Not Art: Doom (1993)

By Alex Kierkegaard / February 11, 2017

Videogame Art: Volume I

Doom was a huge step up from Wolfenstein — almost a proper game. I remember getting it at the same time as Full Throttle, the "outlaw biker"-themed adventure game from LucasArts that would be one of the company's last entries in the genre. I am pretty sure I got retail copies of both too. The days of the Amiga and the weekly pirate deliveries of dozens of games at a time were over, and I was pretty much buying every game I was playing at retail by now. These two in particular I got sometime during a school week, and saved them up for the Friday when a friend was due to spend the night over. It was a long-held tradition for me. For years I would invite friends over on Fridays, to come back straight home from school with me on the school bus in the afternoon, and stay until late at night playing games. Of course "late at night" in those days meant 10PM or so — 11 at the latest, when my friends' parents would call on us to pick them up. But by Doom's release I was in the last year of high school, by which time I had graduated to some of my friends sleeping over, to be picked up the next day, and staying up until 1 or 2AM, so as to maximize our gaming time. Nothing sucked quite as much as having a game of Civ or Master of Magic interrupted by my friends' parents arriving to pick them up, and those games lasted so long that they were always interrupted. And there was no question of saving them and continuing them the next week. We would have forgotten everything that was happening by then, and it was always preferable to just start a new game — which of course would again be interrupted, and so on. That's why, to my chagrin, I've always finished those kinds of games alone. But Doom and Full Throttle were simple, short games that could be easily saved and continued whenever, so I was planning to play both from start to finish with my friend. In the end, we'd didn't finish either, though I did eventually finish Full Throttle on my own, if memory serves right. I'll try now to explain why I didn't finish Doom.
   For the exact same reasons I didn't finish Wolfenstein, or so much as bother playing it. There, review over.
   But seriously, Doom made a very good first impression on us. It looked good — certainly up to the standards of the time for games using sprite-scaling technology —; the atmosphere was top notch — a brooding environment filled with genuinely frightful enemies and relentless combat overseen by a serious, heavy soundtrack that demanded our attention; and the newly expanded and refined mechanics finally delivered on the smooth first-person action promise that Wolfenstein's stilted, awkward mechanics had botched so badly the year prior. So we spent some hours passing the controls back and forth between us, one life at a time, and seeing how far we could each get before the hordes overwhelmed us and we had to relinquish control to the other. But as we progressed further and further into the game, the same thing happened that would happen to me when I was playing dungeon crawlers on my own: we got lost in the middle of some dungeon somewhere, spent a life or two trying to find the way forward, failed, and just gave up. In dungeon crawlers what would happen is that the dungeons would get progressively more complicated until the only way to find the exit to the next one would be to draw a map, and that, more or less, would be the point at which I'd give up on those games. Why exactly I did so I will explain in my Pool of Radiance essay, but I am mentioning this here to emphasize, once more, the great degree of similarity between dungeon crawlers and early FPSes. For all the attention lavished on the tactical aspect of the former, and the action of the latter, it was the dungeon-navigating aspect that reigned supreme in both, because that's what you spent most of your time doing in them (to the point where I propose to refer to early FPSes as "dungeon runners", from now on, to emphasize the similarity with the crawlers), and that's why I never finished any of those games — not a single one of them — because I fucking hated it. Of course Doom's dungeons were nowhere near as elaborate as a dungeon crawler's would eventually get, and you certainly didn't need to draw a map to get through them if you didn't want to, but you would end up backtracking repeatedly and getting lost sometimes, and seeing as your only reward for persevering and getting through them would be yet more identical-looking dungeons without even the crumbs of story-progress that the dungeon crawlers would sporadically throw at you, there was no way we'd persevere. The action wasn't all that great either, after the novelty of the basic mechanics had worn off. The moveset may have been considerably expanded from Wolfenstein's, and a wider, more imaginative and far better realized choice of weapons and items may have been added, as well as a very welcome but still rudimentary quasi-platforming dimension; but there were still no setpieces or vehicles or even proper levels or boss fights, and after a while the whole thing just got old. The problem with the dungeons was merely the last straw; we had already lost interest half an hour earlier, and kept going solely due to inertia; and when we realized, on top of that, that we'd been going in circles for the last couple of lives, we just gave up and moved on to Full Throttle. Don't imagine, by the way, that we were overly critical of the game, or even critical at all. It's not like we shouted angrily "this sucks" or