A year after the original DOOM’s initial release, Dave Nuttycombe began a 1994 article for the Washington Post titled “Pac-Man, Tetris — and Now It’s Doomsday,” with the claim that “In the year 2525, if Ken Burns is still alive, he will probably be making a documentary about the computer game DOOM.” Though we are still a good 36 years away from this much anticipated documentary, 24 years have passed since the game’s inception and we are still talking about DOOM’s effect on us in the present tense. With the successful release of the new DOOM reboot, we’ve seen a tidal wave of media reflecting on the game’s past, remembering it for the groundbreaking mechanics and technological feats that would go on to solidify the supremacy of the first-person shooter genre in the gaming market. What is often overlooked, however, is the true accomplishment the game has been for the horror genre. Horror is inextricably linked to the paranoias and discontents of society, and DOOM is the ultimate reflection of our fears — an “ultra-realistic, ultra-violent, ultra-addictive PC software program” as Nuttycombe described, that promised to bring about the apocalypse, and that is once again gnawing at our puritanical sub-conscious.
DOOM was originally planned as an instalment for the Alien franchise, but creators John Carmack and John Romero decided that they didn’t have enough control to see the project through. Both were avid Dungeons and Dragons players, and after a particularly gruelling campaign in which a demonic apocalypse destroyed the world, Cormack suggested to Romero that they should simply substitute the aliens with demons, and thus the horror-tech theme was cemented. DOOM also came at a time when American society was under absurd moral panic from the collective belief in widespread satanic ritual abuse — the game was a concoction of novel video-game mechanics and terrifying themes that some believed only Satan himself could have envisioned, provoking televangelists and politicians alike to proclaim the demise of Western civilization. Still, even with the thematic change, Alien’s influence on the original and reboot is obvious: both share a heavy industrial, claustrophobic, dark, rusty, and dangerous atmosphere that overwhelms the senses and forces players through tight, cramped rooms and corridors in a maze-like fashion. This ambience is a bastion of level-design in video games and a fundamental cinematic technique in horror.
DOOM shares the same biomechanical juxtaposition of organic heaps of guts and ooze with the cold steel of the space compound that H.R. Giger designed for the first Alien film. This activates a visceral and primal nausea in our psyche, and it is especially prevalent in the game with things like “Gore Nests” — throbbing umbilical cords to Hell that appear to form like tumors around the game’s stages. While DOOM will forever be associated with wanton gore, there is a certain sophistication to the way that the body horror is presented — a distinction perhaps best made by the entrance of the beholder into the uncanny valley. It’s one thing to blow the head off of a demon imp with your shotgun, but it’s a completely different feeling to reach into a throbbing sack of flesh and pull out a blood clot that causes the ensuing rain of bile to alert an army of Hell spawns. Similarly, the creatures in Alien weren’t just scary, they were disgusting. We remember things like mouths inside of mouths, dripping saliva and bile, appendages down throats, and egg sacs in chests. We felt uncomfortable because Giger eviscerated our preconceived notions about biology.
We shouldn’t simply witness horror; it should crawl up our spines and touch us. DOOM follows this path, always featuring diverse and interesting characters. A direct correlation also exists between the quality of graphics and the amount of disgust one can now feel. While reducing enemies to piles of flesh and blood was gross for 1993 standards, I now have the privilege of turning my graphics up to ultra so that I can discern where the burnt flesh of the possessed ends and the exposed muscle begins.
So repulsive are some of the enemies, that you find yourself trying to avoid touching them even in the game — their cooties might rub off on you or you might contract a skin rash from Hell. Unfortunately, sitting back and blasting from afar is not viable with the introduction of the new fatality system. “Glory kills” force players to get up-close and personal with the demons. Once an enemy is knocked off balance, the player has a short window of time where they can initiate a goretastic take down that usually means ripping an appendage off or crushing a skull under your boot. It’s quite heavy, and with the added benefit of a few frames of invulnerability, players will find themselves in a constant state of running, gunning, and mutilating to avoid being swarmed by mobs. The addition of a metal-as-f*** chainsaws place you almost directly in the shoes of Army of Darkness Ash (another admitted influence on the series), furthering the new melee system and kicking up the badass dial to 11.
In fact, for a reboot of a classically basic game, the new DOOM introduced just the right amount of novelty without turning its back on its predecessor. A new upgrade system adds a bit of depth to the guns. For instance, the shotgun can be upgraded to fire a rocket or a charged burst, making it functionally different depending on the choice you make. You also have a combat suit that can give you boosts in strength, agility, power ups, and so on. To get upgrade points, you have to complete various challenges, like using three different takedowns to kill enemies or shooting two enemies at once. Of course, like the original, there is a plethora of secrets that will have you exploring every nook and cranny of the stages. Many have complained that the game is a little short, but if you play on the hardest difficulty setting unlocked by default (Ultra-Violence), you’ll get at least 12 hours on single-player run. Furthermore, DOOM is just more fun when it is hard. There will be moments where you will take on 10 or so creatures, brutalizing one after the other, knowing that one missed shot or lapse in concentration means utter disembowelment. This is the feeling I had 20-plus years ago with the first DOOM game, and to say that I still feel it now, using nearly identical mechanics from the 1990’s — well, that’s a testament to a masterpiece. DOOM is not just a good scary game, it does not just exploit the horror genre — it celebrates it. It balances dark humor and face-melting guitar riffs with appendage-ripping violence and deadly serious demons. It understands nuance (or lack of) and never overextends or oversaturates something that works. It truly appeals to two types of audiences: connoisseurs of first-person shooters and connoisseurs of fright.