A Brief Meditation on ‘Doom’

Well, yet another version of Doom is out, and everything I’ve heard about it is positive. The graphics are certainly impressive, but from what I’ve seen, I’m almost inclined to say too impressive. It reminds me of a claymation somehow.

Doom is one of those great titles that appear unpromising on the surface but have some je ne sai quoi that give them a compelling charm, so they simply won’t die. Like RoboCop. Or Sailor Moon. The game’s core concept is clever, and it is a concept to which, curiously, the video games have remained faithful whereas adaptations in other media have screwed with it and consistently ruined it.

Why might that be, I wonder?

Let me say this before I begin: I’m not a gamer. I’m a story guy. If I were a video game reviewer, I’d be one of those reviewers who praises games with lousy gameplay but good stories. If you made a video of me gaming, I’d play like a critic from Polygon.

So, to any gamers who might be reading this: I respect what you do, but I am, sadly, not of your tribe.

If you, like me, are more interested in the story than the gameplay, somebody has been good enough to splice the storytelling scenes together. The result is arresting, but possessed of several silly elements (I like how “demonic invasion” is an option on their security system). The storyline is decent, though the dialogue is stilted. This new version does an excellent job of capturing the original game’s apparently effortless blending of futuristic space opera settings with Lovecraftian and satanic imagery. These unusual atmospherics are probably largely responsible for the franchise’s enduring popularity.

In every video game version, Doom is a Frankenstein story. However they might spruce it up with more plot (as in the newest iteration), the basic concept is the same: a base on or near Mars experiments with teleportation technology and opens a gate to Hell. The franchise was inspired by the Alien movies and originally had the same simple, horrific elegance as the original Alien film: man treads where he was not meant to and then pays for it. In the original game, the portal to Hell was a complete accident. In this new version, the masterminds of Mars were trying to use Hell as an energy source, committed horrific deeds to get it, and have been destroyed by their hubris, making the Frankenstein-inspired theme even more explicit.

What makes Doom fascinating to me is that it depicts the denizens of Hell as entirely ready for the high-tech world they invade. The demons are equipped with computers, cybernetic enhancements, beam weapons, and rocket launchers. The humans, though they can meet the demons on equal terms technologically, are psychologically unprepared for an invasion from the very pits of Tartaros.  The original game had to put that unpreparedness entirely in the backstory since designers hadn’t yet learned to integrate storytelling with the first-person shooter, but newer versions have the opportunity to bring it to the fore.

Doom is an alien invasion story, but the invasion is of a type that this high-tech future society is not expecting. The original games were limited in their storytelling ability, so I was always interested in spinoffs, which could potentially develop Doom’s ideas more fully. For this reason, I had high hopes for the novel adaptations by Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver that came out back in the Nineties. If you’ve never heard of these books, that’s okay. No one else has, either, except me and maybe five other people.

Doomnovel
Classy.

The first two novels, Knee-Deep in the Dead and Hell on Earth, are based on Doom and Doom II. The first novel hews (believe it or not) closely to the game, but fleshes out its concepts. It replaces the anonymous “Doomguy” with Corporal Flynn Taggart, a badass of badasses, who is both a space marine and a nominal Roman Catholic. He also gets a sidekick, PFC Arlene Sanders, so the story isn’t simply his internal monologue interspersed with gory violence. As the story progresses, Taggart has to hold on by his fingernails to his sanity as he comes to grips with this invasion being not merely an attack of space critters, but an assault of supernatural beings, the existence of which is taught by his religion, but which he had personally discounted.

The second novel is decidedly weak, though it pays some entertaining homage to Romero’s zombie franchise. I barely remember it, but I think there was a stereotypical teenage hacker girl in there, and she was kind of amusing. Also, the IRS was colluding with the forces of Satan, which was an unexpected bit of realism in a novel about zombies and robo-spiders.

In the third book, Infernal Sky, the series goes off the rails: it turns out that the demons really are space aliens, or, rather, the creations of space aliens who are fighting a galactic war over textual interpretation (I kid you not). It doesn’t help that the alien masterminds behind the fake demon invasion are hella lame: they are guys with artichokes for heads who for no reason fight with the claws on their hands instead of with high-tech weaponry, and who are so wimpy that Taggart can literally tear them apart with his bare hands.

