Character Theme Analysis: Hellfire (Guilty Gear Strive)

Let’s take a break from movies for a day and have a look at music. So consider this Music Monday. Not because I forgot to watch a movie this week. Nope. Definitely not. I’m insulted by the insinuation.

Last week, we talked about how important a good character theme can elevate a piece of media. The very next day, I made a joke about the Guilty Gear character themes. So I figured I’d try something new and actually take an in-depth look at one of those. They sound cool for a fighting game, but do they have depth behind them?

There are no shortage of songs to choose from. We could choose one of the meme songs, like ‘Armor-Clad Faith’ or ‘The Disaster of Passion’. Or we could choose one of the simpler ones, like ‘Find Your One Way’ or ‘Roar of the Spark’.

In the end, I simply ended up choosing one of my favorites: Leo Whitefang’s theme, ‘Hellfire’. I mean, Leo is such a bombastic and fun character, I’m sure his theme will be an uplifting, fun-

I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
I came home alone today again
I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
My people are all dead, but so are those bastards

Hellfire, Intro

Oh… Oh dear… That’s… That is a heavy box to unpack. And that’s just the opening of the song!

A quick, overly-simplified rundown of Guilty Gear lore: there was a brutal war between mankind and the Gears called the Crusades. Leo was a leader of the human forces in this war, along with a few other primary characters in the lore. Afterwards, he became one of the three kings leading a new human kingdom.

‘Hellfire’ is essentially one massive musical panic attack. Leo has got a massive case of survivor’s guilt and is constantly haunted by all the people he led to die in battle. He feels like a fake, an incapable leader. But if nothing else, at least he can take satisfaction in the fact that they won the battle.

Don’t believe me? Just have a look at the first verse.

I wake up one morning, strangers say hello to me
Tomorrow their names will be carved onto stones
We’re going home alive, I’m a terrible liar
Forgive me, I’m not the Arc de Triomphe

Hellfire, 1st Verse

Fun fact! The Arc de Triomphe is a French monument commissioned by Napoleon himself, though it wasn’t fully constructed until the reign of King Louis-Phillipe. It stands in honor of those who fought in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all the great French generals and their victories inscribed inside. By saying that he isn’t the Arc de Triomphe, Leo is essentially reinforcing the fact that he isn’t some Napoleonic leader. He is basically saying “Anyone who follows me is going to die, and I’m going to have to lie and tell them they won’t because I’m not a good general,” this entire verse.

After this verse, we get the refrain. This is where we see how Leo copes with these thoughts and feelings. How does he do it? By throwing himself right back into the fray.

For the sake of that day, keep crying out
Swing the sword, swing the sword,
Swing the freakin’ sword down

Hellfire, Refrain

Need further proof? Just look at the chorus!

Hellfire, Hellfire
Bring it on, bastards
Hellfire, Hellfire,
Hellfire, Hellfire,
All of them are going down with us

Hellfire, Chorus

These two essentially explain why Leo showed up to that match. Why are these two characters fighting in this fighting game? Well, Leo came here in the hopes that the other player’s character would fucking murder him because he can’t live with the guilt! He rushes at you with as much reckless abandon as a single person can muster in the hopes that he’ll lose, or at least that he’ll bring down the other guy with him.

And as if the first verse didn’t have enough survivor’s guilt, we have this lovely little number.

Those who dream of heaven
Those who dream of heaven never last very long
The rotting flesh and dirty sky infest my wounds
We’re going home alive, liar, liar
Forgive me, just get me out of this hell

Hellfire, 2nd Verse

Leo is basically having a bout with his PTSD in this verse. He’s haunted by the visions of the battlefield. ‘Those who dream of heaven’ likely refer to the younger soldiers who told him about what they wanted to do after the fight, the people whom he lied to when he said they’d get home alive. Finally, he gives out a desperate plea to these people to forgive him as he melts down and begs for help.

Then, after a repeat of the refrain, we get:

My voice withered away, limbs can’t hear my commands
But still, I can see the way home,
I am the Reaper, I took my friends to the netherworld
That’s why I have to go home
(Ho, ah, ho)
I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
I’m just an ordinary soldier
I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
Will I be on the right side of history
I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
I came home alone again today
I faked out, call me out
Who can say that
My people are all dead, but so are those bastards
Bring it on, you bastards

Hellfire, 3rd Verse

Afterwards, we get a repeat of the chorus, and the song comes to an end.

This third verse is essentially Leo hyperventilating and releasing all of his guilt and self-doubts all at once. The first line of the verse is basically him describing how he felt at the end of each battle, yet still managing to find a way to get back home alive. He views himself as the grim reaper responsible for killing his comrades, and uses that guilt to drive himself forward. Everyone heralded him as a hero when he only thought of himself as an ordinary soldier, a fake who got his friends killed for a cause that might not even be just. The whole verse, he tries to reason with himself, to justify his actions to himself and make the guilt go away, but nothing he says works. If anything, it makes it worse. So he just throws himself back into the fray.

Well, that was incredibly sad and mildly horrific. But those were just the lyrics. Remember: this is a song. So, how does it actually sound?

A few interesting things are going on in this song. For the intro, refrain, and chorus, it’s all typical metal music, with Leo basically screaming the lyrics as if he is shouting them in the middle of the fight. But the three verses sound more like a song soldiers would sing during a military march, despite the heavy guitar and drums going nuts in the background. It’s almost like Leo took a song he sang with his friends during training and twisted and distorted it through his survivor’s guilt and PTSD.

I can’t decide if that’s metal as hell or just really sad. Like, god damn man. This plays in the background of a match in a fighting game! Why’d you have to go this hard, Daisuke?

This is a perfect example of using music to make up for writing restrictions. Leo didn’t get a whole lot of development in Strive’s story mode (and not that many people bothered watching it in the first place), and you can’t exactly fit all of that in before or after a match. So they slid that backstory into the lyrics of his theme and left it for the astute listener to find.

On top of that, it’s the perfect character theme for Leo. Just listening to it without understanding the lyrics (which is easy, Guilty Gear lyrics are hard to discern the first time listening) you might think it’s a high-energy and bombastic song, perfect for our favorite gorilla. And the lyrics give him a depth that would otherwise be missing in a more traditional fighting game.

Man, now I just want to give the poor guy a hug…

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