a review of DooM
a videogame developed by id software
and published by activision
for beos, flash, gnu/linux, iOS, java, Microsoft Windows, mobile phones, MS-DOS, nextstep, solaris, the acorn risc operating system, the amiga, the atari jaguar, the macintosh operating system x, the microsoft xbox, the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo 64, the nintendo DS, the nintendo gameboy advance, the panasonic 3do interactive multiplayer, the sega 32x, the sega saturn, the sony playstation computer entertainment system, the super nintendo entertainment system and the tapwave zodiac
text by Andrew Toups
Here’s the short of it: Last night I had a dream that I was a poet on the Starship Enterprise. Captain Picard commissioned me to write a poem in honor a dead crew member. I went to the holodeck for inspiration, but I was interrupted when a bikini wearing female ninja attacked me. I killed her by slicing her in half through the torso with a samurai sword, when I heard a knock on the door. Was it another scantily-clad kunoichi, after my life? Or perhaps it was Captain Picard, with an important message! I felt the sting of a bead of sweat trickling into my eye.
Then I woke up, and realized that the only thing better than that dream was DOOM.
Here’s the long of it: In the near-endless, winding corridor of first person shooter history, DOOM is the alpha and omega. It encompasses, simultaneously, all that is wrong, right, and unexplored in the first person shooter genre. I can count the number of first person shooters on my penis that have advanced the genre in any meaningful way (if you have to ask: Half Life, with Deus Ex and System Shock 2 contending); everything else is treading the same water so gloriously spilled forth by id software’s self-defining masterpiece all those years ago*.
They were heady times, indeed. According to the Official Action Button Dot Net Source of Infallible, Objectively Correct Videogame Information, no one really knows exactly when DOOM was released. Some sources say it was the summer of 1993. Others claim to have played it at cousins’ houses as early as fall of 1991. We can’t know for sure, though, because let’s face it: we were all ten-year-olds. I sure as hell can’t remember what year it was when I was ten years old, nor, actually, if I even was ten years old, or if you, dear faithful reader, were actually ten years old. But ten-year-olds we ultimately were, regardless, and even if we were not, we still cannot ever know when, exactly, because it’s not like any of us pre-teens bought the game. No, Doom was pirated mercilessly by us thankless little goblins, handed down from older cousin to neighborhood buddy to anyone on the block who had a half-decent DOS-based PC. But regardless of what year it was, regardless of how old we were, and regardless of how illicitly it was acquired, in that vague blur of nostalgic hindsight one fact remains certain: in those days, DOOM was as good as things got.
Not all of us may have been prone to the occasional pentagram or anarchy symbol scribbled into a school notebook margin; not all of us listened to good heavy metal, or bad heavy metal, or even any heavy metal at all. Some of us only got as far as Alice In Chains’ Facelift (official Action Button Dot Net recommendation for Perfect Soundtrack To Play DOOM To, and not much else**). But Heaven help us if the hail-satan-dude! demonic stylings of DOOM weren’t just the right hook at the right time for us children of the eighties. Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was too much Dr. Pepper, but DOOM‘s novel-for-the-time descent into a pixellated, densely populated Hell (on Mars, even!!) was a red-hot slap of blasphemous perfection. Sure, none of us really knew how to play the game — we didn’t even know what the word “strafe” meant — but we all knew, right from the very beginning, how to type iddqd, iddt and idclip: we were high on Satan and Sugar, and we were cheating our way through DOOM in debug mode, and it was enough to just shotgun demon after demon, effortlessly gliding through those meaty miracles of meticulous level design, pushing further and further, and further still, past the corrupted Mars base and supply depot, into the bowels of Hell itself, and we had found the most perfect playground of our youth.
