Doom is the most influential shooter ever, but on the 20th anniversary of its release Patrick Lindsey looks at what today’s shooters haven’t learned from it.
Doom turns 20 today. Despite its age, it remains one of the most fascinating first-person shooters in a market that could charitably be described as “oversaturated.” Unfortunately, much of what sets Doom apart has been forgotten and moved away from in the genre’s recent years, rather than expanded upon. Doom managed to hit upon just the right confluence of factors that combined in an incredibly specific way, emphasizing movement and mood over force-feeding a narrative, in order to reach a sort of pinnacle “FPS-ness” that we really haven’t seen since.
So much of what set Doom apart was its engine, and the mind-numbingly efficient way it was put to use. While Wolfenstein 3D (Doom’s closest relative, both qualitatively as a stylistically analogous first-person shooter, and proximally as id Software’s immediately preceding project) is a game of right angles and flat perpendicularities, Doom’s engine allowed for non-orthogonal level design, differences in elevation, dynamic lighting and distinct indoor/outdoor environments. The stark institutional feel of Wolfenstein 3D’s levels worked for that game’s “escape from the army base” premise, but the cyber-horror Doom revels in the flexibility of its engine. Its levels comprise a geometric panoply of shapes and angles, including things like staircases, elevators, balconies and an entire level shaped like a pentagram.
This was as much a design achievement as it was a technical one, enhancing the game’s mood through its unusual and surreal architecture. The sharp corners and awkward angles become a part of the characterization of the levels themselves. Doom is a narratively lightweight game, with no cut-scenes or dialogue to establish things like tone or character motivation. Instead, it uses its level design to make players feel unsettled more directly. Its levels are labyrinths of jagged angles, blackout lighting, secret passages and disorienting trips through teleporters. The bizarre alien architecture is meant to be unfamiliar and unwelcoming, a constant reminder of the danger around every sharp-angled corner.
Doom stands out from its more recent descendants in that it is utterly unpretentious. Games like Bioshock or Call of Duty attempt to situate their shooting within a conventional narrative structure. But trying to use standard shooter mechanics to tell a story or to Say Something is like trying to use a screwdriver to change a lightbulb—it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. The mechanics of Doom (and, by extension, virtually every first person shooter since) were designed solely to support not a narrative, but action. This leads to an inevitable tension between the levels being “fun”, and the levels having to make at least some kind of narrative “sense”.
Unlike its modern-day counterparts, Doom makes no such concessions, refusing to trouble itself with whether or not it makes sense for this hallway to go off in that direction or stopping to ask why the protagonist can run 30 mph. While its levels are at least ostensibly based on real-world locations (e.g., “Hangar,” “Nuclear Plant,” etc.), the resemblance is applied with a wink and a nudge; the tension between form and function suggests that, short of a hard-and-fast narrative setting, the game’s locations aren’t rooted in any sort of real-world consistency, meant to provide little more than context for the action.
Instead of chaining itself to the linear whims of standard narrative conventions, Doom focuses on freaking players out with nonsensical architecture and threatening, foreboding level layouts replete with mazes, slime pits and teleporters. This is not to say, however, that Doom is entirely without a narrative. Though it lacks cutscenes, dialogue or a protagonist with name, there is nevertheless a common thread that ties Doom together, transforming it from a smattering of random shooter levels to a game with a sense of consistency.
The secret is that Doom is not actually about the shooting. Released in the days before crosshairs, location-specific damage, precise aiming or the ability to look up, the shooting is not challenging in and of itself. Instead, Doom centers its obstacles not on shooting, but on movement. In an engine where precision aim is impossible (not until Quake does that problem get solved), shooting needed to be as simplified as possible. Aiming in Doom is comparatively very forgiving to prevent the game from being needlessly frustrating.
The challenge, then, is not shooting your enemies, but surviving long enough to be able to do so. Doom’s protagonist is one of the most mobile of any first-person shooter, because he was designed specifically to be able to move quickly and with precision. Unlike most other genre entries which emphasize cover and precision aim, Doom places the emphasis on dodging, strafing and moving around the game’s jagged architecture.
To be good at Doom is to be good at moving within Doom. Players encounter, for the genre, a huge variety of enemies across its three episodes, all of whom move, attack, shoot, spit fire and fly in different ways. While modern shooters recycle the same two or three basic enemy types, bestowing a select few with heavier armor requiring stronger guns, Doom’s anemic-by-comparison arsenal (six guns in the entire game, compared to the spreadsheet crunching required by games like Call of Duty and Battlefield) rewards not metagaming and compulsive optimization, but instead player skill and a fluency in the language of the engine’s movement.
While modern first-person shooters incorporate atmosphere into their design, it’s always for the purpose of serving a narrative. It’s not enough for Bioshock’s Rapture to be creepy; it has to be creepy so that it can make a point about Objectivism. Doom doesn’t need audiologs to be unsettling, and it sure as hell doesn’t need dialogue to motivate players to keep going. Rather than interrupt the action every 17 minutes to shotgun exposition into your face, breaking that ever-important mood, Doom chooses to “show-not-tell” by walking you through increasingly disturbing locations crowded with increasingly inhuman monsters, culminating in you ultimately passing into (actual) Hell like a bizarre inversion of the Divine Comedy.
In the 20 years since its release, we’ve gotten sharper graphics, better AI and larger gameworlds to explore. What we haven’t gotten in that time is another game like Doom. Though first-person shooters are perhaps more prominent now than ever, the newish focus on narrative relevance and thematic weight has been steering the genre away from the formula that Doom so perfectly crystallized back in 1993. To be sure, I’m as big a proponent of developing narrative in the videogame medium as you are likely to find. That said, Doom excels above not only its contemporaries, but also its descendants not because of what it does but because of what it doesn’t do. Rather than overstepping its mechanical bounds and trying to integrate a narrative that is discordant with its central mechanical design, Doom prides itself on being unashamedly exactly what it portrays itself to be: a game about killing lots of things, and making it fun every step of the way.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.