The original Doom games were much more interesting than their sequels and the games influenced by their design would suggest.
This story was updated on May 18, 2015
The color palette was rich, filled with deep greens and reds, bright blues and the beginnings of the brown-and-gray aesthetic that would be popularized in Quake and has since ensnarled so many modern, often boring first-person shooters. The levels popped, and often reminded me of the aggressively bright coloring of early punk records.
Doom was the first game many of us felt we had to hide from our parents; it felt like something that was better kept in our sock drawer, next to the dog-eared copies of pornographic magazines. The game was fast-paced and bloody, but more than that it was legitimately shocking for the time. Bodies hung from the ceiling, and gore pulsed and moved behind the walls.
There were satanic symbols on the walls, and the expected aesthetics of space stations were subverted to reflect the otherworldly enemies that hunted you down. It was a game of arcane magic and brute force, and it still looks and plays like little else on the market.
"There's an unexpected edge to Doom that you don't get in other corridor-walker games, a real sense that each space you pass through has a personality and a use. Oftentimes, you don't immediately understand what that use is, which adds a strangeness sorely missing from the genre," John D'Amico wrote in a great look at the game's visuals and design in comparison to the 2005 film. "We can't have another 30 years of low-res xeroxes of Aliens," he pleads when discussing the possibility of another Doom film.
The rebooted franchise
Bethesda has done an admirable job of keeping the video content of the upcoming Doom reboot shown to people at QuakeCon this year under wraps. It was a treat for the people in the room that wasn't meant for wider consumption, at least not yet. Cameras and phones were apparently confiscated before the presentation, and there hasn't been any leaks of the content that I've seen.
But the content shown sounds interesting. The game is running on id Tech 6, a new iteration of the engine that fueled the much-better-than-expected Wolfenstein reboot, and it's being reported that the game will focus on fast-paced, brutal combat. You won't run and hide to refresh your health, and you'll be able to carry every weapon at once. It sounds like a classic Doom running on modern technology, with everything that entails.
Doom succeeded not only because the alien nature of its level design and visuals, but because it threw enemies at you. The landscape would shift, spewing demons at you; or monsters would simply teleport in to try to overwhelm you. The rhythm of firing the shotgun and waiting for the reloading animation to cycle provided a sort of atonal musical quality to the play; you began to feel the beats of the action as you avoided the enemy's projectiles and unloaded your weapons at them.
Modern games push for beautifully rendered, brawny characters in first-person shooters, and it's rare to see more than a few on the screen at any given time; you almost never feel overwhelmed by the number of your adversaries. The pendulum doesn't often swing back in the other direction; the last example I can think of would be the latest Serious Sam title. Creating waves of enemies that attack in an interesting way, forcing the player to think both quickly and strategically, is a skill lost to many designers outside of the world of 2D shooters. It would be great to see id take a crack at this style of play again.
The original Doom titles also encouraged exploration, which is an aspect of their design that is often overlooked when people sneer at the simplistic "find a key card" style of these games. You had to look all over to find that damned key card, and this is a long way from the heavily-scripted and linear hallways of most modern shooters. Once again, the modern Wolfenstein title played with this a bit in its level design, often rewarding players who combed over every bit of the level with secrets and hard to find areas.
Rewarding not only bravery but the sort of compulsion that leads players to search everywhere and find everything was a large part of what made Doom so interesting, and walking into traps as you tried to find a way to get to an area you could see but not easily reach led to some of the most memorable moments in the game. These things feel like an anachronism now, and it's hard to show them off in a short teaser, but we can only hope the same flavor will be found in this upcoming game.
Yes, more violence please
It's OK to note when violence makes you uncomfortable, or doesn't fit the tone of the game you're playing, but Doom is a series where the violence should make you squirm. It's a world where the enemies come from the other side of some dark reality, a mixture of an alternate dimension and a Christian understanding of hell.
The mixture of organic tissue and mechanical design makes it look like these things were torn apart and put back together by something unholy, and they want to do the same to you. If you want to see a movie version of this sort of body horror you're better off watching Event Horizon or a David Cronenberg film rather than the bland Hollywood version of Doom.
There is no way to really overdo the violence and gore of a Doom title, since anything that makes the player uncomfortable or pushes those boundaries could be seen as tonally consistent. The gore shown during the Quake Con demonstration turned people's stomachs, and it was celebrated for doing so. Doom is a game that has always pushed these buttons; there's no reason to stop now.
Doom 3 was an interesting game for the time, and it remains enjoyable, but it never recaptured what made the genesis of the series genre-defining. There were too few enemies, and too much focus on tension instead of outright horror. It was all build-up with often disappointing payoffs.
It's important to remember why Doom made such an impression, and I hope that the new game moves back towards those interesting, uncomfortable ideals. The industry will be better, and weirder, for it.