And now, fifteen years later, we, the grown men and women of Action Button Dot Net, are experienced journeymen who chew up God Hand in the morning and stuff out Shiren the Wanderer at night, and we no longer fear DOOM‘s overwhelming parade of zombies, imps, demon-spawn, hell-beasts and the like. And now, here we sit with a pixel-perfect port of that memento mori from days gone by, ready to download on Xbox Live Arcade, rendered in full 720p with 5.1 digital surround sound, complete with updated analog dual-stick controls, and there is only one question whispering in our skulls from those distant echoes of yesteryear: can it ever be as good as it once was?
Well, dear faithful readers, I come here to tell you that I have been to that Hell, and back, and in fact I have been twice, the second time on Ultra-Violent difficulty, so believe me that I can say this with the most awesomely positive confidence. The answer is no. It is not as good: it is, in fact, better than it ever was.
It is not a perfect game: but then, not many of the games on this list are***. There are niggling complaints: the level design is sometimes confusing and occasionally obtuse, the game demands staying on one save-game in some circumstances, while never outright being clear that this is the case, and the content is admittedly somewhat front-loaded, an artifact of the early 90’s shareware scene.
But look beyond these surface flaws we find a game with design so solid, so robust, so God-damned reliable, that it does not just survive its (often hilariously) dated mechanics and presentation, but actually makes them work for each other, resulting in a game which still outclasses its modern day descendants. This here is a game that was built to last.
Why does it still work? DOOM works within a very strict set of limitations. Almost every map will have these things: A beginning, an end, and up to three colored doors corresponding to keys hidden throughout the level. You have these elements, you have 8 weapons, a dozen or so different enemy types, a variety of doors, lifts, and switches, and . . . that’s it. The engine for both combat and level design is, by today’s standards, shockingly rudimentary. The levels are 3D****, but objects and architecture cannot share the same vertical space. There are no inclines; there is no jumping. Enemy AI is nuanced, at times, but most of the brain dead, walk-towards-the-player-and-blindly-fire variety. While basic, these things are also very satisfying. DOOM‘s 3D engine today is still smooth-moving and attractive to behold; the pixilated texture work now appears to us as a stentorian example of vintage game-art, and is perfectly proportioned with enemy sprites and level design. Combat feels great: weapons have satisfying, punctuating blasts and each creature has a distinctive and unnerving series of grunts, growls, gasps, and screeches. The feel of this game is crunchier than a bowl of rocks.
But, as the ever-retentive readers of Action Button Dot Net ought to know, great feel alone does not a good game make. The key to DOOM‘s brilliance is that it takes these very basic, very delicious parts, and sets about arranging them in increasingly clever and bastardly ways. What I am talking about, in other words, is level design. It is no coincidence that folks like American McGee (high on Action Button Dot Net’s List of Criminally Misunderstood Game Designers) made a name for themselves by their work with DOOM.
If there’s one thing DOOM proves, it’s that there’s something kind of diseased about this awful, finger-cramming school of game design that has become standard over the years. You know what I’m talking about — the Zelda-fication of game design. Games are so expensive to make that every last moment must be planned ahead in the design document, and the game engine must be programmed neatly around this bullet-pointed list of mandates. This kind of 1:1 thinking is how we end up with thoughtless stillborn queefs like Twilight Princess. But no, DOOM comes from a simpler time, where the design document merely mentioned what was possible in the engine, the engine was made, and handed to the level designers, who were then given license to do whatever the hell they wanted with it.
Or, maybe not. I was not there when the divinely inspired minds at id software were making it, and I haven’t even read Masters of DOOM (editor’s note: we did not know this when we asked Mister Toups to write a review of this game; our apologies), but that’s sure as hell how the game feels to me. Here is proof that good game design is not so much a matter of what you’ve got, but what you do with it. While DOOM‘s mechanics were novel at the time, were it subjected to today’s literal-minded design ethic, it would probably be awful.
