DOOM: from here to eternity with a detour into hell

Remembering the most influential videogame in PC history

No list of the greatest PC games is complete without Doom, the classic 1993 first-person shooter with revolutionary 3D graphics. In the second installment of retrogaming for this blog, I picked up my pixelated shotgun and navigated through Doom’s nightmarish landscapes to remember just why this game was so damn good… and so damn controversial.

My first encounter with Doom must have come sometime around 1994, shortly after I made the jump from console to PC gaming. My mother had thankfully spoiled me with a brand new 486DX-50 which was as close to top of the line at the time as an eager, 15-year old could want. One of the early gems in this new life as a PC gamer was Wolfenstein 3D, the delightfully campy Nazi-killing slug-fest that was one of the first true first-person shooters, at least one that was played in full screen and fast pace, something that at the time required the type of processing power that only a top of the line PCs could provide. Wolfenstein 3D was a bit repetitive but maddeningly fun, as you rampaged your way through Nazi bunkers adorned with swastikas and Hitler portraits while killing Wehrmacht grunts, SS officers, zombies, mad scientists, and even Der Führer himself in a mech-suit. The violence was also over the top, offering blood and guts on a scale that Nintendo at the time would not dare come remotely close to.

It was then that my neighbor (also an avid Wolfenstein fan) told me that another kid on the block had a new game he wanted to show us. “Better than Wolfenstein”. A cynic even in my teenage years, I would not be convinced until I saw it for myself. But when I did, my jaw dropped. As great looking as Wolfenstein was by late DOS-era standards, Doom was a quantum leap ahead. Rooms were decorated in complex techno-futuristic textures, lighting was used to create an atmosphere of ever-present terror, and the monsters were just so much scarier: I still remember jumping the first time a “Pinky” Demon appeared out of nowhere, it’s now iconic growl forever etched into my gaming consciousness. The game also did a wonderful job of prepping you for danger, such as by the subtle hisses and cackling of enemies (particularly the ever-present Imps) whenever they were lurking around the corner. To top it off, Doom was dripping with macho bravado by taunting you when you tried to quit (“go ahead and leave, see if I care”), challenging your manhood with the labels of the easier difficulty levels (“Hey, not too rough”), or by sublime touches like your character’s devilish grin whenever you picked up a new weapon. The 90s were all about the ‘tude, and Doom was the 800-pound gorilla.

Boom! Headshot. The trusty shotgun always got you out of trouble.

Death metal turned videogame

Even though Wolfenstein didn’t skimp on the gore, Doom was an absolute bloodbath in comparison. Rocket hits would make enemies explode into chunks of flesh and bone. Carcasses of dead enemies would riddle the floors, never disappearing after a few seconds as they did in most other videogames. The more hellish creatures found in the later levels would have blue or green innards spill out after going down. Only the primitive detailing of its 320×200 VGA graphics tempered what was undoubtedly the bloodiest videogame of its time. Your weapons were also a repertoire of badassery, going from obscenely gratifying shotguns and miniguns to more futuristic armaments such as plasma rifles and the “Big Fucking Gun” (officially BFG9000 but who ever called it that?). One weapon was even a chainsaw, letting you unleash your inner Bruce Campbell, but which aside from the shock value was actually quite useful for mowing down enemies in close quarters and narrow confines. With skill you could also use enemies against themselves: monsters that accidentally attacked each other would duke it out, leading to some amusing CPU vs CPU confrontations.

These Imps and Pinky Demons are one second away from a date with the BFG.

But it wasn’t just the violence that would have prudish, god-fearing parents despair over their children’s mental and emotional sanity. The game was also unabashedly satanic, the plot being based around an invasion by Hell’s minions on Mars’s two moon bases. While the first episode showed only glimpses of Hell’s takeover, the second episode ramped it up with giant green slabs carved with demonic iconography, inverted crosses, and fiery pentagrams, all of this mixed in with the usual fare of impaled bodies on stakes (still twitching, of course) and other assorted mutilations and dismemberments to liven up the background. The third episode, taking place in Hell itself, would be even more memorable. As if taking the cue from the most morbid death metal album covers ever made, these missions would feature organic, intestinal-like textures, walls decorated with pustules, scabs, vertebrae, or even stretched-out human faces, rivers of blood, and no shortage of further demonic visuals. Enemies like the Barons of Hell and the Cyberdemon (bosses of the first two episodes respectively) were pretty much straight out of Dante’s Inferno, with some techno-futuristic touches. While this was certainly not the first game nor the last to attempt a visual representation of Hell, I still think that 25 years later nobody has managed it so well and I suspect it may have had some influence even on horror movies like the cult classic Event Horizon (1997) that also combined hellish and sci-fi environments.

