More Than Violence?

Blowing stuff up in video games makes me happy. To put it another more controversial way, I enjoy the virtual violence in video games. This revelation came to me about the same time I noticed I’d spent fifty-three hours in id Software’s best shooter, RAGE. Fifty-three hours is a significant amount of time to devote to any game and so I began to wonder just what it was about this one that’s kept my attention for so many hours. Simply put, It’s just fun to shoot stuff. Not only do I get to play with pistols, shotguns, crossbows, and rocket launchers; each with their own sets of alternate ammo; the game also gives me three-bladed boomerangs of death called wingsticks! RAGE contains a myriad of ways to make things die, but that in itself isn’t anything unique. It’s how your enemies bite the bullet that makes the combat or RAGE satisfying. Shoot them in the leg and they’ll stumble as their momentum carries them. Hit their arm and their torso will twist as they absorb the impact. Shoot them in the face and they’ll drop their weapons as they clutch their head with their hands. Violent, but oh so much fun!

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See how much fun we’re having?

My subconscious, realizing it had spent fifty-three hours in this particular bloodthirsty environment, triggered my brain to ask a question: Why do these kinds of action-packed games have such a strong appeal to me? A large part of it is the “action hero fantasy”, wherein I’m given the poise and ability to save the day in impossible situations I’d never encounter otherwise. But on a simpler level I think I can say that action games count as a form of recreational problem solving. This is especially true, if not a bit abstract, in the genre of first-person shooters. “Problems” in these games usually consist of heavily armed bad guys / robots / aliens that need “solving” with copious amounts of gunplay and explosions. It’s a simple way to look at it, but it really does appeal to the aspect of my personality that wants an immediate solution to every problem. Enemy? Boom! Save the world? Boom! I’ve been presented with both a problem and an explode-y way of solving it. What’s wrong with that?

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Got a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it. Here, have some lead from my Magnum revolver.  (Apologies to Vanilla Ice).

Playing as a one-man army to save the world is all well and good, however I often wonder if I’m missing out on other great gaming experiences that maybe aren’t so explosive. Over the years I’ve trained my mind to associate the phrase “video game” with “shooter”. It’s time for me to branch out and challenge myself a little bit. I’m going to retrain my mind and reclaim the phrase “video games” so it means simply “video games”. Therefore during month of September in the year two-thousand sixteen, I vow to go the entire month playing games where acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus. Disallowed are any games where the player takes control of a character or vehicle(s) for the sole purpose of discharging weapons or causing destruction. Games which feature incidental destruction as a result of gameplay mechanics are allowed.

Will I make it the entire month without slipping up? Will I end up playing Kerbal Space Program for the sole purpose of trying to explode those little green space frogs? Perhaps I’ll discover and fall in love with an entire genre of games I had previously never given a second thought to.

I hope my gaming library has enough nonviolent games to last me a whole month…

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Don’t you worry, little space frog; I won’t explode you! Maybe.

Dark Souls Journal #02 – Losing Battles but Controlling Myself

Dark Souls Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Read previous entries in this series: Part 1

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At first glance, Undead Burg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as dreary as its name would suggest. First impressions can be deceiving. The bright and cheery skyline visible in the screenshot above quickly become obscured by dark stone walls, forcing me into conflict with the permanent residents of this particular burg. I can only assume that this is the path I’m supposed to take early in the game, seeing as every other avenue I tried saw me skewered in a matter of moments. If my assumptions are correct, then this twisted medieval version of suburbia is the player’s “real” initiation into the world of Dark Souls. If you can survive here, then you just might have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

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I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

After a half dozen enemy encounters with results ranging from limping victory to terrible bloodbath, I realize that I still have no clue what I’m doing. Let me give you an example: Undead Burg has a shopkeeper where you can trade items and buy supplies. I accidentally killed him. In the fifteen to twenty minutes it took me to battle from the burg’s entrance to his shop my mind was in a state of combat readiness. When I stumbled into his shop, hidden behind a mess of crates and barrels I was on edge and ready to respond to the slightest stimuli with a flurry of violence. That poor shopkeeper thought the best thing he could to do a well-armed traveler that bursts through the door is start talking. I had to respond somehow. I pressed a button that I thought was supposed to initiate interaction, but I pressed the wrong one and whipped a throwing knife at his face. He doesn’t want to sell me things anymore. In one enraged motion, he came crashing through his table and lunged towards me. I’m forced to defend myself against who I assume is the only one able to sell me supplies in this location. This shop is now closed permanently. No friends do I have in Undead Burg. All because I pressed the wrong button.

