“Story in a game is like story in a porn movie; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
John Carmack is famously quoted as saying this in the book Masters of Doom, by David Kushner. It’s not dated, specifically, but one can infer it happened in about 1992, about a year before the commercial release of DOOM. The game would revolutionize the shooter genre and be a staple of gaming history for decades to come. 1992 was also the year of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, commonly referred to as the Earth Summit.
The Earth Summit is notable for, among other things, ratifying the Climate Change Convention, a multinational agreement built to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The Climate Change Convention also laid the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol, one of the most direct environmentally-focused global treaties of the 20th century. 1992 was a big year for state and corporate powers to recognize the threats of climate change.
Story, for young developer Carmack, was unimportant. 1993’s DOOM was to be a game of action, shooting and gore. On release, the game became a breakout hit, changing the face of games and the world, but it was hardly a story powerhouse. Levels led to other levels via elevators and boss battles. What little story was there was strung together by combat progression.
Twenty-three years later, a Carmack-less Id Software would develop and release a soft reboot for the DOOM series, 2016’s simply-titled DOOM. 2016’s DOOM, however, had something 1993’s did not: it had story.
Or, to be more precise, it had more of a story. It wasn’t exactly a game chock-full of dialogue or anything like that, but it had a flavor to its characters and world that didn’t exist in the 1993 original. The Doom Slayer was no longer an emotionless avatar for the player—he did things of his own volition. He wrecked things, mostly, but he did it with style. He had a history and personality. When the Doom Slayer was resurrected to quell the demon uprising on a UAC Mars base, he did it, but he made sure to do it by his own rules.
2016’s DOOM put the Doom Slayer in the reluctant employ of Samuel Hayden, the chairman of the Union Aerospace Corporation. The base on Mars within which the majority of the game takes place in is a resource extraction facility, built to pull “Argent Energy” from a portal to Hell opened by the UAC.
As you might expect, the energy demands of the base prove too much, and the energy emanating from the Hell portal begins to corrupt and wither away the workers in the base. Additionally, the portal being open leaves a pathway for demonkind to come onto the surface of Mars as well.
Things fall apart. The UAC’s meager security forces prove too ill-equipped to handle the demon hordes, and human conversion into “husks” leaves many personnel horrifically disfigured and hungry for blood. It’s classic DOOM in that sense: a whole landscape of enemies to shoot and weapons with which to shoot them.
Except this time, Hell wasn’t just a place where demons came from. It had resources. Argent energy, the MacGuffin powering the UAC base and set to eventually be shipped offworld, is a finite resource gathered from Hell. And more importantly, the continued extraction of Argent Energy is causing a massive imbalance in the demonic forces of Mars. Human use of Argent Energy is leeching from the natural cycles of Hell, and enraging the demonic inhabitants.
That’s a lot of videogame talk. Let’s jump back to our world for a moment.
It’s 2010. It’s four years since former United States Vice President Al Gore released An Inconvenient Truth, the landmark film and cultural event that would become a buzzword whenever environmentalism is brought up in the early 21st century. It’s six years before DOOM will return, and six years after the release of the critically mixed DOOM 3.
It is a cool April evening when the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon suffers an explosion, caused by multiple safety protocols not being met or not being reported by the corporations employing the crew. The explosion takes the lives of eleven laborers on the rig and in the days to come will begin the timeline of the greatest environmental disaster in United States history. The offshore oil spill’s effects will still be felt seven years later, and over fifty-four billion dollars in cleanup efforts and legal fines will be expended on the disaster.
The oil spills of our world are a consequence of an overextraction of a finite resource. The profit drive of large corporations is often directly or indirectly a motive to look the other way on safety protocols, in the pursuit of higher profit flowing upwards. The UAC of 2016’s DOOM is an amplified caricature of this behavior. In 2016’s release, the UAC is a merciless and arcane conglomerate, as invested in “employee wellness” as it is in harvesting the energies of Hell for human usage. It’s a satire, obviously, but it’s a good one—in that it’s based in truth.
The UAC of DOOM is a harsh criticism of feel-good corporate culture, but also of the material actions of corporations on the environment. It’s the specific greed of the UAC, coupled with a relentless lack of care for the environments it colonizes and sucks dry, that causes the demon invasion of Mars. The parallels are hard to miss.
The Deepwater Horizon tragedy is not an isolated case. Oil spills, ruptured pipelines and fracking byproducts are relatively common, and while most are gratefully not as dangerous as Deepwater Horizon, their root causes are often quite similar. These disasters are, indirectly or directly, a consequence of a world economy and world powers more interested in maintaining a reliance on finite resources than moving toward more stable alternatives.
In a 2017 Polygon article, DOOM creative director Hugo Martin said, simply, “You don’t want to be the team that fucks up DOOM.” Critically and in a popular sense, they didn’t fuck up DOOM. They added something to DOOM, something even its original creators disavowed at its inception—a setting, defined characters and a story with surprising real-world relevance.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.