Sunday, September 26, 2010

DOOM And What Videogames Are Trying To Tell Us


I love DOOM. It’s one of my favorite games. DOOM doesn’t have much of a story. You kill things. There’s something about space marines and the moons of mars. Mostly that’s a way of justifying the setting and why you are killing things.

Most people will say that the killing is the best thing about DOOM. They say that it’s some kind of hyper-masculine empowerment fantasy for bullied kids or for adults who want to turn a shotgun on their bosses and families. That’s the way it got played out at the time, anyway. DOOM scared a lot of people. It was intense. It was frighteningly visceral. You could kill other people, virtually. The game can give a weirdly empowered feeling, like maybe someone who’s in the midst of some sort of manic episode. So DOOM and other violent games got confused with reality, in the same way people got comic books and movies and just about anything else cool in the past mixed up with reality. I don’t really blame people for that, in retrospect. It just shows how powerful it was.

The brutal and masculine surface of DOOM belies a deceptive complexity. Yes, the gameplay is extremely basic. Maybe even a bit dumb. You collect color coded keys to open corresponding color coded doors to get to an elevator that moves you to the next area. This was a dated gameplay mechanic, even at the time, and also basically a carbon copy of Wolfenstein 3D in many ways. Within that very basic mechanic, though, DOOM realizes its world to an interesting depth. Because everything about the gameplay is so simple and ingrained, it’s the kind of game that invites you to take on personal meanings. After I had played DOOM long enough to become absorbed in it I started to invent my own story. It’s only a natural human response to a game that doesn’t explain itself in any conventional story terms. To nine year-old me, singleplayer DOOM was mostly about escaping from and ultimately prevailing over the bad things in my life - represented by the demons in the game.

I was never really the master of anything in DOOM. I wasn’t even that great at it because it terrified me so much. Most of time I’d just turn on the invincibility and ammo codes and just run through the level on the paths I was supposed to go so I could at least see everything. When the game was done, even if I tried to go to every single area and kill every single monster (which I didn’t most of the time), the worlds in the game still felt like living, breathing entities that I was only visiting for awhile. By the time I had played through the game several times, most of the levels were so vivid to me that it was like I had experienced them in real life.

The world of DOOM is really so strange, when you think about it. The architecture, even in the levels with “man-made” looking structures, is so weirdly malevolent. Who the hell would build such places? Every environment seems to be designed specifically for the purpose of randomly trapping you and spawning in enemies. That doesn’t exactly make any sense, in any real-world architectural way. Especially not if the buildings were built by humans before any monsters showed up. Maybe the monsters are intelligent and rebuilt things. It doesn’t matter anyway: DOOM doesn’t occupy this rational universe. DOOM comes from the dark corners of human imagination.

The art is wonderful. The abstract pixelatedness is the kind of thing that people make fun of now, but I think it’s still perfect. DOOM is not emulating the reality of the current human experience, it is a horrifying netherworld. The art brilliantly emphasizes how fuzzy and surreally gory it is, like a lost Francis Bacon painting. It might be the closest thing to being inside a Francis Bacon painting, actually. It’s said, I think in Masters of DOOM, that Adrian Carmack (the artist) used his work in a morgue as inspiration for his art, and I completely believe it. He knew exactly what he was doing. I can’t imagine that it would be nearly as effective with super high res textures and polygonal enemies.

The episodic structure of DOOM was common for PC games and especially FPS’s at the time. It’s a gaming relic today. The practical reason was so that developers could have a free “shareware” episode to promote the game with, maybe it was also to try out a bunch of different ideas without worrying about connecting them (not that DOOM 2 really does). It actually works wonderfully. The different episodes are like different layers of hell, different aspects of the darkness in the soul that move closer and closer into the heart. The names and settings of the episodes indicate that that was sort of the intention, but could just as easily could be have been BSing.

