Doom is death at a hundred miles an hour.Gran Turismowith a shotgun. Wipeout with knuckledusters. It never stops, it never sleeps, it never holds back. Doom is one of the earliest and best examples of flow in game design history, an unrivalled shooter masterpiece. It is, to deviate from the slicker prose, fucking glorious.
Flow is a psychological state the mind enters into when playing a highly immersive videogame. A state where the world outside the screen fades away. Where the controls are simply extensions of your own limbs. To see a player achieve this state of mind is the highest possible achievement of a game developer, and id accomplished this with Doom in a way that influences shooters being developed as we speak.
There’s a reason, or set of reasons, each game that helps a player achieve flow is capable of doing so, and with Doom, it’s speed. The mechanics have been tuned to accelerate you into a state of flow as you play. You’re never walking, in Doom. You’re always running. There’s no screen-shake tech, so at the pace you move it almost feels like you’re gliding around Mars like Marty McFly with a minigun.
The map design itself reflects this, as well. Take a look at any level map in Doom and you’ll find wide open spaces and curving corridors, smooth and lacking many rugged edges, much unlike the FPS maps you’ll find in the current era of game design. While the reason for this may well have been that these were simpler shapes to deal with, it also allowed you to streamline your routes through areas. Levels were cleaner, more straightforward. You weren’t finding cake in bins or discovering ammunition in a cash register. Ludonarrative dissonance was a concept to be laughed at - something game designers have lost sight of, since.
This purity of design extends to the concept of doors, too. Doors, if you’ve never encountered them before (who knows, they could always have been open for you, if took that key in Dark Souls, or if you went to Eton), tend to stop you in your tracks. Some of them won’t even open if you try the handle. In Doom, it doesn’t break your flow, but it does cause you to slow down and brings the analytical part of your brain back into your process for progressing through each level.
Where’s the key? What’s on the other side of this door? Is this a secret room? When I play racing games, crashing and having to frantically reverse and right my course is an impactful experience because it’s taking me out of the primary reason I’m playing - to go fast. In Doom, your speed is taken away because the game is breaking your bullet-fuelled sprint across Mars to make you change course, go back on yourself, and explore your surroundings.
It’s at this point, I find, that the horror can set in.
Running around like a gun-toting Mo Farrah is great, because you’re never going to find yourself unable to move out of the way of something unpleasant. You can outrun enemies in Doom, and run circles around them. If you master moving through hostile environments, the game’s your oyster. But if that ability is removed – if you’re moving through darkened areas where openings are small and the moans of enemies lusting after your failure state are beginning to damage your calm, you’re going to feel that tension.
Tension’s too bland a word. I like to call them “oh, fuck” moments.
The important thing about a game that relies on speed, though, is that anything slows you down is immediately a Bad Thing. Enemies in Doom are solid, and if you’ve ever run into a horde of Demons thinking you could dart back out, only to be hemmed in by roaring pink death, you’ll soon understand that your Marine is only fragile when he’s standing still, and it makes opening doors a very tense experience. To be static in a world where movement means survival is what brings the fear and tension of Doom smashing into your brain with sledgehammer force.
For me, I feel like Doom excels with combat in a way that Duke Nukem 3D doesn’t quite manage, at times. Facing off against Doom's Barons of Hell during Knee-Deep in the Dead is not an experience I’m likely to forget in a hurry, given a single one of them is multiple times the power level of anything you’ve come up against before. But what makes the fight challenging and thrilling is the huge open space you can fight them in.
Contrast that against DK3D’s habit of putting you up against huge enemies that force you to endlessly duck out from behind cover and squeeze some ammo their way before their minigun spins up and you can see why Doom feels like it’s paced more ideally than its pig-laden cousin. While Vlambeer’s Gun Godz manages to nail the retro-FPS concept by taking confined environments and making them tense, colourful and smooth, DK3D doesn’t define its experience by the lack of speed and space. It’s Crash Team Racing when id had already released Episode 1: Racer. Once you’ve tasted run-and-gun, something that fails to understand pace at a numerical level is frustrating.
I think “frustrating” can sum up a developer’s Doom experience pretty well, because let’s face it – how do you top an accomplishment like this? You can make all of the photorealistic military bro-shoots you like, but they’ll always feel messier, slower and less “fuck yes” than id’s dominant masterpiece.
Of course, a lot of what developers, including myself, could mistake for purity of design in a game like Doom could simply be the limitations of tech. Doom wasn't released in the Unity era: it manipulated what you saw to create an environment that is about as three-dimensional as Adam Sandler. Rotating spirites were stand-ins for the polygon-bred creatures to come. But the speed? That's not a factor affected by the tech of the era. It's a number in a line of code. The best thing about games development is that whatever your toolset, making shit go woosh is always an option.
You’ll still find satisfying examples of speed in shooters today. Tribes: Ascend has its weird hill-surfing mechanic, and you can always sprint about like a loon in any number of current-day FPS titles. That being said, the issue with games like Call of Duty: Whateverthefuck and Halo 4 is that you sacrifice offensive capabilities for speed – you can’t shoot while you sprint. Doom maintains your ability to fire shotgun shells into the faces of your many enemies because your speed is at a constant high. Your ability to quickly close the gap between you and the dangerous denizens of Doom is the purest form of aggression, because it’s so immediately confrontational.
Games rarely feel like that, now. We rely on regenerating health, lots of cover, and stealth sections in games where you’re supposed to be the most dangerous thing around. You’re almost never able to just come tearing around a corner, minigun at the ready, roaring your bullet-storm defiance at everything you see. Sometimes, shooters need to avoid making you feel like you’re made out of glass. Sometimes you need to feel that sense of empowerment, and Doom has always accomplished that in a way that never sucked the difficulty out of the game itself. You could play hardball, but act stupid and you were dead. A simple agreement between player and hostile environment.
I think it’s safe to say that as an individual, I’m very impatient. I like to be able to constantly progress and feel like I’m actively involved in that progression. I dislike being a passenger, and I feel like you should either shoot for an A-to-B that takes five seconds, or has an entire smaller alphabet of content in between. But with simpler games, like Doom, you could spice up a corridor by throwing multiple mechanics into it and seeing how it worked. A corridor of Imps isn’t an issue, but what about when a Cacodemon makes an appearance? How does that affect your movement pattern? God, what I’d do for Doom heatmap to track player movement in that game.
Doom will always hold a place in the heart of so many gamers because it’s got to be the most no-nonsense game to ever grace the medium. It flings you about the place in a hail of bullets, pits you against demons twice your size and lets you come out swinging as the fastest, scariest thing Hell has ever seen. I salute you, Doom, for never slowing down, for never fucking around, for being from an era of game design where even the cover in Space Invaders might have felt like a cop-out. Death at a hundred miles an hour, indeed.
C.Y. is a writer and game developer who can be found over at @failnaut.