Header image via Phil Jones
Videogames are changing. They’re changing in all sorts of ways: bedroom devs and established studios alike are finding new ways to tell intimate stories. Tech is, of course, getting increasingly intricate. Nintendo is coming back—or maybe giving it one last go before they expire. And diversity is finally sinking into the roots of the gnarled, calcified tree of tradition.
Tradition—men, men who came up as outcasts, geeks, and can’t let that go—isn’t taking it so well.
For a long time, games’ relationship with women has been troubled, at best. If you somehow layered every female character (beyond just protagonists, because that’d be one short list) over each other, you’d probably see a very particular silhouette: giant boobs spilling over an inconceivably constructed top. Some kind of cut-out in the torso area of the character’s costume. Short pants/skirt situation. Lovingly detailed butt for those cutscenes where it just has to take up two-thirds of the frame.
And beyond character designs? Writing has never been games’ strong suit, but invariably the men come tough and competent off-the-shelf; the women are raped, beaten, and kidnapped before they can reach the ubiquitous adjectival straitjacket that is “strong” (who would’ve guessed it’d take a Wolfenstein reboot to break this trend).
That is, if they’re not killed at the start of the game so the Max Paynes and Kratos-es can get their murder on; or maybe they spend the entire game following you around, mute and helpless while you swat away specters.
There’s something ugly at the core of this—it’s all ugly, but deep down there’s some primal threat response that’s causing these petulant eruptions every time a woman peeks out from the Steam storefront or posts an article on Gamespot.
We know how this is going to turn out, though, because it’s happened before.
The heaviest metal is doom metal. Proving that slow beats fast as surely as paper beats rock, doom metal slouches toward riff-filled nirvana where its siblings thrash, black, and death all pummel the listener with inhuman speed. It’s a genre that women, in part, helped form: Coven and their singer Jinx Dawson prefigured Black Sabbath’s interest in the occult—if not their sheer heaviness—by scant months, an interest that would come to define heavyweights like Saint Vitus and Electric Wizard and a hundred other outfits.
Of course, since the hallowed days of Ozzy there’s been cross-pollination: sludge is doom with hardcore vocals. Occult rock is traditionalist doom, taken 70s-straight: metal’s answer to the pixel-art platformer. Death doom pits bellowed pit-of-the-stomach harsh vocals against grinding, patient chord progressions. Stoner doom, appropriately, wades through a thick haze of sheer bloody tone. It goes on and on.
What these all have in common, besides the “doom” tag, is that for the past two decades the best and brightest bands are full of women. Hearing a male singer almost sounds like a quaint throwback, nostalgia for the hardcore emoting of early Candlemass: the kind of music Simon Belmont might make if he traded in his whip for a Les Paul, all funereal guitar harmonies and pained lyrics like “Please let me die in solitu-u-u-u-de.” I mean, My Dying Bride? Warning? These are some morose dudes.
But since Gazelle Amber Valentine cooed over the dead-simple riffs on Jucifer’s 1994 demo Nadir; since Acid King’s Lori S. carved out her first stoner effigy on their 1995 debut; or even since 17-year-old Runhild Gammelsaeter (also, you know, a PhD-carrying biologist) gurgled her way across Thorr’s Hammer’s cult 1996 EP Dommedagnatt, women have been steadily ensuring their dominance of the genre.
Lately, you can get the Heart-style vocal pyrotechnics of Witch Mountain, the unstoppable sludge of Shroud Eater, or the primal, sylvan incantations of Rose Kemp. There is no box for women in doom to fit into; it used to be that Celtic Frost were employing “female vocals” like a preset on a keyboard, a background instrument. Now?
Now we have women standing upfront before massive stacks of Sunn amps, wielding axes and making their own kind of hellish noise.
There’s some resistance, to be sure: any random cross-section of Metal Archives reviews reveals definite trends when writing about women in metal. There’s the assumption that male vocalists are an unchangeable norm, and any other contenders must clear the “gimmick” bar by wearing potato sacks as penitence for their genetics; there’s the mandatory scarlet letter “female-fronted” before the band name; and of course the oft-noted potential for a woman’s vocals to be sexy.
Curiously, though, even the hard-line reviewers who deride “mom metal” and the “shallowness” of having a good-looking singer can be found giving positive reviews to some of these bands. There seems to be a hard-and-fast rule at play here: if the music works, it works. Ultimately gender, sex, and race are all secondary to the art itself.
It’s hardly ideal, but it’s a net positive: the media coverage of these bands, the success they’ve earned, outweighs the few insensitive voices.
If doom is about anything it’s extremity, excess, and depravity—but also patience. Transcendence through repetition; it’s no coincidence that bands like Yob and Om take a mystical approach, riffing themselves closer to God.
It’s the JRPG of music: grinding out tritones for eternity, making the slightest variation feel like genius. Where your Ness or Cloud beats down low-level grubs until they’re fit for the big boss, so too does a good doom song build to something greater.
The prototypical example is Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom,” which took their clean/dirty template and turned it into (Satanic) Gospel for every band that followed. The bludgeoning riff that crops up halfway through the track escalates it even further, like a boss that hits you with a mid-battle pattern change.
It may be this adherence to tradition—even if that tradition is simply “volume”—that allows for the gender diversity in modern-day doom metal.
Metalheads can be prickly about change, like anyone. So if, say, Christian Mistress comes along reeking of Priest and Maiden, it’s not much of a stretch to throw up the horns. The fringe examples, well, they’re still heavy. That’s easy to get behind. There might be squabbles over whether a band is metal or heavy rock, but no one’s saying they’re not music.
Whereas games from women developers—Dys4ia? Is that even a game? howling dogs? Depression Quest?
They all get lumped into not-games, or the halfway measure “interactive experiences,” because they challenge stereotypical notions about the artform (despite interactive fiction and adventure games being two of videogames’ oldest pillars), and the artists who contribute to it.
There is precious little room allotted to stretch that form, to push its borders; transgressors are branded and segregated, left to niche audiences. This kind of invective is of course directed at any unconventional game, regardless of its creator’s gender. But there’s a special sort of gendered hate that gets levied at women in games, particularly those who make themselves visible.
What we need is a bit of doom metal’s grace under pressure.
Sure, many women aren’t making traditional games in the way that Blood Ceremony are swirling Fairport Convention and Black Sabbath into a big old comforting elixir. But many of them are. Rihanna Pratchett and Susan O’Connor wrote the Tomb Raider reboot. Amy Hennig wrote a bunch of Legacy of Kain and the Uncharted games. Meat-and-potatoes, traversal-and-gunfights kind of stuff.
Yet adherence to tradition, or worse, to a fanbase, has rarely produced relevant and vital art. Play to the crowd too much and you end up in a death spiral of fan service and self-referentiality. The best doom bands going today aren’t content with tuning low and playing the same Sabbath riffs ad infinitum; they’re layering violins and vocal harmonies over subsonic bass, blowing speakers with sludge-caked chugs churning under riot grrrl shouts, taking the music to gloriously strange heights.
Imagine the kinds of experiences we’re going to get as more women flood into games; as the default protagonist shifts from White Vengeance Man to something infinitely more interesting and rich; as all types of new settings and characters and conflicts and mechanics come to life; as the palette of creators becomes increasingly vivid.
The hegemony is going to shatter, come crashing to the ground. It’s up to you whether you want to rejoice as it crumbles or get squashed under the pieces.
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