KILL SCREEN 020: Serena Cherry of SVALBARD Doesn’t Fake Her Love of Gaming


Photo by Joe Singh

Truthfully, the co-nerds that run this column are not the biggest fans of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Having played it somewhere around its initial release over a decade ago when the game’s buzz was at its peak, our interest in other genres and collective lack of experience with the series left us feeling like we were missing… something. After speaking with today’s player character Serena Cherry—frontwoman of UK post-metal band Svalbard—we can’t help but wonder if the world of Skyrim warrants a revisit. With equal parts excitement and eloquence while beaming from ear to ear the entire duration, the lifelong gamer made a compelling case not just for the celebrated Bethesda property, but every game she’s grown so fond of over the years. This same energy for the art form helped land her a job writing for the gaming column at Kerrang!, followed by her current positions at both PC Gamer and GamesRadar. This may be our hobby, but we’re literally talking to a pro.

So deep-seated is her love of gaming that is regularly bleeds into another core trait—music. “How to Swim Down,” the latest single from Svalbard’s upcoming album The Weight of the Mask, is a mournful ballad of unrequited love—as told from the perspective of a healer in World of Warcraft (more on that later). The pandemic allowed Cherry to go a step even further with 2021 seeing the release of her solo black metal project Noctule and the Skyrim-themed album Wretched Abyss, allowing her to explore all that she loved about the fantastical realm in much more granularity. Even going all the way back to her teenage years exploring the extreme metal underground, the guitarist felt compelled to blend in references to the medium that directly shaped her. With such nerdy bonafides as well as a prolific discography of gaming worship already credited to her name—one that is still growing to this day—we were certainly willing to take an arrow to the knee to hear her story.

What was your first video game experience?
My first video game experience was Alex Kidd in Miracle World, which was built into the Sega Master System II. Still, I think, one of the hardest 2D platformers out there. It was so brutal. You had the Janken match bosses, where it was like rock paper scissors. I remember—doing a process of elimination—writing down whether it was stone stone scissors, that kind of thing, for each different boss. And I have a fun fact about this as well: When I was a moody teenager, I did a dungeon synth project because that’s what you all do, right? And it was named Radaxian, which is the name of the castle level of Alex Kidd. [Laughs]

What have you been playing lately and what are some of your favorite titles? I can imagine that based on your musical output that Skyrim and World of Warcraft will be in there.
Yeah. I mean, I’m always playing WoW, always got my character on the go doing some raids and stuff like that. I was a little disappointed with Dragonflight, if I’m totally honest. It’s still one of my favorite worlds to get lost in. Absolutely one of my favorite games in the last couple of years is Elden Ring. I think it’s FromSoft’s masterpiece. I know sort of a lot of people weren’t too keen and they feel like mechanics like summoning made the game too easy for a FromSoft game, but I highly disagree with that. When you’ve got the Godskin Duo, things like that, you need to summon. I’m trying to do every single boss in the game. I still haven’t finished it finished it yet, but that’s because I’m trying to do everything. [Laughs]

At the moment, I’m playing the Cuphead DLC, The Delicious Last Course. I… Oh my god. I love Cuphead so much. It’s so frustrating, but the animation is amazing! It doesn’t look like anything else. It’s so kind of addictive and you learn each time. Yeah, you might die to the same boss for hours, but you see tiny little bits of progress every time. That’s the kind of game that gets me hooked. If you haven’t guessed already, I like my games to punish me. Soulslikes and Cuphead and stuff like that.

I am going to be playing Starfield, I don’t have time to dig into that now. And obviously this year, Baldur’s Gate 3 and Diablo IV. I mean, two of the best RPGs ever made in the same year! It’s been a really good year for games.

