Not Art: Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

By Alex Kierkegaard / February 6, 2017

Videogame Art: Volume I

So let’s start toppling the FPS golden calves: Wolf 3D, Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and Portal — as I see them right now (did I miss any?): they are all going down, one by one, starting right now, because quite simply they are not very good games. Any given Call of Duty is more enjoyable than all of them put together, and I haven’t even played any Call of Duty: I am just mentioning them because the hipsters and the communists hate them, just to rile them up. But really, CoD is a proper videogame, with colors and levels and stuff to do and everything — it’s obvious from any trailer you watch of these games — while the stuff I listed at the top is just stupid autistic bullshit, in one form or another, and usually in way more than one.
   So let’s begin with Wolf 3D. I mean Wolf 3D a great game? Are you shitting me? Have you actually played it? Well, I hadn’t either, not until very recently that is, and then only for ten or so minutes, solely for the purposes of this review, so as to be able to say that I have indeed played it. But I have been aware of it since its very release, and in all these years I’ve never felt the urge to try it out. It just looks so fucking stupid and ugly — and I am not merely saying this today, now that the game is so old and primitive in comparison with its contemporary competition. Lots of people today are quick to defend old ugly games on the grounds that they only look ugly today, not when they originally appeared, so every old ugly game gets a pass, as if all games past a certain date become automatically beautiful. These people are the dog-shit lappers: aesthetically dense and insensitive trailer-park trash and bottom-feeder hipsters who are so ugly themselves that they instinctively side with whatever argument supports the stupid-ass notion that everything is beautiful, until ugly-ass shit like Wolf 3D, which was clearly designed by colorblind, stick-figure-drawing morons, becomes beautiful too because "it’s old" and it "has pixels". And then there are the other morons — the ones who only play CoD and Madden or whatever — who take the opposite tack and defend ugly old games on the grounds that all old games were ugly precisely because they "had pixels". Needless to say, both groups are retarded and their opinions are pitiable, at the bottom of which lies a lack of sufficient exposure to old games and lack of sufficient aesthetic sensibility to see their differences and compare them. So there’s no doubt that Wolf 3D was some ugly-ass shit indeed, and there’s no conceivable argument that could excuse, much less obscure, this conclusion.
   I mean, we are talking about a time when stuff like Strider Hiryuu, Wing Commander and Sonic the Hedgehog already existed, whilst every screenshot of id’s cheapo freeware piece of shit consisted of twenty gigantic blocky wall pixels, a gigantic blocky Nazi sprite, and a gigantic blocky gun sprite. A disgusting combination of bloated, upscaled blue-brown pixels that, not only was not beautiful, but was in fact the ugliest sight ever seen up to that point in the world of videogames, every fucking screenshot of which looked the same as every other! — Actually, every fucking screenshot of all the crappy FPSes I listed earlier looks the same as every other screenshot of the same game — this complaint will be a recurring theme in these essays —; if you see one of their screenshots you’ve seen the entire game — but Wolf 3D is the one which established this retarded convention, so it’s gonna catch a lot of flak from me for it. And why do all the screenshots of these games look the same? Because they have no levels lol. No levels in a videogame in the early ‘90s! That’s how retarded id’s designers were. Even games in the ‘70s had levels lol. But let’s back up for a bit.
   So I was very aware of the game when it came out — not via the press, because I don’t remember seeing a single magazine piece on it: no reviews, or previews, or even a mere mention of it in an article for another game. Maybe because it was a freeware piece of shit, and thus automatically, and rightly, ignored? But several of my friends were playing it — at least half of my role-playing group, for example — and when I visited them I would often see the game being played right in front of my eyes, and yet I never got the urge to try it out. This should really tell you all you need to know about how boring Wolf 3D was even back in ‘92. We are talking about a person whose religion on his ID card said "Videogames", and who would go to any lengths to play anything that looked in any way remarkable, regardless of genre. We are talking about someone who, when the entire rest of the family wanted to visit the Louvre on a trip to Paris, he was dragging them around the suburbs on expensive taxi rides instead, to find an import store where he could buy a SuperGrafx and its rumored perfect port of Daimakaimura. So if I am willing to go THAT far to get my hands on a videogame I find interesting, you can infer how utterly uninteresting a game must be if I don’t move a muscle to try it out when it’s being played repeatedly right in front of my eyes. It’s not even that I have something against FPSes — as many old-timer 2D gamers do — my all-time favorite game is Far Cry 2 for christsake! — it’s just that Wolf 3D really was such a shitty game when it came out!
