gameliterature gamemusic retrospective

With Classic Doom Re-Releases, A Look at Doom 3’s “Living Soundtrack”

id Software announced at this year’s QuakeCon that the original two Doom titles—the influential first-person shooters that caused more than their share of controversy back in the 1990s—as well as 2004’s sequel/reboot Doom 3 would be released immediately on PlayStation 4, XBox One and Switch. In light of this celebration of the groundbreaking FPS franchise, AIR Entertainment takes a look back at Chris Vrenna, the composer of Doom 3‘s unparalleled “living soundtrack” and the demented music box sounds of American McGee’s Alice. Happy fragging!

Chris Vrenna is an American musician and producer.  Some of his many career highlights have included drums and programming for industrial-rock band Nine Inch Nails and doing production, remixing and programming for over a dozen other major artists including Skinny Puppy, David Bowie, Rob Zombie, Megadeth, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson.  In 1996, with Vrenna on board, Nine Inch Nails were commissioned to compose the score and sound effects for id Software’s first-person shooter Quake.  After that, Vrenna formed his own band, Tweaker, and has released three albums under its umbrella since 2001.  Also in 2001, he made his first solo venture into composing original scores for games with American McGee’s Alice, a PC game loosely set in the Lewis Carroll universe of the titular Alice and her adventures in Wonderland.  Since then, among other games, he’s composed for some of Alice’s sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, and returned with Tweaker partner Chris Walsh to write and perform the main theme for id Software’s 2004 PC title Doom 3.  Vrenna also provided some of Doom 3’s in-game audio alongside other sound designers.  While his career has been prolific and accomplished, much of his most innovative work has been on the Alice titles with developers Rogue Entertainment and Spicy Horse and with id Software on Doom 3.

The soundtrack for Alice begins with “Falling down the Rabbit Hole,” which mostly involves a harpsichord plucking individual notes that walk around a scale, supported by a synthesized string accompaniment.  The following track, “Village of the Doomed,” follows suit with a simple and mysterious chorus chanting over more synth strings and muted bells.  Vrenna’s music evokes images perfectly fitting the game itself, in which fractured pieces of checkered tile and dark oaken Victorian walls often float through space as Alice traverses Wonderland, and in the distance, a void of swirling fog and darkness looms.  Throughout several more songs, Vrenna stakes his claim over the atmosphere of the game.  Often, playful xylophone melodies are carried along a breeze of keyboards and wintry female choirs while clocks chime and thunder rumbles in an overall sound just a bit reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s work on Edward Scissorhands.  Like his work with Nine Inch Nails, Vrenna establishes early on with Alice that he’s comfortable using unfamiliar instrumentation – in this case, grandfather clocks and near-broken toy pianos – to weave discordant elements together in a bizarre harmony.  Tracks like “Time to Die” make use of out-of-tune instruments sounding like clavichords or gamelans, while “Flying on the Wings of Steam” is a determined xylophone-and-plucked-string anthem with looped, crunchy percussion.

Playing Alice for any amount of time only seals one’s confidence in Vrenna’s score.  Forget the blond adolescent with the cute and friendly companions in the Disney movie; this Alice eviscerates foes with a bloody Vorpal Blade and is accompanied by a mangy, menacing Cheshire Cat.  The lonely violin, the grinding key of a wind-up toy and a music box with a steady arpeggio in “Wonderland Woods” set the scene for a dark and frightening journey through the worlds of Lewis Carroll for a modern age, and neither sight nor sound make bones about their respective natures.  As much as the score sounds like a room full of 19th-century toys bellowing their death throes, it fits perfectly in the twisted-to-nightmare visions of the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and other classic Wonderland characters.

That same year, Tweaker’s debut album, The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, was released.  Songs like “Swamp” bounce from electronica to industrial-rock and back so quickly it’s almost jarring, where opener “Linoleum” reminds the listener of the peak of David Bowie’s ‘90s-influenced era, when he released albums like Outside and Earthlings.  Allmusic writer Bret Love reviewed Uncertain, saying that it offered a “unique appeal,” though he ultimately only gave the album a three-star rating out of a possible five.

Less than three years later, Vrenna returned with Tweaker’s sophomore release, 2 A.M. Wakeup Call.  Enlisting guests like The Cure’s Robert Smith and Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne from The Melvins, 2 A.M. was better received than Uncertain, for example earning a four-star rating on Allmusic to Uncertain’s three.  Reviewer Rick Anderson ended his critique of the album with “Highly recommended.”

