If you really want to blow a 90s gamer’s mind, tell them you’ve never played Doom. I’m not that old, but I still have trouble comprehending that there’s an entire generation of gamers that grew up well after Doom waved goodbye to the store shelves of Babbages, Gamestation, and Software Etc. Not only that, there are gamers from that time that intentionally avoided Doom based on preconceived notions about the game that may or may not be true. I’m not expecting this article to turn Col. Dave Grossman into a convert, but hopefully it will encourage gamers to take a first (or second) look at the game that defined a genre, and in many ways, gaming in the 90s.
Though not the first example of the style, id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D laid the groundwork for the “first person shooter” – a genre which, even some 20 years later, should need no introduction. Wolf‘s slick engine and quick pace set the rules for an action shooter which countless games would then try to bandwagon upon. It also used the hardware of the personal computer to its maximum extent, and in doing so, became a flagship example of PC gaming. Consoles had their strengths, but none of them could match the diversity of the PC’s library – including the textured virtual environments and madcap gunplay of powerful FPSs.
Not content to sit around stagnant, John Carmack (id’s legendary programming genius) set to work building improvements into his next iteration of game engine. Rooms moved away from Wolfenstein‘s simple 90-degree grids into ones featuring angles and variable heights. Elevators and platforms could move the player up and down. Floors and ceilings had textures. Walls could have windows. Outdoor areas could project a simulated sky above the level, and the player could transition between cramped indoor halls and vast, open areas as quickly as they could walk through a door.
Most importantly, lighting was now based on defined sectors that carved up sections of the map. Instead of one uniform light setting throughout the entire level, each room – or even part of a room – could have a different dimness from the last. Those lights could even change, with fading, flashing, flickering, or similar haunted-house style effects. id’s staff looked at the new tech’s ability to create shadowed rooms and disorienting strobes, and naturally started thinking about making a horror game.
While no literature ever mentions this event taking place, I am absolutely convinced that John Romero sat down with his coworkers one day and made a list of edgy villains id could put in their games, whose gruesome deaths would be easily justified on any conceivable moral scale. Nazis, naturally, came first. Demons from Hell were a rip roarin’ second. Thus begins the paper-thin plot of Doom: you’re a hardass space marine responding to a distress call on a research station on Mars. As your squad goes in, you have to guard the landing site with only a pistol, which I presume is the space marine equivalent of toilet duty. Your squad gets greased by unknown attackers. You swagger in with your pistol and fight through three episodes, across sci-fi complexes to the literal depths of Hell itself, saving the day by deftly killing anything that moves.
“Kill everything that moves” does tidly sum up the gameplay goal of Doom, and is where the game gets the reputation that it’s just a mindless shooter requiring nothing more than the reflexes of a hyperactive seven-year-old to beat. Not true. Guns are unquestionably the focus of the action, and your goal in every level is simply to get to the “Exit” room and flip a switch, but what happens in between is usually a devilish collection of traps, moving architecture, and locked doors that force you to solve a series of mini-puzzles among the hordes of nasties running interference. Doom actually has layers to its gameplay that become apparent once you spend some time with it.
First, the monster masses. Running around at full speed and shooting wildly will usually cause you to attract too much attention, get overwhelmed, and die. Enemies are “activated” by the sound of gunfire, and start moving toward you. While every enemy (especially the weak zombies) can be handled on their own, things can easily get out of control when they swarm you. Especially considering that Doom likes to hide some strong enemies behind architecture, who shuffle out once the shooting starts. That empty courtyard you walked into has quickly become a deathtrap. Few games, even today, throw the masses of very different enemy types at you at once that Doom does on its hardest difficulty.
