KILL SCREEN 023: Chris Grigg of WOE and the Branching Paths of History

Choices matter. Every day is a cascade of decisions to be made, of paths to be explored and of options to be left behind. We almost never know in the moment how impactful those binaries may be and—though we convince ourselves that hindsight is 20/20—can be stuck wondering if correlation actually equals causation. For today’s lowly tarnished, Chris Grigg of USBM iconoclast Woe, one such long gone crossroads still remains frustratingly out of focus.

A web developer by day and an extreme metal multi-instrumentalist by everlasting night, computers and technology have been a fundamental part of his life since the Nintendo Entertainment System laid claim to his imagination as a small child. Black metal’s wintery siren song later led Grigg down a passage towards the misanthropic project we know today and his latest LP, 2023’s Legacies of Frailty, masterfully adds to an already stellar discography. Woe’s presence in the black metal underground is firmly established but his road from recovery took a less than conventional path, starting as a small child hovering over a video game display case. Means and fate diverted him away from one of gaming’s most celebrated gothic horror classics and into the unforgiving embrace of a deceptively cartoony pillar of NES difficulty that proved more punishing, frustrating and defeating than any FromSoft title to date. Perhaps a colorful detour from the life he eventually chose—but what if it wasn’t?

Not all is grim and dark for the New York self-starter. With work now complete on Woe’s latest opus, Grigg and his wife are pouring their full efforts into Ampwall, a new tech startup positioning themselves to be an alternative to Bandcamp, who has been recently acquired by audio licensing company Songtradr. Though still in development, Grigg is starting close to home with Legacies of Frailty which is now available for purchase through his startup. What little downtime left in his packed schedule has the proud family man fostering his first digital love with his daughter, hoping she’ll make a similar—yet different—choice he made all those years ago.

What was your first video game experience?
I was 5 years old—1989. Very, very first experience, in this apartment building complex, the neighbor kid around the corner had Nintendo. I remember playing Mario Bros. there and I was like, Well, my life is over. Just ruined. And then I got my Nintendo for Christmas 1989. Still remember it. Everything changed.

What were the most formative titles for you growing up?
I was an original NES kid until whenever the Sega Genesis came out. I got a Genesis for Christmas one year. At that point, Sonic the Hedgehog was just burned into my brain. The early, early games: Mario, Mario 3, the original [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles [and] the early Sonic games, Sonic 1, 2, 3. I played Flashback on Genesis pretty obsessively. I can keep going, man.

Let me tell you guys a piece of my life. I think about this more than I should. This is the best opportunity to share it because I’ve only ever told my wife and therapist. I was five or six years old and I had a [NES]. My parents, we didn’t have much money. Buying a Nintendo was a really big deal for us. They worked hard, they both worked. They got things done, but it was a struggle. I don’t know how I got money at this point in my life. I guess it was some combination of birthday and Christmas money and I wanted to get a video game. My parents took me to the local K-Mart. I had my $35 or $40 or whatever it was. I don’t know, what did video games cost back then? In the case, there was the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES—brutal, painful, dispiriting, oppressive game—and next to it was the original Castlevania. I did not have money for Castlevania; I did have money for Ninja Turtles. I was not good at saving money for… ever. I really wanted Castlevania, but I was also a kid, I was a huge Ninja Turtles fan. My parents told me they would not help me. They said, “You can spend the money you have or you can come back in a week or two when you get allowance [and] you’ll have more money and you can come back and get Castlevania.” I got Ninja Turtles. Every time I think about this, I wonder how much different my life would have been if I had gone for Castlevania. I grew up being into stuff that’s all about bats and castles and death and darkness, so clearly I was destined for this path. But I still wonder how differently I would have turned out.

