Retro Review: Doom (1993), or, Why the Blood’s Still Pumping
Doom is speed. A flawless congruence of the rhythm of corridors with the twitch reactions to enemy movement patterns. It’s delicious gore. A sinewy shotgun hole of precision action. It’s not the best game ever made. But it may be the best at making you feel guilty about being pleasured by it.
Games from 1993 should be slower and safer than Doom. The game that shocked a generation of gamers into maturity is still a graphical marvel: how do 2D sprites still manage to be horrific, to simulate 3D movement, to catch me off-guard after 24 years?
Space is a good place to start. Doom is a masterclass in spacing. Corridors meet one another in a way so efficient that you can slide through a level in a minute, but hide so much intricate patterning that you can get lost in them for hours.
You’ll breeze through the first level to discover a 0% completion on the secrets. Repeated play opens Doom up to you on any of its five difficulties. The expansions offer enough play between the first game and its sequel to last you the decades since Doom has existed. But why does Doom still feel like it’s the bones of an industry that’s now a fully-formed demon of flesh and splatter?
One of the reasons is that we emulate it so often. Wolfenstein 3D might have preceded it but Doom qualified what we call an FPS, the movement of it, the gutsy precision of it all. And both of these were instrumental in popularizing the shareware formula, which we’ve curiously gone back to on the console and PC networks like there was no home console generation between.
Shareware was free software, like a ROM that the company hoped you would give to your friends, copy, share, and distribute for them in the days before the Internet. The Shareware version of a game would include one set of levels, or one world, and it would end with a phone and fax number for you to call and receive your full version. It wasn’t like a game demo – in fact, most of us only know the shareware versions of these games by Id (Doom, Wolfenstein) and Apogee (Commander Keen, Raptor: Call of the Shadows). The hefty prices attached to the full ones weren’t feasible without mommy’s credit card.
This is a business model that, ironically, the incredible distributive power of the internet has made viable again. Whereas before it was how developers turned gamers into their own middle men, now the widespread availability of software can be mitigated with the same episodic model. TellTale for instance releases games a chapter at a time, keeping people interested, buying separately, and continuously investing. DLC content is a similar result of the same pattern. The point, at least as it should be, isn’t to chinse you by selling half a game. The real point from a business standpoint is to generate new content without going through the development hassle of creating and testing a new IP.
A lot of the cynical sales tactics in the modern games industry can be blamed on this period of manual distribution, and much of that period can in turn be pinned on Doom’s bloody meat-hook. But as a result of shareware, I actually never played beyond the first world of Doom until recently. So it’s fresh on my mind and in my gut. Did you know you play Doom half with your gut?
Doom is a scary game. It doesn’t have a lot of the cinematics of scary (though the lights jolt off sometimes and the monsters are generally themed demonic). It has a scariness of rhythm, the fear of running into a demon when your health can’t take it, of turning a corner and being outmatched. Sometimes you have to juggle yourself between cover, switching guns, waiting for the AI to find you. Sometimes you have to send yourself through a maze of hard corners and open mouths. Sometimes you have to die.
It’s a hard game, even on rational difficulty levels. And what I’ve described could be applied to a lot of shooters, modern and remote. But none do it like Doom.
The swift and sensible levels are more addicting to me than the vast open playgrounds that succeeded them. The light puzzle touches are enough to control progress through the labyrinth without making things too obscure or promoting backtracking too much. Doom is a clever balance between method and manic. You want to take your time with situations you hope will devolve into multi-room messes with hellspawn coming out of the corners and demon terrorists close enough to be inside you. You want to get hurt and fail and bruise and bleed. And triumph.
Doom thinks of you as its best sadomasochist, its first-string fellow torturer. It wants you to hit it in the jaw and destroy it and rebuild it and be beaten by it and beat it again. It has a vibrant humor that Quake can’t find in all the brown, and also a gravity Duke Nukem 3D threw away with the condoms. It possesses the allure unique to simple things, like the software equivalent of a sparring partner. The new Doom understands its ancestor very well, and as much as it seems like a fresh breath into new and innovative horizons of FPS excitement, it’s more classic than inventive. Its greatness is total old hat. And I’d wear it anytime.