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Controls, controls, I must learn the controls. If you ever want to play the PC version Dark Souls for yourself be forewarned that using the mouse and keyboard is horrible and clunky. That’s why I’m playing with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, the default layout seems pretty intuitive. The left stick moves my character. the right rotates the camera. Clicking the right stick will snap the camera to face the same direction as my character. Clicking the right stick in close proximity to an enemy will “lock on” to that particular foe, making them easier to track in the heat of combat. The front bumpers and triggers correspond somewhat to the left and right sides of my character’s body. My character’s left arm holds a shield. The left bumper brings up the shield for a block, left trigger swipes the shield in an attack. My character’s right arm is used for offense. Press the right bumper for a light attack that you can recover from quickly, use the right trigger launches a heavy attack appropriate for the type of weapon currently wielded. The D-pad corresponds to four inventory slots. Pressing a given direction allows you to equip or unequip items in that slot.

Moving on to the face buttons: Y will switch between a one-handed or a two-handed combat stance. When using a two-handed stance pressing either the left trigger or left bumper will allow you to use your sword to block. Pressing B while motionless allows you to jump backward, or roll in whichever direction you happen to be moving. Holding B down allows me to sprint. While sprinting, press B again to jump. X uses whatever item is currently equipped. A. What does A do? Aside from using it to confirm selections in the menu I haven’t stumbled upon any use for the A button. I hope I haven’t missed anything important.

Select brings up the gesture menu, allowing me to trigger various poses that I can’t quite understand the use for:

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Pressing Start brings up the standard in-game menu. Not so standard is the realization that bringing up the start menu does not pause the game. On more than one occasion I’ve brought up the menu to change a setting or check the options, only to have an enemy wander towards me from off camera and start pounding me. I vainly start mashing my attack and defend buttons only for my character to stand motionless and take his punishment. Lesson to be learned: Combat does not work with the menu is open. I can’t tell why the game was developed this way. Probably to punish poor saps like me who just have trouble figuring things out.

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Hopefully, familiarizing myself more with the control scheme will make me ever so slightly more efficient in combat. I’ve been stuck in Undead Burg for a while now and have only managed to light one bonfire at what I presume to be the halfway point. By now I’ve tried to progress through the city about a dozen times, dying with alarming frequency. For a while I manage to hold my own against the undead masses. Each battle may be hard and furious, but I can usually take out a few groups of enemies and restore myself to nearly full health with a drink from my Estus Flask. My confidence starts to wane when I approach an unsettling trio of skeletons, each armed with a long pike and shields that look like they’ve been carved from solid granite. They’re different from the mindless drones I’ve had to plow through until now. Backing slowly away from the group, one follows me up a stairwell and paces side to side slowly. He’s taunting me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Patrol

I make the first move. I die.

Thinking that maybe I ought to try a weapon other than my light but fast curved scimitar, I try to equip a broadsword.

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Nope, can’t use that one with only one hand. My strength stats are too low so this is something I have to use with both arms. I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone and forget about using a shield for a while. The first dozen or so enemies I run into die with a pleasing lack of resistance. Even the trio of spear-laden, granite shielded skeletons can’t hold me back. I make my way up a stairwell and down a few more corridors. I try passing through a doorway shrouded in white fog, “Traverse the white light”, it says. That can’t possibly lead to anything bad, could it?

Yes. Yes it could.

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Taurus Demon? TAURUS DEMON? There’s a boss fight on a freaking parapet walk? And there are snipers firing at me from behind? And I don’t have any healing juice left in my Estus Flask?

YOU DIED

I need a break.

Doom 3

I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience.

Note: I played through the original release of Doom 3 with one slight tweak: I used a mod that combines Wulfen’s hi-res texture pack and Sikkmod 1.2. It makes the game look a whole lot prettier and offers a lot of optional gameplay tweaks. The only gameplay change I went with was increased run speed because the default run speed is just the worst. 

