It’s taken me two years to finally sit down and play 2016’s Doom, which is bad, because it was our game of the year. Taken in the context of a lifetime playing games, this delay strikes me as odd. Back when the original Doom dominated gaming, I’d never have waited so long to play a stonking new shooter. I’d have been enjoying the carnage on release day.
When I was younger, I lapped up violent games. I played through the original Doom many times. I spent a lot of time engaging in ferocious Quake 2 contests. I loved GoldenEye and Halo. I gorged on action movies and “video nasties.” I got a buzz out of violence.
In real life, I got in lots of fights, from school playgrounds to barroom brawls. I enjoyed boxing, both as an activity and as a spectacle.
At some point, my relationship with fantasy violence — the kind of bloody mayhem that Doom represents — flipped from enthusiasm to disdain. I don’t have a problem with its existence. I just no longer enjoy the virtual experience of killing people.
Nowadays, if I see people being killed on television, I’ll sometimes go make a cup of tea or stare at my hands for a few moments. I never watch horror films at the movies.
These days I do play a few games that include violence, but the main attraction is the setting or the story. I enjoyed Battlefield 1 and Assassin’s Creed Origins because I’m attracted to carefully constructed historical settings. But all that strangling and shooting is a bit of a turn-off.
There are so many wonderful games for me to play that lack violence, or treat it from a respectful distance, that a churning farrago like Doom is easy to leave on the unplayed pile. I used to enjoy these things, but I’ve left that behind at some point between then and now.
But here’s the twist. When I finally played the new Doom, I found myself having a fine old time blowing demons to bits, chainsawing my way through monsters. While it hasn’t changed my faint disgust with gore, it’s helped me understand my feelings about violence.
Somehow, by gleefully embracing its own awfulness, Doom manages to make a comedy of a grisly serving, placing it at a distance from so many other entertainments that take their killing seriously.
There’s a direct line between the original Doom and this game that transcends the norm of fictional slaying. Both can fairly be described as video game versions of medieval “doom paintings,” which were designed to inspire horror and fright. But these paintings, with their appalling grotesques and silly contortions, strike modern viewers as comical.
The original Doom gave us splashes of 16-bit blood and crumpling cadavers, which, at the time, were viewed as extreme, at least by critics of video games such as parent watchdog groups and some politicians. But most players saw them for what they were: jolly good fun, a bit of a laugh, a cocking of snoots against the stuffy establishment.
The 2016 Doom’s diabolical rococo is crafted with loving detail. It is not enough to shoot a demon and watch it drop; we must witness its innards tumbling toward us. Monsters aren’t merely killed; they are atomized in a bloom of misty meat. This isn’t realism — it’s a spooky fantasy of cartoonish brutes, lovingly carved and sliced.
The narrative backdrop is preposterous. Heavy metal clangs. Gravelly voices growl apocalyptic prophecies. Agonized screams lilt along throbbing corridors. Demons bound across the screen, grinning insanely beneath arches of skulls. It’s impossible to take this seriously.
As I glide along a floor slick with the dismembered leavings of gurning ogres, I find it difficult to imagine a more bloody game, or a sillier one. It strikes me that this game’s embrace of extreme violence is a superb demonstration, that the appalling business of killing-as-entertainment is a vast spectrum.
Doom is a lot closer to Tom & Jerry’s antics than to the gun-happy nonsense of po-faced TV cop shows, or the nakedly gratuitous nastiness of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
It’s more like a fairground shooting range than it is a serious portrayal of death and destruction. It takes the horrible business of violent death and turns it into a caper. These mashed-up monstrosities don’t make me feel anywhere near as uncomfortable as even the tamest TV shoot-out.
Maybe that’s something that we all need from time to time. To a greater or a lesser extent, the thrill of violence is in us all, a natural lighting up of our ancient instincts. My younger self had a taste for it up close. Now I require the distance created by a stylistic dressing that renders the whole thing a self-mockery.
It’ll be a fair while before I play a game like Doom again, but I think I’ve learned a lot more by playing it than by avoiding it. It occurs to me now that I enjoy playing violent games more than I’d suspected. I like Fortnite, a game in which I try to kill as many people as possible in short order. I hadn’t previously considered it to be a violent game, partly because it looks like a cartoon, but mostly because it’s designed to not feel like a violent game. Context is everything.