I made it very, very far in [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles]. There’s a level later on where you’re on rooftops and you’re jumping from building to building. There’s this cool animation where you go to the edge of the building and your Turtle would throw the grappling hook and you’d go across. In that level, there was an extra life feature—the only spot in the game I ever encountered it. There would be a little animation of a Turtle all tied-up and if you got him, you’d resurrect one of your fallen brothers. I got up to Mechaturtle and he just fucked me up every single time. I bet I’m gonna look it up online and it’ll be like, “This is 10% of the game,” and I’ll be like, Nooo! I thought I was so far! I was proud of the accomplishment at the time. But it’s a demoralizing game.

Did you ever get Castlevania?
Nope. I never got Castlevania. I rented it a lot. I have really good memories of growing up and every Friday night, my dad would take me to one of the two video stores in our town and I would get to rent a game. I judged every book by its cover. I played all the games that looked cool. Even some of the games that were like, Why would a child be playing an airport simulator? And I fucking loved it. So, I played all of the Castlevanias on NES that way. I remember really liking Castlevania III, where you could switch characters as the game went on. I thought that was a cool one.

That one had the branching paths as well. You would still have the main key points, of course, but you could have a very different playthrough each time.
That’s right. I remember that clock tower level. And then, of course, in high school, [Castlevania:] Symphony of the Night [for PlayStation] was incredible. Still is incredible. Aged amazingly.

I only had a couple games, so I would just destroy my self-esteem as a little kid playing Ninja Turtles. [Laughs] Probably set me down a dark path of despair and depression. [Laughs]

Have you kept up with any of the recent Turtles games? Turtles are kind of coming back in style recently.
I don’t keep up with any of them. My daughter surprised us by being really into Ninja Turtles for a little while. She’s gonna be five in a couple weeks. She’s not as stoked on video games as I was at her age, but, you know, give her time. She’s a little younger than I was when I got into it. But we’ve been going back and watching the original Turtles cartoon, which has aged remarkably well. There are so many stupid jokes in there that are clearly for the adults. They’re not mature humor, but they’re the kinds of things that only adults would ever notice and appreciate. The first couple episodes are full of jokes about how dangerous New York is that are very New York jokes. Just real dumb sight gags and things that kids couldn’t possible appreciate. And as an adult, I’m like, “Yeah, let’s watch another Turtles episode. This is funny!” She’s like, “Daddy, I want to eat dinner. I’m hungry!” And I’m like, “Watch Ninja Turtles!”

Who’s your favorite Turtle?
Then, I remember liking Leonardo because I thought the swords were cool or probably Michelangelo because, you know, he’s cool. Now, as an adult, I realize Leonardo’s fucking square, man. That guy is such a narc. He’s like, “We must talk to Master Splinter about this!” The other guys are like, “What’s this guy’s fucking problem? This fucking nerd. Shut up, Leo. Get out of here, dork.” I appreciate Raphael because he’s a lot more sarcastic and has this attitude of, “What is all this shit?” I appreciate it a lot.

Another very formative game for me for many years was this free online mostly-text-based semi-graphical RPG called Realms of Kaos that I guarantee you’ve never heard of. When I was in high school—early dial-up internet days—my friends and I, we didn’t have any money. I got really into looking for games that were in beta so I could play them for free. I started getting into MUDs a little bit—multi-user dungeon text-based RPGs—because a lot of them were either free or there were a few that were commercial, but they were in beta, so they were free for the time being. I stumbled on this game called Realms of Kaos, which is this pretty typical fantasy setup. It’s very D&D style. You’ve got different races and each race has different stats—which is a little racist when you get down to it. You selected a race and a class and a divinity. Each divinity was in a wheel, so strong against one, weak against the other. A lot of MUDs were done through Telnet, so it was pure text command line.

All of my friends started playing this with me in high school. We had our own guild. The game, it was little, but there was a community of obsessed—obsessed—people. There would be 100 people online at a time, but they were fucking obsessive fanatics. So, I played it for a big chunk late in middle school through high school. It was my first exposure to any kind of creative collaboration with people and leadership. I led my guild and I had to learn about negotiating things and pleasing different parties and, like, You defeated this monster; how do you divide up the things? How do you influence people to get the things you want? What does it mean to be a good leader? Things like that. It was a really big part of my life for a long time.

