There are two separate and distinct approaches to being in a band influenced by our mutual favorite pastime. The most obvious path wears its full-to-bursting heart container on its sleeve, declaring loudly and proudly that you are a band that loves video games, often with lyrics and song titles packed with references and inside jokes, a logo ripped directly from your favorite retro console, and shredding riffs paired with bright, bouncy chiptune. The alternate path offers a much more muted exploration of our darkest pixels, one that unfolds elements of the titles that make and break us to distill their very essence. The Black Dahlia Murder has served in the reaching shadow of Count Dracula’s Castlevania since the release of their 2001 demo What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse, a direct reference to the misunderstood Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Though far from a video game band—the group’s gothic horror aesthetic is also a product of their love of classic monster movies and horror literature—former vocalist, lyricist and death metal legend Trevor Strnad’s fondness for retro gaming has been well documented over the years. The NES horror landmark in particular has made a few appearances in their now 9-deep discography, most notably in the 2007 Nocturnal single “What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse.”
Enter bassist Max Lavelle and drummer Alan Cassidy, our first two-player interview for Kill Screen. Though the Black Dahlia Murder was firmly under a vampiric spell by the time they joined—both first appearing on sixth long-player Everblack—each share in that enthusiasm for all things digitally devilish. During our time together, Lavelle and Cassidy shared their wide-reaching gaming interests, going well beyond the cold, stony towers of Dracula’s lair. Though Lavelle’s schedule proves to be demanding in recent years, Cassidy has dipped a toe into the bloody waters of Twitch, most recently completing a playthrough of the divisive space survival horror game The Callisto Protocol. As the band prepares for their first North American tour in over a year—their first stop being a headlining appearance at this year’s Metal & Beer Fest: Philly—the melodeath warriors still find the time to wield a controller, both on and off the road. The night is still young, dear readers; let us stay in this evening for pleasure.
What were your first gaming experiences?
Lavelle: I wanna say it was all NES, all the memorable stuff. First couple games, games I stuck with forever: Obviously [Super Mario Bros.], Ninja Gaiden, Bionic Commando, Mario 2. Those were the majority of the first gaming experiences that I remember.
Cassidy: I would say that my first experiences were Super Nintendo at my grandparents’ house. They had Super Mario World. I played that a bunch. I didn’t own a console until I was about 10 years old, so then my other experiences were getting to play whatever, wherever. Like, going over to peoples’ houses and getting to mess around on their Super Nintendos. And also going to Blockbuster and playing N64 when they had the demo consoles out. I kinda had a small interaction with video games for the first 10 years of my life. But it was Nintendo, for the most part.
This is going to be our first “two-player” interview for the column. Do you guys ever game at all together?
Lavelle: No. Maybe on tour, we would do some stuff in the back lounge with certain stuff, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had any two-player games back there. I think there was one point when we had a Wii where we had House of the Dead on it. We did have a RetroPie thing on the bus for a while that we would all play together.
Do you have any memorable experiences with that?
Cassidy: With that RetroPie, Trevor [Strnad] had all of the different old-school consoles. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Neo Geo, Sega Genesis, all that crazy stuff. But the fact that he had the entire libraries of those consoles, it was insane. I used to just sit there and go through and find all the most obscure games from Super Nintendo that you probably would have been really bummed out if you got for Christmas or something, like playing the Home Improvement game or something just to see what the fuck that’s about. [Laughs] That was kind of the extent of our communal gaming; watching each other play these old-school games that were on there.
Lavelle: We’ll play 15 seconds of every bad one. Like, “Yep! That sucks. Next one now.”
Were there any that turned out to be better than expected?
Lavelle: Yeah. There’s this one—it’s Sega top-down. They stole the set-up, the engine for it for [The Legend of Zelda:] A Link to the Past. It was The Crusades of Centy. That one is very similar to Crystalis, too. It’s the same type of top-down view, same weapon system, all that stuff. Very, very similar. But they never made it, so someone definitely saw it and was like, OK, I can do something.
What have you guys been playing lately?
