Monday, October 5, 2015

Doom - Mountains of Fun (Part 1)
How a bunch of garage developers used their teleportation powers to reach across the console-computer divide and pull me into their world.

For as much as I would have liked to claim that having continued access to my brother's Commodore 64 meant that I was well-informed about the current state of computer gaming, the reality was that I knew practically nothing about what was going on in the scene during that early-to-mid 90s period. I couldn't have told you what the competitive landscape looked like, how computers had evolved technologically, or what any of the platforms' hot games were. My guess would have been that the Commodore 128 and the Amiga (neither of which I'd ever played) were still dominating the market on the back of the same derivative genres I'd always associated with their sort (weird platformers, story-driven adventure games, and strategy games).

"I can't imagine that anything of great importance is happening over there," I was consistent in thinking, my perception being that computers had fallen well behind arcades and consoles in terms of their ability to spark industry-shaking movements.

That's why I was shocked when my brother, James, informed me that Doom--a new type of three-dimensional shooting game that had recently seen release on the SNES--started life as an independent project designed for PCs, though I couldn't imagine how such a thing was possible given what I knew ("Can Commodore developers really do that?!").

To see Doom in action was to witness the gameplay of a mind-blowing production brought to us by a team of experienced industry veterans representing a distinguished, resource-rich development house ("Williams Entertainment," as it read on the box), I thought it more likely, and not a bunch of teenagers working out of a garage somewhere in the middle of suburbia. "Only big companies can make games that look like this!" I felt safe in concluding, and I'd remain stuck in that mindset for quite some time; it would be years before I'd hear the name "id Software" and come to understand the significance of independent developers and their contributions to the medium. (It also helped that I learned the difference between a developer and a publisher.)

I've always equated my first exposure to Doom with my discovery of Shadowgate, which also happens to be a PC-derived classic. The scene, as I remember it, played out very similarly: It was one of those down periods where I'd loaned the SNES to James, who took it downstairs to his basement hangout and kept it there for about a week. Sometime in between, when I grew tired of working on my art projects and craved some video-game action, I sneaked downstairs after formulating a plan to quickly intermingle with James' friends before he could spot me. He saw me creeping down the stairs, anyway, but he didn't kick me out this time; rather, he seemed keen on the idea of letting me stick around as an observer, since he wanted to impress me with the new game he bought earlier that day.

It was called "Doom," which he alleged was a big-time SNES release, though I'd never heard of it or read anything about it (I didn't recall seeing it in Nintendo Power, though I might have simply missed it because I was apt to ignore games that weren't directly in my interest). At first glance, Doom looked to resemble one of those boring 3D dungeon crawlers (like Eye of the Beholder and Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World) that he and his friends seemed to enjoy so much, and I hastily wrote it off as nothing special. I mean, the technology that was used to achieve that pseudo-3D presentation on consoles like the NES and SNES was cool and all, but the games it powered were usually too repetitive and plodding for my tastes (though, I'd probably love 'em now).

But when I actually started paying attention to what was happening on the screen--when I allowed my senses to operate as free from bias--I could see that Doom was like nothing that came before it. I wouldn't yet admit that Doom was the kind of game I might want to sample for myself, but the more I saw of it, the more fascinated I became with how its world functioned. It was just as James explained it to me: Doom's 3D spaces weren't merely a series of static images strung together frame by frame to create the illusion of depth; no--they would smoothly scale and rotate around the player as if having real dimension, their every hall and corridor able to be measured and explored from all angles and distances. 

The inhabiting monsters, too, had physical dimension, their height and damage potential changing depending upon the player's relative position. A monster's every movement could be tracked even if it was maneuvering about somewhere far off in the distance, and it was possible to engage it if only a pixel of its elbow was currently viewable. And when monsters were present but not directly in view, their unnerving snortling could be heard as if it were emanating from beyond the walls, themselves--from the unseen spaces within which they were likely lying in wait. James told me that if I listen closely, I could even tell from which direction the snarling and roaring sounds were originating! (He described it as a function of "stereo sound," though this was probably a misattribution on his part; it was more that you could judge the distance of a monster if not its general direction, which was more a feature of the stereo-enabled PC original.)