Would you say that that would be the game that you spent the most hours on in terms of games throughout your life?
Yes, probably. It really fucked me up in school for a long time because I was just staying up all night playing this game. It was a big part of my life, big part of my identity. It was all my friends and I talked about. I had two groups of friends: I had my music friends, the punk and metal guys, and then I had my nerd friends. I’d have a show or I’d be staying up all night playing Realms of Kaos. It was a big, formative part of who I am. It was a lot of fun. The game eventually went offline. The guy who ran it kind of flaked. Some people have tried to sort of reboot it. There’s one out there right now. I’ve never really wanted to make a video game, but every couple of years I go back to, Man, I have the skills to build that now. I could build that. Maybe one day.

It sounds like this is a video game that had a lot of positive impacts. Do you feel like the game helped you and developed some of these skills that you use now and through different points of your life?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a really good exercise in learning how to speak to a group, how to talk to people so that they’ll listen to you in a group setting. These are kind of rudimentary leadership skills, but they’re also rudimentary sales skills.

I remember a valuable lesson: Boost people who are struggling, not because they’ll do something for you later, but it’s the right thing to do and a good person recognizes that. Very often, the best way to help yourself is to help others. Not for the sake of helping yourself, you just do it all the time and people will turn it back to you. This was my first experience doing things like this. It stayed with me, for sure.

What have you been playing lately?
I play one to two games a year. I like to stay busy and I find modern games demand a lot of your time and attention. Mobile games offer you more opportunities to jump in and play for a little and jump out, but I just can’t really get into mobile games. I’m a console guy. I carve out a big chunk of time and it’s like, I’m not working on a project here, so here is where my project is gonna be this game. I have a PS5 and a Switch, so I jump between them. I play all of the From Software games. Dark Souls is where I started. [Demon’s Souls], I think the mechanics weren’t quite all there for me. And then Sekiro and Bloodborne, of course, and then fucking Elden Ring. No joke—I’m being 100 percent serious when I tell you that Elden Ring delayed the new Woe album by 2 to 3 months. We can laugh, but I swear. I’m being completely serious. I had really good momentum, I was crushing it. It was before the recording, I was still finishing the demos. And Elden Ring came out and I was just like, [drops pen] Welp… I’m done. I actually got a PS5 mid-playthrough. That is the biggest threat to my career right now, is that expansion [Shadow of the Erdtree] is gonna come out before my new project is more launched, you know? It’s real.

“No joke—I’m being 100 percent serious when I tell you that Elden Ring delayed the new Woe album by 2 to 3 months.”

Do you do any PC gaming?
Not in a long time, not in a few years. My wife and I were doing a lot of PC games for a while, before our daughter was born. Like, six or seven years ago? We were playing Divinity and Divinity II. We played whatever the XCOM game was at the time [XCOM 2]. I played through the newer Wolfenstein when it rebooted and it was just all about killing sci-fi Nazis, which is pretty badass. But we retired our gaming PC because it was so damn big, took up so much space. New York City, small apartment, big PC? No thanks. We don’t play enough that we need that raw power, so we’re just console normies here.

Do you often play two-player games with your wife?
Not so much these days. We went through a big Mario Kart phase a few years ago that put a real strain on our marriage. We agreed we needed to stop. One of us—I’m not going to say which one [points off screen]—gets very aggressive [mouths, “It’s her, it’s her”] when we play Mario Kart. So, we had to stop that. We were playing through the Phoenix Wright: [Ace Attorney] games together, which was fun. That was a year or two ago. We stopped playing those because we realized that we were staying up too late playing them. We were waking up really tired and we realized that we were working all day, putting our daughter to bed and then going back to work solving murders. We weren’t getting any rest. We were like, “We just have another job now! This is ridiculous!” So, we stopped Phoenix Wright. I’d like to go back, though.

I know I mentioned my daughter is still not really enamored with gaming, but I did introduce her to Mario Kart recently because it has some really kid-friendly settings, where it’ll control you so that you don’t go off the rails. It also has a feature where it will just hold down the acceleration for you. So, for little hands—where doing things simultaneously or even holding down a button is confusing or fatiguing—you can turn those two on and it just sort of drives for you. You can still control it and aim for things and pick up power-ups and stuff, but it’s really forgiving and she gets to feel that joy of controlling the thing on the screen.

Do you hope to instill the love of games in her eventually?
Oh yeah. I would like to. We’re gonna see what she’s drawn to, what she’s interested in. I’m already really enjoying doing that with her. We sit on the couch and she’s like, “Daddy, I’m in first place!” And she gets really stoked on it. I really like the idea of exploring worlds with her.

Woe’s lyrics deal with very heavy and draining topics. Do you seek similar kinds of darkness from video games or do you typically look for an escape from that with what you play?
I definitely don’t seek that out. I’m not like, Yeah, this looks fucked up! Let’s get miserable! I just look for games that I’ve either heard enough about that I want to give it time or a series that I’ve been playing that I have some attachment to. I try to find games that I can play in bursts. I’m not playing a ton of RPGs these days. I did FFXV when it came out, the boy band one. I didn’t really love the combat system. I really [prefer] turn-based. I played through FFVII so many times. I played through FFVI—which, in my opinion, is the best Final Fantasy game. Those are things that I like and I don’t think those features needed to change. So, I didn’t love the combat system. I didn’t wind up feeling particularly attached to any of the characters except for Prompto, who really grew on me over the time.

Sometimes people dog on him. I [James] thought he was great!
When we started playing, my wife and I were just like, “What is this guy? No, this guy sucks.” By the end of it, he was such a good anime character. He’s just all pure-hearted and stuff and it’s nice. I liked the flash-forward at the end with the monsters everywhere. I was disappointed that you didn’t get to explore the world with monsters everywhere. It was fine.

Your new album has incorporated some electronic embellishments, including the beginning of opening track “Fresh Chaos Greets the Dawn” and the middle of “The Justice of Gnashing Teeth.” It might be a stretch, but have any soundtracks from games ever influenced the music that you make?
Not deliberately. The soundtracks from games definitely had an impact on my development as a person, for sure. I remember being very struck by the Super Metroid score and its minimalism, its cinematic minimalism. When you go back and play it now, it’s really striking, especially if you think about the time, the era that it came from. The decision to approach the score that way—I don’t know if there were other games that did that or where the got the inspiration for it—but it’s a bold, bold decision. That minimalism, that spooky, eerie quality of being on a dead planet, it was really affecting. Past that, I don’t know of any games’ soundtracks that have really had a ton of influence.

Outside of metal, you’re also a programmer. Though you’re a different type of programmer, does that experience alter the way that you appreciate or approach video games?
These days it does, for sure. My earliest connection with technology was through video games. When I was a kid, I always wanted to make video games. I have a letter somewhere that my mom typed up for me when I was, like, six that we sent to Nintendo describing Super Smash Bros. Which probably sounds like bullshit! I found it a couple of years ago, I have it in a drawer somewhere. It was little ol’ me being like, “You should take characters from all your games and have them fight each other and then at the end they can fight a new character who’s just for the game.” We mailed it to Nintendo. I’m not saying they stole my idea but… Nintendo stole my idea.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with creating video games. They started taking me to the library and I started getting books out about software development because I wanted to make games. I never had the patience for it, I didn’t really know how to study, how to teach myself things as a kid, so it never went anywhere. But it did inspire me to start learning more about computers. Even playing PC games—we had a computer because my mom used to do freelance work at home, so we got a computer pretty early. [My parents] had some computer friends as adults, so I could start getting games [like] Wing Commander. First Wing Commander, once again, burned into my brain. I got Mech Warrior 2 for PC, another game that really just changed my perspective on what gaming was and introduced me to the battle tech world. Being a PC gamer, I got more into the computer, got me spending more time with that technology. I programmed these really crude text adventures with QBasic on the computer. I was also playing text adventures. We had the original Hitchhiker’s Guide [to the Galaxy] game, which is a classic of brutal text adventure games. It was my introduction to working with code.

I work with web technology and we actually just announced for the past year I’ve been building a product called Ampwall. We’re going to position as an alternative to Bandcamp. Happy to tell you more. [Laughs] So, these days, when I play a game, knowing more about the industry, game developers are insane. They’re maniacs. The gaming industry is a brutal, very unpleasant place to spend your time as I understand it. Game developers on the AAA side, they’re overworked and ground into dust, and on the indie side, they are at the mercy of Unity and on the receiving end of really intense vitriol and intensity from fans. All sides are coming at them. Meanwhile, back over here in the startup world, they’re like, “Would you like your catered lunch today? How many vacation days do you need this month?” But gaming, I would not know where to start with it. The amount of effort, the intensity of what it takes to make those games is really incredible. These days, when I play them, I’m like, How the fuck…? How is any of this possible? You have to know physics and shit. It’s crazy.

Do you think that you appreciate different parts of games or really value an element in a game in a different way because of the background you have?
I think so. I’ve come to really appreciate menus. It’s such a corny thing to say. You see the same thing on web interfaces. You can talk about a good and bad web interface and the way data is presented and how easy is it to discover things. They talk about “discoverability.” That’s a thing in computer web user interfaces as well as in games—the discoverability of these abilities and things. There have been times where I’ve thought a little bit about how to build an interface thinking about, “Well, how would this be presented in a game? How would you introduce people to the things they can do here?” So when I play a game and I notice a really good data hierarchy or a really good layout of menus or a really nice control scheme or an intuitive way of unlocking abilities, I really take notice.

I played through the newer Spider-Man games on PlayStation. I did the one right when my daughter was a tiny infant. She watched me play the Miles Morales expansion. I think those games do a really good job of making things discoverable, but some of the menus get a little intense. But the gameplay is intuitive and easy to discover, so I appreciated that.

With programming tools becoming much more widely available and more user-friendly each passing day—not to mention technology becoming just more ubiquitous and people being exposed to really advanced technology earlier and earlier in life—we’ve seen a rise in indie developers who have been able to make a name for themselves making their very small-team passion projects. Does this access and technological integration give you hope for extreme art in the future—whether it be gaming, metal, whatever—or do you feel like the widespread access has flattened our tastes and expectations by the deluge of copycats that have come out afterwards?
I’d say yes to all of that. I think the same is true for music. On one hand, the access to technology and the improvements to the ease with which people can go from idea to creation—ultimately, it’s a good thing. I think that the more people having opportunities to create and distribute their art is a good thing no matter what. No matter how many copycats are out there, no matter how it changes our expectations, at the end of the day, more people having access to create is good for our culture, good for our civilization.

Let’s stick with video games: The harder it is to create a video game, if the only people creating video games are large companies with a shit ton of money who can pay for these people, you’re going to get a very narrow perspective of games. It’s just like all the blockbuster movies these days: They only want to invest in things that they know are going to sell. You see that with AAA games, too. It’s sequels to things they know, it’s reboots, it’s remakes, it’s all of that crap. If those were the only people who could create games, it would be a real problem. And you see that with music as well. If the only people who can make albums are people with the time and the money to buy all the best gear and go into the studios because the studios control it and then if the only people who can distribute it are the record labels, you’re going to wind up with a very narrow viewpoint. There are going to be a lot of people who are excluded from that process, a lot of people with great ideas and great perspectives with art inside of them that are never going to be shared.