Cassidy: I am not the best at keeping up with all the new releases, but the stuff that I’ve played within the last year or two has been Stray, It Takes Two, I just recently finished up The Callisto Protocol. I was going through the whole Dead Space series over the last two years, but I was most recently playing Dead Space 3. Aliens: Fireteam Elite and the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remake games.
Lavelle: I played a bunch of stuff this year, but stuff that really sticks out that I loved: I played Cyberpunk 2077 from front to back. I heard a bunch of bad stuff about it, like it was broken. But I played it on PS4, it was great. It was probably one of the best story games put together. There were some issues with the battle system, but if you just kind of figured it out, had the right weapons and whatever, that was a really good story. One of the better ones. Bloodstained was really good. That’s a really good platformer. I think it’s the designer from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night [Koji Igarashi] that did that. They had to name it something else. And I’m still not done with that because there’s a bunch of hidden rooms in that one. Another awesome game I played this year—and I held off for a while—was the Mass Effect Legendary Edition. If you’ve ever played those games, you know the choices that you make in the first game carry over to the end. That one was sick. Resident Evil Village was awesome. Resident Evil 2, the remake, I thought was one of the best games that I ever played. They use the Resident Evil 7 engine for that. Super good, easy to play. You can see everything. They got rid of the old tank controls, which were really bad.
The best game I have ever played in a long time—as far as an action RPG and I was very bummed that I beat it—was God of War: Ragnarök. That was amazing. It was really hard, I just finished it. It’s done now, but you can still kind of still go around and do last minute tasks.
I’m kind of surprised that you were able to run Cyberpunk on a PS4 because everything that I’ve seen was talking about the performance issues on there.
Lavelle: I didn’t have any! I thought it was going to break. There were some glitches. My bike would fly out of nowhere, or all of a sudden I would have an invisible gun. I’d be holding it, but there wouldn’t be a thing there anymore and I’d have to restart or go to an old save or something like that. No, it wasn’t as broken as I expected. I thought it was going to be unplayable.
Alan, you said that you beat The Callisto Protocol. What were your thoughts on that?
Cassidy: I had watched a few reviews on the game about a week after it came out and a lot of people were saying that the controls and the mechanics were a little shoddy and the dodge features didn’t always work. The game was short and it didn’t have much of a storyline to it; it was just enough to make a game out of it. The fact that it was made by the co-creator of Dead Space [Glen Schofield], it is almost a total clone of that game and feels almost identical with the controls and the weapons that you get and the upgrades. The only difference is that it’s more focused on melee than it is about the actual guns that you get.
I was really excited about it just because I love the Dead Space series and I wanted to play something that was reminiscent of it. But it wasn’t just reminiscent; it was a total fucking copy, essentially. And I was just kind of, like, I want something different; something that I haven’t played yet because the remake is coming out. It just turned out that everybody with those points that they brought up—it was very accurate. It’s fun at times. It’s kind of cool that you get the sneak factor to be able to not have to engage with enemies all the time. It just felt like it was lacking and I really have a hard time trying to figure out what it was lacking. If they wanted to make it a good game on its own, I felt like they needed to really offer more features and ideas that were different from Dead Space and they didn’t really bring any of that to the table. So it just felt like Dead Space 1, but like a shell of it. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, but I think they’re gonna have a redemption shot with a sequel and that’s where they’re really gonna need to set themselves apart from Dead Space and add those cool features.
On top of that—I’m sure this happens with all sorts of other games—it did get kind of buggy. There were times when I would try to open a crate to get some ammo and I couldn’t access it. There was a part in one of the levels where a monster is supposed to come out of a door to open it for you and it’s the only way that you can get into the next place that you need to go. But the monster kept walking through the door and it wouldn’t actually open. So you’d kill the monster and then it’d be like, “Alright, now I’m stuck.” I had to restart from a different checkpoint to get back to that spot so it ran the way it was supposed to. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as great of a game as I hoped it would be. We’ll see what happens with the next one and I hope it’s better.
What are the types of games that the two of you really gravitate towards?