"This is unreal," I thought to myself, perplexed a bit by how a 16-bit system could produce such effects. "Had 'true 3D gaming' been achieved when I wasn't looking?" I mean, I knew about Star Fox and the Super FX chip, but Doom seemed to be doing things that were far more advanced than the simple rendering of a scant few polygonal archways; frankly, its elaborate stage constructions made Star Fox's plain, texture-less structures look primitive in comparison.

It would be a crime not to mention how big a role the game's music played in creating that amazing first impression. Indeed, those menacing, bass-heavy tunes produced a certain type of reverberance that pervaded the basement's every open space and had the effect of influencing the atmosphere around us, creating palpable unease for both player and observer alike. I was only a viewer, yet the music's ominous vibes combined with the monsters' distant rattling filled me with the same sense of tension being felt by the player who was slowly treading toward the end of a dark hallway.

After watching them play for about ten minutes or so, I decided to head back upstairs--probably to watch cartoons or draw up more of my own Mega Man villains--but I'd seen enough to know that Doom was a game I definitely had to try out for myself when James wasn't there.

The opportunity presented itself the next day, when James and his friends were out raiding the local comic-book shops or doing whatever it was they did with their free time. When I got home from school, I hurried downstairs, made sure all of the lights were off, and initiated my first personal session with Doom. Here's what I remember about that first attempted play-through:

Episode 1, Mission 1

I hadn't actually seen this stage when I was watching my brother play, since he was pretty deep into the first episode by the time I arrived downstairs; the mission he was playing at the time was darkly lit, cramped in structure, and rather mechanical-looking, so I didn't really get a sense of the game's setting. 

That all changed within seconds as I loaded up a new mission and experienced what I consider to be the moment: When the mission started, I immediately headed left, ran up the stairs, and came to pause as I entered a state of awe. Beyond the three windows in front of me lay one of the most impressive visuals I'd ever seen in a game: The amazingly rendered, breathtaking mountainscape that populated the complex's entire backdrop, its silently threatening assemblage of towering gray and black formations shadowing my every movement as if playing the role of oppressive gatekeeper. Their portending presence, alone, told me the whole story of where Doom was taking place and the gravity of the protagonist's plight. 

I must've stared at those mountains for a good three minutes or so, soaking in as much of their projected atmosphere as I could; in that time, I was sure to examine their every realistic-looking pixel and let my imagination fill in the blanks. "Where did this game really come from?" I wondered.

These opening screens, and indeed the entirety of the first stage, rates as high as any other on my list of iconic starting areas. The mountainscape visual is a huge part of the reason, sure, but there were also other indelible moments, like my first encounter with the imp who exchanged fire with me from an elevated platform in the distance (I remember frantically dodging its fireballs, more so, since I could barely identify the pixelated creature that was throwing them). The stage theme, as opposed to what I heard the day before, was a rockin', adrenaline-raising piece--this composition another of Doom's iconic elements--but its high energy proved to be a veneer; I could recognize that the piece was tempered with urgent tones that were meant to coax me into pushing forward with fear as the driving force--to make me feel unsafe even when there was no apparent danger in sight. And the theme's quality was outstanding, the piece featuring powerful instrumentation and complex strains that were unmistakably Doom's. There was no other game, past or present, that sounded like this or exuded the same vibe.

Episode 1, Mission 2

Suddenly the music turned eerie, the bass' deep reverberance more haunting than before; the stage theme's prolonged notes were dripping with foreboding resonance, which made me hesitant to move from the starting position even though the atmosphere was quiet and there was seemingly no activity. The first thing I learned was how big a mistake it was to charge out into the open space, which had the unintended effect of alerting every enemy within sight-line to my presence; in successive attempts, I took more to sneaking around corners as to pick off enemies one at a time, though I'd usually freak out, instantly abandoning the strategy, whenever one of them would spot me from afar and open fire from a location I couldn't pinpoint.

The music's pace picked up a bit as the intro's eerie tones gave way to a more heedfully investigative ambiance, which evoked feelings of caution and provided this particular building a persistent air of mystery. As I inched my way through the rest of the stage, it became clear to me that Doom's creators knew how to toy with the player's emotions. 

The basement's uncomfortable darkness--its outer edges textured by the eerily faint sunlight emanating from the barred windows behind me--only heightened the tension I was feeling as I played.

