Tuesday, October 22, 2013

an in-depth look at Doom Episode 1

in the past week i did a few videos looking back at the design of "Knee Deep in the Dead", the original shareware episode of Doom for the game's 20th anniversary (coming up this December). part of my goal was to show why the game, and this episode in particular, has held a strong hold over so many people even 20 years later. i'm not sure whether i really succeeded or not since these videos are fairly off-the-cuff, but hopefully people will get something useful out of them. another part of my goal to show what makes Doom fundamentally different from the current FPS games it's supposed to have spawned. indeed - those games don't really seem have much of anything that comes close to resembling Doom as far as the design of the spaces or the direction of the experience goes. Doom still seems as completely foreign and of another world as it ever has, maybe even moreso.

one thing about the first episode that's clear from both playing back through it and from reading John Romero's design rules (mentioned in the video) beforehand: there's an insistence on a very abstract, but very specific set of rules tailored for the engine the game is made in. the spaces may feel "real" insofaras they are detailed, or their shapes or textures might resemble existing structures in our world - but there's nothing particularly functional about them as architecture outside of the context of the game. and yet you don't feel that at all, as the player. the world makes complete sense once you become acquainted to its language.

and that's what the first episode, in particular, does very well - bringing the player into the language of this very strange, very new kind of experience (when it came out in December 1993) while also providing a surprisingly coherent arc. yet it also subverts the rules it sets out to establish in many subtle but noticeable ways. no design idea is ever exactly repeated in the same way - there's always a new or different twist put on it to stay surprising. if the player starts out in an enclosed, safe area in one map, they'll start out in an open area with enemies in the next. ideas that might seem monotonous on paper come to life in the game because of all the little details and juxtapositions placed in front of you. no part of this episode ever feels like a tutorial or a trudge, because there's no need to tutorialize to get you up to the pace of the story or whatever in the first place. Doom is not trying to be anything other than it is, or tell you it's anything else than what it is. the story is the experience.

that's not to say this is the only valid way to approach to design. it's standard practice in the Doom community to talk shit about Tom Hall or Sandy Petersen's levels for not being as open or elegant or taking advantage of the engine's architecture so self-consciously. a lot of that is they just had less time to work on things, or were part of a compromised, half-realized vision. but that ignores the very strange and interesting ideas that lie in the other two main episodes, even if they don't have the benefit of coming together like in the first. not to mention that sometimes John Romero's maps feel almost silly for their level of interconnected-ness, like he was just trying to make singleplayer levels that doubled as multiplayer levels. but the continual return back to these specific pre-defined design rules create spaces that feel consistent to each other when they might not be otherwise, and i think is a big part of explaining why this first episode still contains the kind of allure it does.

all three videos are here for you to enjoy. look for more videos from me about Doom in the coming month or two, as well as an article about one of my favorite (if not my favorite) Doom mod that's coming soon. enjoy!


  1. ahhh Liz this was thoroughly enjoyable. As a kid I was scared stiff of Doom and if I did play it, I would certainly only do it with all the cheat codes. Watching you power through unflinchingly made it that much more surprising to hear that you, too, played with cheat codes as a kid. It heartens me that you didn't just become a Doom badass but also learned to appreciate it in ways I can only glimpse at through your first-person camera & expert voiceovers.

    The little "spawn point inspection" ritual you show at the start of each level got to me. Maybe you were just making sure you showed the whole level for the video, but it reminds me of little in-game player expressions that kind of crop up in places. Like, in Spelunky, if there is a skeleton at the starting point, I will almost always whip it for "good luck" even though I've never seen a live skeleton near the spawn point, and sometimes you need to use the skull for things.

    You never seem to fire the rocket launcher -- is that because of the potential for self injury (I can't remember if Doom 1 had that or not)? It was always my favorite weapon but I guess that's because it's an extra-phallic male power fantasy in a game rife with phallic male power fantasies. Most phallicful. Speaking of, I had some questions about the extremely toxic masculinity present in the game, but you addressed them in the last video.

    My favorite part of the series was when you talked about the idea that maybe all the bases are kind of built around a single "computer room" that stretches out unseen beneath the overmap. It made the last video really creepy.

    And of course the little stuff, like the "lone candelabra" and the comically out of place EXIT sign. Things I've seen but never really SEEN.

    Thanks for making this!

  2. thanks for the comment, Eli!

    i never used the rocket launcher because i'm used to playing Doom 2, where i use it on the higher-level guys (who obviously don't show up in the first episode). the only appropriate place seems to be the ending, and then you're surrounded by a bunch of spectres so you can't really use it. also it's very generous of you to call me a pro-Doomer, especially given how i handled the last level =P

  3. Heya Liz,

    Thanks for making the videos. It was great to have a walkthrough of a game I haven't played since I was a kid. It used to scare me a lot too, but it's incredible how different FPSs are now compared this this, which really kickstarted the genre (a lot more than Wolfenstein I'd argue).

    I'm looking forward to more videos along these lines!

  4. Wanted to stop by and share my appreciation of "A.L.T." and thank you for your more in-depth review on Unwinnable. It really is one of my favorites, and if I could have, I would have bullied it through the 2012 Cacowards. My co-authors were wholly ignorant of it, unfortunately. The Russian Doom community channels a wonderful kind of magic that runs counter to the professionalism one tends to see on Doomworld.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.