Why I love: Doom’s E1M1 theme

Doom’s E1M1 - otherwise known as ‘At Doom’s Gate’ - is the best piece of music in all of action games. It just is. It’s perfectly placed, its tone is spot-on, and although initially born by an unashamed piece of ‘inspiration’ from the work of an established metal band – as is much of the rest of the original Doom’s soundtrack – it immediately takes on a life and identity of its own by way of context, purpose, texture, and a whole lot of happy accidents along the way. And it’s just plain better. Doom is better than Metallica. Fact.

The reasons that E1M1 is so brilliant are many. For literal starters, there’s the fact that it’s the very first tune in the very first level of the very first Doom. You start the game, the Hangar level loads in, and that opening riff rolls out. And it immediately just works. That clipped, tumbling salvo is a perfectly charged set of noises, the sustained hit at the end of every phrase giving it a sense of ascending energy that you just can’t not go along with. But crucially, there’s a cheeky playfulness to it as well.

“C’mon”, it says. “Don’t be scared. Let’s get out there and wreck some shit. This is going to be great”. And so you listen to E1M1’s assurance, and you go along with it, and it is great. There’s no better start for an intense, horrific, fast, bloody action game, especially one built around the player’s ability to survive by charging in and taking control on the offensive. It subverts intimidation and nervous early energy by grabbing hold of it, harnessing it, and turning it into giddy, exhilarating enthusiasm.

So you don’t hold back. You immediately run out there, and you do wreck shit, and you do have a great time, and you carry on. You Doom, and you keep on Dooming. And it’s all thanks to E1M1 giving you a high-five at the start, dragging you into the party, and pushing you out onto the dancefloor before you’ve even had time to consider getting self-conscious.

But E1M1 sustains itself beyond that. This is where the happy accident bit comes in. You see, because all of Doom’s original sounds were rendered in the same MIDI, there’s much less aesthetic distinction between music and sound effects than you get in modern games. Thus, it all blends a lot more, adding a bit more musicality to the action, and vice versa. Gunshots merge with percussion. Demon roars and door-opening ‘skreee’s become little trills and accents at the end of riffs. There’s already a musical rhythm and flow to Doom’s kinetic, duck-and-weave combat, but thanks to this mixing of sounds, the music becomes an almost physical part of the world’s make-up. And the music is E1M1. And it’s fun, and lovely, and friendly, and gleefully metal-as-fuck, and it wants you to have a great time wrecking shit with it.

And so you do.

As such, it’s a wonderful, ambient tutorial on how to do well at Doom. An invisible - but very vocal - guiding hand, pulling you through, establishing the pace, and showing you exactly how you should go forth and conquer. And that’s established the tone and dynamic for new Doom too, which takes the ebullient, exciting, metal-to dominate-by credo and runs, jumps, leaps, flies and utterly, gloriously destroys with it.

New Doom is full of powerful, heavy, blisteringly furious tunes, but they only ever work in the same way as E1M1. They’re not a warning, or an amplifier of intimidation. They’re a war-cry. They’re Doomguy’s theme tune, and therefore yours, not that of the braying demon horde making tragic the mistake of stepping to you. They establish that you’re here, and so everything hell-spawned in the room had better back down, otherwise it’s going to die badly and you’re going to have a great time making that happen.

And they won’t, and so you will, and it will be just brilliant

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.