It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt. While I can’t vouch for the original context of the saying I can tell you from personal experience that this statement can apply to video games. For me, it applies to Doom 3. After spending at least sixteen hours on a playthrough, many hours of deep and thoughtful analysis, and vainly writing and rewriting thousands of words in an attempt to convey my thoughts on the experience; I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience. Progressing through the game became a chore; a joyless trudge through an unrealized vision. “Playing” felt a lot more like “tolerating”. The breaking point came in a level called Recycling Sector 2, which is less than halfway through the game. There all of Doom 3’s flaws coalesced into a mess of frustration which had me checking my progress to see how much longer I had to suffer through it; but more on that later. Ultimately, Doom 3 falls flat because it tries to be multiple things but doesn’t really nail any of them. It makes a valiant effort to combine story-driven narrative, a tense atmosphere, and frenzied shooting action; but just can’t quite deliver any of those things.

A company-branded PDA that exists solely for exposition? Yup, that’s Doom!

Doom 3 is the first game in the series to make the story a primary focus. As such, the game begins with a combat-free playable introduction to set the events of the game and introduce the player to the world. You arrive on Mars via shuttle and are free to explore portions of the game’s opening environment: Mars City. While your character is nameless and silent, he is still able to interact with other characters and objects in the game world. Walking up to another inhabitant of Mars City will prompt them to deliver a line of dialog, usually one that has to do about how spooked everyone is by the “secret experiments” going on. Select computers and other equipment will allow you use their interfaces to open doors, turn on lights, or perform other ultimately trivial actions. The primary vehicle for delivering the story is through the use of the PDA. In-game PDAs are what we might call tablets or iPads today; they function exactly the same way. Used to store emails, audio logs, and other personal information, you can pick up and access the information contained in any device you happen to come across. It’s an effective way to build the atmosphere of the game, even if there are some clunky aspects to its implementation.

Audio logs can’t be paused, nor do they have a seek function. Since there’s no text transcript you’ll almost always have to remain at a standstill or stare at the PDA until the log finishes playing to be sure gameplay sounds don’t overlap the audio recording and cause you to miss something by accident. Quite frequently audio logs will contain access codes for storage lockers which contain ammo or other items, which is handy, but it highlights another limitation of the PDA. Since all of the information is all stored according to the names of the characters who owned the device, there’s no way to filter or search for specific content within these logs. For example: If you encounter a given storage locker, the only way for you to know if you have the access code for it is if you remember that specific locker being mentioned in one of the PDAs you previously picked up. The game seems to realize this kind of information would be cumbersome to keep track of, and the end result is that most PDAs will be discovered ridiculously short distances away from whatever thing the PDA would provide access to. Even with their shortcomings I actually love how using the PDAs builds the world within the game. It makes you stop and imagine what the “normal” game world might have been like before things went terribly wrong.

What's the point of the access code? Why not just give me the ammo?
They may as well have just left the locker open…

Contributing to the sense of world-building, the visuals do more than their part to immerse you in Doom 3’s version of Mars. While the original release of the game looks pretty good overall, there are some downright muddy or chunky-looking spots. The more you focus on those spots the worse they look, with many detailed surfaces looking downright terrible when you get close enough to them. If you play the game now, you need the texture mod I linked to at the top of the post. Thankfully, Doom 3’s lighting effects are truly timeless and serve as the major source of the game’s atmosphere. Now when I say “lighting effects” what I really mean is “shadow effects”. Make no mistake: Doom 3 is dark. There’s a reason UAC space marines are given flashlights as a standard issue: their bases apparently have a low lighting budget.

Notice the updated textures are less "chunky", and that there's more depth to the surfaces.
Notice the updated textures are less “chunky”, and that there’s more depth to the surfaces.

Quite frequently the only option available to help you find your way is to holster your weapon, pull out the trusty flashlight, and navigate through the darkness. Yes, you read that correctly: You can’t use your gun and the flashlight at the same time. This intentional design decision has been almost universally panned by reviewers and gamers ever since the game’s release. The year is 2145, surely the capability exists to outfit soldiers with some kind of hands-free lighting device? Sure it’s possible, but it just wouldn’t fit the game. The developers must have felt, and I agree, that giving the player both a flashlight and a gun at the same time was too empowering. Darkness is used as a method to control the player; something to maximize the feeling of helplessness and thus emphasizing the tension.

