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Cristina Scabbia x Diablo: Inside metal and gaming’s most devilish crossover yet

Outstanding hack-and-slash remaster Diablo II: Resurrected isn’t just about polishing up the beloved original’s relentless fire and brimstone. In a striking collaboration with Lacuna Coil songstress Cristina Scabbia and bizarro YouTube star Mark The Hammer, it’s inspired the latest crossover between video games and heavy music, too…

Cristina Scabbia x Diablo: Inside metal and gaming’s most devilish crossover yet
Words:
Sam Law

When Cristina Scabbia first picked up the joypad, she had no idea she was steering herself onto a path that would still be throwing up juicy side-missions three decades down the line. A young teenager in northern Italy during the mid-’80s first generation video game boom, the future Lacuna Coil frontwoman didn’t have the spare cash for the cutting-edge equipment of the time, whose 128-colour palettes and blocky two-dimensional sprites felt utterly futuristic. When a local friend powered up David Crane’s 1982 masterpiece Pitfall! on their Atari 2600, however, it opened the doors to another world.

“I’ve been a gamer for quite a while,” her eyes light up at the memory. “I love video games. I love what you can learn from them. I love the stories they tell…”

Few games are as darkly compelling as Blizzard Entertainment’s legendary Diablo series. Bringing to life the dark fantasy realm of Sanctuary – a midpoint between the High Heavens and Burning Hells – its trio of classic titles chronicle the eternal conflict between mankind and the demonic legions led by Diablo, fearsome Destroyer Of Souls. When David Brevik’s original landed in 1996, it was a literal game-changer for the industry, raising the bar in terms of depth and detail, storytelling and character-building. 2000’s Diablo II raised it again, still revered by hardcore gamers as the greatest action-RPG of all, while 2012’s Diablo III brought the franchise into the modern era.

Fittingly, it’s against that shadowy backdrop that Cristina joins us today, to discuss Start Again, her musical collaboration with the minds behind thrilling 3D, HD remaster Diablo II: Resurrected.

Speaking from her high-backed gaming chair in front of an impressive PC set-up this morning, she looks ready for battle. A laid-back, dressed-down counterpart to her imposing onstage alter-ego, she is surrounded by stacks of proudly-displayed paraphernalia, from a plushie of Gremlins’ Gizmo and photos of her band, to figurines of her favourite virtual characters, spare controllers, and the ubiquitous energy drink refrigerator.

Anyone familiar with Cristina’s Twitch streams wondering if this might be a carefully-arranged studio space should think again. “It’s actually part of my living room,” she laughs. “There’s this big table that was supposed to be for dinners with friends, but as we would go out to eat instead, I decided to use it for something that I like, and filled it with computers, monitors and consoles.

“It’s where I play. It’s where I stream from. It’s the safe space.”

"When they told me the project was to write a song for Diablo II: Resurrected, I was like ‘You’re joking?!’ I immediately said yes!"

Hear Cristina tell the story of how the Diablo collab came to be…

Diablo’s heroes work best when joining forces, and 30 minutes further north, in the town of Saronno, we meet Marco Arata – AKA YouTube sensation Mark The Hammer – Cristina’s collaborator on Start Again, and a playful like mind. “I was three years old when I first played on a Game Boy,” he smiles into the light of a bank of monitors, “and I never stopped.”

For readers not in the know, Mark is the uber-talented multi-instrumentalist who’s gained a reputation for uploading incisive, tongue-in-cheek videos to YouTube like Irritating Guitar Lessons and How To Create A Black Metal Song… Without Any Talent. Learning piano aged eight, he quickly graduated to electric guitar, bass and drums. He’s since been picked up as the live guitarist/keyboardist for Italian pop-hip-hop icon J-Ax. The main Mark The Hammer YouTube channel has more than half a million subscribers, while its English-language alternative boasts close to 100,000.

Both accomplished, analytical, artistic minds, it feels key to Start Again’s success that the duo see gaming as a chance to switch off – less interested in graphics and game engines than narrative drive and world-building.

