its title. Or the furious title track from Emerson Lake & Palmer's Tarkus, an album with a cover depicting a gigantic armadillo on treadmills wielding dual chainguns, looking every bit like the sort of nasty you'll face whilst knee deep in the dead. But for the ultimate ProgDoom Nightmare, you must delve into the pitch-black waters of prog-metal. Neurosis are great for brooding dread, but if you want to match the breakneck pace of Doom, look no further than Mastodon's 2006 masterpiece, Blood Mountain. The opening track screams into life with drums like gunfire and guitars like chainsaws. It's called The Wolf is Loose, and the wolf is you.
Late at night, mix Doom with Mastodon, loud and on headphones, in a darkened room with an ample supply of beer. No spa could ever hope to be so therapeutic.
Elliot Davies is a man on the internet that you can tweet at @ninetyeightytwo if you want to talk progressive metal.