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-old-babies. 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 this world, are experienced journeymen who chew up God Hand in the morning and shit 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 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 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, 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 fuckers and get the fuck 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.
I've hit the wall whilst writing this review. I might have died, in fact. “Died while writing a review of DooM” would be a fitting engraving for my tombstone — or for any man’s tombstone. Luckily, tombstones seldom have room for footnotes, meaning that your average cemetary-loiterer would probably look at said tombstone and figure that I was a decent guy; if we could fit a footnote on there, it would have to say “He only managed to mention penises once”. This is kind of a shame, because I now believe that DooM is the most penis-like — most penile, if you will — of all videogames that have ever existed on this planet. There is a gloryful, frictive joy in wheeling around, aiming that choad-like shotgun in the direction of a distant, rippling enemy sprite, and pressing the Kill Button. The stupid, idiotic, brain-slapping simplicity of it is one of Game History’s stickiest pleasures. If you can take a piss without breaking the laws of common decency, you can play DooM. It pulls you in the first time you jab that metaphorical spear into its hard meat. Soon enough, the nature of the pointing and shooting comes to resemble an art form. Some of us are pscyhologically scarred (in a cute way) with the experience of our first girlfriends telling us, mid-thrust on prom night, “You’re . . . pretty good at this”. (For some of us, there might have been a dangling question mark.) Of course we’re “good at this” — we played DooM, and even if we hadn’t, we’d still be good at it, because DooM doesn’t require anything more than raw instincts, anyway. Which is why, when you put DooM online, when you pit kid against kid, when you stage the ultimate pissing contest, you end up with an experience that (as the recent Xbox Live version plainly illustrates) still can’t be beat. With DooM, the children of the nineties were only doing what they knew how to do, only now, it was with shotguns, and demons, and custom maps, and the ability to clearly prove who — in this computer lab, at least — is better at everything than everyone else. Fact: not all nerds were smart. Fact: you could play DooM no matter what math class you were in. You could be dumber than your mom and still rule at DooM. It didn’t just make you feel like a champion — it made you a champion. People eventually got their long johns tied in a slip knot over the fact that the game was about guns and hell, and when kids started killing kids in real life, DooM kind of took a lot of the blame, though really, if anything, pressing keys to rotate, strafe, and fire a gun for several hours a day probably worked pretty hard to atrophy all of those muscles that the kids would have needed to fire a real shotgun more than once before bursting into tears. No, to learn how to fire a real shotgun, you have to have some kind of problems from the start. Enough of this, though — this is a boring topic. Game design is more interesting: DooM is spear-like, penis-like, simple, and addictive. DooM‘s network play feature injected rat poison into the neck of the American arcade “culture” — why keep playing technically-escalating “updates” of Street Fighter II when you can yank any downtrodden kid up from his slumping position on the chain-link fence by the basketball court and turn him into an honest-to-god Championman in five minutes with DooM — which was in 3D? The craze of the 90s multiplexes and TV sci-fi, these great fantasies of the Holodeck and the Lawnmower Man: Virtual Reality, seeing the world from an infinitely more badassesque being’s eyes, it was all the rage in theory, though in practice it cost five dollars for three minutes during which you got a headache and a kid in a polo shirt had to tell you you’d died. Here was DooM, alive and throbbing. Eventually they pumped it up, added inclines and staircases. Eventually came Quake, which was even more bound to make a newcomer dizzy. By then, the motion-sickness-immune parts of our brains were already lit up and connected. As these things go, the technicalities started to escalate; eventually, we had Unreal Tournament, we had MEGA KILL, we had a half dozen varieties of grenades and bigger and uglier and awesomer guns. The First-Person Shooter genre proceeded to rob many a young man of his ambition. Future doctors handed in their papers and became future level designers instead. Future gas-station attendants became future basement-dwelling shut-up-mom screaming speed-metal-breathing maniacs. Some good — and great — entertainment came out of all of this, to be sure, though there will be no denying that, if the sci-fi concept of a drug that lures the masses into psycho-euphoria were to be pressed flat and made into a videogame, the first-person shooter genre of videogames would be the movie based on that videogame. I do not choose the original DooM above its sequels, or the technically excellent and elegant Quake because we wish to applaud DooM‘s “historical importance” — oh no, I choose it because it is simple to learn, challenging to master. Fuck Final Fantasy Tactics — this is as close as videogames will probably ever get to chess. How could DooM be better, we ask ourselves, in order to shoehorn another paragraph on here. Well, who knows. We’ve always wondered what the world would look like if (fun-loving Japanese game development demigods) Treasure would make an FPS; it’d probably be just like DooM, only with slower bullets and a block button that you could press to put up a plasma shield which would disappear after a half a second, meaning you would have to time your presses so as to reflect enemy projectiles (reflecting them would double their speed and their damage potential). Man, that would be kind of cool. Also, if the (yes, deliciously iconic) heads-up-display were gone, that would maybe make the game better. Someone’s probably done this in a mod. Man, someone’s probably done everything in a mod. Let’s just go ahead and call that the conclusion.
-Sammyfun1 is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and troll with awesome hair. He is a professional writer for Kotaku.com and fights crime on the streets by night.