   I mean, look at the evidence. I was always the guy in my school who had the latest, greatest videogames, and introduced them to other people — especially to the people in my RPG group, who were the biggest nerds and thus the ones more naturally inclined to like videogames. So I introduced them to Pirates, Civilization, Merchant Prince, King’s Bounty, Koei’s games, and plenty of console titles — all of which we played as a group on and off when taking breaks from role-playing — but THEY introduced ME to Wolfenstein! None of these guys were ever big into gaming — none of them had a console, for instance — and even though they played all of those cool games at my house, they rarely ever bothered buying them for themselves (or merely copying them from me) and playing them on their own at their homes. And yet they played Wolfenstein. Because it was free, and simple, and piss-easy (compare its moveset with the moveset of any other contemporary action game), and all their friends were playing it — the exact same reasons, in other words, that people play "indie" games today. These were not videogame lovers any more than our hipsters are — they would never have gone out of their way to play a game. They didn’t buy systems — they just had a computer at home because their parents had bought them one. They didn’t read magazines; they had no idea what new stuff was coming up, and next to zero knowledge of the history of the artform. In short, these people weren’t gamers, and that’s why id’s free tech demo appealed to them.
   Wolfenstein 3D, with its disgusting aesthetics, braindead moveset, lack of levels and proper boss fights and setpieces — and, really, its lack of any established videogame convention — appealed to non-gamers precisely because, as non-gamers, they were not used to them, and hence didn’t miss them when they weren’t there, as I did. What drew them to the game — aside from the fact that it was free and popular — was the increased immersion of the first-person perspective and the speed and immediacy of the action, and these were indeed the "game’s" — if you could call it that — praiseworthy elements. But still, let’s get one thing straight at this point: Wolf 3D was by no means the world’s first FPS, never mind the first first-person game. The googlers today (blogoroids and forumroids who only know about games from googling them — not from actual experience) have created this narrative that everyone was floored by Wolf 3D in 1992 because we’d never seen a first-person game before. But that’s complete baloney, since gamers like me had been playing first-person dungeon crawlers for years — and, since Dungeon Master in 1987, even real-time first-person dungeon crawlers, which work exactly the same as FPSes minus the shooting, except if you get a bow or other ranged weapon, in which cases there was even a limited shooting aspect. So I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that Wolf 3D had seemed to me utterly uninteresting in 1992: it was the ugliest game I had ever seen in screenshots (remember: there were no trailers back then), and when I saw it running in front of me it was, even mechanically, entirely unexceptional. It just looked to me as if someone had taken the arrow-firing from real-time dungeon crawlers and made a whole game out of it, but without the party stat management and tactics and plot and dialogue and interesting events and traps and locations — and made everything ugly to boot. A true "indie game", in other words! (I.e. a game by poor, lazy and untalented amateurs who know nothing about games.) And lo and behold, my estimation was vindicated a couple years back when I came across, on a reader’s blog, in-depth reviews of id’s games before Wolf 3D, of several other FPSes, one of which featured a floating hand travelling around dungeons and throwing bolts of lighting around. The game was called Catacomb 3-D and reveals straightaway, due to its fantasy setting, where the inspiration for Wolf 3D had come from: it was an extremely dumbed down real-time dungeon crawler with a glorified action dimension. The original Castle Wolfenstein had provided mostly the inspiration for the setting, such as it was, but the mechanics had come from elsewhere, and it was only Wolf 3D’s World War II setting which muddled the waters, and made its heritage difficult to discern, because almost all dungeon crawlers were fantasy-themed (as they still are), but maybe finally the googlers can understand that Wolf 3D didn’t come out of nowhere and that no one who actively played games in 1992 and who liked dungeon crawlers was floored by it. They thought Lichdom: Battlemage, which introduced a mage as a protagonist in a modern FPS for the first time, was a new thing, but it wasn’t new at all, it was in fact an old thing, a very old thing indeed, so old that it predated Wolf 3D, and brought the genre full circle. So just make a Lichdom sequel with four protagonists and extensive skills and stats and XP and plot and the occasional dialogue choice, and you’d be back at Dungeon Master lol! You will have created a modern, updated version of Dungeon Master — which is what Demon’s Souls was, only with a single protagonist, as opposed to a team of them, and third-person. But that’s another story, and another essay.