Episode 1 (Knee Deep In The Dead) was a kind of lonely computer base. The buildings are mostly all a sandy brown color. They’re nice little monuments to scientific progress that feel like a cohesive unit. They also aren’t too grimy - the places look like they were only recently abandoned and therefore are actually kinda pleasant, aside from all the enemies. The outside is pretty in a distant world sort of way, with a bright sky and a big mysterious mountain looming in the background. As the levels progress, their friendliness dissipates and they start to turn into twisting mazes of confusion. Level 6 (Central Processing) and level 7 (Computer Station) are non-linear nightmares filled with traps. I don’t find either particularly pleasurable to play because of that. There’s a curve ball at the end, an anticlimactic eighth level that starts off epic but quickly turns into a teaser to I guess to give people who played it as a shareware episode a taste of what was to come.

Episode 2 (The Shores of Hell, my favorite) is like a more mysterious and darker cousin to episode 1’s ethereal science bases. The levels look long abandoned, maybe where the more morally questionable experiments were carried out. Teleporters are more frequent and disorienting, which probably made a lot of people at the time nauseous. At least a few of the levels have this organically overgrown feel in a Stalker-ish way, like monsters took them over into a strange sort of ecosystem. The sometimes disorienting layout makes them have almost their own internal laws and logic, like some kind of Zone. Level 4 (Deimos Lab) is my favorite DOOM level, it’s fairly linear but also very open and mysterious. It starts off low-lit and foreboding, but after the initial areas the the level closes in and takes you on some kind demented ride and reveals something important in the end (that wall of faces is like some kind of scary catharsis). Level 6 (Halls of the Damned) has an amazingly appropriate name, because the dark mazy layout is so intensely claustrophobic. Level 7 (Spawning Vats) is a brilliant non-linear amalgamation of everything in the episode. It’s like a condensed, kaleidoscopic re-experiencing of everything you've been through once before.

Episode 3 (Inferno) is just straight-up hell filled with strange, incomprehensible, inconsistent, chaotic architecture far beyond any sort of human comprehension or logic. The entire episode plays like one gigantic wall of wailing faces. I was scared to play it as a kid, but also found it strangely fascinating and sort of wildly cartoonish, gory way. I know now from lurking around DOOM communities that a lot of the character of the episode has to do with designer Sandy Petersen’s odd texturing and layout choices, but when I was a kid I didn’t know anything about what good level design or texturing was supposed to be. At least a few of those levels do things that might be frowned on now, but they work wonderfully within the context of the game. Level 6 (Mount Erebus) in particular is very unconventional. The name is a reference to a Lovecraft story with an ominous mountain in South America, but the actual level is bright and wildly over the top in an exhilarating way (and much much better than some of the similar levels in DOOM 2). By contrast, level 7 (Limbo) is elegant, restrained, mysterious and somber (despite a puzzlingly blue ceiling). It so perfectly fits the theme of being in the place between heaven and hell, and is so fully realized and complete that it gives me a feeling of joy to think about it.

Episode 4 (Thy Flesh Consumed) I had because I owned the CD version of DOOM. It’s really much more intimidating and effective than Episode 3. The levels have menacing names all taken from Bible verses. The layouts are so complex and huge and even though I played with invincibility on I wouldn’t play the episode because I got scared by the amount of monsters. the design is just pure chaos, it often makes clear to you that there are forces beyond your own manipulating you (especially in the first level). The architecture is less outright strange and just more epic and subtly upsetting. It sheds the over the top gore and embraces a restrained,intense malevolence. The levels have a peculiar difficultly curve, starting out insanely difficult and then ending fairly easy. At least, after level 6 (Against Thee Wickedly), the heart of darkness. By that point in the episode your spirit is pretty thoroughly crushed. You’re still in some kind of other terrible universe with a perpetually orange sky, but at least taking a break from the claustrophobia of the level before. The rock outcroppings are pretty simple and appear to offer some sort of relief, but once you descend far enough there’s the outline to part of a marble castle. This castle is like stumbling on some sort of lost palace. It’s cruel in an ancient civilization with ancient values sort of way. There’s large pit of toxic despair in the middle (echoing e4l2), that only exit out are tiny elevators on the walls of a small structure in the middle of the pit that send you to teleporters. The level will wear down your soul. It makes you continually grind up and down that pit of despair, finally fighting a cyberdemon at the throne and escaping out the other side. It’s truly a chore to get through, one that makes me feel like I’ve just walked in and out of some truly dark and scary place.

By the time I was done with DOOM it left an indelible mark on my psyche. It was serious, and it was real. It wasn’t a game to me, it was something else... maybe you could call it an “alternate experience”.

