Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on Doom 3


1. I have played Doom 3 before. It was new; I was 17; our family's computer could hardly run it. It was the most terrifying thing I had played in my life (unless I had already played Project Zero, but I think that might have been a few months later). I would play it in the study, in the dark, with headphones on. Every jump-scare would be followed by several moments of lag even as the Imp's scream continued to loop. It was oppressive. I tolerated it as far as your first steps into hell, at which stage it became both too intimidating and too intolerable. So when I started playing the BFG edition on the Playstation 3 recently, I was entering it with a half-memory of the game: a memory of being terrified but not really remembering any of the specifics (except Delta Labs 1, but we'll get to that).

2. Doom 3 is intense. Not in the way we just throw that word at games as a synonym of 'fun', but in the way that it has this remarkable level of intensity, an absurd level. On the surface, it is a horror game: demons and foreboding and dark corridors and all that. But horror is all about what you don't see, about the suspense and the atmosphere and the 'what if?'. Doom 3 has very little downtime, and instead attacks you with one scripted scare after another. An invisible sensor opens a trapdoor behind you with an Imp in it. The floor collapses in front of you and drops you in a pit of zombies. A previously empty hallway is now filled with waves of spider creatures. It is a constant barrage of frights that is, ultimately, exhausting. Like sitting on a rollercoaster for an hour. You just feel this strange sense of dread if you play for too long. You just want it to stop. It's unorthodox or heavy-handed, perhaps, but a game that has me thinking "please, stop" must be doing horror somewhat successfully.

3. Doom 3 feels like Doom. Or, rather, it is possible to play Doom 3 in a way that feels like Doom, and I believe that is the way it was intended to be played. I played through the original Doom just before starting Doom 3, and it felt the same. The things I was doing with my hands in Doom 3 (always moving, always strafing, squiggling out from behind a wall to fire a shotgun blast then back behind the wall between shots, spinning in circles looking for traps) were the things I do with my hands playing Doom. On the surface, though, they could not be more different. Doom is more 'arcadey', with maybe a dozen monsters attacking you in a hallway. Doom 3 rarely throws more than two or three enemies at you at once, and every encounter feels like a Big Deal. There is the fanfare of a single Imp teleporting in, or the screech of a Cacodemon.

It is strange to me that a game where you fight a single enemy can feel the same as a game where you fight a dozen. I think it is that each games make me play in a very 'twitchy' style but through different means. Doom does it by giving me a dozen targets at once I have to pay attention to. Doom 3 does it through that oppressive intensity that makes me utterly paranoid as I move through it. I am twitchy because I do not know what this game is going to do to me next. So I am spinning in circles and putting my back against the wall and then refusing to trust that wall because it feels like at anytime there could be a dozen enemies coming for me. So Doom 3 feels like Doom, but for very different reasons.

4. More on that. I said Doom 3 'can' feel like Doom if you play it a certain way. When I played Doom 3 as a teenager on the PC, I played it incredibly slowly, creeping forward slowly, trying to pre-empt every jump-scare. This time, I ran headfirst into every room then dealt with what the game threw at me. Because I had just played the first Doom, I approached it like Doom, and this required me to be more twitchy. It is possible to play different games in different ways, and those different ways are going to drastically change how you approach it. I hate it when people say the player is always right and there is no wrong way to play a game. There is. There is a way a game is intended to be played and ways it is not intended to be played (I watched a student this semester play 30 Flights of Loving like he was playing Counter-Strike and it was the most surreal thing). No one is going to stop you from playing a game the 'wrong way', but personally I prefer getting out of the game what the game wants me to get out of it. Anyway, what I'm saying is I think Doom 3 wants to be played like the original Doom, and I think playing it in that way makes it a vastly more enjoyable (and exhausting) experience.

5. An aside to this: I think the significant change that the BFG Edition allows you to hold a gun and have your torch on at the same time greatly encourages the 'just run forward' approach, while the original was much more standoffish, since you knew the moment you pulled your gun out you would be thrown into darkness. Which, I guess, means that I am saying that I think being able to hold your gun and your torch at the same time is actually better. Though, many of the game's greater moments of lighting design are still ruined by this change.