   And that’s how the mystery of the dungeon setting is finally solved — otherwise it doesn’t make sense that every frigging FPS for a decade after Wolf 3D was set in a fucking dungeon, as if dungeons were the ultimate environment and paradise-on-earth for human beings! So why this absurd glorification of the dungeon? Because the entire genre was derived from dungeon crawlers, and it never occurred to id’s artistic geniuses to change the setting, or even to give the player so much as an occasional break from it. It was very convenient to them anyway, since they could churn out an entire game’s environment by copy-pasting a single wall texture to infinity for nigh-on a decade, and since id’s entire art department had the combined aesthetic sensitivity of a frog, that was precisely what was done, and what subsequent FPS developers copied and perpetuated, until, nearly a decade later, Ion Storm and Remedy and Bungie and so on came along and rescued us from it.
   But we’ll analyze the unfolding of this story step by step at the appropriate time and in the appropriate essays. For now it’s worth comparing Wolf 3D with, on the one hand other sprite-scaling games, which were using in other words the same graphics technology; and on the other hand with 2D arcade gun-shooting games like Operation Wolf and Cabal, which had many mechanical similarities. All of these game were superior to Wolf 3Dall of them: every single one. Far superior even. So the sprite-scaling technology cannot be used as an excuse for the game’s ugliness, nor for its lack of levels and interesting environments and setpieces and detailed and varied enemies and so on, when stuff like Space Harrier and Outrun long existed. id just simply didn’t know how to make games at a contemporary standard. And Operation Wolf, Cabal, and the like were quite close, mechanically, to Wolf 3D, but with proper levels and bosses and setpieces and lots of variety. So again, id has no excuse for not learning from them apart from lack of talent and sheer ignorance. As for the dungeon setting, it’s worth pointing out that even dungeon crawlers were leaving dungeons in droves by the time of Wolf 3D’s release, and turning into WRPGs and JRPGs with towns and forests and mountains and seas, and the genre was dying a quick and very deserved death, because dungeons are frigging boring. They can be fun if used sporadically, to spice up a game, but an entire game set in a dungeon — with few exceptions (e.g. a dungeon setting as well-designed as in The Temple of Elemental Evil and so on, which still featured lots of outdoor locations) — is just autistic. For when was the last time you saw a movie set entirely in a dungeon? Now imagine if, for years, every movie that came out took place inside a dungeon. No one would be watching movies after a while. My theory is that programmer nerds live their whole lives inside a dungeon anyway, and so, for them, dungeon environments are the norm and they see nothing wrong with them. When their games started to make them lots of money, and someone had the brilliant idea of hiring a real artist to do the art instead of doing it themselves, the artists they brought in noticed what was going on because they weren’t autistic, and started to take FPSes out of dungeons (not id though. Carmack loves his dungeons, like a true autist, and wouldn’t hear a word of it, and that’s why id makes dungeon crawlers to this day).
   id, in short, was composed of a bunch of programmers with very little knowledge of videogames and essentially zero aesthetic sensibility — and that’s why id fans have always shared the same qualities. id was never a good game developer, and has always more or less sucked — all the way to this day: Rage scored a 2/5 on Insomnia by professed id fans, no less, exactly the same rating I am giving Wolfenstein now. Nothing essential has changed in all these years, and the company has stuck to its programmer roots, specializing in graphics technology — where they have indeed been industry leaders on and off for a long time — and, now and again, churning out some uninspired and repetitive quasi-tech demo to showcase it. As for the "critical reception": it’s all manufactured. The game became a "critical success" after becoming a commercial one and because of it, i.e. "business as usual" for journalists, whose job, as I say in Orgy, is to feed the rabble its opinions back to it, until finally the googlers arrive and an entire mythology is weaved around Wolf 3D that has no direct relation to how the game was received at the time, and to its real connections with contemporary titles and genres. It’s the same retcon stunt the European journalists pulled with the NES and Zelda and Metroid and the like in Europe, where Nintendo never acquired a decent hold during the 8-bit era, and no one gave a shit about their games, but where everyone now pretends that their games dominated because they are trying to keep up with the American narrative. The real old-timers know it’s bullshit, but their voices are not many nor loud enough, so the journalistic retconning dominates, and is of course unquestioningly adopted by the googlers, who lack a strong frame of reference with which to defend themselves against it.