Second, the weapons. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, the next gun you got was not necessarily a better gun. More powerful, sure, but short on its particular ammo type and not as well-suited to certain situations as other weapons in your bag of tricks. Weapons also slightly randomize their damage and have an actual “spread.” So the shotgun mimics shooting out virtual pellets, with each individual hit causing additive damage. This means that the shotgun becomes poor at a distance, but can hit multiple clustered enemies up close. Meanwhile, the weak pistol can plant bullets with accuracy regardless of distance, the chaingun wanders in rapid fire, and the rocket launcher does massive damage whilst also harming you if fired too close. This perfected weapon balance is part of what keeps Doom interesting. There’s legitimate reward, risk, and excitement to letting a demon get close enough to essentially stick the shotgun in his mouth before hitting the trigger.
Third, the traps. Doom includes variants of Wolf 3D‘s hidden doors, leading to secret areas or ammo caches. But Doom also features basic scripting triggers that cause actions whenever the player passes an invisible line. The favorite use for this is tripping “monster closets” that release enemies behind you in confined areas. So, should you spy a chaingun laying tantalizingly in the middle of the room, chances are excellent that there’s a multitude of monsters waiting in ambush. Or perhaps, atop a teleporter that suddenly zaps you to a new area. Or most surprising, a crushing ceiling suddenly rumbles to life and kills you. No other FPS had traps like this before, and they work overtime to clamp down on too much wild and reckless gameplay. It further encourages you to creep carefully around corners and pick your fights (in true horror style).
Finally, the monsters themselves deserve a mention. They look properly menacing, their deaths are gory and violent, and the artwork carves a nice balance between medieval concepts of the Satanic and modern techno-horror. The critters can still give you a good scare even once you’re familiar with them, and shapes shuffling around in the flickering darkness of the Mars base build a great sense of dread. The idle croaking of imps or moans of zombies give further anticipation that they’re nearby…somewhere. Different breeds of monsters also fight each other if accidentally hit – an exploitable quirk that hasn’t really continued into modern shooters. It’s fairly easy to get a monster to shoot the guy in front him while aiming at you, and these can quickly erupt into fascinating demon brawls that save your ammo and give you a free show to boot.
Doom features great sound, and shows what effect developers can have when they really pay attention to the audio. Monsters sound distinctive, and suitably creepy and demonic. You can hear them around corners or shuffling in the darkness, but never so clearly that you can pinpoint exactly where they are; just that you know they’re nearby. High-quality MIDI music plays in the background, based on what kind of level has been designed. There are thumping action beats (most based off of popular Metal riffs) for heavily populated, mostly open levels, and quiet stalking music for more cramped, trapped levels. The sounds of the weapons are right on, and amazingly don’t seem repetitive, considering how you’ll be hearing them more times than anything else.
In short, it’s a great collection of intense, memorable gameplay. There’s moments of terror, such as firing a chaingun into a seemingly-endless mass of imps moving in from the shadows down the hall, their faces only briefly lit by the gun’s muzzle flashes. There’s moments of sweet revenge, such as slugging through a series of tough fights and then unloading a BFG shot into a crowd of weak zombies, vaporizing them instantly. There’s moments of real calculation, such as spying a health supercharge at the end of a hallway. It’s a trap – you know it’s a trap – but can you evade all the monsters it will spawn and make off with the prize? Do you feel confident enough to make some tricky jumps to a rocket launcher on a pedestal, knowing that lava waits below if you miss? It’s smart gameplay, it’s plenty fun beyond the simple blasting of demons, and even some of the cheapest shocks or cruelest traps can incite a respectful smile at catching you off guard – provided you’ve remembered to save, of course.
Multiplayer also deserves a special mention. 4-player deathmatch and 2-player co-op options helped add tremendous value to the pack. This is the game that both introduced and popularized the arena-style deathmatch – essentially virtual laser tag – that would go on to dominate multiplayer modes throughout the industry. Corporate intranets were particularly well-suited to networking four players together, and complaints about lost productivity to Doom are somewhat legendary (and likely true!). For dial-up players, services like DWANGO sprout up to become the forefathers of modern online gaming services, complete with in-client server browsers and chat lobbies. Doom brought gamers together regardless of physical distance, and encouraged the growth of a whole internet gaming structure that Quake would later make great use of and turn competitive. Doom’s in-engine ability record and play back gameplay demos as small information files also encouraged the growth of the “speedrun” scene.