6. One more note about Doom 3's relationship with the original Doom. I really enjoy watching longrunning franchises evolve. I like playing a revamped entry to an old franchise and seeing how they re-imagined certain things. Or, related, I like playing new entries in a longrunning franchise and noting the design decisions of previous games that are lingering and influencing the current game. Like the way the more recent Call of Duty games cannot escape that series' origins in World War II cinematic battlefield simulation. Or the things that continue from one Final Fantasy to the next. I love how Doom 3 reimagines all of Doom's bizarre demon/alien/monsters. How it has 'updated' them all while still clearly grounded in this mid 90s masculine adolescence of Robocop and Marilyn Manson. Of course there are zombies and robotic demons and squirming torsos used as torches and some random reason for there being chainsaws on Mars. This is Doom. Those things have to be there.

But it is more subtle than that, too. Doom 3's most obvious inspiration beyond its own predecessors is, quite clearly, Half-Life. Like Half-Life, it tries to build a convincing world out of very directed levels, rather than the very distinct levels of early Doom games. It wants to tell a story environmentally. For the most part, it achieves this. The Mars Labs feel like actual places on Mars. But then, suddenly, the Doom is back as panels suddenly open up behind a piece of body armour and a demon runs out at you. There's often no attempt to justify why these monster closets exist: they are there because this is Doom.

So there's this clash of design styles in the environment. Just moving through this game is like peeling off layers of old wallpaper of a centuries-old house. They all just mash together and create this weird thing that is Doom 3—glorious on its own terms, absurd on any others.

On this note, there is a moment late in the game where the player encounters some ancient stone tablets from the long gone Mars civilisation. One of the tablets, quite clearly, is the cover art of the original Doom, making a clear nod to the game's own pre-history that can't help but to pervade every aspect of the game.

7. I guess I've already covered the monster closets, but they seem to also deserve their own note. They are Doom 3's most often criticised moments. I guess people like to feel like they can master a game, or pre-empt it. They don't like games that cheat (see also: Limbo). I love games that cheat. I love games that are jerks to the player. Doom 3 has so many sudden jump-scares and monster closets, but each one is so deliberate, so considered in its layout and timing that it is hard not to appreciate them. Each time, the developers have clearly thought about what direction the player is going to be looking, and use that to their advantage. Sometimes lighting or a sound will direct you to look in one direction, then something will jump at you from the opposite direction. The game is always one step ahead of you, always (often literally) laughing at you. So it gets to a point where you are double-guessing the game, where you no longer trust it. You become paranoid. You begin expecting every wall to peel back and throw zombies at you. It gets to a point where the game has trained you so well that it doesn't need any monster-closets. You begin filling the closets yourself.

8. Doom 3's monitors are still some of my favourite monitors in any game. It was a big deal when the game was new, that these computer monitors within the world were of high enough resolution to display real information without having to open another screen. I love the seamlessness of moving close enough to a monitor for your camera to start controlling the on-screen cursor, pressing buttons and controlling devices. It's such a small, subtle thing, but just so well done.

9. One section of Doom 3 I remembered clearly from playing it as a teen was the Delta Labs. I was actually a little nervous as characters started mentioning that I was getting closer to them this time though. I couldn't remember why I dreaded the Delta Labs, but I did. When I got there (and I recorded it when I did), I discovered one of the few times Doom 3 exploits downtime to terrorise the player. You are walking through empty corridors for what must be the longest uninterrupted segment of the game. You are constantly waiting for the next thing to jump out at you. There are demons crawling on the outside of the facility, throwing long shadows over the walls. There is an automated robotic woman's voice on loop for the entire section telling you about the power outage. Once the fighting does start again, there are some masterful jump-scares and misdirections. It's just a very well designed part of the game.

10. I really enjoyed Doom 3.

2 comments:

Matthew Beavis said...

Lovely review, I remember saving up to buy a graphics card just to play the game then being almost too scared to play it! I remember everyone getting the duct tape mod and then run and gun all the way through while I was still freaking out in delta labs. Thanks for the memories!

Clara Jeff said...

You had working very hardly...... I think you are the champion....