anything. And this goes for all the games I played as a child and even as an adult all the way to the point, in my mid-20s, when I started writing about them. I never hated anything up to then. I just liked everything to varying degrees, and played everything — from 5 minutes to weeks and months — until the point when I lost interest — or even before that, if in the meantime I had acquired something that I liked even more, or life circumstances (such as moving, for example, which after I left home for university I would do a lot) forced me to take a break. After all, even the worst imaginable game back then could still offer a few minutes of enjoyment, if only by giving you the opportunity to see a new intro, try out a new moveset, and run through a new introductory level; and if it had nothing to offer beyond this brief surge of novelty I was still grateful for it and enjoyed it for what it was worth before shelving it and moving on. There were no "indie" games back then, remember, so their offensive ugliness that dissuades one from so much as even trying them hadn't yet been invented, and negative judgements only became manifest indirectly, via the amount of time I would spend on a game compared to others. So, for example, I was fully aware that The Super Shinobi was an awesome game and MD Shadow Dancer, though still very good, was decidely inferior, but never really bothered to verbalize this judgement, nor attempted to elucidate the precise reasons why this was so. I simply played a lot more of the former than the latter, and that's how you could tell that I preferred it. Even when talking about games with friends, the discussions would be brief and rudimentary, since we'd always prefer playing games to talking about them, and when we did talk about them it would only be to decide which game to play next or to salivate over the details of upcoming games that we'd soon be playing. You might imagine heated disagreements starting over the choice of game to play next, but remember that we are talking about friends here, not strangers. I already knew what genres everyone preferred and would never suggest an action title to someone who only liked strategy, for example. And when you get two people together who both like the same genre, the choice is almost always very easy and obvious. I will talk about this at length in the upcoming "Acquiring Taste" essay: the greatest disagreements always occur at the level of genre, and if that is not an issue quality within a genre is generally easily agreed upon by people who both like it and know a bit about it. So two adventure game fans might argue over the relative merits of Sierra and LucasArts games, for example, but neither would suggest an "indie" adventure game as a comparable alternative, nor would the Sierra fan be very bothered if the choice was made to play a LucasArts game, and vice versa.
   All this however changed when I started discussing games with people on the Insert Credit forums, and, later on, writing about them on my own website. Because, for one thing, I wasn't playing games with people on the IC forums — we were merely talking about them. And for another, it was of course impossible to avoid detailed analysis and argumentation, including therefore a lot of negativity, when doing criticism — of games, or any other thing. I was at last called on to stop playing games and salivating over them — at least for a little while — and figure out precisely why I played some games more than others, and explain it as clearly as I could to others. Moreover, since I was finally engaged in proper criticism, I couldn't fail to properly notice the criticism of others, and was called on upon by my own conscience to explain, not only my own preferences, but also how and even why they differed — and often wildly differed — from the preferences of others. And that's where the negativity began, which barely even existed in embryonic form before I began writing about games, and certainly not on a Friday evening in the autumn of 1994 when my friend and I were playing through Doom and Full Throttle. When the former began losing our interest, three or four hours in, due to its extreme repetitiveness, we simply switched to the latter — not disdaining it in any way, but simply sated with it, even if plenty of it still remained on the plate, and ready to try the other. Soon enough we'd be sated with the other too, stuck at some inane "puzzle" or other, as always happened with adventure games, and with the hour being late, and we being at last tired and longing for sleep, we shut the computer down and called it a night.
   It's worth noting, by the way, that just as when moving from one dish to the next the latter always possesses precisely those qualities which were missing from the first — and this is why no sane chef would ever place two soups in a meal one after the other — so too Doom's lack of variety in terms of colors and levels and story and so on were precisely what Full Throttle offered in abundance; while the latter's lack of fluidity and action would be eventually rectified by a second helping of the former, if we had got that far that night in our play session. Of course today we have Deus Ex and GTA and Far Cry, which combine everything, and that's why, as I'll be explaining in full in the Phantasmagoria essay, once it's completed, Doom's and Full Throttle's genres are extinct today — and good riddance to them. But back in 1994 they were still very much alive, and in Doom's case even newborn, and that's why my friend and I played them in the manner that I describe.
