Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Doom Episode 1: Knee Deep in the Dead

Year: 1993
Rating: *****
Still the best damn game about shooting things ever.

To kill the standard base level enemy it takes three pistol rounds.
Or one well aimed shotgun blast.

Somewhere in that arithmetic is Doom’s secret. The shotgun is not the base weapon but it’s the gun you’ll use 90% of the time. It is so powerful against such a large array of targets wielding it make us the player feel powerful. Now I realise that in this enlightened new millennia we’re supposed to believe that FPSs are fun because they allow us to test our dexterity in an immersive environment, making use of advanced tactics and clever gamesmanship. But screw it lets throw away the pretence and face facts the FPS is the dominant genre of game because pretending to shoot something in the face is deeply cathartic and doing so from the literal perspective of the shooter only intensifies the experience. Every post-Doom improvement is secondary to that. Advanced enemy A.I was created for lazy level designers hoping the code will provide the challenge not the arrangement of obstacles they create. Regenerative health? Again lazy level designers hoping to do away with all that careful pacing of health packs nonsense. Gears of War style cover? Actually you know what if you’re not already stopping and popping in Doom what the hell are you doing?

And this brings me to the balancing of weapons. As stated earlier the Shotgun is better than the pistol in every respect. If you’ve got a pistol and a shotgun you’ll equip the shotgun. Now days FPSs feel like they need to make every weapon balanced. It makes sense for multiplayer but the shotgun is so deeply satisfying because it’s better than the pistol. Picking up a shotgun in Doom feels like progression. It’s that “I’m stronger now” feeling that is so addictive. It’s why it’s so painful when you die and you respawn with just the pistol. But that’s okay cause in a minute you’ll have the shotgun again. In comparison Halo 2's Battle Rifle (the go to weapon of the game) can only kill the lowest grunt in one burst if you score a head shot and as a result it feels much less satisfying than the shotgun in Doom.

Actually replaying Doom on Ultraviolence began to remind me of a Rougelike. With the generous auto-aim and no need to score head shots the combat is less about technical skill and more about effective crowd control and resource management. It’s oddly fitting that they recently turned it into a Rougelike for mobile phones (edit: Sorry I'm wrong about that). The other fundamentals feel the same, explore, gather loot, level up your gear. Just with a massive shot of adrenalin pumped straight to the heart. You know what I caught myself doing while playing this? Moving my body side to side in an attempt to dodge fireballs. The first time it happened I was totally embarrassed then I just said screw it no one can see me and threw myself into it with wild abandon. You know how many next-gen bloom blasting FPSs have elicited a similar level of immersion? None.

There is one myth about Doom I’d like to see cleared up. In the age old ludologist versus narratology debate Doom is often brought up by the ludologists as an example of a game that doesn’t need a story. You know what? That’s stupid. Doom may be proof that games don’t need a plot but it doesn’t prove they don’t need story. Story is more than just plot its setting, characters, atmosphere, and themes. Doom has plenty of all of that stuff. Look at the image at the top of this entry and tell me that’s not an iconic character, in an iconic setting, battling iconic foes. Doom wouldn’t be anywhere near as incredible an experience if it wasn’t for all the great work the artists and audio guys put into it’s non game elements. To dismiss all that and say Doom is proof that all you need is mechanics is ludicrous. The first few bars of the first level's music alone are enough to get my blood pumping how about you?


  1. Hey, it's not just for cellphones, dude! Is the Doom RPG (I assume you're talking about the proper id Software one) a roguelike, anyway? I didn't think it was.

    Also, I never actually considered the progressive element in Doom as part of its charm. Considering how much time I've spent thinking about why Doom is just so good, I find that a little embarrassing. Oh well.

  2. Shit maybe I got those two confused. Sorry. But I think my point about Doom playing a bit like a roguelike still stands.

    As for the progression thing. Man it's probably just because it's been ages since I played an FPS where the weapons get more powerful as you go along that I even noticed it. But compared to Halo etc it really did stand out.

  3. If you mean just in terms of the purity of the killing stuff experience, then you're quite right. The big draw of Doom for me is that the entire game is focussed around that - it sort of reminds me of my other favourite game, Elite, in that it kind of goes, here's the controls, here's what you can do, so go for it. It's quite nice that the designers trust the players enough to piece things together for themselves like that.