The Games Industry

My feelings about DOOM are only something that I can articulate in any words now. I recognize that it’s probably that way it is with most people. A game like DOOM often evokes strong feelings in people, but much of the time it’s in an unconscious way, one that’s not easy to describe in any easy or familiar terms. This is what people who don’t play games don’t seem to understand. Games are not divorced from feeling. Your body doesn’t become a comatose shell while you’re playing. You’re not a zombie. You still feel things.

I don’t know to what extent most game designers are trying to communicate particular ideas in their design. My feeling is that there are many who are completely aware of what they’re doing but don’t choose to explain it to other people. They instead leave it in the design itself, to be experienced. Others probably do things intuitively, without being consciously aware of what they’re doing. In the case of DOOM, the guys at id were probably just throwing anything to do with their obsession with horror films, metal music and anything else grotesque into John Carmack’s new engine (at least after DOOM apparently scrapped the Half-Life-ish story it was going to have in its early stages after internal squabbles, see The Doom Bible). But in the end, DOOM became the game that was eventually released, and there is a lot of ideas and ambition embedded in the levels that remains for anyone to see. The design is even arguably more effective than it might have been had the game tried to pursue some sort of ambitious narrative, because those ideas are so unexplained and mysterious. Maybe we don’t choose to recognize these things or write about them in any intelligent way, for that reason.

Does a game need to explain itself, really at all? Does having a more identifiable story or more realistic setting guarantee that a game will make us feel more? Isn’t the only thing that matters that there is some sort of experience that gives players intense feelings and leaves them different at the end? Doesn’t explaining things often lessen the impact? Shouldn’t some things be left mysterious?

It‘s 2010 now, and now videogames like to tell us, explicitly, how to play them. Relentless in-game tutorials bombard us with stuff intended for the lowest common denominator of players. It seems like the intent is to make the experience as painless as possible, but then what’s the point? Everything else in most games tends to feel like a gigantic ruse. There’s epic set pieces that look plastic and there’s cutscenes with lots of plot points that are hard to care about, and characters that saying things at you that are hard to listen to or take seriously because the things they say are ridiculous cliches. Or maybe there is beautiful scenery that can be enjoyed at more pleasurable pace, except after ten hours or so the effect wears off and the game world seems so strangely empty and devoid of soul or purpose and starts to seem like we’re just living in a machine with endlessly rotating picture of the same pretty pictures over and over again and some automatons are propped up to give the illusion that there are actual people occupying that world. Games are making us distance ourselves from them.

Not only that, but games are more and more transparently commercial. It used to be more the norm that developers just did whatever they felt like during the game design, even if they were limited by stuff like licensing. Then publishers tried to find a way to sell that. They didn’t seem to necessarily know or care what was in the game as long as they could sell it. It was mostly the packaging and advertising of games that was at the whim of publishers. Now game design itself is being committee-designed and market-researched to sell the most copies, or to get the IGNs of the world to give good scores (game weirdo Tim Rogers has written about Japanese developers literally browsing lists of features from games with good metacritic scores and putting those features into their games indiscriminately, with no regard to their overall coherence). Even if a few people been hadn’t writing about this sort of thing for years (while no one listens), it would still be obvious from playing a lot of newer games that there’s an invested interest in doing what it takes to keep everything the same, both in Japan and America. Games are much more designed to make us pay for them than to provide any sort of enriching or coherent experience.

Of course, there are good games still being made. Some developers appear to have at least maintained a degree of creative control that they use to make a good game. But they’re the exception. There’s also an indie game scene, and it’s growing. But for every Braid or Cave Story or whatever there are a billion half-baked psuedo-artsy platformers. And that world has a long way to go to crystallize into something greater, though we need it to. The fact remains it’s 2010 and most people don’t seem to understand anything more about game design than 10 or even 15 years ago, and, my god, the majority of people still care more about graphics than anything else. You think we’d have moved past the ten year old in 1996 who says “Mario 64 is in 3D so that means it’s better” but most people still more or less think that. So right now, while everyone is endlessly focused on the newest technological innovation, like some more HD graphics, or that 3D stuff that’s big right now, or endless nostalgia cash-ins, or new gameplay gimmicks, the games industry is slipping us the same old tired shit and we are still lapping it up, even if we’re increasingly more aware that it’s shit.

