A Legacy of Violence: Appreciating DOOM

Some say videogames are too violent these days. Our correspondent Reuben argues that DOOM (2016) is precisely violent enough.

Ever since Pacman chomped his first ghost and Mario sent Donkey Kong falling to his death from scaffolding, conflict has been central to video games. They’ve gotten better at it over the years, upping both style and substance.

This process reached its first apex with the original Doom. Released in 1993, the great-grandfather of first-person shooters not only wrote the book on ultraviolence, but then used that book to brutalise a demon made of guns. Doom moves at lightning speed, enemies torn apart in a spray of pixelated gore, backed by a soundtrack of midi files ripped from the harddrive of the world’s angriest computer. Doom 93 was given life by all the goriest parts of the popular culture at the time, the Book of Revelations mixed with Troma, Dungeons and Dragons and thrash metal.

When DOOM (2016) was released, it had a lot to live up to. Games have come a long way from the first id software shareware files, expectations for the medium and the series in particular were already high.

From the word go, when you awake in a blood-stained sarcophagus and decapitate a zombie with your bare hands, DOOM does its best to live up to that promise. There is nothing realistic or grounded to be found here. Screaming monsters from the depths of hell are blasted with plasma cannons and rocket launchers while industrial metal howls in the background. Literally ripping and tearing your enemies to shreds in glorious showers of gore and particle effects is a rush few other titles can match.

Combat in DOOM is brutal and balletic all at once. You still move at the same breakneck pace the series is known for, your weapons boom and crackle with terrible power as you blast your enemies to pieces. The legions of hell do everything in their considerable power to return the favour. Mancubi rain down cannon fire as imps chip away at your armour. Standing still, even for a few moments, is certain death.

DOOM has no regenerating health, no cover to hide behind. Your best and only defense is overwhelming offense. The game rewards not only movement, but aggression. Weakened enemies are softened up for glory kills, brutal melee takedowns that shower you with health packs. The chainsaw can kill any enemy in a single gory swing, replenishing your ammo, but you have to get up close and personal to do it. You’re leashed to your enemies, dependant on them for resources that you need to kill them.

This is true of you as a player but also of the protagonist, the Doom Slayer. The last survivor of an ancient realm decimated by the demons, DS has been remade into an unstoppable avatar of destruction, fury and violent purpose, wrapped in body armour and packing a BFG. On that point, the fact that the game’s signature weapon are a Evil dead style boomstick and something literally named the Big Fucking Gun really tells you everything you need to know.

Doom Slayer is not a particularly deep character. They aren’t conflicted about their actions, there’s no sense of trepidation at inflicting such terrible harm. But they’re also refreshingly free of toxic masculinity. There are no one liners or clumsy attempts to seem ‘cool’ or ‘badass’, and their silence feels like a very deliberate choice on the part of the writers, rather than being intended to make them a convenient player insert. A wordless protagonist necessitates that you learn about them through their actions – and in a first-person shooter that means how you kill things. Violence is a means to an end, one that has to be executed in as precise and destructive a manner as possible. They clearly have agency of their own, a very specific understanding of the situation and what needs to be done to fix it.

The most outright example of this is in the Argent Tower level. Rather than politely deactivating the gateway to hell as requested, DS smashes the delicate machinery into bits. Although this seems like the wanton destructiveness driven by careless aggression, in context it is a carefully considered solution to a obvious problem. While the few remaining survivors of the incursion make excuses their greed and justify their actions for the greater good, DS uses any means at their disposal to destroy the threat. You are the universe’s break glass in case of emergency. Quote the game itself: “They are rage. Brutal, without mercy. But you? You will be worse. Rip and Tear, until it is done.”

Your avatar is unquestionably powerful, and utterly effective. There’s a very real sense of danger in the enemies and hazards of DOOM but the threat never feels insurmountable. Each encounter you survive and threat you dispose of reinforces the idea that you are the most dangerous thing on Mars or in Hell. You feel a sense of pride an exhilaration as you scrape by a challenging fight by the skin of your teeth. Of course you survived, you’re the best!

There are upgrades and collectibles to find in DOOM’s labyrinthine levels, but they’re all very optional. Instead the reward for success in the game is simply more game to play. Killing all the enemies unlocks more enemies for you to kill. It’s testament to how exhilarating the process is that this is more than enough reward. This motivation of the player ties the game’s mechanical loop to its narrative.

If old Doom was a audio cassette of thrash metal bootlegs, DOOM 2016 is a those same tracks remastered and rebuilt from the ground up.There’s no question that the violence in DOOM is designed to be empowering. The death and destruction you leave in your wake is testament to a design ethos honed to a fine point. DOOM is not a game about violence as an act, but instead uses its primary method of interaction (arguably most videogames’ primary method of interaction) to propel you forwards through the game. The ends here are already justified, there is nothing left to do but enjoy the means.

Or, as DOOM itself might put it: rip and tear, because it is fun.

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About Reuben Williams-Smith

Reuben Williams-Smith is a UK based writer, podcaster and Dungeon Master. He loves games, eldritch horror and low budget monster movies. To see more of his work, and occasional pictures of his adorable fur-babies, follow him on twitter @reubscubes.
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