After back-to-back releases as Tweaker, Vrenna returned to gaming.  The philosophy with Doom 3’s in-game audio was initially that there would be no music.  The game environment itself, which mostly takes place on a commercial and military complex on Mars, would be rife with so many machines and industrial sounds that no traditional soundtrack would be required.  Instead of a score, each of the countless rooms in the facility would feature three to five pieces of architecture or hardware that would emit sounds ranging from bass to treble.  For example, the constant low rumble of an ore processor may sound from one end of a room, and a flickering computer monitor may provide a hi-hat-like percussion from the other.  These sounds independently would resemble a typical foundry, but as they were created in the same key, some of which in time signatures, they all worked together like pieces of an orchestra or a band providing a living industrial-ambient soundtrack.  Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was initially attached to the project, but Vrenna, alongside id’s sound designers Ed Lima and Christian Antkow, completed the game’s audio in its final form.  All three men are credited in various interviews and printed credits for the in-game audio, so in order to discuss Doom 3’s incredible sound, the reader must reserve attribution and praise Vrenna, Lima and Antkow collectively for its overall master stroke.  It’s as much a testament to their talents to have been involved in the project at all as it is to identify and praise any specific note in Doom 3’s symphony as one man’s or another’s.

The first notable soundscape in Doom 3 is found shortly after the main character, an unnamed Marine, arrives on-base in Mars City.  All rooms in the game are named via your HUD, which provides for easier navigation while playing and easier documentation out-of-game.  The maintenance room first provided a very low drone, which served as a bass in its environmental orchestra.  The sound came from off-screen and remained constant in volume regardless of where the player moved, implying a larger all-encompassing structure like an oxygen supply or air-conditioning system.  A more mid-range drone, also constant in volume, accompanied it in harmony.  Above the player’s head, two high-pitched whirring sounds came from fans located at opposite ends of the maintenance room.  Depending on the player’s physical location within the room, one fan was louder than the other.  Finally, under the balcony through which the player entered the room, two unnamed machines with nondescript monitor readouts provided a third, pulsing drone, ranged below the higher treble of the fans.  Together, they were five sounds filling the maintenance room, though only three were audible at a time, depending again on player location within the room.

Next, after the player traverses some of Mars’ rocky terrain, a 10-foot curved hall, labeled “Convergence Chamber 1,” adjoined two larger rooms in the facility’s communications department.  Through a glass enclosure to the left of the entrance, a large turbine was rotated by a thick steel rod, producing an incessant rumbling bass.  Opposite this turbine, though seemingly related, was an unseen machination that caused a large window-shaped light to build and illuminate a rock wall momentarily before suddenly shutting off.  This happened repeatedly and seemed to produce a shrill buildup of sound.  Also unseen was a slow, steady, high-pitched staccato beep.  A temperature readout on the wall of the room occasionally caused a small shower of sparks and sounded like a bug zapper for the industrial ambience.  Together, they resembled a clear, if dissonant, song.  Rooms like the maintenance hangar and the “convergence chamber” fairly represent the majority of Doom 3’s environments in scope and sound.

However, things aren’t always the same.  Throughout the first half-hour alone of Doom 3, there were many other singular and clever sound ideas to break up the monotony of the constant bass drones and humming fans.  One large pair of robotic pincers, rotating and processing clear glass tubes that contained some kind of aqua light or plasma in an energy processing room, was a slow and active treble.  An engine with three pistons and a pump like an accordion bellows created a steady percussion on its own. 

The first sound in Doom 3 that appeared to be both unseen and inorganic to the environment isn’t heard until moments before a science experiment gone wrong opens a gateway to Hell.  That sound is a chorus of whispers and it was as effective and high-profile as the audio experience got for some time. 

Once all Hell literally broke loose in the game, players were treated to much more energetic “music,” though Chris Vrenna and sound designers Ed Lima and Christian Antkow manage to produce it organically within the game’s structure.  At one point the player is dropped from a floor to an emergency-lit area underneath.  A fast and fuzzy bass synth, still industrial in nature, protruded from that floor and the player is faced with several zombies to fight.  It’s the first fast music heard and the first scene in which a player is forced to deal with more than one enemy.  Shortly after that, in another room, a series of lights in a hallway cut out and red emergency lights replaced them.  Each emergency light blinked on and off with a quick and high skittering sound, like an old synthesizer.  They constituted four or five quick, successive notes and were followed by that much silence.  The end result looked like HAL-9000’s death scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey with intermittent lighting, and sounded like a tense scene in a 1980s gritty crime drama.  Finally, other higher-pitched and more quickly-paced sounds continued to take the place of the pre-catastrophic low and slow ones.  Pipes have burst and thus hissed, open flames roared, various machines’ gears and pistons rotated too quickly, an alarm buzzed, broken computer monitors made skittering loops and so on.  Returning to the first room of dissonant symphony – the maintenance room – the constant bass drone had been treated with a buzz that now causes unease where it once sounded calm.