This is not where I parked my car…

It wasn’t just the visuals, some of the music was clearly metal-inspired as well. The first mission’s classic score sounds like a lovechild between Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Judas Priest’s “Painkiller” adding a shot of musical adrenaline to an already high-octane game. Not all of the soundtrack was as anxiety-inducing. Some levels featured a slower, moodier score but a discerning ear could definitely pick up the metal influences in the more fast-paced tunes, notwithstanding the limitations of a MIDI synthesizer in translating Metallica or Slayer riffs. Unfortunately, much of it was drowned out by the endless cocking and shooting of your shotgun coupled with the roars of dying enemies. Given the realism of the sound effects, this was hardly a loss. But by the standards of Sound Blaster 16 sound cards, Doom was definitely a delight to the ears as much as it was to the eyes and I struggle to think of any other PC game that would be so easily recognizable merely by listening to just a few seconds of it.

As much as Doom mesmerized our senses, none of this would have meant anything if the game itself wasn’t so insanely fun. Props have to be given to the level designers who constructed some epic missions full of maze-like corridors, large open spaces, traps and secret areas, pools of lava or green radioactive waste and many other elements to ruin your day. This was all the more impressive considering that the game wasn’t truly 3D: it was a 2D world with different floor, ceiling, and wall heights that fooled us into thinking that it was actually three dimensions (the fact that you couldn’t aim your gun vertically and that there weren’t any bridges to run under were giveways). The levels were also not straight forward. You usually had to find one or more colored keys (or skulls) that opened certain doors, and which often required extensive backtracking to reach previously unreachable sections. My favorite level, episode three’s masochistic “Slough of Despair”, is shaped like a glove, with the palm being a craggy open space infested by enemies and the fingers featuring even nastier monsters behind walls, all the while you are perennially short of ammo and have nowhere to hide.  Even though it is only the second mission in that episode, it is widely considered to be the game’s most difficult. You never forget it.

The birth of modding

Doom not only revolutionized gaming: it also revolutionized how games were distributed as well as fans’ involvement in them. Rather than being sold in stores, Doom took advantage of the burgeoning pre-internet online communities of local bulletin-board servers and its first episode was available for free for download, a distribution system known as “shareware” that became quite popular in the 1990s. Players would then have to pay for the additional two episodes, and who in their right minds wouldn’t do so after getting hooked on the first? Doom wasn’t the first game to resort to the shareware model (Wolfenstein did too), but it was arguably the first PC mega-hit to do so, paving the way for non-traditional methods of distribution away from retail outlets and directly to players. The internet, coupled with the wider availability of broadband by the turn of the millennium, would take this even further to the point that hardly any PC game is now sold in stores. There’s a case to be made that this has disempowered players in the long run now that most games are bought and played via some type of digital rights management platform like Steam: what will happen to your game collection if Valve goes bankrupt? Still, you can’t fault id Software for breaking new ground, and making it easier for smaller developers to compete against the big boys.

Yeah the first episode is great but why miss out on a trip to Hell?

The game also allowed itself to be extensively modified. Fans could make their own maps and even modify the game’s sprites, producing some amusing mods (known as “wads” due to their file extension) such as ones where the monsters are replaced by Super Mario Bros. or Ghostbusters characters. The whole concept of fan-created mods has since become such a standard feature of most games that it’s important to remember that this was a phenomenon that was largely introduced in Doom thanks to the commitment by its developers to let fans unleash their own creative spirits into their games. I still have fond memories of “deathmatching” with a friend via modem on a wad known as Ledges, which had an open central arena with numerous ledges spiraling around it. Watching him succumb to a perfectly timed rocket shot from across a ledge is still one of the greatest delights of any game I’ve played (less so when I was on the receiving end), and a one-on-one chainsaw battle in the arena would add necessary closure before one of our respective family members demanded to use the phone – such was life before broadband. I presume that for most people in my generation, this was our first experience with online gaming and the fact that you could play against someone not in the same room was a real glimpse into what the future had in store.

Of course, a game like Doom would not come without controversy. Some of it was amusing, such as its proliferation in workplaces which led to many companies’ networks grinding to a halt once its employees began deathmatching at lunch. id Software itself bragged before the game’s release that it would be “the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world”. But some of the controversy was much more serious. Doom was one of the main targets of US parental (i.e. religious) campaigns against violent videogames in the 1990s and was also banned in some countries, notably Germany (the ban was finally lifted in 2011). Concerns over the game’s bloody nature took an added dimension after the 1999 Columbine massacre where it was revealed that the two teenage killers were avid Doom players and were even rumored to have “practiced” the massacre on a level made with the layout of their high school though this proved to be untrue. The inherently violent potential of the first-person shooter compared to other game genres would also usher in countless “Doom clones” that would attempt to cash in on its shock value such as Duke Nukem 3D (1996) which added a sexual element in the form of flashing strippers that you could offer money to… or shoot.