What is the appeal of high difficulty games for you?
I think it’s the payoff. The investment and then the reward that you get out of it. I find gaming the most immersive when I’m feeling super challenged by something. I absolutely love when I’ve got an Elden Ring boss that I just can’t do. It’s not as simple as you just keep repeating it. You have to go away, you have to respec, you might have to change your weapon or upgrade a different weapon. There’s so much to it. I think I get quite fixated on a challenging boss and I love that. To me, that is the ultimate escapism: When you’re just tunnel-visioned on beating this thing. Stuff like Mario doesn’t hold my attention at all. If you’re just sort of running around, jumping on platforms, that’s not my kind of thing, really. I like to be pissed off all the time when I’m playing. [Laughs]

Do you have a preference between PC and console gaming? At this point, does it even matter? It seems like other than exclusives to each, they’re all kind of pretty on par with each other.
If I had to pick a console, I would pick PlayStation over Xbox. Obviously, I think PC gaming is the most versatile. I work for PC Gamer, so… [Laughs] I’m gonna lean towards the PC gaming side of things. I think it’s a difficult question. I think PC gaming isn’t just about playing games on a PC. It’s about the building, it’s about the modding. There’s so much more to it. There’s so much more freedom and creativity involved. It’s far more involving and in-depth. So, with that in mind, I would probably say PC over console, but I really don’t want to come across like a “PC master race” kind of person. [Laughs]

It’s a lot less accessible. Getting into PC gaming is really daunting. There is so much to learn. It’s not the same. PlayStation, Xbox, it is so accessible. You buy your console, you plug it in and you’re done. I like that aspect of consoles. There’s no kind of headache involved in gaming.

Your new album, The Weight of the Mask, features the song “How to Swim Down,” which you described as the story of unrequited love told from the perspective of a healer in World of Warcraft. Why don’t healers get any love?
[Laughs] The analogy is that obviously you’re kind of silently liking someone from afar. And when you’re playing as a healer, you’re quietly standing on the edge healing everyone. There is a little bit of disconnect from the action, I think. It was all about using that to represent what I was trying to say in the song about secretly having a big ol’ crush on someone.

It’s an interesting analogy, but how did that come to mind?
Everything in Svalbard is always about what I’m going through at the time. I find my emotions tend to be really all-encompassing. I was feeling that kind of unrequited love at that time and I was also playing World of Warcraft. I think when you have these emotions that you’re struggling to process, I tend to look for the symbolism and that kind of feeling represented elsewhere. I found I was watching myself playing as a healer and sort of “selflessly healing all of these people.” I was like, Oh, it’s so symbolic! [Laughs]

WoW is coming up on 19 years since it launched. What version of the game [do you play]? Because I understand that there’s WoW: Classic, there’s the modern WoW, there’s Hardcore WoW. There’s all this WoW that I don’t really understand at this point.
I tried WoW: Classic. Oh my god. Whew. Yeah, tried to do Wrath of the Lich King on Classic. Not for me.

Why is that?
Because obviously it’s like how it used to be and I think there’s a reason that WoW modern is as popular as it is; it’s because it has made so many improvements. I just found it a bit sort of clunky to play in Classic. Because I didn’t play it from 19 years ago, I haven’t grown up with that nostalgia for what is now deemed to be classic WoW. I just didn’t get on with it, I guess, because I started with modern, the WoW not too far from what you would play today. That’s kind of my comfort zone with it. And going and trying Classic, it felt like a leap backwards for the wrong reasons if you don’t already have the nostalgia established. And WoW hardcore, I have watched other people play this and—sorry to swear, but—fuck that. [Laughs]

Do you typically prefer single-player experiences or multi-player experiences?
It’s interesting. I’ve just sat here and talked about playing an MMO, but the reality is I much prefer a single-player RPG. Most of the time, I don’t want to be interacting with people. You can play Baldur’s Gate 3 with a group of people and obviously—being based on [Dungeons & Dragons]—it is all about that interactive side. But I’m like, No! I will play it on my own. No friends! I’m all about the kind of escapism of gaming and the immersion. Sometimes I find that playing multiplayer takes me out of that. I understand the appeal of a good round of Mario Kart with a bunch of gamers and stuff like that, but in general, much more into the single-player stuff.