But at the same time, a larger pool of people, easier creation—you’re going to get the person who 15, 20 years ago wouldn’t have made the game, wouldn’t have released the album. You’re also going to get a shitload of copycats who are uninspired, who are lazy, who are exploitative, who are trying to cash in on something, who are just putting real bad shit out into the world. It’s easy to focus on one or the other and say, “Oh, it was better when it was underground!” The underground shit is still there. You see this with black metal where people are like, “It was better in the old days.” Well, the old days, there were real gems that came out, but we will never know what we missed because of the people who didn’t have opportunities. That’s why equal opportunity matters. Making it easy for people to express what’s in them is a good thing.

Look, there’s always been shitty games, there’s always been shitty music, there’s always been shitty movies. Over time, we can look back at the old days and be like, “Oh, things were better back then.” No, that’s survivorship bias. We think things were better 15 years ago in the good old days because the ones we remember are the good ones. We forget about all the motherfuckers who phoned in bullshit. There was a lot of shit, we just don’t remember it because it sucked. We all know about the original Atari E.T. game because it was a classic failure. It was a monumental disaster. But I’m sure there were a lot of games that just were like, “Eh, it was fine. We don’t have to talk about this ever again.”

I think overall, ease of technology and a wider fanbase, wider audience, different expectations, different kinds of games, games that are more lo-fi and more raw, having all of these options out there is only a good thing, even if it comes at the cost of there’s some bullshit and it’s harder to find the good stuff. I am all for anything that gives more people opportunities to create.

“We all know about the original Atari E.T. game because it was a classic failure. It was a monumental disaster. But I’m sure there were a lot of games that just were like, ‘Eh, it was fine. We don’t have to talk about this ever again.’”

After so many hours in front of the computer being a programmer, is it hard to sit and look at a video game for time afterwards?
Very different brain functions. Coding for me is a creative experience. It’s akin to songwriting. I’m turning ideas into tangible things, whereas gaming for me is an escape, it’s a release, it’s a more casual, passive thing. Even with something like Elden Ring, where there’s nothing “casual” about those games, it’s a very different brain function. It’s not songwriting to me. It fills a different need.

You had mentioned that you play games in between projects. What is your latest project that you’re working on before your next game?
I should say, I am playing Armored Core [VI] right now. I play it at night after my daughter goes to bed a couple nights a week. My wife got me into it. She was a super mega-obsessed Armored Core fan with some of the past games, so she turned me onto this one. But that’s fun because you can just kind of jump in, do a mission and jump out, which is nice.

Really, I went from finishing the Woe album right back to working on Ampwall. I started Ampwall at the beginning of the year, took a little bit of a break to finish the new Woe album and then I went right back to it. I’m not working all night, every night on it, but I am working late more nights than I’m not. That’s the one that’s taking up most of my time. When the Elden Ring expansion comes out, I don’t have the option of stopping, but luckily I work on it all day, so it’s good for my mental health to do some other stuff. So, I’m working on that. Glorious Depravity are getting ready to record again, so we’ll be doing that. I’m gonna start writing some riffs again for some combination of Woe 6 and another black metal project.

Other than Elden Ring DLC, are there any other titles that you’re looking forward to?
I’m really excited about playing the new Spider-Man. I really like the last ones. Do gamers see that kind of answer as a real basic response? [Laughs] I like the games and also my daughter is so into Spider-Man right now. I was really big into comic books as a kid. Comics were huge for me. The fact that we live in a time where I can play a really badass Spider-Man game, I still can’t believe it. I think that comes out this month and so she and I are going to wind up spending some Saturdays. She sits next to me and she’s like, “What’s he doing? Why is he doing that?” So, that’ll be cool.

Legacies of Frailty is available now via Vendetta Records and can be ordered here.
Follow Woe on Ampwall, Bandcamp, Instagram and Facebook.
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The post KILL SCREEN 023: Chris Grigg of WOE and the Branching Paths of History appeared first on Decibel Magazine.

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