Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
Recollections of Doom

Robert B. Marks | 13 Jan 2016 16:00
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You really had to have been there to understand.

For those who somehow managed to miss the news, the fourth Doom game is coming out this year (June 30, if the Amazon France leak is to be believed, and it's going to be a reboot of the first. The footage at E3 was gory, the crowd cheering as the iconic chainsaw came out in a new Doom. And, with the pre-release publicity now starting, we're going to be seeing a lot of hype about it in the next few months. As for me? Well, truth be told, I've got mixed feelings about it.

I can't say I was really impressed by what I've seen so far - the violence in the gameplay was appropriately gory, and it had some visceral moments, but to me that all just seemed to be there, as opposed to something special.

But, this is one case where I may be one of the worst people to judge. After all, no Doom reboot could ever live up to my expectations for it. The reason is simple: I was there in 1993 and 1994, playing Doom.

As I mentioned above, you really had to have been there to understand.

Doom wasn't special because of the violence, although the 15 year-old me certainly loved the gore. It was special because it was revolutionary. It was a revelation.

Permit me to set the scene: it is 1993. A lot of people have yet to upgrade to VGA (256 colour) monitors. Graphics are primitive - the best games have basic sprite graphics, with a 3D capability that sometimes shows up in driving games, flight simulators, or rudimentary virtual reality demos, and isn't too far removed from basic geometry.

The first person shooter genre had been around since 1973's Maze War, but there's only two FPS games that have been made thus far for the PC, the most famous and best looking of which is Wolfenstein 3D. But even though Wolfenstein pushes the envelope, it is severely limited - the levels are all made of halls and rooms with right angles, the floor and ceiling are completely flat, and the entire thing looks like a pixelated cartoon.

And then, at the end of 1993, came Doom.

Even now, it is hard to explain how it felt. Before playing Doom, I had no idea that a computer could even do the things Doom was showing me. Forget the limited 3D levels of Wolfenstein - the floors had multiple heights and the corners could have any angles the game designers wanted. The textures actually looked realistic, and the levels felt like real places. It wasn't slow or ponderous, and the camera wasn't locked into 90 degree or 45 degree movements. The gun on the screen even moved like it was being held by a real human being, and when you moved forward, the viewpoint bobbed, as though one was taking real steps.

Can you imagine what it was like to see all this on a computer for the first time?

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But there was more: you didn't have to play it alone...you could play it with your friends! You could just call their computer up using a modem, and play co-operative or deathmatch. If you could get a network together, you could even play with more than two people. As for the violence and gore? Well, that was just the gravy on top. On the most basic level, Doom rewrote what a computer game could be. Once you played it, you never looked at electronic gaming the same way again.

And therein lies the problem - video game development and technology has come so far that any new Doom game just cannot recapture the experience of playing the original in 1993 and '94. I have little doubt that the reboot will be exciting, and it will look good - but it's not going to blow your mind like the original could. Nobody is going to sit back in awe after playing it and say, "Wait, computers can do that?"

But that's also a good sign. It means that we no longer need to push the envelope in graphics, but can do so in production design and higher concepts. Dark Souls was a revelation from a production design standpoint alone, setting a new bar for visual storytelling. Valiant Hearts rewrote what a puzzle game could do, transcending the experience of gameplay into something profound and haunting. Games are free to be artistic in a way that just wasn't possible twenty years ago.

But, as for Doom, I can't help but greet the news of a reboot with sadness. The game that was once the first person shooter is reduced to a reboot like any other. With little left to revolutionize, it's chasing the environmental effects and the gore. It feels like watching a venerable old performer brought back out onto the stage after retirement for one last show, the glory days long gone - at best they can demonstrate that they can keep up with the current crowd, but more likely they will meet with respectful applause for what they once were.

Personally, I think I'll stick with the memories. You may have had to have been there to understand, but if you weren't, let me assure you: it was glorious.

Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. He is on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.

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