Do you find you’re more drawn into the mechanics of a game or do you find that you enjoy getting into that world and sinking into it? Which of these would be the bigger draw for you?
It depends on the game. I think a game like Skyrim, it is all about being in that world. Skyrim feels like home to me. Sometimes I can just wander around and not really actually achieve anything in the game, but it’s still nice to be in that world. For a game like that where the richness comes from the world-building, then that’s kind of my priority. But then I think with FromSoft titles, it’s more about the mechanics.

Do any of your bandmates game?
On varying levels. They all like a good game but they all like different stuff. [Rhythm guitarist] Liam [Phelan] plays a lot on his Switch. He’s really into sim games, like Cities: Skylines and The Sims and that type of thing. [Bassist] Matt [Francis] likes the sort of AAA titles like Assassin’s Creed, God of War, that kind of thing. Although I did get him to play Elden Ring. He normally hates games that are ridiculously hard. His character build was better than mine. I was a bit annoyed when I saw it. [Laughs] And then [drummer] Mark [Lilley] is really into Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games, GTA. We all have really different tastes in games, but we do all play games, ranging from the casual to the kind of more hardcore gamer, I guess.

Is there any particular title that everybody overlaps on?
You know what? I don’t think there is. I’ve tried this at several points. There was in the studio, there was one of those emulators with Sonic on it. We all got involved with Sonic, but then that’s like saying, “Everyone likes…” I was going to say chips, but what I mean by that is American fries. It’s so generic that of course everyone likes it. You’re not going to bond over Sonic. It’s so ingrained. There isn’t really the one game. There was one time where we were staying at a friend’s house before a show and they had Elden Ring and I tried to get everyone to play it. It just did not end well.

You’re also the mastermind behind solo black metal project Noctule, which released the Skyrim-themed album Wretched Abyss. What made you create a whole new project for the subject as opposed to exploring it with Svalbard?
I think because I really wanted to represent that fantasy world of Skyrim—I wanted to write songs about my favorite weapons, my favorite dungeons in the game, that kind of thing—that felt a little bit too indulgent for Svalbard. Svalbard, we’re kind of known for the hard-hitting emotional or sociological lyrics. It felt like writing a Svalbard album about Skyrim would be a huge kind of curveball for us. Also, with most of the band members not even playing the game, I don’t think I could have got them on board. I always think of Noctule as my super-indulgent project. I wrote it during lockdown. Everyday, just wake up, play Skyrim, write some songs about Skyrim. It was very immersed in my very own little RPG world. I think exploring my passion for games by writing songs about them is definitely what Noctule is about now. I’m writing the second album now. It’s about a different game. That makes sense to me, to keep it separate from Svalbard.

You also said in an NME interview that, “Throughout my life, I never stopped playing Skyrim—I just take extended breaks!” Give us the sales pitch on why Skyrim is worthy of a years-long exploration. What keeps bringing you back?
Number one, the Skyrim soundtrack by Jeremy Soule is the most beautiful piece of music ever written in my opinion. It matches the game so well. The game is beautiful. One of my other favorite things to do in Skyrim is to just stand and watch the sky in the game, watch the night sky. Especially if you go to Sovngarde, where the sky is [like the] Northern Lights, purple and blue swirls. Oh my god! Just stand there and watch the sky. You’ve got the visual aspect, you’ve got the beautiful music, but then the quests—especially the side quests. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re gonna end up. I love that quest where you get drunk on Skooma and you end up in this seedy underworld. It’s like, Whoa! I was not expecting that.

It is the most magical world ever built in my opinion. There’s so much. There’s always something else you can do in the game. There’s always some weapons you can find, something you can upgrade, some books you can read, some places you can discover. It’s a huge game that never feels overwhelming. It always feels homely and comfortable. Whereas at the moment I find the idea of Starfield quite daunting, with it having 1,000 planets and being absolutely huge. That almost seems too big to me. But Skyrim, it’s vast but intimate at the same time.