Doom also popularized the modding scene with the availability of level editors, and the program’s ease of distribution by packing maps and assets into self-containted “WAD” files. Independent modders could churn out levels in their free time with full legal clearance from iD, and distribute them globally through BBS servers, websites like Doomworld, and FTP archives like /idgames. The ease of downloading a simple package from such repositories ensured interested parties could access a modder’s work, and the popularity of the game ensured their work would have an audience. These WAD packages could be anything from single maps, to entirely new episodes, to “Total Conversions” which replaced art and monster behavior to form new games running on the same engine. Everything in popular culture at the time, from the Teletubbies to Aliens got (unauthorized) Total Conversions. Enterprising companies like WizardWorks even saved gamers dial-up fees by releasing WAD compilations on discs, and more than a few modding guides made their way onto store shelves.
That’s a lot of great things to say about Doom, but are there any flaws? The game’s unapologetic violence (even glorification of it) didn’t do the industry any favors at a time when conservative government officials were eyeing games as the next corrupter of all youth. It was cited as an inspiration/training ground for the Columbine murders, and was frequently cited in activist tirades and lawsuits. The Satanic symbols (you do travel to Hell, after all) likewise stirred up the wrong kind of reactionary controversy. It also solidified the image that videogames were a toy for repressed 15-year-old boys – an image the industry still struggles against today.
There’s a good run of monsters in this one, but certainly room for additions (as Doom II expertly provided). Levels do tend to end up being corridor after corridor, with a limited variety of textures. Levels also have names which suggest a purpose (“Nuclear Plant”, “Military Base”), but rarely had design or props to back that up. Doom also clearly faked its flying enemies, as they occupied an infinitely vertical space. If you got close to one, it would float down to your level. If you tried to jump over a monster against a ledge you were standing on, you’d be blocked, or even attacked for damage by a beastie you couldn’t shoot. You also couldn’t look up or down, so your shots automatically adjusted up or down based on what you were looking at – but this didn’t always happen accurately.
Also, while there is more to Doom than just shooting monsters, shooting monsters is no doubt the focus. If you’re not interested in this brand of violence, then you’re not going to appreciate any of the “extras.” Much like Wolf 3D, there’s also no real plot to speak of, and any development throughout the episode is contained only in the occasional text screen explaining where your burly Marine is heading to next. Carmack himself is credited with the quote “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Though Tom Hall actually wrote a very elaborate backstory in his design document, plot wouldn’t really show in a Doom game until Doom 3, and to mixed results at that. Other games like System Shock would do more with the first person shooter, but Doom surely built a strong gameplay foundation for others to follow.
So that’s Doom in a wordy nutshell. If you haven’t played it before, hopefully now you have some encouragement to take a look. For better or worse, it’s certainly one of the most influential titles in gaming, and following Apogee’s shareware model (the first 9-level episode was distributed as a free demo), as well as Doom‘s subsequent port to every device known to man, both ensure that the game got into the hands of anyone who wanted to play it. Its fast, simple action, smooth engine, impressive effects, multiplayer, and modability all helped it stick around. If you’re playing an action game from the last 15 years, with friends over Xbox Live or PSN, or enjoying the unique benefits of gaming on a PC, some part of that game owes its genesis or refinement to Doom and its community.
Simply, there was nothing like it at the time. Full of action, scares, and tons of fun, it was also a graphical powerhouse that changed the direction of the industry almost single-handedly. And don’t let the “murder simulator” talk fool you – there’s some smart design and clever traps here.
Additions and extra tactics aside, you still had to be down with the fundamental gameplay of shooting demons in the nuts. Levels also tend to limit themselves to basically “monster mazes” or “keycard hunts.”