Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#1 Richard Wright 1 Jan 1994


Id Software, Texas USA

In the last Woody Allen movie there is a scene where he and Diane Keaton are leaving the Lincoln Opera House before the end of the performance. Woody explains I don't like to listen to too much Wagner – I keep getting the urge to invade Poland.

This kind of logic has much in common with frequent reactions to the effects of excessive violence in movies, TV, comics and now computer games. The software house producing the most extreme examples of this genre of blood thirsty shoot-em-ups is Id Software, and their latest release Doom is quite exceptional in the lengths it goes to in order to put you into the most visceral situations. Id's first game in this series was Escape from Wolfenstein released last year which centred on an escaped POW running around a Nazi castle and shooting everything that moved. The most striking thing about it was the level of sophistication of the graphics – very interactive, a strong 3D illusion, lots of graphic details and completely over-the-top violence (Nintendo made Id tone down the version that it produced for their games consoles). But Doom actually goes an order of magnitude higher than this in reaching new degrees of realism and interactive simulation.

The aim of the game is straightforward on the surface: simply a question of shooting your way through each level while being chased by an assortment of half human soldiers, demons and monsters. You're toast if you get too close to these monstrosities. The excuse for a story is that you are a 'tough marine' of the future, sent to Phobos to rescue the moon base from something nasty that has been transported during their experiments in inter-dimensional space travel. Just a few days ago you were probably swapping war stories with one of these guys. Now its time to swap some lead upside their heads. This scenario is represented graphically using highly sophisticated texture mapping techniques to produce a range of lighting effects, radioactive pools, mountainscapes and interiors from stone dungeons to hi-tech computer display panels. These allow the player to appear to move around both inside and outside the buildings, run up and down staircases, take lifts and jump off walls. The adversaries that you face are also partially intelligent, enabling them to join forces as they pursue you, try to cut you off and ambush you from secret trap doors while the lights are switched off. In some instances they will get caught in their own crossfire, resulting in them taking time off to attack each other.

Doom uses a first person viewpoint, the view on the screen is what the protagonist would see and it changes to mimic walking, turning or running – a virtual reality interface without goggles in fact. Sticking out of the front of the screen is one of a number of weapons that the player can acquire, and the action of firing is portrayed in remarkable detail with blasts, impact explosions and smoke. The result of actually hitting one of your enemies is even more dramatic, involving bodies flying, blood splattering and screaming noises, in some cases bodies completely exploding into charred husks. Chainguns direct heavy firepower into your opponent, making him do the chaingun cha-cha. At the bottom of the screen is a status panel which shows you how much ammo and armour you have left and what your health percentage is. As your heath falls you can revive yourself by picking up items like Medikits. Your current state of health is represented graphically by a picture of your head which varies from alert and clean-cut to something reminiscent of a 'raw hamburger'.The violence is hyped up relentlessly – a player has the choice of various ability levels from 'Not too rough' to `Hurt me plenty' and 'Ultra-violence'. The first episode given away as a free incentive is called Knee Deep in the Dead and the player is exhorted at every turn to get stuck in and start blasting away. As soon as the game has started one is immediately into the kill-or-be-killed logic, and it is highly addictive.

In an interview in a recent issue of Edge (the coffee-table computer games magazine), Id Software's technical director John Cormack describes Doom as a graphics system looking for a game. We designed the user interaction and display technology to be as cool as possible, then worked a game around it. ... Doom is just a killer environment with no pretensions of having a real story. Although described as an action-oriented slugathon, this does not give a clear idea of the attraction of playing the game. Neither does the qualifying advice that To escape DOOM you need both brains and the killer instinct. The driving motivation for the player is not a simple blood lust, nor even a primitive expression of law-of-the-jungle self-preservation. Because Doom is not really a battle simulation, but a cinema simulation, specifically a simulation of body-count cyberpunk movies like Robocop, Total Recall and Aliens. The real thrill of playing Doom is roaming around the bizarre scenery of the futuristic moon base, noting the changes in mood as you travel from a flickering computer control room down corridors to a mouldy dungeon surrounded by shimmering pools of radioactive waste. To pass through some doorways you need to find colour coded keys. At other times badly need ammunition lies hidden behind secret doors. The mechanics of locating a secret door do not really require a surfeit of brains however, just a matter of approaching every wall and pressing the 'open' button until one responds. The real point is the tension of searching and exploring the architecture, the same as if watching a film while waiting for the climax to happen. The greatest satisfaction is in locating a doorway that leads out through a tunnel into an open courtyard, rewarding you with a vista of fractal mountains and an opportunity to view the building from a new vantage point. The feeling when edging around corners or stumbling upon a room full of demons is one of surprise and the excitement of disorientation rather than the exercise of a trigger-happy 'killer instinct'.

The violence is so parodied and self-conscious in this game that it is not difficult to negate it altogether and to experience the game on other levels. The most serious reason to destroy the marauding demons is that they interrupt your enjoyment of a newly discovered set of caverns and try to block your progress. The strongest experience in playing Doom then is the exhilaration of exploring an alien environment which leaves you continuing to run around the corridors long after all the enemies have been disposed of.

All Id's games come with full music soundtrack as well as the sound effect punctuations, reproduced in CD quality audio when a suitable soundcard is installed. This enormously heightens the effect of being actually inside a movie and to become totally absorbing. Various filmic references are scattered around the game such as the opportunity to pick up a chainsaw as part of your weapons arsenal, appropriate enough for a games company that is based in Texas. The graphic style of this Schwarzenegger-simulator is a curious blend of cartoon artwork similar to the simplified graphics of most computer sprite characters, heightened by video grabbed imagery and probably rotoscoped poses. The resulting look is an idealised realism which is unexpectedly similar to the treatments of mainstream cinema, especially recent sci-fi movies.

At the current time Britain is suffering one of its periodic 'moral panics' spearheaded by conservatives who believe that the best way to preserve the nation's moral fibre is to eradicate all references to the contrary. Along with Bulletin Board Services said to spread child pornography (always a favourite call to arms), video games have come under attack for their portrayal of horror. The recent controversy over Sega's Night Trap console game has also been joined by many intellectuals and cultural critics in journals and newspapers of the libertarian left who now feel that sex and violence in video games represents a menace to the appreciation of serious cultural pursuits. Although Night Trap is represented as a stalk-and-slash scenario in which young girls in nighties are molested by alien monsters, the main contention is that the game pioneered the use of live video clips for graphic realism. This development implied for many left critics a more serious influence on young minds, especially its perceived victimisation of hapless women and fascistically inspired blood lust. In fact, if many of the critics had actually seen the game they would have discovered that the female characters were far from helpless and that the level of exploitation was no greater than an episode of Lost in Space. But of course, many cultural critics do not like games, preferring to side with reactionary parties who relegate them to the status of the junk culture that serves to make their own cultural interests appear that much more edifying. Computer games do not attract the support of those who so vehemently oppose the introduction of more draconian film censorship for example, for, as everyone knows, film has the status of Art. Apart from an astonishingly naive understanding of how electronic texts function, it seems that their main contribution to the development of this sphere of video culture will be to discourage the interest of people looking for a new medium in which to develop challenging new ideas so that in the future they can complain about any lack of serious intent even more. But fortunately the influence of such concerned individuals is in conflict, especially as an involvement with some form of electronic media is becoming the only way that the art establishment can maintain its currency in a society where visual literacy and cultural skills will, in the future, be developed primarily in a haze of phosphor radiation.

So... Act like a man! Slap a few shells into your shotgun and let's kick some demonic butt!