And tension, really, is the focus of this game. Doom 3 does everything it can to create a horrifying experience for its players, even though its legendary predecessors consisted of nothing but over the top action. All of the members of the demon horde you remember from the first two games are present here, though now they are presented with the objective of instilling fear in the player. Most new enemies are introduced via a dramatic scripted cinematic, which attempts to highlight the specific, unique threats each enemy introduces rather than lumping them all into the category of “mindless cannon fodder.” You’ll rarely engage more than three or four enemies simultaneously, and one could interpret this as an intentional decision designed to reinforce each demon’s perceived threat. It may sound like sacrilege to diehard Doom fans who are used to running full-tilt and firing thousands of bullets at legions of enemies in a single level, but the new approach of Doom 3 actually works. For a while. The first few hours of the game are unforgettable. You’ll genuinely feel tense as you explore Mars base, searching for whichever route will let you progress forward. For a while demons seemingly pop up out of nowhere, sending your heart racing. And then after a few hours of gameplay the realization hits: the demons do literally pop up out of nowhere!

MonsterClosetThe term “monster closet” was coined to describe a room or space in a game’s environment that serves no other purpose than to hide an enemy and put the player at a disadvantage when it is revealed. Monster closets are Doom 3’s mantra. Demons behind doors, demons behind walls, demons under the floor, demons in the ceiling, demons in the shadows, and sometimes for good measure demons will just appear from a spontaneously generated and conspicuous haze of orange plasma. It’s an element that works well in the opening stages of the game to generate heart-stopping scares before the player learns to expect them. There are some genuinely frightening moments there, but the more frequently they occur the more you notice just how scripted these once-scary moments are. These aren’t organic encounters; the result of a player being put in a “genuinely” scary environment with monsters that have their own agenda. No, this is a virtual haunted house where every scare and every surprise is carefully designed in an attempt to elicit a response of fear from the player.  Eventually you’ll learn to recognize the warning signs of these scripted scares, at which point you’ll loathe the moment and fear will be replaced by annoyance.

Monster closets and surprise encounters worked in the early 90s with the original Doom because the game was abstract enough that none of these tricks felt out of place. Sure there were alcoves and hidden enemies galore, but they were fitting considering you were essentially running through a virtual haunted house – with guns. Doom took a certain pride in its cheap scares and traps because they never proclaimed to be anything other than that. In Doom 3, where the player is supposed to be traversing a cohesive and coherent world, every scripted encounter feels like a cheap shot. This scripting ultimately chips away at the established atmosphere and takes you out of the game’s world. Mars Base turns into one boring corridor after another where your only thing tested is your ability to guess which door the monster is hiding behind and how fast you can get your finger on the trigger. Due to the understandably claustrophobic level design, your only option in a firefight is to backpedal slightly and hope you’re spraying enough ammo forward that the enemies die before you do. There are no tactical options available here. There’s no room to run and gun, especially since the game will repeatedly lock you in the same enclosed area as the newly spawned enemies. With no room to maneuver, even two measly imps can kill you in about 20 seconds flat. If it doesn’t sound fun, that’s because it isn’t.

"Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat"
“Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat”

Games are supposed to be fun, and I couldn’t deny that Doom 3 was starting to become quite wearisome about a third of the way through. Wearisome, but not intolerable. I kept telling myself that any moment now, some new mechanic or monster or element would be introduced to add some enjoyment back into the game. When I got to what I thought was going to be the monorail sky bridge, the corridor collapsed in front of me and dumped me on the martian surface. What’s this? Is the game really going to let me freely walk around a wide-open space? And blast enemies that are more than ten feet away? Is this the change I was hoping for? Hoping against hope, I began to believe the game was going to open up a bit and offer some more spacious encounters. My oxygen supply is finite and rapidly running out, but at least there’s a certain freedom of movement here. All too soon I had vanquished the few enemies present in the outdoor arena and was left furiously hunting for air canisters so I don’t suffocate. After a few more moments I make my way to an airlock and return to the claustrophobic corridors I’d begun to loathe. But surely this first experience in a larger area was a sign of things to come!

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Oh look, poisonous gas. Too bad I don’t have a self-contained air supply. Wait a minute, I do! Why is this a problem?

