If you’ve ever wondered how a game whose opening narration contains the verbs “RIP AND TEAR” might kick off, you’ll be happy to know that 2016’s Doom is fully prepared to answer that question with tremendous speed. No sooner than you can process this cerebral call to action, the game immediately throws you knee-deep into the hellmouth with the only options being sink — or rip/tear. Doom’s opening is a prime example of effective in medias res storytelling situated directly beneath a cascading waterfall of blood, guts, and viscera. And quite frankly, it’s one of my favorite video game openings of all time.
Although it’s so tonally different from other game openings I hold in high regard — stuff including Mega Man 2, Final Fantasy VII, BioShock, Uncharted 2, Portal 2, Journey, and God of War 2018 — Doom succeeds by providing a clear and direct mission statement, and then having all facets of the game’s design promptly begin working in tandem in order to support that simple and violent thesis.
I really love how much detail is packed into the first few shots of the game. Pentagrams are scrawled out onto the floor in blood. Your sarcophagus was flanked with worshipers, bowing at your coming arrival. Lit candles adorn the ground, like mood lighting on a romantic date that’s about to go terribly awry. Amidst the technology of what you soon find out is a Martian base hangs what appears to be human hides marked with bloody runes. With these details come an immediate posing of so many questions, namely the who, where, when, why, and, most pressingly, what of it all. But those questions instantly get tossed to the wayside the second you smash a shambling zombie’s head against the rim of your sarcophagus-turned-operating table.
It’s tough to articulate why the absolutely insane level of violence and gore in Doom doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I think it’s because of how it nestles comfortably into the realm of slapstick comedy. The folks at Polygon produced a tremendous video essay about this topic that I highly recommend. But the gist of it is that there’s a tangible through-line that can be traced from the 17th century commedia dell’arte performances, to television staples like The Three Stooges and Tom & Jerry, to films like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, all the way to modern video games like Doom 2016 and, presumably, the upcoming Doom Eternal. The gore crosses the line of good taste with such confidence that its absurd, visceral, and comedic intent comes across clearly.
With the first ghoul down and your character freeing himself from the shackles of this stone imprisonment, you stumble off of the slate, fall to the ground, and immediately pick up a gun. Doom 2016 is likely in contention for the quickest TTS — time to shooting — which pretty much means how long it takes for a game primarily about shooting to actually let you commence with the shooting. Less than 20 seconds after being encouraged by the disembodied voice to rip and tear, you’re allowed to do just that, effectively setting the tone of exactly what kind of shooter experience you’re in for over the next 12 hours or so.
I love the small details here, like how after you dispense with the first handful of innocuous enemies, your character inspects his gun, giving it his silent seal of approval. This is just the first of many amazing bespoke animations that you’ll witness from your first-person vantage point. Doomguy isn’t a technological whiz, so you’ll often find yourself punching computer terminals, kicking apart important-looking components, and generally just being about as delicate as an elephant performing surgery. Again, all of this stems from the game’s immediate mission statement, and it never strays from that focus until you roll credits.
After dispatching your first few enemies, the lighting and level geometry point your gaze straight towards the altar of your Praetor Suit. Reuniting with that familiar green armor is treated as a religious experience, and in a world where it’s the only thing between you and the literal spawn of hell, it’s hard to remain an atheist. Once you get yourself back into those 1993 digs, your character points his attention to a computer terminal that screams “DEMONIC INVASION IN PROGRESS” in big bold letters. Again, this sort of brevity is so effective in driving the forward momentum of the game right from the start.
The final key component of this wonderful opening comes just around the next corner. As a new wave of ghouls shuffles its way towards you, the game introduces the true meaning of rip and tear, as a staggered enemy is able to be completely eviscerated with a single button press. Like Steve Rogers nonchalantly snapping a log in half in Captain America: Civil War, the ease at which you follow your instructions to rip and tear is absurd and satisfying in the best possible way. Again, the near-cartoonish take on carnage is displayed right in front of you, as enemies pop like piñatas filled with health and ammunition.
In the span of 60 seconds, Doom 2016 clearly and concisely introduces you, your situation, your obstacles, and the means in which you’re going to overcome those obstacles. Sure, you build up a larger arsenal along the way, acquire the means to upgrade your skills, and fight an increasingly deadly horde of creatures, but the essence of the game is presented confidently without an ounce of fat that needs trimming.
The closest analogue I can find to this opening is, quite fittingly, the original 1993 Doom. Being dropped into the middle of the iconic E1M1: Hangar map with your handgun pointed directly towards a slew of enemies is all that was needed for an entire genre to go from zero to sixty, no questions asked. And that flame was passed on throughout the decades, providing the torch to light the essence of Doom 2016’s remarkable opening.