So, because I care about you all, please note: trigger warning here for like…lots and lots of violence. Because DOOM (2016; I’ll refer to the original as DOOM Prime) takes the series’ tradition of pushing the envelope of violence to the extreme limit and past it a bit.
Unlike the 2003 sequel that attempted to take John Romero and id Software’s classic shareware/early message board classic FPS series into the direction of survival horror, this Bethesda/id team production is definitely an old school shooter at heart. Any sort of scares are of the “yecch” variety, as opposed to true jumpscares, and the surface psychology of the series is definitely shallower than any survival horror game I’ve played. You point, shoot, tear, rend, and otherwise bloodily shoot your way through a demon-infested Mars and the very bowels of Hell itself. It’s Doom Prime with a makeover and it’s incredibly fun.
It’s also smart as hell.
One of the major issues of bringing DOOM to a modern era of gaming is that the original game relied so very little on story that, even compared to relatively evocative show-don’t-tell games like Hotline: Miami or Ikaruga, its lack of narrative development was glaring. Much like Wolfenstein: 3D or Postal, Doom Prime and Doom II were part of a generation of games that literally needed no development of narrative outside of “Well, you’re in a situation…and that situation calls for extreme violence.” No one was playing these games to learn anything or immerse themselves in a world: they were playing them for the action and the crafting therein.
And boy, was Doom Prime well-crafted. If you haven’t played the original Doom games recently, go back and try them — they’re easy to find online, for free, in various mods and versions that help you play them on modern PCs and laptops. The levels, especially in the original Doom Prime, are just lovingly and incredibly crafted. They’re marks of distinction in terms of level design, difficulty balance, and consistency of aggression. When the game was initially released, its main legacy was that it was incredibly bloody and unredeemably violent. Decades later, it doesn’t seem so bloody or violent, due in part to graphical changes, but the intent holds up: the level design, and the design’s ability to be redone by players made for a building block series of deathmatches, strategizing, and visual language that had never existed before.
DOOM, instead of trying to outdo or redo its predecessor’s quality moments, simply polishes them in every possible way. The graphics shine, of course, and the frenetic quality of the game — with hyper-violent “glory kills” built into the survival mechanics of the game — keys into a weird Gaming Id for anyone weaned on the early PC FPS genre. The level design is careful, often nostalgic, and always pushing the limits of difficulty and aggression. In any combat situation, you find yourself using all of the ammo you have in an effort to just get through, frantically trying to survive just a bit longer in the middle of a horde of demons. And while I’ll touch a bit deeper on the game’s sense of architecture and game reference in a future column, I’ll say here that the secrets, collectibles, and challenges in the game turned a 13 hour game into a 24 hour vision quest. So, well done there, devs.
But the most impressive element of the game’s update might be its story. Because while Bethesda and id (under the new ownership of ZeniMax) didn’t reinvent the wheel and simply built upon the blazing speed and intensity of Doom Prime, they decided to make the narrative of the game a bit deeper. There are two ways the narrative of DOOM expands beyond the expectations that its predecessor gives it: first, it openly aligns the problem of a massive demon infestation with capitalist over-reach into the environment. Mining operations on Mars, taken to their absolute extreme as they mine energy from Hell to power the now-colonized Solar System, are taken to their fullest entailments by Dr. Olivia Pierce, who sacrifices her entire base to demons for power. Samuel Hayden, the robot-CEO who awakens you and sends you against Olivia, eventually shows his own commitment to energy over humanity, as he mourns the loss of every piece of technology your death-fueled Doom Marine destroys. Ultimately he betrays your character, setting up a sequel in which demons and Hayden survive and provide a clear opponent for your hyper-powerful single-minded professional killer avatar.
But why does the Doom Marine want to kill demons so badly? Well, as we find out, it’s not any sort of commitment to energy, capital, or science. It’s a pure instinct. Everything you do in-game, from fulfilling objectives, to uncovering secrets or progressing through a map is dedicated to killing demons in efficient and more and more spectacular ways. Your avatar has no interest in the problems of Hayden’s company or energy use on Earth — he really just wants to kill demons. So, where’s the narrative again?
Well, it’s in the game’s lore. But unlike a lot of games, the lore in DOOM is really thrust into the flow of the game itself, revealing that the Doom Marine is the resurrection of a long-standing lineage of Doom Knights who have been killing demons over millenia. They draw health and energy from the death of demons (as your character does) and they are the only ones who can stand up to the horde of demons in Hell (again, natch). Your character is woken from his tomb not, as in Doom Prime, as a poor marine put in a bad situation, but as an elemental force, mythologized fearfully by the demons trying to kill you, and truly committed to death, bloodshed, and mayhem in the middle of a fully fleshed out, pragmatic, and carefully plotted corporate and spiritual world.
So the Doom Marine becomes more a representation of a force than a man, and as a result justifies the hyper-violence of the game truly as a thematic choice. Doom Prime billed the extremity of its violence as a selling tactic, and don’t get me wrong, DOOM does also. It’s bloody and spares no expense or hint in letting you know. But in thematizing that violence, layering it into the game’s narrative itself and the logic of the game world, DOOM allows its player a license and motivation to kill demons outside of “well it’s fun.” And this motivation not only fits the game, but effectively performs as auto-critique — this game is violent because you’re literally playing as a remorseless eldritch horror. You are not given choices you might want as a player — you cannot choose to save the mining operation, you cannot choose to save demons, you cannot give up. You can only move forward, with every reward making it easier for you to kill. The mythology of DOOM both licenses and traps the player then, casting them in a role that is hyper-specialized, a part of the late capitalist spiritualism of Hayden’s mining operation (another topic for a later column).
DOOM knows it is violent, abhorrent, and intense. It revels in this in its design and execution. But it also directs its enthusiasm back on itself — you can enjoy the game, but you cannot get any depth from your character because, well, there is none there. You’re a throwback protagonist in a fully fleshed out world, forced to be the one motiveless monster in the room, as even the demons have their reasons for doing what they do. You play in DOOM as the remorseless killer that Romero billed in Doom Prime, but you aren’t even given the honor of being “a space marine.” You’re a tool, like any of the guns you use in the game or any of the mining operation you unwittingly save. That Bethesda and id were able to refocus DOOM to cover the complicity of capitalism, the auto-aesthetic-critique of Doom Prime (Stay tuned for my readings of the brilliant retro levels), and a critique of the epic hero narrative is remarkable. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that they did so by enhancing the world around the Doom Marine and radically impoverishing his own inner world. It is no coincidence that the iconic “face damage” of Doom Prime is missing in DOOM.
There is no face; the only thing you get is the facemask, a black mirror with nothing looking back. No Gods; No Heroes; Only Money and Demons. DOOM is a fantasia of late capitalism, a fitting critique of the Trump era in which it is produced. Candy that’s enjoyable but cannot be enjoyed — the most fun game of the year that doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself too much, DOOM is worthy of serious study in a way that an FPS perhaps never has been.