It makes me wonder how most game designers feel, these days. Intensely frustrated, probably. They’re likely perfectly aware of the problems of modern big-budget games but are powerless to stop it because they’re on a gigantic development team and they need to shut up and do what they’re told or be fired (and in many cases they’re fired anyway after whatever project is done). Maybe they’re trying to find a way to embrace the industry as it is now so they can at least have a chance to make pretty good game, if they even have that choice. Maybe they’re putting their heads down and not trying to reflect on the state of the industry. Maybe they’re kicked to the curb in favor of focus-groups for having too many independent thoughts. To those who actually care about games, these are dark times.

But things were supposed to progress this way, right? Maybe this is what we deserve for valuing graphics and presentation about all else? Or maybe it was inevitable anyway. If videogames wanted to become more respected as a medium they had to strive to imitate other, more respected mediums, right? Isn’t a lush environment in HD going to be more immersive than one filled with fuzzy pixelated approximations? Won’t people connect more to more realistic settings and narratives than the seemingly random characters and settings of many older games?

The answer is, most of the time, no. The fact that we have failed to understand this shows how little we know about games. Japan hasn’t seemed to fall into this trap as much, instead opting to completely replicate and resell the same game over and over. The games industry today, in general, is a monument to crass commercialism and excess. Most games feel ultimately hollow and plastic, and less memorable or real or substantial than ever before. Games are bigger than ever, but increasingly less human.

Active Passivity

Let’s retread a slightly tired debate here. Many games right now are trying to be like movies, if they’re trying to be anything at all. It should be obvious to a person who plays them that videogames are not movies. Games are not designed to have stories that are told in the same way as film. They’re not even really capable of imitating the feel of a good film - there’s too much repetition and drudgery, for one. The ways that a person experienced a film and game are also completely different. A film is something that involves a viewer sitting and watching images and hearing sounds on a screen. Ideas are communicated through the sequence of those images and sounds. That sequence of those images never changes, and the person watching has absolutely no control of them. A game gives control to a player via a character or group of characters or a god or whatever, and it lets him figure out what the hell he’s supposed to do with it. When ideas are communicated, they come through active interaction between him it and the environment. A game usually can also only be fully experienced by one person at a time, making it an even more personal and subjective experience.

If you are a designer and you’re relying on the illusion to the player that he has control, every time you use a cutscene, it takes control away from him. Now this happens often, even in many good games. But is that a good thing to do, to say to the player “you are this character” and then just as soon as you’ve given him control of the character you take it away? Doesn’t that diminish the effect of the immersion? Cutscenes are the most familiar way we know how to establish a story right now, but maybe that means we should be looking for new ways? Cutscenes that are not done tactfully and sparingly are lazy and encourage the players to be distanced from events of the game and treat them like a spectacle. To imitate film is completely devaluing the tools a game has for establishing an environment and a story.

Should videogames also be considered art, if movies are? Do they at least have the potential to be art? This quote from Roger Ebert (whose “games can never be art” declaration that caused a lot of uproar just a bit ago was more intentionally inflammatory than anything else, given that he’s never really played any videogames and seems to equate them with board games) in a panel discussion with game designer Clive Barker brings up something important:

Barker: "Let's invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art."
Ebert: "If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?"

Ebert is right here. A game that tries to offer every emotional journey possible to a player is really foolish. As a player, if the developer is trying to anticipate what I want out of their game, or what kind of experience and ending I want, I find that insulting. It makes games feel schizophrenic and empty. I don’t want a game to be listening into what I want and then returning to me an empty approximation of that. Please give me something that’s coherent, something with real feeling. I have no real reason to care about anything that happens, otherwise.

We need to realize that videogames are only active to an extent and it’s only the illusion of control that a player ever has in a game. How much do we actually have within our power to choose over the course of a game? Anything that we do has to be totally anticipated and accounted for by a game designer. The designer is completely creating the world and shaping the entire experience, it does not exist without him. He is the person on the other end who has to predict what choice we will make in order to put it into a game, otherwise the choice wouldn’t exist. Whenever we make choices during the course of a game, we are choosing within a framework that he is setting for us. He can and often should maintain the illusion to us that we’re not being manipulated, but we always are.

