DOOM II is one of the first games I ever owned. I think it was mailed to me as a freebie when I first got a subscription to PC Gamer magazine in the mid-1990s (I can’t remember my exact age at the time… definitely younger than 15). Before then, I’d subsisted on demo disks (i.e. actual floppy disks sellotaped to the front of games mags), a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator 4 that came bundled with our family PC (my dad, my brother and I spent ages trying to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge in a Learjet), and the original SimCity pirated from a mate.
I had dozens and dozens of free shareware games and demos, and I’d even written a couple of games myself in QBasic (including some rubbish text adventures and a couple I programmed following instructions in an old book called “BASIC Computer Games”; I made a working version of Hammurabi, and definitely had a bash at coding Super Star Trek).
So, I have fond memories of playing DOOM II (and, later, Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, and Blood) in the ’90s. I don’t think I ever played the original DOOM, and had always just assumed that, because it was a sequel, DOOM II improved on the original in every way. I knew it had more guns, more monsters, more levels… so it must have been “more better”, right?
In 2018, I’m re-playing the original 1993 DOOM. I’m using the Brutal Doom mod (I know purists will consider this heresy), set to the “Realism” skill level. It’s tremendous fun, and the game feels very “survival horror” at points (particularly when low on shotgun ammo and using the flashlight to creep through winding, pitch-black corridors).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I fire up E1M1 and realise how tight the level design is. I know that Brutal Doom makes significant gameplay and cosmetic changes, but the original levels by John Romero, Tom Hall, and Sandy Petersen (of ‘Call of Cthulhu’ fame!) really shine through. The maps are intricate and sprawling, there are hidden secrets everywhere (encouraging exploration), and the traps are inventive and stupendously brutal (though generally not unfair… as long as you’re not stupid enough to believe that a shiny new plasma rifle sitting all alone in a pool of light in the centre of a dark room is legit).
I wasn’t at all surprised when I learned how Doom was originally inspired by lead programmer John Carmack’s D&D campaign. It’s not just the creepy medieval iconography, the demons and devils, the fireball-throwing imps, the health potions, and
beholders cacodemons. It’s the sense that you’re exploring a monster-haunted maze, traps and secrets round every corner, each room a different puzzle, desperately watching as your hit points tick away to zero. You can feel the hand of the Dungeon Master (Romero, Hall, or Petersen) in the level design, and imagine them snickering as you blunder into yet another deathtrap or “fuck you!” moment.
DOOM is hard. Frustratingly hard. On the higher skill levels, you will die over and over and over again. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. The sense of slowly unlocking a level, opening up its secrets and slowly filling in the blank automap, reminds me of the puzzle-box quality of the early Resident Evil games. You learn tricks to help you survive (always check corners, never stand in a doorway as it opens, prepare yourself for an ambush when collecting keycards, etc.). You start to learn the rhythm of the game. Each death propels you forward, teaching you a lesson (even the stupid deaths).
I’d love to run (or play in) a D&D campaign like this. I think it’s a slightly different playstyle than the one I mentioned in my previous post, which is more about a nihilistic, black comedy celebration of useless incompetence and meaningless death, à la Blackadder / 1st edition Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. A campaign modelled after DOOM would be a bit more Dark Souls-y; the difficulty level would be masochistic but without the game wallowing in the joy of failure
It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. In my last post, I talked about celebrating failure, and I suspect that’s also a deeply unpopular approach (many gamers will argue they want escapism, which means they don’t like playing characters who are inherently rubbish). Likewise many players probably don’t like it when they DO have competent characters but the difficulty level is so insanely high that they’re constantly dying. It prevents individual characters having a heroic narrative. It interrupts the flow of the story.
However, I think it’s awesome. If you have the right players (and you MUST warn them ahead of time that this is the style of game you’ll be running), and a stack of pre-gen character sheets, then, just like DOOM with the skill level cranked up, it can be a blast.