“Whenever you listen to a song as a musician, you have your brain working, thinking about what exactly is going on,” explains Mark. “I’m a big fan of acting and drama, too, and the same thing applies when you watch a movie. But when you pick up that game pad, you’re able to relax and [switch that part of your brain off]. It’s the only thing in my life that I can really say is completely relaxing.”

“I know that some people prefer creating groups or being part of a competition,” agrees Cristina, noting that Diablo, in particular, fits her play style “but I’m more of a selfish, solitary player. I don’t want to feel that competition while I play. I want to be able to relax and do things at my own pace, to have my own rhythm. I don’t necessarily think of games as an escape. For me, it’s a different world that I want to be part of, [parallel to] the real world. It’s not that I want to [run away and] live in the video game world. But when I’m playing, I want to stay there, I want to focus on what’s happening – I want to absorb all the vibes. It’s not just something that you’re watching: you’re part of it. You can choose your character. You can increase your power. You can pick your path and select your sides.

“There are things about this world that non-gamers could never really understand…”

Like all the best quests, it began with a message from out of the blue. Mark recalls the sense of absurdity, watching an email drop into his inbox that he couldn’t quite believe was real. “I remember opening the message and seeing that it was an opportunity to write [a song inspired by Diablo II] for the release of Diablo II: Resurrected. Oh, yeah, and you’ll have Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil doing vocals. I was just like ‘What?!’”

Having dropped video game soundtrack cover albums Hammer Games Vols 1 and 0 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Mark had pedigree in the field, but he struggled to comprehend the opportunity for such a high-profile collaboration.

“This is the game that I bought as a 14-year-old when it first came out back in the year 2000,” he fishes out his original CD-ROM jewel case for an unsubtle flex, “and you’re asking me to write an official song to go with it? That in itself is mind-blowing. But to be able to do that with the greatest singer in Italian metal?! I thought it was some sort of strange spam at first. When I realised that it wasn’t, it became amazing on so many levels.”

Not a huge fan of YouTube (nor, presumably, of the hack-and-slash sub-genre), Cristina’s manager didn’t quite know what to make of the invitation. Fortunately, having followed one of Lacuna Coil’s old guitarists through a laptop screen and into Sanctuary all those years ago, and already a fan of Mark’s videos, she didn’t take much convincing.

“I was just like, ‘Mark The Hammer? I follow him!’” she grins. “Then, when they told me the project was to write a song for Diablo II: Resurrected, I immediately said yes. If you look back at interviews that I did years ago, whenever they asked me what dream I had or what is missing from my body of work, I’ve always said that I’d like to write something for a video game. When this came along, it was like, ‘Hello…’”

Cristina admits that she struggled with writer’s block over lockdown. Having watched her native Italy become one of the first countries crippled by the spread of COVID-19, she was unwilling to create music with the power to transport her back to those most troubled of times. Compared to the glacial pace of the music industry over the last 18 months, however, dropping in at crunch time in a massive game’s release schedule came as an invigorating change of pace. The first message exchanged between Cristina and Mark was on August 23, with the song due online to coincide with Diablo II: Resurrected’s launch exactly a month later.

“When you have a deadline, it can either throw you down or really speed everything up and add an excitement,” Cristina muses. “For us, it was definitely the latter. We were perhaps a little bit tense about not knowing each other. Any time you’re working with someone new, you ask yourself these questions: ‘Is he going to be nice? Is he going to be an asshole? Is he going to have the same ideas that I have? The same creativity? The same speed?’

“As soon as we started to text, though, I realised that Mark was really relaxed, really funny. He’s like me. We would send and receive messages in the middle of the night, and get immediate replies. It was like we’d opened the floodgates on an ocean of ideas.”