Episode 1, Mission 3

Both the music and the atmosphere continued to get darker in tone and ever-more-disquieting. I was still short on ammo, since apparently I wasn't as thorough in my exploration as I thought (well, my stage-ending "Secret" percentages were concerningly low), so I stuck with my strategy of hiding in unoccupied rooms and luring/funneling enemies into my line of fire.

What I learned here was that Doom was loaded with secret rooms whose access required that I push up against conspicuous-looking walls and liberally pound away on the action button; though, there was also a more cryptic assortment of sliding walls and platforms whose operation demanded that I first activate a timed sensory-based trigger--usually placed far away from the target--and then race around the stage hoping to promptly discover whatever changes had incurred. Once such secret granted me access to an energy-boosting Soul Sphere, but I don't think that I figured out how to trigger it (nor did I realize that I could run) until my second session.

The more I'd play, the more I'd learn about the designers' tendencies. There was, for instance, their favorite trick: They loved to place an important item in a wide-open space and mark its position as a trigger; naturally, I'd let my guard down and collect it, at which point the nearby walls would instantly open up to reveal the hordes of monsters that were waiting for the chance to ambush me. To enter a large rectangular room with a key card in its center was to know the meaning of fear. You knew what was going to happen the moment you touched that key. As James would often joke: "Every goddamned wall is going to open up, and a thousand enemies are going to appear out of nowhere."

The Unceremonious Ending

From that point forward, my time with Doom was more about learning the game's intricacies--how the enemies behaved and which weapons were most effective against the respective demons, how to reliably strafe around corners and use the surrounding environment as cover, and how to identify when an enemy onslaught was likely to occur.

Though, I wasn't able to get too much farther into Doom--to put my newfound skills to the test--before the side door opened and my brother walked in, at which point it was inevitable that I'd be sent packing. But that was OK--Doom didn't need any more time to convince me; it already had me firmly in its grasp. I was hooked. I couldn't wait to get the SNES back up to my room so I could begin exploring it at greater length.

It was maybe four or five days before I'd see Doom again. Even then, after I'd had almost a week to fully digest it, the game's technology still seemed amazing to me: Objects scaled, their details becoming increasingly discernible the closer I got to them. Lights flickered. Brightly lit corridors spilled into those shrouded in darkness. Any wall or platform could potentially shift about regardless of its size or seeming inertia. Some rooms would suddenly transform around me--walls lifting, passages shuttering, and platforms lowering in concert to reveal the presence of previously unseen dangers. Each of the accompanying sound samples, be it a rifle's discharge or the collision of an enemy projectile, had punch to it--a viscerally pleasing impact that gave real weight to the action onscreen. Doom even had a cool automap that would reveal a stage's basic geometry and allow me to explore from a top-down perspective!

We were still in the 16-bit era, but I felt like I was somehow witnessing the birth of a new generation and getting a taste of it without having to buy a whole new machine! (Though, I can't discount the impact of a certain pioneering ape's new game--another technical marvel that would make me question the reality of things.) "How is SNES capable of this?" I continued to wonder.

The only specific instance I remember from that second, full play-through of Episode 1 was my first encounter with the Barons of Hell--a mean-looking pair of minotaurs who seemed invincible at the time (it was either that I hadn't found a rocket launcher, or I'd since lost it via death); my only strategy was to run away from them and hope that taking them down wasn't a requirement.

Doom played many roles for me. It provided me, for one, a fantastic setting: I'm an average grunt who finds himself all alone on a moon base with no point of contact, left to my own devices to navigate through a mysteriously elaborate military compound infested with hell-spawned demons. But Doom's is a silently looming threat. Sometimes I don't know the source from which the monsters' snortling is emanating; I know that they're there, somewhere, but I can't say for sure. They could be hiding in the pools of shadow in the reactor room, behind that solid-looking wall, or right there in plain sight, obscured by an equally pixelated surface-texture. Hell--that unsettling feeling of uncertainty remains even when I've already mapped out their locations! 

That's because Doom also provided me an unforgettable sense of atmosphere as generated by the sprawling, untamed level design with its concealed ambush points and its many darkened branches; the ominous music's immersing tones; and the game's quickly ingrained sense of foreboding. There was a constant sense of tension as I'd slowly inched my way around a corner, not sure if what awaited me was unoccupied space or a demon that was ready to begin tearing me to pieces. I could see everything, but, really, I could see nothing. The psychology of it was incredible. No other game had ever evoked that type of unease. 