DOOM has balls; it is not afraid to throw us into a roomful of enemies, with fireballs being hurled from caged imps on all sides; it is not afraid to leave us lost in stage layouts which change subtly if we press the wrong switch, or even walk into the wrong zone. At its simplest, DOOM levels are beautifully paced action setpieces, with the lead actor’s motivation always being “Kill these heckers and get the heck out of here”. At its most complex, they are dynamically shifting mazes full of hidden passageways, shortcuts, obscure switches and confusing twists and turns. And it is here that the one fault of DOOM‘s level design — the often brain-crushing, frustrating puzzles which slow the otherwise immaculate pacing down — becomes its greatest virtue. I will not deny that this kind of sucks, and yet this is what establishes DOOM as one of gaming’s earliest horror games******.
The sensation of frantically searching the same dank, gloomy hallways, near-dead, searching for that last keycard or hidden door to deliver you to the exit, grunts and growls echoing from somewhere nearby, always seeming beyond that next corner, but never revealing themselves until least expected — DOOM had a leg up on both survival and horror, seemingly by accident, and well before the advent of Resident Evil. The fact that DOOM 3 tries so much harder to be a horror game than an action game shows that id software had an idea of what made the original a classic. That it ultimately fails at both only proves our point that this modern design ethic will never be able to bring us a game as great as DOOM, and we are all the poorer for it.
*Sure, some may include window dressing in the form of a being a “compelling story based single-player campaign” (source: back of every box containing an FPS released in the past decade). But this is always manifested by half-heartedly ripping off a narrative technique pioneered in other such genre-defining first person adventures as: Half Life, System Shock 2 (which, while we are being parenthetical and footnotey, was itself merely a refinement of the first System Shock‘s innovations), and Deus Ex, while completely missing the point, and very often missing the point of the original DOOM as well.
**Other recommendations: Brainiac’s Hissing Prigs In A Static Couture (good for plenty of other things, thank you), and just about anything recorded by Polysics.
***In fact, we here at Action Button Dot Net generally find “perfect games” to be at best pretty good and at worst quite boring, which is why, if you find any of us reviewing a “perfect game”, such as the original Gameboy version of Tetris, you will not find a perfect score, and if you do, that reviewer will be looked down upon by the rest of us, and mocked in private; unless, of course, he or she eloquently demonstrates why Tetris on the Gameboy is in fact not a perfect game, in which case he or she will be celebrated as a True Hero.
*****And yes, DOOM really is 3D. The game is played in a 3D perspective, even if the engine is limited in the sorts of 3D structures it can render.
******And DOOM really was scary: if not always to those of us who played it, then surely to the rest of the world. Why were there no controversial games before DOOM? It’s not that videogames weren’t controversial — but no game prior went through DOOM‘s near overnight transformation into a lightning rod, a falsely accused pariah that was crucified for the young industry’s sins. Maybe it was just a perfect storm. DOOM‘s perspective was still novel for the time — though we had Castle Wolfenstein and Ultima: Underworlds, DOOM was the first game to really drive home the true visceral, immersive appeal of first person. And this was just as virtual reality was starting to eke it’s way into the collective consciousness, thanks to The Lawnmower Man and Playboy articles speculating about cyber sex. Unlike early abortions such as Dactyl Nightmare, DOOM was not only playable, it did not require thousands of dollars worth of plastic armor and motion sensing devices to experience. For the time, VR represented an untapped frontier of the computer realm; a heretofore nebulous and frightening concept given a flat-shaded, abstract polygonial face. And here was a VR trip through hell itself, complete with realistic sound and lighting, and steeped in extreme ultra violence. Is it any wonder that, as soon as it was revealed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, of the Columbine school shooting, were enthusiastic DOOM fans who traded homemade game maps as a hobby, it was immediately rumored that they had drafted virtual recreations of the school’s floor plan to help “train” themselves for the attack? Never mind that trying to create a faithful recreation of any real-world environment in the DOOM engine is nearly impossible. And never mind that DOOM will not teach you how to hold, aim, or operate a gun any more than watching Rambo; never mind that, if anything, extensive gameplay of DOOM will only actively mislead you as to the nature of real violent murder.
CHANGE OF VOICE
(by Action Button Dot Net Editor-in-chief tim rogers)