A high level of fandom was pivotal. Diablo’s angels and monsters – Greater and Lesser Evils – seem like characters lifted from metal album covers to begin with, and the chaotic action that spills from the streets of Tristram and the slopes of Mount Arreat that go down into the depths of Hell could hardly be better suited to metalheads who’re never happier than when throwing down in the pit. Cristina and Mark’s preferred player classes – Sorceress and Barbarian, respectively – even mirror their onstage personas. To simply phone in the sort of crowd-pleasing banger either of these musicians could write in their sleep would be to do the project a deep disservice.

"Gaming is the only thing in my life that I can really say is completely relaxing"

Listen to Mark discuss how gaming makes him feel

Cristina reckons that if Diablo were a band, it would be either Judas Priest – all OTT outfits, pointy edges and demonic imagery – or Rammstein, spewing sheer pyrotechnic bombast. Mark contends that the larger-than-life, battle-obsessed aesthetic of Iron Maiden might be a better match, pointing out that many of the most monstrous iterations of Ed The Head wouldn’t look out of place in its deepest dungeons. We’d argue that the ominous, folky atmospherics of peak Opeth even more closely evoke the playing experience, echoing Matt Uleman’s iconic original score.

In the same way that Diablo II: Resurrected marks an upgrade for players in 2021 while maintaining the original’s dark heart – dynamic lighting, three-dimensional rendering and high-definition presentation bringing the action sharply up to date – this song needed to pay respect while still packing enough heft to make an impact on metal fans in 2021.

“Diablo is such an iconic game,” nods Mark. “I knew the original score. I knew the original atmosphere. I knew where it had to go, more or less. But it was a challenge to make something new while paying respect to the original. There were parts where I wasn’t sure where I was going, but as soon as Cristina got really into the project and added her vocals, it felt like everything [clicked].”

“Mark’s involvement was crucial,” Cristina presses. “Looking at that original soundtrack, I was thinking, ‘This is such a classic – it’s so iconic – but it’s not singable.’ It felt like putting a voice over the top would ruin it. But as soon as I heard the music that Mark had written, it changed everything. He made it singable. He created so many different parts, that offered so many different scenes, so many different moods. There are atmospheric parts, but there are also heavier parts. It’s like a journey, from beginning to end…”

Part sweeping re-score, part fan’s perspective love letter, part limb-swinging metal banger, the finished track feels like a striking bridge between worlds. Is the aim for fans who’ve yet to discover the pleasures of metal or gaming to be able to walk across it?

“The worlds of metal and gaming have always been strongly connected,” reckons Cristina, highlighting the fact that they’re both tightly-knit outsider communities fascinated by the dark and fantastical, which can appear intimidating to outsiders looking in. Although she and Mark will happily welcome new fans, the main priority was to write a great song, hopefully tightening the bond between communities that already exists. “It’s a lifestyle,” she gestures. “If you see a metalhead, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to talk about games – or vice-versa.”

Indeed, the lines have increasingly blurred over the last couple of decades. Countless rockers found their way into the world via the legendary Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtracks. The Guitar Hero franchise brought songs as unusual DragonForce’s Through The Fire And The Flames, Lamb Of God’s Laid To Rest and Slayer’s Raining Blood – not to forget Lacuna Coil’s Closer – into the non-metalhead sphere. Celebrities as high profile as Tenacious D’s Jack Black have spearheaded their own digital-metal crossovers, while Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows cropped up as a playable character in Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4. Gamers have even increasingly taken to wearing branded T-shirts a la those of their favourite bands, enabling them to recognise each other on the street.

On the other side of the coin, bleeding-edge artists like The Armed, Refused and Run The Jewels have recently been inspired to write specifically for games. Svalbard’s Serena Cherry just started a one-woman black metal side-project called Noctule, dedicated to her favourite epic RPG. Hell, Cristina even tells us that pounding compositions by djent-influenced video game soundtrack maestro Mick Gordon are amongst the most listened on her personal playlist.

It’s down to a change in perspective, Cristina reckons, where intelligent eye for detail is now considered every bit as cool as a debauched hell-raiser attitude. Games’ intricate storytelling and epic design are recognised as on par with the finest parts of cinema, and e-sports competitions regularly boast larger prize pots than those of their athletic counterparts.

“I was always part of the nerd world,” she says, with more than a hint of vindication. “A few years ago, it felt like it was almost something to be ashamed of to admit that you’re a nerd, as if you had this weird, ridiculous aura. But now, everybody – all these people who were never interested – seem to want to be involved in this world. I [sometimes think], ‘Nah, you need to prove you’re really into it…’”

She’s not kidding. As if that massive cache of gaming equipment – from the original PlayStation to countless Game Boys and computer components – wasn’t proof enough, Cristina has even appeared as playable character The Shadow Sorceress in Iron Maiden’s ever-evolving Legacy Of The Beast mobile game. “It was such an honour, such a pleasure to create my own character and give all the directions for the outfit, which was basically the outfit I was wearing on the last Lacuna Coil tour before lockdown,” she grins.

Going even geekier, Lacuna Coil also just launched their own Horns Up tabletop card game, where players must fight their way to the front of the stage. “It’s something we’re all really interested in, but particularly our bassist Maki [Coti Zelati],” Cristina continues. “Every card is related to metal clichés. We even gave our fans the opportunity to see themselves on one of the cards…”

“When I’m playing, I want to stay there, I want to focus on what’s happening, I want to absorb all the vibes, I just want to have fun…”

Hear Cristina explain her approach to video games

Although Lacuna Coil maintained their high-drama presence with September 2020’s Black Anima: Live From The Apocalypse stream and June 2021’s live album of the same name, Cristina was keen to use the time off to introduce fans to her character away from the band, emboldened to set up her own channel on Twitch.

“I just wanted to learn new things which could enrich my baggage of knowledge,” she enthuses. “I’m already singing, already writing, but I don’t want to fixate on those. Life is made up of so many different things that can enrich my music and my creativity. I was already a Twitch user, watching other people play games, but I didn’t know what my purpose was. I almost felt scared at first. I am a singer. I am somehow an entertainer. I like to talk, which is clear. But it’s different when you’re talking to a lot of people for a couple of hours – or more!

“Eventually, I decided to keep it as informal as I could so that people could see how Cristina is at home. Cristina isn’t just the singer of Lacuna Coil: I have a house, I have a life, I have passions, I have my own personality. I just wanted people to discover that. Luckily they also like this quirky side of me, which feels like the opposite that dark goth lady that so many people know. As much as I didn’t have purpose in the beginning, there’s now such a strong community every time I go online – such a clean place to exchange good vibes!”

Even the persistent undertones of sexism and misogyny that have plagued gaming, she pushes, are a speed bump to be put in the rearview, comparable to what she experienced when first making her name in heavy music.

“In metal, I encountered the same problem,” she explains, bluntly. “[Women becoming a major presence in the community] was something new, and when something is new, people have suspicions and doubts. They don’t know how to deal with it. But there are a lot of female gamers now, and a lot of females in metal. It’s been normalised, which it should be, because games and metal are for everyone.”

As the world comes back up to speed, hectic schedules mean that attention is turning away from screens, and back towards studio and stage. Mark is churning out more and more top-class YouTube content. Cristina has a packed diary, with a tribute concert for late collaborator Franco Battiato at the spectacular Arena di Verona this week, and another secretive collaboration in the works, not to mention writing for Lacuna Coil’s 10th LP, which has just begun – her creative fires reignited by bringing Start Again to life.

Having dipped toes in the video game world, though, they’re both keen to return.

“I really hope we do,” Cristina says. “As a fan of video games, it’s such a great chance to bring together these different passions in your life. There are so many different things I’d like to do, and places I’d like to explore in this world, but time is limited!”

“I loved the challenge here, and the process of collaboration,” nods Mark. “If we could work together again when it comes time to make Diablo IV, that would be amazing. I’d love the opportunity to have my own playable character in an Iron Maiden video game, too, but I’m not sure that’s achievable!”

“I thought the same thing,” grins Cristina, ever adventurous, as we wave farewell. “Never say never!”

Diablo II: Resurrected is out now on Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox X/S and PC.

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