Lavelle: Action RPGs or a straight-up RPG game most of the time. It has to have a good story. The controls have to be good, too. That’ll kill it for me with some games. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the controls were too bad for me to keep playing it. The story was good, but it wasn’t good enough to keep me in it.
Alan: I kind of like everything. It depends on what I’m in the mood for, though. I would say my big ones that I generally gravitate to, though, are shooters of every kind. If I want to go through a story, I like Borderlands, I like BioShock. I like top-down shooters if I’m not in the mood for getting into a story—just jumping into something and blasting things. I like action adventure a lot. The Nintendo games that I grew up with, like [The Legend of] Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, were really fun. Those are Rareware, and I thought that they did a really good job back then with their stuff. I used to be really into rhythm stuff, like all the Guitar Heroes and [Dance Dance Revolution] when I was a kid. A lot of those Japanese [rhythm] games, [Taiko no Tatsujin] and DJ Hero. Tekken and Super Smash Bros. were some of my favorite fighters. I like Dynasty Warriors for the hack ’n’ slash stuff. It’s easy to jump in and just not really have to do a whole story idea. You can just get right into the action. Oh, and puzzle stuff, too. I really like puzzle-oriented games.
What would you say is your game of the year 2022?
Lavelle: Game of the year for me would be Ragnarök. That was the best one for me. Best impact.
Alan: I guess I liked Stray because it was interesting to run around your environment and interact with all the different characters at different times and try and solve the puzzles, figure out where to go and what to do. There’s so many huge levels for a lot of it. It was short and sweet, but it was engaging and entertaining the entire time.
You’ve talked about a lot of retro games that have impacted you. Max, you seem to really gravitate toward the NES titles. What to you constitutes retro gaming? At what point is there a change in game design where it stops being retro and it becomes more modern?
Lavelle: People are gonna fight with this one, but if you look at how games are made and the level design and all that stuff—and people will say that Sega is still retro, but not really—as soon as Sega Genesis came out, all the levels were different. It was 16-bit, but all the game design was different. If you remember a lot of the way that the games were designed, each level sometimes would have a different engine. If you remember [Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master], there would be a side-scroller level and the second level would be a forced-scroll horse one, where people are coming up from different directions. And then there would be a water level, or whatever. I thought Sega was trying to push the envelope more with that. So right around when Sega came out and then Sega CD and then all the other stuff that used video gifs and stuff, I think that’s right when they were, like, “Alright, it’s no longer retro gaming. It’s this whole other thing now.” I thought 16-bit was when everything started to really change.
Cassidy: I would definitely consider the ’80s and early ’90s to be retro gaming. Probably side-scrolling stuff is retro gaming. A lot of Super Nintendo, a lot of Sega Genesis, that all to me is retro gaming. I feel like where it started to modernize was when it turned 3D and when you could really run around levels and go find things. Not only that, when you ditched the “three times you’re dead” system, that, I think, started to modernize. When you could start picking up health, when you could start regenerating health, when you could get more elaborate items to help you with the gameplay and that would compound or develop the gameplay, I think that’s where it started to really modernize. I feel like—even though Nintendo 64 is close to about 25, almost 30 years old—it still is the beginning of what we have now, and it’s only been improved upon since.
Speaking of retro games: Castlevania is very much a part of the identity of The Black Dahlia Murder with the song “What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse,” but we’re also 15 years removed from the release of Nocturnal. Does Castlevania still feel like a part of the Black Dahlia identity or have you guys kind of evolved into something else?
Cassidy: I feel like the Castlevania series is a big part of the band in the sense that the [subject matter], the fantasy horror aspect of the story, is very much stuff that we draw from as the band. I think the music is very reminiscent of what we do because it’s very melodic, it’s kind of complex and has a lot of really cool places that it goes. I think a lot of that type of music is really prime for metal cover type stuff. The band was writing that sort of stuff forever and it falls in line really well with how that game sounds. Even the imagery and stuff, I feel like looking at the Verminous cover and Nocturnal, it’s just big, spooky, dark-looking stuff. It fits in line with what this band is and what we sound like. I think it subconsciously lines up really well. I would say that it’s always going to be thematically pretty close to who we are as a band.
