“Underrated?!” I hear you think. “Doom? One of the most iconic, beloved, successful games of all time?”
Yes. Really. In the FPS hall of fame, Doom is as much a work of art as a classic game. That’s often forgotten for the ‘right’ reasons; that everyone has already used up their quota of being impressed at it effectively starting the FPS (it wasn’t the first by a long shot, but there’s no arguing it had more of an impact than games like Wolfenstein) or is distracted by thoughts of deathmatching, of the technological leap forward it represented.
In looking at the big picture though, many of the smaller details tend to go by the wayside – details that really help highlight why the original Doom was a classic that neither id nor the many, many games that followed in its lead have ever nailed. And one of the least talked about? Its surprising, openly spurned grasp… of narrative.
Now, by narrative, I don’t mean ‘plot’, because Doom barely has one and you wouldn’t even know that unless you’d read a text file that came with it. Originally of course, that was different – Tom Hall’s vision for the game was a far more complicated affair full of scenes like dead marines around a half-finished poker hand and using one of their hands to open a door and all kinds of other nonsense, on a planet called Tei Tenga rather than the moons of Mars. None of that made it in, mostly due to John Romero deciding it was getting in the way. And he was right. Doom needed interruptions and complications like Duke Nukem Forever needed another decade or so to fully cook.
Despite that though, the final game still featured – pardon the phrase – a hell of a lot more than it often gets credit for, especially in terms of environment and level design, and on both grand and small scales.
For the most obvious, the first couple of episodes, set on Phobos and Deimos respectively (albeit a Deimos relocated to The Shores Of Hell…) are both wonderfully designed around a theme of corruption – the silver doors and computer equipment of the UAC slowly but surely being subverted and replaced by biomechanics and hellish imagery. But that’s just the start. Take a step deeper and you quickly see that as well as being visually very different, they follow their own aesthetic and design rules too. Human locations for instance tend to be laid out more or less like real buildings might, while the hell locations prefer a more arbitrary layout built around a central hub with the rest stretching out like a lazy spider. Pragmatically, you’re in levels designed by a different person. In feel though, it perfectly mirrors stepping into a new fictional mindset, and one that never gets friendlier.
Watch for instance the level names. All but one level in the first episode of Doom are very functional. Hangar. Nuclear Plant. Phobos Lab. Central Processing. Practical, functional names, and even the outstanding one, Phobos Anomaly, referring to a specific place. The second episode, which really pushes the corruption angle thanks to Deimos having been stolen in advance, almost begins mocking this with Hell’s equivalent – Containment Area and Command Center and Deimos Lab giving way to the Halls Of The Damned and Spawning Vats. The final chapter, set in Hell proper, then heads in the other direction with purely iconic place names – Slough of Despair, House Of Pain, Mt. Erebus, Dis, Limbo – places that exist simply because they do, with no purpose save the spreading of misery.
It seems like such a small detail, but small details are a big part of building atmosphere, and a sense of cohesion and change that was every bit as important as the altered textures in creating a feeling of inexplicable wrongness. The slide is also represented in other clever ways, like the first episode using coloured human keycards for doors, the third a rainbow skulls, and the second chapter using both, slowly pushing towards skulls as you get closer to the final level, Tower of Babel. Episode 3 of course is all about pushing the biological side of biotechnology, being a world made of entrails and blood and tortured faces that was a hell of a lot creepier… pun not intended… in 1993, before people knew these levels enough to turn them into honorary speed-running courses rather than physical locations. Doom was a strange game like that, one that shifted with experience. For the first playthrough, it was a creepy, atmospheric adventure into darkness and the unknown. When that faded, it became a balls-out shooter. Every attempt to follow up on it has had to pick one side to focus on, and struggled even then.
Tower of Babel incidentally is Doom’s least noticed beautiful detail. Everyone remembers the maps, which did such a great job of displaying physical progression through each world’s levels. What very few spotted at the time though was that the final level is actually built while you’re fighting through the others.
Doom is of course a masterpiece of level design. The flow, the variety, the use of very little are all so worthy of praise. On a visual level, it really knows how to sell the details, like the Tower of Babel kicking off in a room where no fewer than four Barons of Hell, the first episode’s bosses, have been impaled against the wall as a preview of just how nasty what’s coming really is. All of this is part of the background narrative, selling the threat before you even see it, and demonstrating escalation at the end of both first and second episodes. In the first episode, it’s even more direct; the final encounter being a tight sealed room much like the military and research installations seem up to that point. In defeating the enemies though, Doom literally opens out by lifting the walls to reveal one of its largest open spaces so far and making it clear how much more there is to do. Even the music contributes here, being haunting rather than blood-pumping; a question, not a climax, even in the episode’s final battle.