Are you holding out hope for the next entry in the Elder Scrolls series or are you just comfortable to explore Skyrim for years longer?
I am really excited for Elder Scrolls VI. I think it’s gonna be a long way off still, but yes, I am excited to see what they do.

Other than the games that you’ve written about and other than the game that you’re writing about currently, what other stories do you feel are worthy of a musical reinterpretation?
Final Fantasy VII, obviously. So tragic, so beautiful. Again, sometimes I worry that I’m doing it a disservice because Final Fantasy VII also has one of the greatest soundtracks ever made. By making an alternative, is it never gonna be as good, never gonna do it justice? Kingdom Hearts as well.

Do you feel like you could put those together under the Noctule name as well or do you think that you would have to branch to something else?
I think I would branch to something else for Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts. I think the Square Enix side of my brain lives in a different musical realm to the dragon-riddled RPG realm that is Noctule and the other realm that is Svalbard. I think it would be different. In my head, If I were to do something about Final Fantasy, it might even be power metal, you know?

On the topic of Final Fantasy, have you spent any time on the new one [Final Fantasy XVI]?
Not yet, no. The beauty of working in the games industry is that you never have any time to play games. [Laughs]

You work for PC Gamer, Games Radar and you’re a games columnist for Kerrang! What is the reality of working in the games industry like this?
It is so stimulating. It is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s the only job I’ve had where I’ve been able to put my passion and my knowledge into my work every day. It is super fun. It’s so exciting. The ripple of excitement when Diablo IV came out, when Baldur’s Gate 3 came out and now with Starfield coming out, you feel like you’re living in this super creative, exciting time. But at the same time, you do work really long hours and you’ve got to really be quite selective about what games you’re gonna have time to realistically play in your spare time. You have to sort of prioritize.

What lead you to pursue work in the games industry as opposed to being a casual enjoyer?
Before I worked in the games industry, I had a string of really, really tedious jobs, like being on the help line for an internet service provider. All those kind of things, lots of customer service jobs which really sort of became quite soul destroying. I think during the pandemic, it caused me to reflect a lot. I had a lot more time. Before the pandemic, you just do your soul-destroying job, but then you go on tour. The job is just there so that you can afford to eat and pay your rent, and then you take all your time off to go on tour. That’s the reward. But with the pandemic, with touring not being viable for over a year, I think it made me reflect a little bit more on, I need to do something in my everyday life that is more aligned with something I believe in and something I care about and something I have passion for. Eventually, I got involved with Kerrang! writing the games column for them and then from there I went to PC Gamer and Games Radar. It’s so crazy having a job where you feel lucky to be there every day. I come in and I’m like, Yeah! I’m so pumped! [Laughs]

Your last byline for Kerrang! saw you going to MCM Comic Con in 2022, [for] which you gave a very glowing review. Are you typically a fan of conventions?
Yeah! I usually work at conventions now. My friend creates a load of Sonic fan art and Dragon Ball Z fan art and I help on his art store in artist’s alley. And then in exchange for that, I sell my weird little Pokémon fan art that I make. When we’re on tour and we have a 10 hour drive in the van, I make Pokémon fan art to pass the time. I sell it at these cons. I’m gonna say now, my friend Joey’s Instagram is @saiyanhajime and you should all check it out because he’s an amazing artist.

This year, I went to MCM Comic Con in London and worked there, Hyper Japan Con, which was amazing. It’s more kind of centered on Japanese culture. I love watching all the cosplay. If I could just sit and watch the cosplay masquerade for days on end, I would because I find it so fascinating. It’s so creative, how people can create these looks. It’s amazing.

