To cap off our look back on some of the best game music in 2020, let’s rip and tear through the Doom Eternal soundtrack. Despite the soundtrack being mired in controversy around launch, it’s no exaggeration to say that many have been equally excited for the music as much as the gameplay itself. Doom (2016) surprised everyone in its stellar quality, and the music easily stood as one of the strongest points of its identity.
The Best Game Music of 2020 is a weekly feature that highlights some of the best soundtracks of the year. You can check out previous entries at the bottom of the page.
Doom Eternal is no different from its predecessor. The Doom Slayer is back and more intimidating than ever. He’s got a big energy sword, a blade on his gauntlet, and an immense arsenal of firepower. His best weapon at his disposal, though, is a soundtrack that blazes a trail through hell and back.
The Sound of Hell on Earth
Composer Mick Gordon has a fantastic set of game soundtracks under his belt, but Doom (2016) really sealed the deal for him. Expectations were high for Doom Eternal. Nonetheless, Gordon absolutely delivered on the sequel, cranking everything into distortion overdrive.
Gordon’s approach to this franchise's music gave Doom a new soul, and it’s one that somehow fused the sound of a chainsaw with a guitar. Through the power of digital audio mixing and his absurd ingenuity, he essentially created his own digital faux instrument that adds a layer of industrial glitchiness to whatever he fed into it. It’s a process he fully explains in an hourlong presentation he gave at GDC 2017. Treading deep into the industrial metal genre, you can expect a lot of phasers, synths, and crunchy, distorted guitars.
Doom Eternal has so many standout tracks that it’s almost ridiculous. Nearly every moment throughout the game’s campaign is underscored by the sound of hell itself. Even the quiet moments between the arenas often have some heavy yet ambient music playing underneath.
Songs like “Hell on Earth” and “ARC Complex” build the suspense and tension before the high-octane action kicks in. To be clear, these may be the “palate-cleansing,” ambient valleys amid Doom Eternal’s many peaks, but don’t expect any lo-fi chill beats to study and relax to. The tempo’s still as fast as ever. However, the tone of everything, especially the guitars, are muted and subdued, as if waiting to be unleashed. It’s itching and ready to go, much like the Doom Slayer’s trigger finger.
When the octane lets loose, everything gets cranked up to 11. A perfect song to illustrate that electrifying change is “The Only Thing They Fear is You.” Aside from having an absolutely badass name, this song provides the perfect accompaniment for those moments when you’re cleaning up an arena full of demons.
The distorted guitar pulls out a deep tone that makes these aggressive riffs sound all the more menacing. What can only be described as a corrupted synthesizer soars over these heavy guitars, creating a melodic soundscape that sounds as crunchy as the demon bones you’re tearing through.
The best part? Toward the end of the song, that corrupted synthesizer gets substituted with the sound of a lawnmower pitched to match the guitars—Gordon said it himself. You might think that’s ridiculous, but the even wilder thing is how well it all works together.
“Slayer Gates” bears a similar, yet more frantic, vibe. Its opening few seconds are like an instant rush of adrenaline. Something about it sounds undeniably Doom-like. The added touch of the heavy metal choir harmonizing over these punchy guitars and drums creates an epic, heavy sound. From the first second, you can’t help but bang your head to the heavy-metal swagger.
When it comes to characterizing the Doom Slayer’s dauntless confidence, few moments can top the segment when “BFG-10000” kicks in. After Hayden tells the Doom Slayer that he can’t just shoot a hole through Mars, the Doom Slayer prepares to shoot a hole through Mars. How? By commandeering a big, effing gun on one of Mars’ moons and doing things his own way.
You’ll slaughter waves of demons while heading toward the planet-busting cannon, and in this moment, “BFG-10000” plays. It dives deep into thrash-metal territory with a simple yet high-tempo riff that commands attention, much like the Doom Slayer does every time he walks into a room. If the song came on during a final boss fight, it’d be a terrifying signal of how big of a challenge that boss will be. In this case, “BFG-10000”—like many other heavy fighting songs on Doom Eternal’s soundtrack—make the Doom Slayer sound like the ultimate boss of his own video game.
Hellwalking on Air
At its core, that pure, unadulterated feeling of being in control of the carnage is what this soundtrack accomplishes best. The most formidable, terrifying thing in Doom Eternal is the Doom Slayer himself, not the hordes of demons that lay at his feet.
The game gives you the tools to make you feel like the only entity alive that can terrify the armies of hell. The earth-shattering super shotty, the chaingun that launches a storm of bullets, and the almighty BFG-9000 excel at making you feel like the alpha in every arena, despite how challenging the fights are. However, it’s the way the intense gameplay mingles and plays off the chaotic soundtrack that brings it all together.
When someone rises to a challenge that perfectly matches their skill level, and when the moment feels right, they can enter a state of flow. Coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the ‘70s, the flow state happens when you’re fully, totally, completely immersed in an activity. It’s what you feel when you’re “in the zone.” Despite the difficulty, you persevere and pull off stunts you never thought you could. At its core, Doom Eternal is precision engineered to maximize those moments when you feel like you’re walking on air.
Its soundtrack plays a large part in creating the conditions to encourage that hyperfocus. In the same way a relaxing Mozart tune makes the perfect backdrop for studying, these punchy riffs provide the perfect fuel to match your adrenaline. As you bob and weave through fireballs and claws, the high-tempo drums and guitars amplify the tension, putting you in a mental state that’s ready to rise to the challenge.
Doom Eternal, much like many of the best soundtracks of the year, go beyond simply having good music. In a vacuum, you could put on “Doom Hunter,” “Super Gore Nest,” or any of the other songs previously mentioned and jam out like you’re in the middle of a mosh pit. However, the music feels at its best within the moment, when it’s cheering you on as you rack up your kill count.
It taps into your brain, releasing a rush of dopamine. This music creates the ultimate environment for ripping and tearing to your heart’s content. Doom Eternal easily makes the list of the best gaming music of 2020, and if you haven’t experienced it for yourself yet, you’re in luck; it recently hit Xbox Game Pass.
Wrapping Up 2020
Now matter how you slice it, 2020 has been a fantastic year for video game music. From Hades to Ghost of Tsushima, there’s been a lot to love, dissect, and digest with our ears this year. Thankfully, 2020 has also been a year where video game music has been available in spades thanks to streaming services like Spotify.
The Doom Eternal soundtrack, unfortunately, isn’t on Spotify at the time of writing. Perhaps it has something to do with the initial controversy during the game’s launch. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. After all, Final Fantasy VII Remake and Persona 5 aren’t on Spotify, either.
The quality of video game music has only gone up since those iconic 8-bit chiptune days. By extension, the effort required to make these sweeping soundscapes has likely gotten even more intense. So if anything, I hope this six-week celebration of video game music has helped you find a better appreciation for those melodies that get stuck in your head.
This feature concludes our limited-run series on some of the best soundtracks of 2020. Here’s to more fantastic soundtracks in 2021!