I love Doom. I have the board game, the pewter models, I have read at least three full blown fan-fic novels, and I have one hidden-away-DeviantArt account dedicated to my adolescent Doom fanart. And I, just like everyone else, was blown the f*ck away when Doom 2016 didn’t suck. Despite being a massive fan, I was seriously worried about Doom 2016. Bethesda had overemphasised the multiplayer and were very sheepish about showing the singleplayer off to the public. Rage had solid gameplay but was written terribly and was otherwise a dud so that didn’t fill me with confidence. There were confirmed reports of huge internal difficulties regarding the making of Doom 4. And also, let’s not forget that John Carmack left Id software during this time as well.
So all-in-all, in 2016, just before Doom’s release, I was very pessimistic. But what we got was a fun game with a genuinely well-presented story. No, the game wasn’t a deep experience, but Id software demonstrated surprising narrative finesse when they gave us a Doom guy who smashed monitors out of impatience while listening to a mad-scientist monologue and went out of his way to back-up a certain AI friend just because it was the right thing to do. Doom 2016 had great gameplay, great design, great enemies, and a good plot (which really was the most surprising part).
But, the general conversation surrounding Doom has been all positive. And yet endless praise is *not* how you show love.
Criticism and thoughtful feedback are how you genuinely show love. Because I love doom, and I want the next game to be better. I don’t want it to just… be the sameish (I’m looking at you Wolfenstein 2). I want to address what Doom 2016 did poorly. It was good, it wasn’t great, and there’s definitely room for improvement. So now I’m done fawning, and I’ve done my best to convince the internet that it shouldn’t form a lynch mob just because it disagrees with me, I want to get down to brass tacks and hurt the thing I love.
So Doom 2016 has amazing art design. The monsters look fantastic, the guns look fantastic, the levels look fantastic. I mean you have Mars that’s yellow and brown, and then there’s hell that’s yellow and brown, and then there’s that one level where you float over lava that’s yellow and brown. And don’t forget the short section with toxic goo that’s uh… well it’s green and yellow and brown.
No seriously, I want you to think back to Half-Life or F.E.A.R or Halo or any of the great FPSes from about 1999 to 2015 (and there are plenty) and I want you to think about how game levels looked. I want you to think about the dam in Half Life, the office cubicles of F.E.A.R, the first level of Halo where you’re on the Halo in a level called Halo (huh), or the clean white lines of Portal, or the searing heat of the Savannah in Far Cry 2, or the abandoned Pripyat of Stalker (and some other game people keep telling me about).
A lot of games have more than just functional levels, they use the environment as a showpiece for beautiful and interesting locales.
Doom…? Doom kinda f*cks that up. At the core of its failures is the choice by Id to set Doom 2016 on Mars and then couple it with a very traditional view of Hell. Fire, brimstone, and dusty wastelands, don’t make for an interesting visual tour. Which is a shame because Doom is a good-looking game and it would have been nice to put that crazy new Id Tech engine to work. And it’s *really* weird when you remember that the original Doom was set on Deimos and Phobos, not Mars, and its version of hell was filled with weird organic-techno Lovecraftian adornments where you raised elevators by punching eyes sticking out of walls. So where did it go? Why is the Hell we get the most basic TvTropes-version of Hell you could imagine? I mean, I remember some floating islands and that is about it.
There is a level in Doom 2016 where you fight through the remains of a giant demon you killed thousands of years before.
I didn’t even realise that’s what the level was until I’d read the level’s description on the loading screen! That should never happen, and it should never happen in a game where the developers had the talent and time to put effort into all those great monsters. So for the next Doom? Take me to the weird parts of hell. Show me Hell swamps, Hell cities, Hell arenas, Hell jungles, and even Hell oceans. Hell in Doom is, after all, just an alternate dimension so it doesn’t have to look like the most cliched version out there. There’s a lot of room for you to go wild, so go wild.
So run with it.
Id gets so much right about Doom’s narrative but there’s one area where it fails.