And then there’s that ending. Oh, that evil, evil ending – a teleporter that plunges you not into a preview or the expected quiet of a new level, but blackness and pain. Nobody had done anything like that before and I can’t off-hand think of any great examples since. It was such a swerve of both expectations and how shareware was usually sold, with big and flashy previews of the next episode. Doom’s shareware episode just said, “You want to see more? Pay*” and doubled down by outright mocking the frustration of the prize being an arse-kicking with “ONCE YOU BEAT THE BIG BADASSES AND CLEAN OUT THE MOON BASE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO WIN, AREN’T YOU? AREN’T YOU?”
Certainly, more tantalising than the traditional TO BE CONTINUED. Though it was taken a little bit far when they later went ahead and mocked everyone’s desire for another great shooter with the Quake single-player.
What’s that? That was actually intended to be a game worth playing? Oh, hush your mouth.
(* I’m assuming someone out there DID pay, because all those pirated copies had to come from somewhere…)
And then there’s the Warrens. Oh god, the Warrens. This was the secret level of the third episode, and remains one of the most beautiful tricks ever pulled in an FPS. To begin with, it’s simply the first of the Hell levels repeated, Hell Keep. Same monsters, same layout, same puzzles. Only the name of the map suggests that something hasn’t gone badly wrong. Until you reach the exit door, at which point all the walls fall down to reveal a Cyberdemon and force a return trip through a level full of Lost Souls, Barons of Hell and other high end monsters. It’s a “He was his sled” moment now, obviously, but at the time just incredible. And what do we have in modern games?
Monster closets. Lots and lots of monster closets. It’s just not the same…
But that’s Doom, a game full of moments that individually would make any other game from the era live forever, and which can still impress even with its engine now being so primitive. Never mind all the genuinely amazing stuff it did, like the way that the very first level, Hangar, simultaneously dangled the promise of being able to go outside with the extra edge of making you work for it by treating the exit to the courtyard near the start as simply a secret exit, and in doing so inspired a generation of gamers to run up against every wall. Going outside obviously doesn’t seem like a huge deal now, but bear in mind that this was an era where Wolfenstein type mazes where the closest you’d find to a window was something painted on a wall. And again, Doom is incredibly smart about how this is used. For the first two episodes, you occasionally get to step out into a courtyard or something, but otherwise are always confined within buildings. It’s not until the third chapter, Inferno, that Doom deploys this for maps like Slough Of Despair and Mt. Erebus to create more of a feeling of now being in a world. A cramped one, but still.
(Semi-related, Ultima Underworld 2 always sits fondly in my memory for a location called Kilhorn Keep – a flying castle that due to engine limitations had to seal up every window with blackrock and more or less have the characters go “Yes! It’s amazing and we are really in the sky! Totally trust us on this!”)
It’s not that Doom necessarily does goes far, far beyond other games with this kind of thing – it was standard shareware practice for each episode of a game to have a different location. It simply manages to pull them all tight, with very little breaking the illusion purely for the sake of it. The way that the enemies turn on each other for instance is about as basic as AI gets once it’s mastered shooting at a pesky player, but the different species being so distinct and so quick to go for the throat really give them the feel of being a loose coalition united only by slightly stronger hate. Everything is woven into the experience and feels coherent, even past questions like what the hell a chainsaw is doing in a secret area, or what crazy person would fill a corridor with green death-slime. Nobody is saying that Doom’s levels are realistic. But they are realistic to the point that they need to be – to allow the suspension of disbelief that was all the more important before they became as iconic as Mario’s World 1-1.
Is all of this simply back-porting sentiment? Perhaps, to some extent, but I don’t think so for the most part. Case in point, Doom 2. On the surface, it’s more Doom – bigger, better, badder. But it doesn’t have the same magic, with its levels dropping any sense of a coherent journey in favour of just doing lots of gimmicks like a level devoted to traps, or an official answer to the map-makers’ favourite question: who would win in a fight between a Spider Mastermind and a Cyberdemon? This eventually led to writing cheques the engine just couldn’t cash though, especially in the city levels, and a lack of the same feel of descending into the abyss that gave the original Doom such a distinct sense of place, resonance, and self-identity.
That’s a spark that very, very few games can offer, when all the pieces come together to be more than the whole, details still sticky and slick from having been sweated. I’d say it’s a big reason why Doom’s world is still so compelling, even years later, when essentially every other shooter has faded into obsolescence, with few of the thousands and thousands and thousands of user-made maps having the same hook as the ones that were part of that journey into the Inferno. They’re things that don’t typically get mentioned much amongst all the technology and the action and the scares and the adrenaline. They are however a key, and deserving part of the legend.
Oh, yeah, and also the rocket launcher was ****ing awesome.