Doom was scary and it oftentimes threw me into the middle of dire scenarios, but it wasn't strictly about survival. Oh, no--its protagonist had access to all means of destructive armament using which he could effectively counter the forces of Hell. Now, I could find success by, say, running out into the open and mowing down packs of demons with my rifle, chaingun and rocket launcher, but it was likely I'd pay a hefty price for doing so, ammunition- or health-wise. I discovered, instead, that Doom was more about calculated running and gunning--knowing when the odds were in my favor and when it was the appropriate time to charge forward, guns blazing (I just had to be sure not to spaz out and fire my rocket launcher at close range). The designers did a good job of supplying just enough ammo to promote a style of tactical play over recklessness, which if tempted would lead to either my quick demise or a bind in which dozens of enemies were still lurking and I was down my fists and my largely useless chainsaw (only the pink demons seemed susceptible to its stun-locking potential).

Doom certainly wasn't mindless, as its media detractors would insist. It had actual level design, exploration, puzzle-solving (mostly centered around the procuring of color-coded key cards), and even some platforming (as much of it as you could do in a game without a jump button)--everything today's shooters lack. Its labyrinthine compounds contained secrets galore, and part of the fun was going back and re-exploring the entire stage after eliminating all of the monsters, hugging every wall in search of hidden areas. Doom had it all. 

I loved Episode 1 of Doom so much that I played through it multiple times in the months of ahead. I stated previously that its opening mission was iconic to me--one of the great "first stages" in gaming history--but, really, I considered every mission in that episode to be quintessential. I'd usually play it on the default middle difficulty, "Hurt Me Plenty," but I'd dabble in "Ultra-Violence" and "Nightmare" when I was feeling saucy. I would rather do that than play either the second or third episodes, both of which I thought lacked Episode 1's sense of claustrophobia; also, I always felt as though I was constantly under-equipped in comparison, unable to take down even a small wave of imps without exhausting all of my ammunition.

I remember playing through them once apiece and feeling underwhelmed. It's indicative, then, that my one outstanding memory of the experience is the "battle" with the Episode 2 end boss, the Cyberdemon--the alleged showdown memorable to me not because it was a tense, epic clash but because I never even got a clean look at the thing as I furiously pumped rockets into it from a distance; what I saw could only be described as a small collection of indiscernible pixels, and whatever creature they constituted must've gotten stuck on a wall at the other end of the battlefield. It had to a "Cyberdemon," I figured, because it was the only manual-listed foe I couldn't recall encountering otherwise; for all knew, though, it might well have been a highly resistant imp. I caught a better glimpse of the Episode 3 end boss, the grotesque Spider Mastermind, but relied on the same strategy of engaging it from a safe distance--this time with the BFG.

Sure--I was only cheating myself by resorting to such cheap tactics, but I really didn't care at that point; I just wanted to get the battle over with so I could say that I'd finished the latter two episodes.

While neither was as enjoyable to me as Episode 1 in terms of action and level design, I did continue to be enamored with the quality of the musical score. I liked in particular the Episode 2, Mission 1 theme (Hell Keep)--a rhythmic, appropriately-evil-sounding piece that was perfectly matched to a stage that represented the aggressively guarded Gates of Hell. I made sure to include it in my video-game soundtrack collection--all of the tapes in its library created using that same aging tape recorder I received as a gift from my aunt in the mid-80s.

Even I didn't love every aspect of Doom, I could still say that it was one of the most wonderfully unique, fully realized video games I'd ever played--a masterpiece of design regardless of whether it was conceived in Williams Entertainment's Super FX lab or a garage somewhere in Texas. I continued to extract value from it until we retired the SNES to the closet.

In 1998, basically out of nowhere, James excitedly ushered me down into the basement and introduced me to his new computer--a "Microsoft Windows" PC whose colorful desktop barely resembled the drab, text-heavy screen displays I remembered seeing time and again in my early years. Rather, this one featured animated desktop imagery, interactive icons, and a whole slew of features that I found astonishing. It was right then that my perception of the computer scene, and consequently my whole world, was turned on its head. Over the course of a few days, James taught me all about the basics of the Windows operating system and how to browse this newfangled "Internet" thing (though, I wasn't yet clear on difference between "the Internet" and "a browser, which I thought were interchangeable terms"). Better yet, James agreed to let me to use with his computer during the night hours while he was sleeping!

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