What’s the point of nostalgia? I’m not asking why we put so much stock into it, but why it exists. When we feel nostalgic about something, are we just reminiscing about the time in our lives we encountered it, or are we appreciating a uniquely great thing we wish could have more of?
In the case of the Doom series, it’s almost certainly the latter. Released in 1993, the original Doom (referred to hereafter in lower case to differentiate from the new game) was not the first first-person shooter, but it was the first-person shooter. It popularized the form and spawned hundreds of imitators (before the genre was known as “first-person shooter,” it was “Doom clone”), but what’s always been interesting to me is how no one since the release of Doom II (I’m referring to both games as “Doom” since they’re essentially the same game) in 1994 has ever really been able to replicate the precise gameplay that launched the first two games into the stratosphere. For a game simple enough in plot to be called “pure” (there are demons, and you have to kill them), no one ever seems to fully understand what makes Doom so good.
Firstly, Doom is fast. Blindingly so. Since it came out a little before the advent of looking up or down, the concept of “aiming” is essentially non-existent. Most of the guns are hitscan, meaning they hit their target as soon as they’re fired. Yet, Doom remains an immensely challenging game by embracing the one thing basically no shooter since has even attempted: pure, kinetic, propulsive speed. The only way to survive against a frankly preposterous amount of enemies is to move your ass. It’s probably the first game to widely be speed-run by players. There’s such an immediacy to combat, a propulsiveness to moving and shooting and running for your life that is almost immediately fresh and unique, even today. Especially today.
Doom is also, as you may know, almost frighteningly violent, and yet Doom is generally considered a lighthearted game. This is for several reasons, chief among them that it’s just incredibly colorful and vibrant looking. Doom pops off the screen. It captures the attention immediately. It never once tries to be realistic or brutal for its own sake. The character designs are as idiosyncratic as they are varied. Making them fight one another is a tricky beast, but can lead to incredibly satisfying results.
The level designs are labyrinthine and filled with secrets. The first easter eggs in gaming, really. Doom has no story, outside of the barest possible exposition just to keep things moving. If you slow down, you die. Paradoxically, once the shooting is done, you can’t do anything but slow down, searching for secrets and keycards and hidden rooms. Doom’s gameplay pacing is astutely tuned, equal parts deadly dance routine and glacial trophy hunt. It exists on the razor’s edge of balancing, a tightrope act of game design so audacious and difficult that doing it in the first place must have been accidental.
Doom’s music is, without hyperbole, as good as anything the medium has yet produced. It captures the tone the game is going for, as if 80s metal was filtered through Saturday morning cartoons, perfectly. You can’t help but run and gun. Perhaps the biggest (and subtlest) reason Doom was so successful is that it is completely without pretension. There being no discernable plot means that that plot never feels ponderous or bloated. It’s not preachy in the staggeringly heavy-handed way later games will get. The Doom Marine never talks. He never has to. His is not to reason why, his is but to kill demons and die. I say this not to demean games that take themselves more seriously than Doom did — pretentiousness is the only way an art form can grow and mature. Doom is the perfect example of form following function in gaming, save perhaps the original run of Super Mario games. It’s supposed to be a game where you shoot demons, therefore everything about it was designed for optimal demon-shooting. This efficiency of form is wholly refreshing to see playing Doom in 2016, just as it was in 1993.
Other shooters have to be referred to with modifiers. “The thinking man’s shooter.” “The new breed of shooter.” “The funny shooter.” Doom is the only one that can be referred to as the shooter. Going forward, most major shooters were defined by how they related to Doom. Star Wars: Dark Forces has arguably come closest since to replicating the manic sensibilities and frantic triumphs of the classic Dooms, while also making a striking amount of innovations in its own right (that bit about looking up and down I mentioned: Dark Forces did that first, as well as allowing for ducking and jumping, two more fundamental shooter facets).
Duke Nukem 3D borrowed Doom’s basic level design and transplanted it into a more vertical, puzzle-oriented space while also providing gaming with one of its first icons in the eponymous Duke. Yet, there’s something grating about how that game presents itself. It’s too in on the joke, especially when Duke finds a dead Doom Marine and can’t help but joke about it. The Doom Marine never responds. He never has to. His form is pure, his place at the top of the food chain unquestioned.
Moving forward, games like Half-Life, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and Halo: Combat Evolved thoroughly redefined the scope, cinematic capability and gameplay functionality of the first person shooter, and “Doom clones” simply became “FPS” games. As it stands, no game has ever fully recaptured Doom’s speed, Doom’s innocence, or Doom’s sense of purpose.
Until DOOM, which was released last Friday. After a disappointingly orthodox pseudo-sequel in 2004’s Doom 3, most of the game’s original creation team was jettisoned, off to do other things. This new game, originally “Doom 4,” was stuck in development hell for roughly a decade, scrapped at one point for again being too like the new breed of shooter, with regenerating health, more linear level design and slower-paced battles. These are things that, in the right sort of game, I love and respect. These things are definitively not Doom.
It s to my absolute joy that the new DOOM is those things in abundance. It’s fast; it’s relentless; it’s propulsive. Fittingly, given the first game’s roots in 80s metal, it repeats the same general beats (get locked in a room with a bunch of demons, kill them) over and over again, with more tempo and technical flair and seemingly insurmountable odds to overcome. When you win, you wander around huge, labyrinthine levels only really navigable by map (remember when first-person games had maps!) and then you do it all over again. That’s pretty much it. Sure, there’s a barebones plot, but it’s not interesting. It’s not meant to be. DOOM has nothing important so say other than “killing demons is really fun.” It wants you to enjoy playing it, which, while hardly a rarity in gaming, is something I can’t recall seeing executed with such earnest straightforwardness since Doom 2.
What I appreciate the most, however, is how this game found a way to incorporate all the myraid developments in gaming in the 22 years since Doom 2 without coming off trite or forced. In the arduous 13-level trek between the besieged UAC facility on Mars and the literal depths of Hell, the Doom Marine finds all manner of weapon upgrades, permanent power-ups for his suit, and logs for the intermittently interesting in-game codex, but these things never feel tacked-on or added for modernity’s sake. Even more incredibly, the oft-maligned “Glory Kill” system is implemented less as a gimmicky add-on for shock value and more as a fundamental pillar of gameplay. Since oftentimes the easiest way to heal yourself (no regenerating health bar here) is to activate a glory kill, the best way to play is aggressively, which is as fundamentally Doom as anything else in the game. It is of course a grotesquely violent game, and if that turns you off, there’s nothing I can do for you. That being said, there’s something noble in the violence on display here. This isn’t one of those games that bemoans the necessity of having to shoot people before ordering you to shoot more people. Your enemies here are demons. The literal embodiment of evil who come from literal Hell.
The best thing I can say about DOOM is while it’s not a thoughtful game, it has certainly thought a lot about what made the originals so compelling. It’s challenging without being infuriating (with the possible exception of the three major boss battles, which are charming in how well they adhere to boss fights of old, but a little taxing). It’s exhilarating without being exhausting, though in true Doom fashion, I forced myself to stop from time to time just to unwind a bit. It’s the first truly great game I’ve played in 2016.
When people talk about seminal gaming experiences, the original Doom releases are the sort of thing they’re thinking about. There are certain game franchises that have presented themselves so uniquely as to be incredibly influential and important without being readily duplicated. Often imitated, they say. There aren’t any games like Half-Life, or Super Metroid, or The Legend of Zelda, or Metal Gear Solid. There are plenty of games that tried to be like these games, with varying levels of success, but nothing quite like them. There’s nothing like Doom except for Doom.
And it’s finally back. For real, this time. Hell yeah.