Lavelle: I’m such a die-hard Castlevania fan. Actually, behind me, on my fireplace, I have a resin replica of the castle. I love Castlevania, I would love to integrate it more in there. I’d like to have at some point do a secret cover. I don’t know if anyone would ever do that. I think, in the music, we take a lot of the style from it. There’s also a reference to Symphony of the Night. When you die, there’s the line at the top of the screen, which is in “A Shrine to Madness.” There’s not just one reference, there’s a couple floating around.
As the Castlevania super fan, what would you say are your top Castlevania titles?
Lavelle: I was thinking about this recently. The first one is good, the controls are kinda… it’s a being of when it came out. The second one is really good. It’s a hard—very hard—side-scrolling RPG. You could call Nintendo Power Magazine to figure some stuff out, but I figured out everything on my own; to go by the mountain and duck for a few seconds and the tornado comes and picks you up. Just certain stuff. I love that game. That’s one that I’ll go back to often to play. [Castlevania III:] Dracula’s Curse, the one where you get to change characters? That one’s one of my favorite ones. One of the more modern ones I want to say is the second Lord of Shadows because it’s done in the style of Devil May Cry, kind of. You get a lot of cool upgrades. If I remember correctly, you can turn into a rat and go through ducts and chew up wires and you can turn into bats, confuse people. It’s got great puzzles in it too. It’s during the [current era]. I want to say it’s kind of like Soul Reaver mixed with God of War mixed with whatever the hell it was doing, but it was good. I liked it a lot.
Both of you have Twitch channels. Max, I know that you haven’t streamed in quite a while. Alan, you’ve been streaming more recently and it seems like you’re trying to do it a bit more steadily. How has streaming on Twitch, if at all, changed your approach to playing games or your appreciation of playing games? What has that experience been like for you?
Cassidy: Well, it’s funny you asked that. When I started playing games on Twitch in front of people, I quickly started to realize when I play by myself, I’m really not concerned about how well I’m doing or what the gameplay looks like. Recently, I just started playing [The Legend of Zelda:] Majora’s Mask for the first time ever. I never touched it when I was a kid, so I know nothing about it and I’ve been trying to go through the game without any sort of help whatsoever. I wanted to see just how difficult it would be and if I could really figure it out myself. So, when I’m playing on Twitch, I’m like, Oh god, if I get stuck somewhere for a long-ass time, this is the most boring thing in the world to watch for people. You just have to watch me be stuck forever. I’ve never had anybody complain or criticize how I play things, but I know it must be really frustrating.
I wasn’t as serious about gaming as some of my other friends and some other gamers are, where they know how to take the gameplay and really use it to work to their benefit. I’m just kind of a dope; I’m the guy who just bursts into a room and just starts shooting everything. Other people might be like, “Well, I’m gonna hide behind this, or I’m gonna switch out this gun and use it on these guys and I’m going to use more dodging techniques to live longer.” And I’m like, “Nope! Just try and blow everything away!” I’m not thinking strategically. I’m kind of just trying to get through the game and that’s how I’ve always just sort of done things. It hasn’t completely helped me appreciate games more or anything like that. It’s just made me more aware of how kind of a crappy gamer I can be at times. [Laughs]
By the end of a 4-hour stream or something of playing the games—I talk a lot, but I’m not used to just talking and talking for 4 straight hours. My throat gets sore, my eyes recently have been getting all dried out while I’m playing these games. I also lose myself when I’m playing, so people see me get frustrated really fast with a bunch of shit. I’m just like, “Goddammit! I keep dying! This shit’s stupid!” It’s hard to be like, I am trying to be a host, a person that is just having fun. But I’m like, “I’m not winning! This isn’t fun anymore! I know you guys are tired of watching me die!”
I played against this one mini-boss in Callisto Protocol for, like, a solid hour. I was just dying and dying and I was getting so frustrated. At a certain point, I did kind of want to end the stream because I was like, “I don’t see myself beating this.” And yet, people wanted to keep watching me try to beat it and it was almost as if they weren’t going to let me quit. They wanted to see me succeed. If it was me by myself, I would have quit after about 30 minutes and been like, Yeah, fuck this, I’ll come back later, this is so frustrating. It can be very demanding in a way to be entertaining to your audience and want to be able to play the game decently enough that it gives them a reason to watch. If they’re satisfied with watching you try to beat a boss for an hour, that’s awesome. But I also was like, “Well, I’m sure people want to see me advance through the game and not just get stuck trying to figure out something to do or get my ass kicked a million times.” It’s tough, but I’m learning and I think it is kind of making me a better gamer because I’m trying to see how they’re watching it as well and I’m seeing what my pitfalls in my playing are.
Max, do you ever see yourself going back to Twitch?
Lavelle: I’d like to; I just don’t have as much time. I wish I did. I do want to, though. I have some ideas. I wish it saved the streams that I had. I had a good schedule. A couple days a week, I would do metal music videos. I’m a graphic designer, so on my overlay, I had the Beavis & Butthead couch that I was in front of and my logo looked like that. I would play videos behind me. I had a bunch of BDM videos, stuff like that. I just got too busy and then stopped doing it. If I do go back, I might start doing a pre-recorded thing and then I broadcast the same one and then I’ll broadcast a week’s worth of stuff and then go back to it, just so I’m not tied up all the time. But I would like to do it again, yeah. It was a good creative outlet for me, for sure.
Are there any titles coming up that the two of you are looking forward to?
Lavelle: I want to play the second half of the remake of Final Fantasy VII. It’s been a couple years now, waiting on that. I forgot how to play it already. It’s coming out on PS5. I might have to bite the bullet on that.
Cassidy: Honestly, I am the worst with keeping up with newer games. For the longest time, too, I kind of refused to get more current games. I hate spending all the money on not only a newer console, but new games all the time are consistently $60 or $70. Then trying to get a game that I don’t really know much about, I don’t even know if I’m gonna like it. It might be very well liked by everybody else, but if I don’t like it, then I’m like, “What the fuck, I just dropped all this money on it, I really don’t care.” For instance, everybody fucking loves Bloodborne and Dark Souls and all that shit. Once I found out that I fucking suck at that game, I was like, “This is really not the greatest thing for me.” The only thing that I know of that I’m looking forward to is that Dead Space remake. I would like to get a PS5 in the future and PS Plus has been great with offering new games, so anything that would come out for that, I could at least peruse, try it, know if I like it. I’m looking at probably getting a portable thing. I don’t know whether I wanna go Switch or Steam. I was even thinking Oculus, but Oculus, it’s pretty short games I think. Nintendo has been crushing it forever and they have some of the games that I didn’t even think would be available for Nintendo, like Doom. Once I get one of those newer consoles, I think I might be more enticed to follow some of the newer releases and whatnot. My short answer is Dead Space. [Laughs]
We’re a few months away from your headlining set at Metal & Beer Fest. What would be the game that you would play to warm up for that before you go on?
Lavelle: DDR would warm you up, right?
Cassidy: Oh, dude, yeah, and then my legs would be Jell-O by the time I get out there. I’ve recently found that I have to use the back bar. I don’t skate anymore and I’m not as young as I once was. Three songs into DDR, I’m just like, Oh my god, I can feel I’m gonna be sore tomorrow. To get ready for a tour, I’d probably play Trials. That’s a really fun one, but you have to be really skilled and practiced on the level, so I’m gonna have to practice for the tour. It’s kind of passive difficult fun where you have to learn the levels and really get into it. The tech aspect of it—knowing how to land your jumps or what’s coming up and how to navigate it—will kind of help.
What about you, Max?
Lavelle: I Am Bread. If you’ve play the game, it is the hardest thing. The way the buttons are set up, my hands cramped up through the first five minutes of the tutorial. It’s crazy how hard that game is. And then also I can just take out all my rage on stage, right?