   So no one who was seriously into games before Wolf 3D came out actually liked any id game; it was as if a parallel universe had sprung up, populated by countless thousands of individuals who had no connection to gaming beyond owning a mediocre PC and trying out for five minutes whatever free game their friends passed on to them. Wolfenstein 3D’s praiseworthy increase of immersion, not only via its unapologetic adoption of the first-person perspective (as opposed to dungeon crawlers, which would often mix it up with anti-immersive third-person views, or tons of inventory and stat and map screens and so on), but also by the reduction of protagonists from the usual five or six to just one — which is again the most immersive format, and the most conducive to the pure action dimension that id wanted to emphasize (for how do you make a first-person action-focused real-time game where the player controls more than one avatar simultaneously? It’s impossible), grabbed the attention of this huge audience of insensitive buffoons with the attention spans of gnats, and launched to the heights of commercial and pseudo-critical success a new genre that held loads of promise, but which would require real artists and videogame fans to come in and help it realize it. And I am not ashamed to admit at this point that, in 1992, I failed to see that promise. All I saw was a game that looked like smurf vomit and grossly dumbed down another, far more complex genre that I enjoyed, while failing, even as pure action game, to get anywhere near the countless superior pure action games I had been playing for years across many genres. Ironically, then, it was my extensive knowledge of the artform and refined tastes that prevented me from seeing the game’s promise. Wolf 3D was essentially a prototype — an engine looking for a game — but what the fuck did I know about prototypes in 1992? I had never played one — never seen one in my life (still haven’t in fact, though at least now I have heard about them) — I only knew of and played finished, commercial games, and by the standards of the early ‘90s (as opposed to those of the early ‘70s, for example) I could immediately see that Wolf 3D was not one. And neither were any of its successors that id and others would develop over most of the rest of the decade. They were better than Wolf 3D, but not by much, and definitely not enough to take them out of the tech demo category. And I mean I tried all of them: not merely the more popular ones that I’ll be analyzing here, but even lesser known stuff like Heretic and Kingpin and so on — and they all sucked, more or less equally, and for the same reasons. It would take Halo for me to finally sit back and say "Okay, yeah, this is the future" (or Max Payne, if you count TPSes — which you should — or Deus Ex, even further back, if I had actually played it at the time and it hadn’t somehow strangely eluded me).
   Meanwhile, the 2D and third-person action games that I had become an expert in up to that point did not appeal to this new crowd because they require more imagination precisely because they are less immersive, since it takes a hell of a lot more on the part of the player to identify with a tiny 2D sprite than with an avatar who, via the first-person perspective, behaves more or less exactly like the player does in his real life. And of course the less imaginative players will also be less aesthetically demanding and won’t mind so much either the endless dungeon setting or the bad color choices and general ugliness that id offered them at the time because it wasn’t capable of anything better.
   And of course I am not saying that games that require more imagination from the player are superior, because in that case text adventure games would be the best games ever — or MS Excel, for that matter. If imagination is your no.1 priority you should just shut yourself up in your room, lie in your bed, and stare all night at the ceiling making up stories. I am just stating a fact: less immersive genres require more imagination from the player, and that’s why the more immersive videogames become the more people will play them — and Wolf 3D was a huge step in that direction. It wasn’t, however, a good game, and that’s why I never played it in 1992, and why I am giving it a 2/5 rating today (which would have been a 1/5 if not for the undeniable innovation of the first-person action formula it pioneered, since all other aspects of the game are beyond wretched).