Then in the final volume, Endgame, the writers take a page out of the infamous Edge review of Doom that suggested it would be cool if you could talk to the demons from Hell and make friends with them. Taggart and Arlene do that. No, really. And to be honest, it’s kind of cute, but “kind of cute” is exactly what Doom should not be.

The novels’ betrayal of Doom’s central conceit gave me the impression that ab Hugh and Linaweaver were afraid of it. I don’t know which part they objected to, but they clearly objected to something.

Perhaps they objected to the religious implications built into Doom, though I doubt that, since they make their protagonist a Catholic and later introduced a lot of sympathetically depicted Mormon characters. They allow the characters to struggle with the implications of a futuristic, spacefaring civilization butting up against a technophilic but decidedly medieval demonology, as they should, but the books contain no snide jabs at religion. Besides, the religious element is one the franchise has consistently downplayed; after all, in Doom, you fight demons with shotguns, not holy water.

On the other hand, the books do try too hard to be inclusive. They imply, even from early on, that the satanic imagery is more psychological warfare than actual magic, and that the demons might have picked other imagery if invading a non-Western culture. That weakens Doom’s premise from the get-go and sets up for its complete ruination in the latter half of the series.

Perhaps ab Hugh and Linaweaver also objected to the Frankenstein-inspired story of the games. As they depict things, it turns out in the end that the demon invasion is absolutely not our fault, whereas in the games it most certainly is. Linaweaver and ab Hugh would not be the first to object to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece; Isaac Asimov, for example, based all his robot stories on a rejection of Frankenstein, because he wanted science to be as free as possible, and he didn’t like the idea that technology might have serious ethical implications.

It’s easy to sympathize with the view that scientists should push as far as they can and damn the consequences, but the creation of nuclear warheads in the middle of the Twentieth Century, if nothing else, should have put to rest any notion that technology can’t lead us to places we shouldn’t go. I think the Frankenstein myth will always be with us. We need it, because it invites us, as a society that places a high value on the physical sciences, to reflect ethically on those sciences.

I don’t know how much ethical reflection gamers will indulge in while ripping the heads of zombies during a bout of the Doom remake, but the invitation to such reflection is certainly present in the game, as the “movie” of the cutscenes makes clear: “What you see in this facility,” as one of the villains says to the Doomguy, “is the cost of progress.”

Is it possible, Doom asks, that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should?

  • Unclever_Hans

    I was born to the wrong generation to pick up the early Doom games; my demon-shooting game was Painkiller. The protagonist tries to earn his way into Heaven by slaying demons in both Purgatory and Hell, and though he never wields holy water, one of his weapons is a pneumatic stake launcher with an underslung grenade launcher.

    As an aside, you should probably add “watching the Doom game without compensating the developers,” or simply “watching Doom,” to your list of confessions.

    • Didn’t even cross my mind, though I suppose putting together a hour’s worth of video game footage probably does go beyond fair use.

      • Matthew Schmidt

        This may be a cultural difference between fans of mediums. It’s considered perfectly fine in the gaming world to record entire playthroughs of games (c.f. let’s plays, streams, speedruns, etc.) but I’ve never heard anyone justify uploading an complete movie.

        • Probably because the point of a game is the gameplay. Showing a video of a walkthrough isn’t quite like pirating the actual game, though it’s probably close enough to fall afoul of copyright law if anyone wanted to pursue it.

          Reminds me of an interesting article I read some years back on the question of whether a particular chess match could be copyrighted. Copyright law is ambiguous in some respects, partly by design.

          • Unclever_Hans

            Modern games aren’t really games so much as they are experiences. When you upload footage from a story-driven first-person shooting game, it often is almost like uploading a movie.

          • And what do you mean by “experience”? Since everything of which a person is conscious is by definition an experience, it does not seem to me to be relevant to say that a game is an experience.

  • Tin Can

    What with the stories eventually betraying the premise, I think it all comes down to the “shotguns not holy water” thing. Doom is not just about encountering demons from hell in the sci-fi future, but about reducing those demons to piles of viscera using shotguns and chainsaws and rocket launchers. Definitely a fun and appealing premise, but not a coherent one. Having them turn out to actually be hostile aliens who look demonic for psychological warfare does betray the premise, but so would Doomguy setting aside his plasma rifle in favor of bell, book and candle. Either Doomguy conquers hell with his boomstick, or it was Old Man McGruthers all along. Both options are silly.