    Actually, the original Doom was a very arcade-y sort of game if you think about it. It would have transferred very well to 2d and a more jumpy style of gameplay.

  4. Nah also the whole exploration thing. I mean the levels are really just dungeons when you think about it, all maze like and filled with loot. Loot being ammo and health packs.

    Actually one of the elements I really like in it is how spaces change. Like for example you'll need to go retrieve a key so you go pick up it up and when you backtrack through a section walls have moved and there are more monsters. It keeps everything feeling really fresh and dynamic. Most levels these days are just straight linier race to the finish lines with backtracking being frowned upon.

    But if you're going to make a space drasticly alter then why not make the player walk through it again?

    Also the way it'll show you something out of reach and let you search for ages trying to get it.

    I don't think Doom is an easy game to sum up. For something that feels so simple it's incredibly hard to boil it down. Which I guess is why despite being copied and rehashed a million times nothing has really captured the same magic.

  5. "You know how many next-gen bloom blasting FPSs have elicited a similar level of immersion? None."

    Half-Life 2. And 1, for that matter. While I agree with your write-up I think you're being a bit too general with your condemnation of contemporary FPS. Another thing that sprang to mind when you were talking about the relative 'power' of the shotty in Doom, was the revolver in the HL games. The ammo is sparse, the damage and accuracy is brutal, and when you pull that sucker out it is truly go-time.
    HL also does back-tracking (strange how we are talking about this as a positive).
    I'm just saying that yeah, Doom is classic but FPS games didn't end with it. Glyn will castrate me for this but it's not the apex of the genre. The old 'bygone days' attitude is a bit silly sometimes. I'm guilty of it myself, more so with point 'n click adventure. But this presumption can colour a piece of writing as it has here.

  6. To be fair Half Life 2 came out on the original x-box so it might not really be accurate to call it a next gen title. Of course so did Halo 2 so you've certainly got a point. But if we're looking at what the current FPSs out there are attempting to copy it tends to be Halo 2 more than Half Life.

    I'd say that Half Life probably straddles two era's. On the one had it's all about flow and storytelling but it doesn't really go for the Halo 2 super streamlined, regenerating health thing that's all the rage these days.

    To be sure Half Life is an amazing game but I'd say it's less brutally cathartic than Doom.

  7. Dear Rohan, Half Life came out in 1999. It uses a slightly modified version of the Quake engine. It's not at all 'next gen.' I'm also playing it again at the moment and I have to say its not extremely linear in the way many modern games are - stuff's hidden around the place and you're rewarded for finding it, which ties into the old 'secret area' idea, which most modern FPSes seem to lack.
    I haven't played Half Life II, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that Valve stuck to their strengths.

    In any case, the basic problem with new style FPSes is the fact that they're over designed. The whole thing about 'flow' comes into this - the designers want the player to know what to do without too much thought, while in Doom you're generally presented with options and are then required to work it out yourself. This actually works pretty well in Doom's case since the focus is on wasting shit. If you go down the wrong path then it doesn't matter because you're still fulfilling your imperative, while new FPSes are about the narrative rewards. It's the basic difference between weird old RPGs from the 80s (Dark Heart of Uukrul, for example, is about exploration, while Wizard's Crown is all about the funky combat) and the Final Fantasy series. I know lots of people prefer the latter but the experience doesn't really change. I would compare them to games like R-Type in a lot of ways, where the skill comes from learning the patterns rather than adapting well. Half Life suffers a bit from this but is still wedded enough to the Doom-isms to make the levels worth exploring.

    Incidentally, Doom's revolver equivalent isn't the shotgun, its the plasma rifle. The shotgun is the common place weapon - its actually more akin to the MP5, except not a bit shit when it comes down to it. Or the actual Half Life shotgun, which I have to say is fucking rubbish, oh and an SPAS-12 ISN'T DOUBLE BARRELLED YOU THICK FUCKS, THAT'S THE MAGAZINE.
    The basic difference is that the shotgun still feels meaty and powerful enough against the more common enemies to be worth using throughout the game, as opposed to the aforementioned HL guns. Christ it takes like 25 bullets to drop a Marine in Half Life. That's fucking ridiculous.