I [Michael] talked my way into San Diego Comic Con in 2012. That was such an overwhelming experience. Do you feel a sense of community when you go to a convention or do you feel that same sense of being overwhelmed by everything?
I do think cons are a bit of a sensory overload. There are just so many people, so much to see. It’s quite loud. There have been times where I’ve been there and been like, Whoa, I feel like I need to sort of hide in a cold, dark room for an hour because this is very intense. At the same time, I do feel a sense of community. I’m such a socially anxious person and even in the music industry, when we play shows, I feel like I’m not “cool” enough to be there, even if it’s at my own show. Sometimes I haven’t really felt cool enough for the metal world, whereas when I’m at a con, I tend to meet a lot of likeminded people or people who have the same kind of mannerisms, the shy awkwardness I have. I really appreciate that. I find when I’m working on my friend Joey’s store, that gives a sense of purpose. You’re there to do something and you kind of have a way to talk to people, an opening to interact with people. That really helps combat the overwhelming side of it because you can just be working and getting on with the job.

You had mentioned in that piece that, “No matter how massive nerd culture gets, it will always remain niche.” Do you feel that still rings true today?
Oh my god, yes! I think it’s a generational thing. When I was explaining to my mum that I got the job at PC Gamer and Games Radar, she was like, “Oh, is that like a hobby thing that you’re gonna be doing in your spare time?” I was like, “No, no; it’s a full-time job.” There is definitely this close-minded mentality towards gaming and a complete lack of awareness for how massive it is. I overheard this the other day: I was in a gas station waiting to be served and there were two people in front of me going, “Oh, my son, he watches those other people playing computer games and it’s so boring! I don’t understand why you would want to watch other people play computer games.” That’s a real generational difference as well because you don’t get people my age or below asking that question because they understand the appeal of it or they’re involved in it themselves.

There definitely seems to be a bit of a looking-down-their-nose at video games or people who assume that video games are still what they were 20 years ago. They think it is still side-scrolling Mickey’s Castle of Illusions—which is a great game. I’m generalizing massively here, but it just feels like I’ve had loads of interactions with people who aren’t gamers where they don’t realize the hugeness and the scope of creativity and the world-building. To me, a video game is better than any book or any movie at drawing you in. [It] definitely seems to be looked down on, like it’s sort of a counter culture thing.

As was mentioned earlier, 2023 has been amazing for games. Are there any other games that you’re looking forward to?
It was just released this week, so I haven’t gotten to play it yet, but I’m really looking forward to playing Sea of Stars. It looks so good. I love how nostalgic the game looks. The pixel art is stunning. From what I’ve heard of the soundtrack, also really good. Looking forward to getting involved with that game.

Can a soundtrack make or break a game for you? Are you willing to put up with a worse game because of a good soundtrack and subsequently are you turned off by good games with bad soundtracks?
This is something I want on my tombstone when I die: “Games with bad soundtracks are unplayable.” The soundtrack for me is a huge part of the experience. One of my biggest musical influences as well. When people say, “What are your influences for your guitar leads in Svalbard?” It is the Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Skyrim soundtracks. I’m looking for those same kind of evocative feeling that those melodies have. I never, ever play games on mute and the soundtrack is a huge part of it for me.

If there was one title that you would recommend to readers for them to better get to know you better, what would it be?
OK, I’m going to not say what I think people would expect. I’m gonna say Spyro [the Dragon] on the PS1 because that is one of the first games that, even though I was gaming way before that on my Sega Mega Drive and stuff, Spyro 1 was my game. That was the game that really hooked me onto gaming and I still play it all of the time. If I’m feeling anxious, I go into the home world in Spyro and just do them over and over again. I thought the remaster was absolutely gorgeous, the Reignited Trilogy. What a game. Everything about it is lovely and it still holds my attention now. I’d say there’s games I love more. I love Elden Ring and Skyrim more than I love Spyro, but Spyro, I’ve grown up with it and it’s the game I keep coming back to. Oh my god! Pokémon Blue as well! Why do I have to pick one?

The Weight of the Mask is available October 6 via Nuclear Blast Records and can be pre-ordered here.
Follow Svalbard on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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