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Doom: How to make a power fantasy

The moment you get past the difficulty selection you are thrown into the game. There is no cutscene explaining who you are, chains of text detailing the events or a radio voice filing you on the story and objective. Here, you're not the chosen hero nor hell’s most feared warrior. You are a nobody. You have no name, no personality and about the only things making you more than a pair of floating hands holding a gun is your face and the grunts of pain that accompany it. Dead bodies of fallen marines are often found within the levels. They’re nothing more than decoration in both the context of the story and even the code itself. Some of them are quite shocking and perfectly show the brutal and savage nature of your enemies. If the demons were replaced with nazis, robots or aliens your reasons would still be the same. They shot first so you shot back. As you progress through the game you encounter more and more demonic abominations. Your arsenal grows and so does the carnage. The hundreds of pixelated bodies scattered throughout the level are a constant reminder of your power. You enter a room, the door closes and the walls lower revealing a cluster of demons waiting to tear you apart. Despite the low ammo you manage to overcome the ambush, your confidence rises and you feel unstoppable. What once was a nameless nobody with nothing but a p-shooter is now an one man army fighting against the forces of hell. This is how Doom manages its power fantasy and where it differs drastically from the new entries.

Games need to evolve, to adapt and to implement the technological and cultural changes of their times. What was considered ok in 1998 could be considered as bad or outdated in 2006. Still, many games have managed to embrace and implement such changes while still maintaining the same feel and identity. Half Life, Fallout, GTA, SWAT all these games have changed in terms of style, story and even gameplay but the very DNA of the series is still present within the later titles. The same can’t be said about doom. After the release of Quake, things began to fall apart within the walls of ID software. The stress, ambition and desire to improve and innovate has had a negative impact on both the company and the games. People were unhappy and began to leave while the games suffered from an identity crisis. Quake, Doom 64 and Doom 3 all tried to take on a more horror approach. Slower combat, fewer yet tougher enemies and dark ominous corridors accompanied by nightmarish soundscapes. The bright and colorful textures now replaced with shades of brown, gray and purple making the levels less distinctive. You may recognize and remember the architecture but sooner or later, everything just blends together. The constant darkness throughout doom 3 ment that you always needed to have a source of light, nothing wrong there. Games have had darkness before and the limited visibility is a staple of horror games and media. The problem lies in how doom 3 handles it, you can’t have a flashlight and a gun at the same time, this will naturally create tense situations where you walk around a hallway only to encounter an enemy and quickly try to switch to your weapon. There is a problem however. The game can’t decide if it still wants to be an action shooter or a survival horror. Monsters leap towards you, have fast projectiles or hitscan weapons so most of the time you’ll be getting hit anyway. Suspense then quickly turns into annoyance. They tried to fix this issue by separating the light from the gun in the BFG edition which removed the little suspense there was entirely and turned it into an action shooter where you can’t see anything most of the time and have to get up close in order to even damage your enemies properly. You fixed the wrong thing and ended up breaking it further.  And it wasn’t just doom who suffered from this problem. Wolfenstein couldn’t decide if the tone should be dark and serious or exaggerated and satirical. Rage wanted to be Borderlands while Quake still seems to have more of an existential crisis where no one knows where to take the series so they just try to enhance and beautify what’s already there.

The original version of doom 4 was going to have the same issues. Now instead of horror the game seemed to be a narrative heavy experience about a post apocalyptic earth overrun by hell. Branching narrative choices and heavy themes regarding the struggle and horrors of war and the hellish apocalypse taking the main stage. Metro but with demons. Mechanically, it played just like a modern shooter, with cover mechanics, aiming down sights and perhaps even regenerating health. Call of doom. What I find interesting is that despite the shift in tone and gameplay, you had a mele system that allowed you to perform exaggerated and brutal finishing moves on your enemies. The complete opposite from what we’ve established so far. As the studio director of ID software said himself “[...] [Doom] did not have the spirit, it did not have the soul, it didn’t have a personality. It had a bit of schizophrenia, a little bit of an identity crisis.” - Tim Willits. The only way to fix the problem was to go back to the roots. Demons and shotguns, violence and speed, mars and hell. The remake from 2016 was a refreshing sight. The franchise has finally found it’s identity again and while they have succeeded in making the game be a worthy successor to the original games, they have failed in recreating the same power fantasy. 

“You are badass, you are awesome” over and over again the game seems to be reminding you of that. “They are rage, brutal, without mercy. But you. You will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done.” These are the first words you hear when starting the game. You are no longer a nobody, you are hell’s worst nightmare, you are an ancient force released once again, YOU, are humanities revenge. “They fear you, you are badass, you are awesome”.   The original protagonist of doom had no name, so people called him Doomguy. It’s uninspired, lazy and uncreative, but it’s still better than having no name. They had no other option so they just rolled with it. Now you are given a nickname once again, not by the players but by the enemies. The Doom Slayer. It’s exaggerated, nonsensical and absurd, but you can’t help but smile because of the nickname they gave to YOU. “They fear you, you are badass, you are awesome, you are great”. Again and again you are being reminded of your greatness, not just by the story but by the music and level design. The architecture of the old games was nonsensical, primitive and often failed to enforce the idea that you find yourself in a real place until the emergence of Duke Nukem 3D. And yet, despite their limitations, the levels felt more natural through the somewhat reasonable and believable placements of the monsters. In doom 4 gameplay can be structured as follows, story, arena, exploration combined with puzzle solving or platforming, repeat. The segments never intersect with each other, the majority of the fights only happen within the arena section where the environment seems to be built by the architects of the UAC just for you to perfectly unleash your primal rage. The music, shifting from pure metal to industrial electro similar to the genres of Glitch or dark synth, adapts to your actions and becomes as violent as you. It’s loud, it’s obnoxious and it fits the games message perfectly. “They fear you, your are badass, you are awesome, you, are the Doom Slayer”. 

In doom eternal they went even further, to an almost ridiculous degree. The opening cutscene shows the doom slayer overlooking earth from his personal space station. Radio chatter of soldiers being overrun by the demonic forces, prophets preaching about the end times and survivors calling in for help can be heard as the slayer prepares his descent on earth. Everyone and everything fears and praises him. Hell priests tremble at his sight, scientists awkwardly go out of hisway and try to back off when he approaches them and audio logs praise the slayer like a messiah or a god even. Not a far fetch considering that now, canonically the slayer is a god. There are many more examples of the absurd and often ridiculous choices regarding the tone of both the game and it’s lore and I think one scene in particular encapsulates perfectly what ID now wants the games to be about . For 27 years doom’s protagonists were mute, a perfectly reasonable decision considering the games were more about action than words and even doom 3’s narrative was more focused on the concept of “show don’t tell”. Doom Eternal finally broke this tradition by making the slayer talk in a flashback sequence. “Guts, huge guts. Kill them. Must, kill them all. Rip and TEAR!” The dialogue is taken from the official Doom Comic from 1996. It is a product of its time filled with cheesy dialogue over the top action and bad attitude which are all staples of most 90s action films and media. The fact that these are the first words the Doom protagonist has spoken perfectly conveys the message. “They fear the Doom Slayer, he is badass, he is awesome, HE,  is the best”. The developers, designers and writers were clearly very proud of their creation and made sure everyone would come to see, hear and experience it first hand. And I can respect that. The games handle their power fantasy differently, however that does not mean one is any superior to the other.

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