You probably weren’t playing this in Sunday school.

But despite this, the first-person shooter would outlive the controversy. Sequels to Doom would follow and id Software scored another hit in 1996 with its spinoff, Quake, which traded Doom’s sci-fi horror atmosphere for a medieval/industrial look with Lovecraftian influences. Quake featured music composed by none other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and took deathmatching to whole new level of popularity, ushering in the era where playing against humans would be more important than against the CPU. Equally important, it was one of the first games to take advantage of then-new 3D graphics accelerators, which offered beautiful, photo-realistic backgrounds rather than the pixelated textures of its predecessors. A quarter century later, virtually every videogame genre is now in first-person, adding a level of realism and immersion that simply would be impossible otherwise and which will only be superseded by virtual reality. It’s no surprise therefore that John Carmack, id Software’s co-founder and brains behind the company’s revolutionary graphics engines, is now the CTO of Facebook’s virtual reality firm, Occulus VR.

An enduring franchise

The critical success of Doom’s 2016 reboot, which I confess only got around to playing just now, also shows that the franchise is still going strong after all these years, though its popularity has tended to wax and wane. The original Doom, first released in 1993, was followed almost immediately by Doom II: Hell on Earth in 1994, which felt more like an expansion rather than a sequel albeit one that cranked up the difficulty and added a slew of new monsters, some of which are now mainstays in the franchise like the hideously obese Mancubus (with by far the most gruesome death animation of all) and the skeletal, rocket-shooting Revenant. The game also featured a memorable final boss in the form of the Icon of Sin, a gigantic goat-like demon head. A number of further extensions to both games (with fan-created levels) came out later but added little to the overall gameplay aside from some obscene difficulty levels in the new missions: it took 19 years before someone won The Plutonia Experiment, an expansion of Doom II, in a speedrun on “Nightmare” difficulty.  That vibrant speedrun and modding communities still exist a quarter century later is testament to the longevity of these DOS-era classics, and there’s probably enough fan-created content to play for a lifetime.

Doom II didn’t add much to the original, but the Icon of Sin was epic.

Almost a decade would have to wait before Doom 3 (more of a reboot rather than a continuation of the plotline) was released in 2004, which had the misfortune of coming out the same year as Half-Life 2, another legendary first-person shooter which is considered one of the greatest PC games of all time. Doom 3 was an excellent game in itself, and its visuals (particularly its lighting) were phenomenal at a time when 3D graphics cards were giving PC games a quantum leap in realism. But it lacked the plot, gameplay, and level design of its rival. It also had a number of survival-horror characteristics which made the gameplay less fast paced than the original as well as annoyances like the constant spawning of enemies out of the blue and not being able to use a flashlight and a weapon at the same time. The 2016 reboot, however, returned to the original’s action-packed intensity, with sprawling levels and massive arena battles against endless swarms of enemies that brought the keep-running-or-you-die dynamic of multiplayer into the single-player campaign. Its sequel, Doom Eternal, has also recently been released to rave reviews. In short, the franchise is probably enjoying its greatest popularity and critical success since the original was being played in millions of houses and offices (while the boss wasn’t looking) around the world in the mid-90s.

In the end, it is the explosive, visceral gameplay that got us hooked on Doom. But it was its dimly-lit moon base corridors and gruesome, satanic hellscapes that scarred it into our memory. Doom isn’t just inspired by death metal, it *is* death metal. It is a sci-fi horror movie come to life, on an epic scale which even the most ambitious and well-funded Hollywood director has not yet attempted. It is proof that videogames aren’t just entertainment. They can be art. But this philosophizing is only possible while my mouse is clicking at Word icons, rather than circle-strafing a legion of Imps while Cacodemons and Barons of Hell rain fire on me from a distance. In those circumstances there is only one thought in my head:

Survive.

Fun fact: Using the “noclip” cheat in Doom II that allowed you to walk across walls, you would walk inside the Icon of Sin to see id Software co-founder John Romero’s head impaled on a stake. This is one of the most well-known Easter eggs in PC gaming. Also, the demonic sound clip heard when you first entered the room with the Icon of Sin was Romero saying backward “to win the game you must defeat me, John Romero”, a nice swipe at the religious fearmongering of the 1990s over certain rock and metal songs having supposed satanic messages if played in reverse.

Screenshots from Doom and Doom II all taken by myself and played via DOSBox.

Don’t worry, in Doom II you avenge your pet rabbit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *