Doom is a game that has left commentators struggling to come to terms with its impact for the last two decades. Retrospectives of the game first started appearing fifteen years ago. These days only a total plum would fail to recognise it as one of the landmark achievements of 1990s popular culture. Terminator 2, Nirvana, Jurassic Park, Simpsons, Wayne’s World, Twin Peaks, Pogs, Doom.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the people who played Doom and got immersed in its culture at the time. To this day, there is an unspoken bond of shared experience between acolytes of Doom (and the rest of id’s peak run through Quake and Quake II). It’s the gaming equivalent of Woodstock. Those who only came to it later, dabbling in ported versions, missed a huge amount of the experience, which went way beyond the code and pixels stuffed onto those four 3.5″ disks.
It’s still very easy to tell which camp most games journalists (who were old enough) fall into. PC Zone ‘got’ Doom, awarding it 96% and dubbing it the best arcade game and best multiplayer game up to that point. A large part of the UK games press (from PC Gamer and EDGE to parts of Eurogamer and RPS) have never quite managed to discuss the game without tongue wandering to cheek, initially through a nagging snobbery that this sort of thing wasn’t what PCs were for, and later as part of the miserable, superficial, cripplingly self-conscious trend that everything we loved as teenagers should be reassessed as valueless rot, only to be enjoyed ironically.
I was 13 when Doom came out, so of course my tastes were already finely developed and aspects of them not having budged for over half my life isn’t weird at all. Shut up.
In the UK, in 1993, PC gaming was a niche within a niche. Normal people only got turned on to Doom in serious numbers later in the decade, after Doom II game out at retail, PC World boomed and ‘multimedia’ PCs that could run games effortlessly became desirable consumer goods. (Doom, running full-screen and quicksilver-smooth as it’s commonly remembered, required at least a 486-DX2/66mhz with a VESA local bus graphics card, which would have cost around £2,000 in 1993.)
It was post-1995 that the idea of Doom being about “hordes of enemies”, which was to become a meal ticket for the developers of the Painkiller and Serious Sam games, caught on. The original Doom only very gingerly pushes at the capabilities of Carmack’s miraculous engine, as it still had to support almost unimaginably crude machines*.
Far from everyone in 1993 had access to a PC, but almost everyone who did had access to one played Doom. I remember teachers, lecturers, pop stars and comedians, and everyone in my social sphere, male and female, from young kids to teens and parents playing it at one point or other. The number of PCs may have limited it from reaching the masses in way phenomena like Mario, Tetris and Pokemon did, but the fact that at one point it was installed on more machines than Windows 95 suggests that it was culturally pervasive.
For the amusement and enlightenment of the most of you who didn’t waste their early teenage years in this way, here are some aspects of the contemporary Doom experience that are (for better or worse) largely forgotten today:
1. Doom ran in MS-DOS, in VGA, at 320×200, on CRT monitors. This means the pixels weren’t square. Virtually every subsequent reproduction of the Doom art, from source ports to website decoration to fancy coffee table books, has been at slightly the wrong aspect ratio.
2. Most people back then had FM synthesis-based sound cards. (Creative’s Sound Blaster family being the dominant standard.) Robert Prince’s music sounds very different (and considerably more evil) with spiky FM guitars than the parping Hammond organ-like sound of wavetable synth interpretations. (I think you can now emulate this difference in DOSBox if you’re curious.)
3. The disconcertingly in-your-face menu sound effects make sense if you play the game using a mechanical keyboard, whumping the cursor keys with the base of the middle finger, or swiping the ESC key like a bottlecap with the thumb.
4. id Software didn’t officially release modding tools for the game. Most of the tools were reverse engineered by hobbyists. (id’s actual tools were all for insanely expensive $10,000+ NeXT workstations. Again emphasising just how puny PC hardware was at the time, even game development required specialist equipment.)
5. In addition to creating new maps and replacing textures, there was a branch of Doom modding that involved hacking the executable, with sophisticated tools to do this without coding (such as DeHackEd). While this was vastly less flexible than ‘real’ game logic modding tools like Quake C, it let modders change the rules of the game and create new entities by repurposing assets.
Obviously these mods are incompatible with virtually all subsequent ports of the game so are largely forgotten. Edit: I’m informed that later source ports do still maintain compatibility with DeHackEd patches. Cool.
6. Very few people had internet access. I remember using CompuServe around the time Doom came out, and being able to download mods and documents from their Doom ‘section’. Most of the distribution of mods and tools was done by magazine coverdiscs, and dodgy commercial compilations. The online community around Doom (which grew and ultimately exploded by the release of Quake) set down the blueprint for how video games lived on the internet.
This was back when BT (curse their gibs) were still charging 1p per minute to connect to dial-up internet, by the way. Because of the general impracticality of browsing the internet at leisure, most of the information about Doom gleaned by the community was condensed into the Doom FAQ designed to be stored and printed for offline reading.
7. You couldn’t really play Doom on the internet in any practical way. You could play it over a modem either directly with another player or via a proprietary service like BT’s Wireplay. Most deathmatch gaming was done by locally networking machines. Network cards were not remotely standard equipment at the time** (and were 30-40 quid a pop, not including cables and other bits and bobs), so networking two or three machines together was often achieved with serial cables. (USB didn’t exist yet either. Or DVDs! O.J. Simpson was still best known for the Naked Gun films. You could go to the theatre and get change from a nickel…)
8. Doom is notorious for being hard and scary, but many players (having no internet) spent a lot of time playing single player maps in God Mode with the intent of seeing cool things happen, and (as the barrier to entry was so incredibly low) starting to tweak the game to make cool things happen. Doom has passed down more DNA to Minecraft than Call of Duty.
9. Doom’s aesthetic is now sometimes dismissed as being extremely cheesy, adolescent and gratuitously violent. Technically this is correct. It is grossly unfair to see it bracketed with the likes of Duke Nukem 3D and Mortal Kombat however. Doom did not use violence to shock. It was trying to matter-of-factly simulate an extreme fantasy role-playing scenario. Doom is id’s answer to the question of what is the coolest, most intense thing that we can represent with this technology?
Everything in Doom’s presentation was geared towards consistency. It works because it’s played completely straight – not in the arse-clenchingly tedious, prog-rock way that Bungie would handle their ‘fictional universe’, but in the way that a lovingly made horror or sci-fi thriller approaches its improbable subject matter. (This approach would be taken further and reap even greater rewards with the first two Quake games.)
Romero and co. knew id’s audience, but do not pander to them. (If you want to see what could have been, without Carmack’s tech, or with Tom Hall’s goofiness, check out Blake Stone or Rise of the Triad.) Compared to Duke3D (and every other action game that emerged from shareware) id’s visual design was startlingly articulate and mature. The Doom box art remains one of the most iconic gaming images, along with the Space Invader and R-Type’s Dobkeratops.
10. Lots of game developers (particularly level designers) got their start in the Doom scene. The first section of Half-Life (after you get out of the monorail) is a particularly obvious example of an environment made with the conventions of the Doom engine still firmly in mind.
11. While I could never get my head around the finicky Etch-a-Sketch logic of making Doom levels, I made several graphical and gameplay mods for the game, including Wild West-themed enemies, a hand mixer weapon (to replace the chainsaw), murderable bystanders, and (as I was a teenage boy after all) lots more blood. Most of these are lost to the ages.
*It’s worth checking out Hexen (the second of two games Raven Software made licensing out the Doom tech) to see the imaginative uses it was later put to.
**This also reminds me that by no means all of the original PCs used to play Doom had mice.