Many developers want us to have complete freedom. They want us to feel like we can genuinely do anything we want without the game imposing restrictions on us. This is understandable. Once game worlds started opening up, it became more and more frustrating that with more freedoms came being strangely limited from doing things like killing innocent people when you clearly have a weapon in your hand to do it with. So, to take away those kind of limiters, and give us the feeling of complete power and control, is desirable. So many game design function from that perspective. But GTA and many other sandbox and open-world games which purport to give us real freedom of choice never really do, because it’s impossible. We’re only ever doing things that designers will let us do. Games designed this way are sidestepping the issue of how games can communicate something through their design.

But do games necessarily have to communicate something? Can’t they just be fun? I’ve seen many interviews where game designers will talk about their goal as crafting an enjoyable experience that’s designed for the players. But how could you quantify what “fun” or “enjoyment’ is? It’s incredibly subjective. What does that mean, to create an enjoyable experience? How can you, the game designer, really anticipate what a player wants from you, anyway? Won’t some kind of experience that comes from deep within you be a more intense and memorable experience than a game made from a bunch of hypothetical guesses as to what some hypothetical player wants? Aren’t we a world that’s increasingly just filled with meaningless junk that’s designed to be used up and thrown away? Why can’t you give us some sort of tangible feelings and questions to walk away with? Is there something wrong with challenging people? Is there something wrong with making people uncomfortable? Games clearly have the power to do these things.

I already said that videogames are not movies, but this is where videogames echo movies. Hollywood directors used to direct their films in a way that drew no attention to the fact that there was a person on the other side of the camera. The “180 degree rule” for two-character dialogue, was in place. Shots could never move past an imaginary straight line, because passing that line messed with the viewer’s sense of space and made it unclear who the characters were talking to. In general, the desire was to not disorient or confuse the audience. Films were a business, after all, and confusing people is not good for business. Film was also really powerful medium, and people were really sensitive to it, so being disoriented was way too upsetting to people, especially from a medium that was more or less founded on pleasurable, enjoyable experiences.

Game designers are similarly trying to provide tools in game to make people not disoriented by how complex the mechanics behind games has come. The intense amount of in-game tutorials that happen now, especially, are a testament to this. They want games to be approachable and enjoyable. Disorientation and confusion are frustrating, not desirable. But those things completely detract from the overall emotional experience that a game provides. To obstruct our interaction with the environment with a billion text boxes and people telling us what to do and where to go means to give us no place where we can feel like part of that environment and form attachments to it. If something doesn’t really feel like a real place, only something that we’re running through to get to the next plot point, then it’s hard to really care about what’s happening.

DOOM levels have the virtue of just being, not really needing to explain why they’re there. There’s nothing that comes between us and the environment. This encourages us to experience the environment subjectively - form our own attachments, find personal meanings. Contrary to what some people may believe, this is a good thing. Subjectivity is human. Humans have emotions and beliefs and desires that are unique to each one of us. Games are designed by humans. Games are not designed by machines. A machine can create a structure, but a machine can’t inject any level of emotional depth into something.

For the many human beings who have worked on games in the past, chances are if they were allowed any sort of creative freedom, they’ve put something into their game that reveals some kind of personal aesthetic. Maybe that aesthetic is not even intentionally there, but it’s still there. It is virtually impossible to have a game be completely reflect the desires of an audience and not a designer as long as it’s designed by a human. It is especially impossible to design a game with any particular coherence or meaning based on the desires of a hypothetical audience. It’s even more especially impossible to imbue any real feeling and integrity or honesty into a game that has been designed by a focus group. A game devoid of subjectivity is purposeless and empty. It’s not the job of a game designer to anticipate what his audience wants. It’s his job to make worlds that are compelling and interesting and worth being in.

What Videogames Are Trying To Tell Us
Why are we playing videogames?

Lately, whenever I'm playing something, I inevitably have that uncomfortable moment that brings the uncanny valley front and center. Like, I’m in the midst of hearing some crucial detail from another character and then their character model starts wigging out inexplicably and making crazy flailing gestures. Or another character who’s wandering around wanders right in between me and another character and gets stuck and starts glitching right in front of the screen. Or the game just freezes for no fucking reason, that’s the biggest buzzkill.

