Alternate History: Doom [Guest Post]

I have mentioned Doom, the 1993 game that basically launched the first-person shooter genre, a few times on this blog. But I’ve never actually played it (gasp! I should probably rectify that). Fortunately, jefequeso has played it, and he contributed this piece about what it’s like to revisit the game today. Read on!

Let’s face it—even the most casual of gamers has at least some passing knowledge of Doom. As the title that essentially jumpstarted the FPS industry, it’s not exactly obscure. So this is going to be somewhat different from the other History Lessons, in that it’s not about introducing people to an old game they might have missed. Rather, this is about re-visiting a classic almost all of us have played and looking at some of the things that make it still entertaining today.

The one major thing that Doom got right was the smooth feel of its combat. On the surface, it doesn’t look like anything special. You, the ubiquitous space marine with the ability to carry an unlimited number of weapons that will never need to be reloaded, run at inhumanly fast speeds through levels and gun down whatever mobs of hellspawn happen to stand in your way. Later levels mean more powerful weapons and more powerful enemies. Nothing we haven’t experienced in countless following FPSs. But underneath this seemingly simplistic exterior lie a number of surprisingly good design choices that keep the game feeling fresh and unique even today. It’s all about the balance between you and your foes. Little details in the way enemies act, such as small pauses before firing and variable flinching depending on what weapon they’re hit with, seem inconsequential but actually make huge differences in how the game feels. Although you’re dealing with tons of foes at once, some of which have instant-hit firearms, you never feel like you’re not in complete control of your own well being. When you get hit, it’s 99.9% of the time due to some mistake on your part. Likewise, when you enter a room, enemies cannot instantly fire on you, but take about a second to react. This gives you time to eliminate the instant-hit foes, select the appropriate weapon for the situation, or just take stock. Contrast this with a game like Blood, which is filled with cheap deaths as you round corners or open doors, simply because enemies will open fire immediately upon seeing you (Blood is, however, a great FPS in its own right).

Another really well-done aspect of Doom is the way it uses enemy placement and level designs to constantly change up the feel of combat. In more modern shooters, enemies are treated as just that — enemies. They are living foes that need to be battled with. In Doom, however, enemies feel much more like parts of the levels themselves. They are obstacles that need to be overcome, almost environmental puzzles of sorts. It’s their placement in the level design, not their AI or health or damage, that effects what tactics must be used to “solve” them. An enemy that might be a piece of cake in a large arena turns into a formidable challenge in narrow hallways. A group of foes might just be shotgun fodder when grouped together, but when spread out they become a lethal ambushing force. While this approach isn’t terribly different from what can be seen in other games of the time, Doom just about perfected it. And it’s a real shame that the push toward “Hollywood Realism” has all but killed this art in modern shooters. Chest-high walls and scripted firefights have erased the need for precise and creative enemy placement.

The placement of ammunition also deserves special mention. It’s PERFECT. Doom absolutely nails that balance of having to conserve ammo but feeling free to unload when you need to. As someone who has some experience in shooter design, this is NOT as easy as it sounds. At one point, Doom even uses this element to add some dynamic variety to the game, by basing the early levels of one episode around having to scavenge for ammunition. Over the following levels, with some exploration and strict “inventory” management, you build your stock back up. Although it sounds simple, a lot of skill is required to make something like this work.

Last but certainly not least, I want to point out something that a lot of us miss. Doom had platforming elements… AND DIDN’T HAVE A JUMP BUTTON. Let me repeat that…NO JUMP BUTTON. If that isn’t impressive, I don’t know what is.

As I said, this isn’t supposed to be a complete overview of Id’s legendary title. There are some aspects I didn’t touch on, and a few flaws I didn’t address. What I wanted to do was examine some of the standout features of a game that, for most of us, have probably been hidden by the cloak of familiarity. For its time, Doom was an incredible achievement. It turned the FPS from a subordinate genre into an industry force to be reckoned with. Its modability provided the training grounds for many of the industry’s top developers. It paved the way for later innovations in deathmatch multiplayer from the Quake series. And even today in the era of light bloom, iron sights, scripted events, and havoc physics, there are still some parts that FPS developers have yet to match.

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