Remember in Half-Life when those jets fly past? You remember the bit? We all do. It’s what lets us know how serious the situation has become. Environmental storytelling is when the level itself tells you about either the world the story is set in, or the story itself. It’s that moment in CoD4 when you are driven to your execution. It’s you following a trail of blood to a corpse you can loot in Fallout 4, or finding the remains of a traveller’s last stand in New Vegas.
And it’s a weak spot in Doom’s narrative. Outside of some few fleeting visuals, the levels in Doom 2016 have completely faded out of my mind. Which is a a shame because, and most people didn’t realise this, but Doom 2016 is f*cking packed with lore. It’s not as story-lite as most people might think. Geeky world-building details are pouring out of its skin like some kind of greasy film. Every bloody log and PDA entry is filled with essays on the most insanely tiny details of the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact I liked it, but it raises another question.
Why not put those details in the world around you?
Did you know that Arch-Viles are more evolved imps? Did you know Pinkies are raised for cattle? Or that Hell Knights battle for the entertainment of Barons of Hell? Or that Cacodemons have dog-like intelligence and are treated like hell’s version of German Shepherds?
These details, and so many more, are all packed away in obscure PDA entries. Why can’t we interrupt an arena-fight? Or battle our way through a Pinkie-farm? Or stumble across the Cacodemon kennels? Or interrupt a Baron holding court with its subjects? Imagine the momentary second of confusion before the whole place turns into a shooting gallery. It’d be fun, it’d tell us about the world, and it could probably amount to less than 2 seconds of playtime.
It’s not like I’m asking for Doom to turn into a story-heavy experience. What I am saying is that you can place small details in the world to make it somewhere that adds to the story. Maybe instead of writing essays on how the pistol functions so that we can read it in some data log they could find a way to put that information in the world?
There are hints of this, like the UAC’s dodgy work culture and the way that the PA system talks about “demon infestations” and that tells you that UAC knows about demons and is even quite blasé about them. But it never amounts to much, and when you see just how packed with lore some of the PDA entries are you’ll probably feel disappointed that the most Doom’s environmental storytelling amounts to are some jokes about evil-science.
Where did the weird go!?
I’ve touched on this, but Doom 2016 seemed almost confused about how to approach classic Doom’s weirdness. Those old Doom-games were actually very Lovecraftian. Hell is often shown to be a living place, and the intelligences behind it are enigmatic and bizarre. Why are there cybernetic fat-men with plasma weapons fused to their arms? Why is the final enemy of Doom 2 a symbol on the wall? Why are whole lumps of the world made out of machine? Why do Cacodemons look like they were once heads that belonged to something much larger (this is especially true for Doom 3)?
Classic Doom does a surprisingly good job at merging classic hellish mythology with high-tech sci-fi futurism and the end result is really… odd. Hell has aspects of both and it appears all the more interesting because of it. Who’s the final boss of a game about demons? A cybernetic giant spider that is a fusion of an enormous brain with stumpy little arms sat on top of a massive walking platform hooked up with a chain gun!
That’s not quite Lovecraft, but it’s *weird*.
Doom 2016 has a lot going for it, but I want to see the weird come back. Don’t make the demons the product of UAC experimentation, just let Hell be the weird mish-mash of magic-futurism that made it so cool in the older games. Make it colourful, violent, frightening and, most of all, weird. It feels like some writer just couldn’t get his head around why Doom had enemies that had cybernetic enhancements when they were meant to be demons, so they made them the consequence of experimentation. But the original game was happy to just let you give your own answer.
So let’s go back and take some of the Lovecraftian-elements of the original and start bringing it back into the new games!
So at its heart I think two of these are serious areas which need consideration, and the third is me hoping that the developers will take one of my favourite parts of the originals and bring it back. But the new Doom cannot just dote on all its positive feedback of the predecessor or else it’ll repeat the mistakes of the past. Doom 2016 was a good 8 or 9 out of 10. Let’s see if we can get to 10/10 and make it even better. Wolfenstein had so much promise and I liked Wolfenstein 2 but it repeated the same mistakes and had the exact same strengths. So let's try and change that for the better.