   Alas, however, Doom wasn't good enough even for that type of playstyle, since when I tried it again on my own the next day, after my friend had left, I couldn't bring myself to play it any more at all. It was the same story, once again, as with the dungeon crawlers: I just couldn't continue them once I had broken up a session and tried to pick them up again. I would always find myself in the middle of a dungeon, every direction of which looked identical to every other, having forgotten entirely which way I had come from and where I was supposed to be going, and I couldn't be arsed spending 15 minutes going round in circles until I'd figured it all out. With Doom it would have been more like five minutes, but the idea still oppressed me. How can anyone do this on a sunny Saturday morning when one can go out and play basketball instead? And if it isn't sunny where you are (in Greece it usually is) there's always a hundred other less inane games one can be playing. I can stay in a room for days playing Baldur's Gate or Civilization or GTA, regardless of what the weather's like, but for Eye of the Beholder and Doom, I am sorry, but I can't do it. An evening or so I'll gladly devote to them, if they are otherwise good enough, but if your game doesn't have proper environments and levels I can't be arsed to play it much more than that.
   And that's the thing with Doom that I wouldn't have been able to to grasp if I had cared enough back then — which of course I didn't, since I only tried it for a minute or two before giving up and doing something else instead: the damn game didn't have levels any more than Wolfenstein had! No levels in a videogame in the mid-'90s! Still every screenshot of the damn thing looking exactly the same as any other! Did id people play any games at all besides their own? It's highly unlikely. They didn't even seem to know what a level is because it would give you a new level's name on the screen while still being the same fucking level! People today have even been brainwashed (via inveterate pseudo-criticism and relentless googling) to think Doom was a masterpiece of level design and Romero a master level designer. Well, if going nuts and autistically copy-pasting identikit corridors all over the place in a level editor all day long counts as "level design", maybe. But it doesn't. Level design is what The Super Shinobi has, which starts off at the ninja village, and then moves on to the waterfall outside the village, and the city, and the nightclub, and the military base, and the transport plane, and so on all the way to the Neo Zeed labyrinth complex at the end — NEARLY A DECADE BEFORE DOOM'S RELEASE. That's level design: distinct levels, but connected by narrative logic. And the corridors and staircases and ledges in the levels come AFTER you have decided on the type of environment you are designing, which decision of course is dependent on the narrative, which presupposes that you have one. This stuff matters ridiculously more than where a particular ledge is placed in any given level. And I couldn't give less of a fuck how well your stupid ledges are placed if the environment you have designed is so drab, monotonous and boring that I get depressed by the mere thought of spending any time there. You might say that dungeon crawlers are the same — which isn't true, because they typically feature a lot more variety than early FPSes ever did — plus the plot crumbs and occasional dialogues and puzzles to spice things up — but in any case by 1994 dungeon crawlers were effectively dead precisely for this reason: because they fucking sucked and games with actual environments (namely WRPGs and JRPGs) were a million times superior. And these games still had dungeons in them, for those who liked dungeons — as I did too if they were well-designed, made sense in the context of the story, and didn't go on for fucking ever. I would eventually become willing to make the occasional exception for something like The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the idea of a game-spanning dungeon is central to the plot and has been well thought-out, and where there is at least a plot to speak of to alleviate the boredom inherent in the giant dungeon design — but in stupid stuff like Doom it was inexcusable and even worse than in the worst dungeon crawlers, and that's why it was impossible for me to persevere with this game; and if it was so in 1994 it is a million times more so today, when there exist hundreds upon hundreds of FPSes that are superior to Doom in every way, many of which I haven't played at all. So don't think I haven't considered replaying the game to finally finish it for the purposes of this essay, but I just can't fucking bring myself to do it. It'd be such a giant waste of time! Name any mediocre modern FPS — the Medal of Honor reboot, for example — and I am 100% certain I'd have more fun with that than with Doom today. That's how important actual levels and interesting environments are in games. Believe it!