After another 20 minutes or so of gameplay, the surprise of the zombie/demon onslaught subsided and the overall noise level in successive rooms began to diminish, to further induce fear and surprise in players as more monsters popped out from corners and the darkness.  In a data library in the administration building, the living soundtrack is reduced almost to nothing to complement the arrival of one of Doom’s signature monsters, a bear-sized eyeless pink monster nicknamed Pinky. It wasn’t until after this, over an hour of gameplay into the adventure, that the first traditionally-composed score music played.  Players find an office adorned with a Satanic séance circle, complete with a pentagram and lit candles, and it was there that a three-tone choir sang.

The first hour to hour and a half of gameplay in Doom 3 showcased a wide and wild variety of the menacing sounds one would hope to hear from Vrenna, considering his work with so many big industrial bands, and Lima and Antkow.  It’s also clear that id’s sound designers were vital to the team to balance their “living soundtrack” conceit without becoming too heavy-handed or repetitive in the game.  It’s this eclectic collection of ambience, incredibly scarce score music and the balance throughout that propel the aural experience of Doom 3 beyond conventional gaming and into the truly inspired, the conceptual and the groundbreaking.  Few games if any have presented objects in their populated environments as the source material for their audio, outside of music games like Sound Shapes and Rez, let alone achieve such a masterful combination of instrumentation and sound mixing.  Each point of sound throughout the title is worth respect on its own, and therefore it’s impossible to see the whole picture without the collected involvement of Vrenna, Lima and Antkow.

In 2011, well after Doom 3, Chris Vrenna returned to Alice director American McGee to aid in scoring the sequel to Alice.  Dubbed Alice: Madness Returns, and developed by Spicy Horse, the sequel’s graphics benefitted from 11 years’ technological advances compared to its predecessor – as did its score.  As Vrenna is credited in-game as the score’s composer, but the commercially-released soundtrack is largely credited to Spicy Horse’s in-house sound director Jason Tai, it’s unfortunately difficult to analyze and properly attribute much of Madness Returns’ music to one man or the other, much like Doom 3.  We can, however, take note specifically of one track, “Wasteland,” which is credited to Vrenna alone on the soundtrack.  “Wasteland” is full of violin bow scrapes and a melody that sounds like a cross between the squeak a basketball shoe makes on the court and a set of violin strings being struck by a bow at various places along the instrument’s body.  Meanwhile, a quick xylophone permeates the chaos.  “Wasteland” is an all-too-brief return to the series for Vrenna, though one that is clearly his work.

Chris Vrenna is a musical visionary in and of himself, and deserves to be recognized as such.  It’s proven difficult for him to free himself of his association with Nine Inch Nails – they were mentioned in nearly every article I researched – but using them as a weathervane against all of his work is only a detriment to the audience and Vrenna both.  Throughout his career, especially with his masterpieces like Alice and Doom 3, he has shown time and time again that he is not only capable of making lemons into lemonade with seemingly disparate elements, but that he excels at it.  It’s hard to imagine any two or three instruments with which one could lock Vrenna in a room and then find him unable to harmonize and produce his signature sound of equally foreboding and playful contemporary ambient or industrial-rock music.  Whether taking charge on his own or providing texture and perspective to another band’s material, he’s been a key part of the American industrial music scene for over 20 years and has proven repeatedly his worth in the driver’s seat or the passenger’s.

Works Cited

Alice.  Dev. Rogue Entertainment.  2004.  Digital Download. Electronic Arts.  2011.

Alice: Madness Returns.  Dev. Spicy Horse.  2011.  PlayStation 3 Game Disc.  Electronic Arts.  2011.

Anderson, Rick.  “2 A.M. Wakeup Call.”  Allmusic.  N.p., 20 Apr. 2004.  < http://www.allmusic.com/album/2-am-wakeup-call-mw0000697168>  Web, 8 Dec. 2012.

D., Spence.  “Chris Vrenna Talks Doom 3.”  IGN.  N.p., 30 July 2004.  < http://www.ign.com/articles/2004/07/30/chris-vrenna-talks-doom-3>  Web, 10 Dec. 2012.

Doom 3: BFG Edition.  id Software.  2004 and 2012.  PlayStation 3 Game Disc.  Bethesda Softworks.  2012.

Love, Bret.  “Attraction to all Things Uncertain.”  Allmusic.  N.p., 18 Sep. 2001.  < http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-attraction-to-all-things-uncertain-mw0000014162>  Web, 10 Dec. 2012.

Tweaker.  The Attraction to All Things Uncertain.  2001.  Six Degrees.  CD.

Various Artists.  Alice: Madness Returns (Original Videogame Soundtrack).  Electronic Arts Music, 2011.  iTunes Music File.

Vrenna, Chris.  “Discography.”  Chrisvrenna.com.  <http://www.chrisvrenna.com>  Web.  Dec. 10 2012.

Vrenna, Chris.  “Wasteland.”  Alice:  Madness Returns (Original Videogame Soundtrack).  Electronic Arts Music, 2011.  iTunes Music File.

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