Or midway through talking to some female character, I do something like shoot off a gun and she just stares at me blankly. With those dead eyes. And I realize, you’re a robot. Even an intense amount of AI programming doesn’t mask those dead eyes. You are vague approximation of a female human being, just an idea of a person probably created by a guy with time constraints who may or may not know a whole lot about how real people function. She probably has the tritest dialogue too, so badly delivered and so smug and self-serious. She is a void. Or maybe let’s say I do grow really attached to her, she’s well-written and really feels like a real person. She still looks at me with those dead eyes. She still doesn’t act like a person, especially not if she’s not well programmed. I could kill her, brutally, and there would be no consequence. Maybe I’d get chastised in-game or get a game over, but it really wouldn’t matter. Maybe it would even be kind of funny, to see her die.

Those moments are so depressing. Like, this is what I’m doing? I’m sitting in playing videogames, trying to kill people so I break the game? This is stupid. No wonder my friends won’t talk to me about games. No wonder people still assume that if I’m someone who enjoys games I must be some kind of socially retarded weirdo. No wonder all my friends who are well versed in art and music and movies seem to think games are really lame. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I just haven’t grown up. I’m still the same three year old watching my babysitter play Mario 3 and thinking “this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen”, who rents out the movie The Wizard 20 times just so I can fast-forward to the gameplay footage of Mario 3 and watch it over and over. Why did I desire any of that stuff? What did I want from games? Did I think they’d bring me some ultimate epiphany?

There are many people who love videogames. The internet is absolutely filled with communities of people who love videogames. People follow games companies with the same sort of zeal that other people follow sports teams. People can be real dicks. Endless amounts of review sites focus on the minute details and the “fun-factor” of games while completely ignoring the larger experience emotionally. There is currently no such thing as real “game criticism”, with the exception of a few outliers whose comment sections are filled with “tl;dr”, if anything at all. Any real deeper analysis of games is often branded as pretentious and unnecessary.

We’re still anchored by nostalgia. We still feel like we’re entitled to something from companies, as if they owe us anything. We need to stop caring about companies or brands and start caring about the individuals behind the games. If the games industry is willing to sacrifice innovation and completely gut out and focus-group every aspect of game design, then fuck the games industry. If they’re just planning to jump on the next technological bandwagon and bury any potentially interesting games, then doubly fuck them. If they’re going to shit on old franchises (see: Deus Ex 3 trailer) in order to drain every ounce of nostalgia money out of people, then triply fuck them. It’s only ever been about the people who made the games, not the companies. We need to make sure those people have jobs, instead of buying into force-fed, focus-grouped bullshit from companies who fire people who have independent thoughts. We don't need for games to be another shallow commodity. We need games that are beautiful and personal and human. We need games that make us explore the depths of our own feelings. We need games to cherish and take with us forever.

1 comment:

  1. "Did I think they’d bring me some ultimate epiphany?"
    I found doom so immersive and so thrilling to explore (Cacodemons, rocket launchers, soul spheres, oh my!) that I was beginning to think it would lead to some sort of epiphany or transcendance when I'd beat the boss at end of episode 3. I was let down when it was such a simple level and simple ending; the game was still just a game (kind of how every once in awhile in Calvin and Hobbes you're reminded that Hobbes is just a stuffed animal). The spell was suddenly broken; I was fallen from my high. Nothing had changed. I hadn't changed. Doom was just a game. Ahh, but was it? Sure, the designers knew that all along, and were operating under a tight time frame and just wanted to get John Carmack's latest revolutionary breakthrough in gaming viscerocity out the door, but did they know that, yes, I was having the time of my life exploring these worlds and battling the agents of evil? that I was having an alternate experience as well while on my journey/adventure through this strange descent through mysterious, other-worldly worlds infested by un-before-seen spirits? Maybe if they did, Doom would have been a game to transfer the type of catharticism that a good film or novel can. I'm not sure games can communicate to us the same amount of depth, insight and emotional power.. at least they have yet to show any indication to move in that direction. But why not? Books and movies can do this for us, why not video games? I think it might be a long time coming, but one day.. one day they will. It is only inevitable.


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