   But of course lots of people finished Doom in '94, and I am afraid to say lots of people finished it after, all the way to this day, so let's examine why and how they did it. First off you have the poor people, who can only afford like three games a year — so of course they'll explore every last pixel of those games because they've no other games to play. Then you have the ignorant people, who somehow ended up with Doom because a friend lent it to them, or it was pre-installed on the secondhand PC their parents bought for them or whatever, and who simply didn't know that other, better games with actual levels existed. And then you have the people who only play a couple of genres, so of course they'll be more likely to finish stuff, even of inferior quality, since there aren't enough games in any given couple of genres to occupy you for very long, especially if you tend to play a lot. — But I was the exact opposite of all that. I wasn't poor, I was rich, buying so many games every year I could have opened up a shop. I wasn't ignorant — I was quite likely the most well-informed gamer in the whole world, since I bought half a dozen magazines a month and stole the rest, reading each and every one of them from cover to cover by the end of the month — and we are talking Greek, British, American and French mags — not merely from a single country or region, and across all formats: PC, home computer, console and arcade. And as for genres, I played everything; sports games were my least favorite and I still played a load of those. I possessed, in other words, in all respects the exact opposite qualities to those of a gamer who would be likely to finish Doom; the only way I could be even less likely to finish it would be if I were not a gamer at all. But I was a gamer, and I played a shitload of games, and that's one of the reasons my tastes were so superior to everyone else's (the other was genetic, if being wealthy, inquisitive, and with a broad range of tastes isn't genetic already, which it is). The upshot was that if you managed to keep my attention all the way through your game, you would have made a pretty great game, while keeping the attention of poor and ignorant people isn't exactly a great feat and signifies nothing. That's why it's laughable when such people try to become critics. People with narrow tastes, who only play a couple of genres, are an exception, provided they possess the sense to confine their criticism to the genres that they play; but even that's only true to a certain extent, because genre is ultimately a restrictive concept, facilitating progress while a genre is young, but obstructing it once it is old, and ripe for transcedence to something greater and better, and that's why, while specialists certainly have their uses, great critics have always been artistic omnivores (and that's why I am the greatest art critic of all time; because no previous critic liked all artforms including videogames — so it should come as no suprise that they all failed to devise a theory that comprehended all artforms, i.e. art itself, ultimately, as I did in my Genealogy).
   So it was impossible for me to persevere with Doom in 1994, and I still can't do it. I stand aghast therefore at the news that recent years have seen the rise of Doom hipsterism whereby a (thankfully) small but significantly loud playerbase not only still plays and autistically replays Doom to completion in this day and age, but even develops so-called "WADs" — whatever that's supposed to be — which somehow — horror of horrors! — extend the game's longevity! Now I've no idea what a "WAD" is and have deliberately avoided finding out — I am sure it is something beyond stupid, and I've resolved to die without knowing what it is. So please spare my poor brain the knowledge of yet one more rank subhuman idiocy, and refrain from telling me about it. But it's obviously either new "levels", or, even worse, modified versions of existing ones, and it blows my mind that there are people in 2017 who prefer such garbage to the wealth — and even glut — of modern and immeasurably superior FPSes that exist. So we are not talking about poverty or ignorance or even extremely narrow tastes anymore, but about sickness pure and simple (if poverty and ignorance and narrow tastes were not already a sickness, to an extent, when viewed from a higher perspective, which they are), and if you are involved with this scene in any way, shape or form I can guarantee you that you are autistic — that a certified medical professional would place you somewhere on the autism spectrum and that your "WADs" would be his very diagnostic tool. At the same time, seeing as pure autists prefer Counter-Strike today — and with good reason, since especially over the longer-term it is a much superior game — you are not only autistic but a hipster to boot. Your preference for Doom over the clearly superior CS — at least as far as longevity is concerned, because for the first few hours Doom is better than CS — is a reaction to CS's popularity and the popularity of modern FPSes, and that's why you arbitrarily pick an older title and apotheosize it: to earn your hipster brownie points. This is what hipsteroautism is, then, otherwise known as autysmal hipsterism (which should go without saying is still better than "indie" hipsterism, since the autists are at least playing Doom, compared to the unplayable garbage the fags are playing).
   That was Doom then: aesthetically far superior to Wolfenstein, since it no longer looked like smurf vomit, and significantly improved mechanically; but still with no levels or setpieces or a higher artistic vision beyond "here's some dungeons; shoot some creatures", which even 2D games of the '90s had long managed to move beyond. Doom then was the single-level demo to Wolfenstein's tech demo/prototype, and it was good for what it was; certainly good enough for me to have recommended it to people, if I'd been reviewing games back then, and given it a 4/5, at least for its first few hours, according to Insomnia's rating scheme. But the crucial questions remained. Would id ever learn what a level is? Would they ever hire any real visual artists? Or would their games remain forever condemned to design paradigms that died — and rightfully died — with the '70s? id's adventures in the land of game development would continue with Quake three years later.