No. No it wasn’t. Turns out my trip to the great martian outdoors was just an inconvenient detour before traversing back to more deadly enclosed spaces. I had just entered Recycling Sector 2, where it all falls apart. A scripted sequence in the opening moments of the level reveals that Malcom Betruger, the game’s main villain, has been endowed with some sort of evil powers and is now directing the legion of hell to find and destroy you. He has apparently realized that you, the unnamed marine, are the only potential threat to his nefarious plans and wants you dead immediately. He somehow causes the environmental controls of the Recycling Sector to fill the air with toxic gasses in an attempt to suffocate you. Yes, you read that right. Less than ten minutes of game time after your combat suit with its supply of fresh air allows you to battle hellspawn on the surface of Mars, the game’s main villain tries to poison you with gas. Why didn’t our major villain know this, and why can’t I now use my independent air supply to survive indoors? Just as my mind is trying to find the explanation for this logical error, the old man starts yelling into my headphones. Apparently one of Betruger’s super demonic powers gives him the ability to project his voice anywhere on Mars because he now talks to you, hurling insults or other scary phrases at you in random moments. Here’s a sampling of the supposedly menacing dialog:

“Your soul will be MINE!”

“Making progress marine? Your journey is futile. You will die, and your soul will be MINE!”

“My patience with you is wearing thin.”

“Look around you marine, everyone is dead! And soon you will join them.”

“Your friends are with me now. Soon, you will join them.” 

The meaning lurking underneath the surface of these quotes brings two surprisingly relevant questions to my mind. The first one is: Who are these friends of mine that Betruger has supposedly already claimed? The character you play has no name and no backstory. He’s a new transfer to Mars Base and knows nobody on the entire planet. Why on earth would they include a line like this in the game? Am I supposed to have felt some kind of connection with one of the other characters introduced by the game? Or is this a subliminal attempt to get the player thinking about his own friends in real life, and project the fear of loss onto them? Unless the developers were extremely certain their psychological experiment would work, I really can’t understand how these lines made it into the game. From what I can figure, the best case scenario is that this was the result of some horribly sloppy writing that nobody fully thought through.

The other question is: what exactly is hell in the world of Doom 3? Obviously it would have to exist as some sort of literal, physical place, but what is it? What are the demons doing in hell? Who is in charge? Why does the leader of hell need to give Betruger any authority or control of invading Mars? Why do the residents of hell need a human-made teleporter to get to Mars? If the demons can flood Mars via some sort of portal, why do they need to take spaceships to get to earth? (Using spaceships to get to earth was supposed to be a major plot point prior to the Recycling Center). Why can’t they just use the teleporters to get there? Considering the human world of Mars is rather meticulously mapped and planned out, it’s rather jarring that hell exists just for the sake of existing. Some of these questions may be answered in the PDAs scattered about the later levels, but considering how much impact the answers to these questions would have on creating a cohesive story I’m surprised they wouldn’t be more overt.

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At least hell has interesting art direction.
Apparently in the ancient martian language, "cube" meant horribly spiky murdery thing".
Apparently in the ancient martian language, “cube” meant “horribly spiky murdery thing”.

Coming into the game too late to make much of a difference, is a genuinely interesting story thread about archeological ruins found on Mars. As it turns out, there was an advanced alien civilization that used to reside on Mars. This civilization used a combination of their sciences and religions to use portals for traveling to the different planets in our solar system. At some point in their history this alien species also accidentally opened a portal to hell. Various PDAs and computer terminals will provide details unearthed about this society and how they struggled against the demons. Eventually, this race sacrificed itself to create a weapon capable of killing the demons and closing the portal to hell. Say hello to the Soul Cube. The alien weapon may actually be the most interesting gameplay mechanic in all of Doom 3. In order to use it, you must first “charge” it by killing five other demons. Once it’s charged you can use it to instantly kill any other enemy and transfer its health directly to you. It brings a sorely needed element of strategy to the close-quarters firefights. No longer are you just pressing the fire key, you’re actively picking out the weakest targets first so you can use a charged Soul Cube to take out the more powerful foes. It’s a shame neither the alien backstory nor the Soul Cube is introduced until the last quarter of the game.

There’s a lot I could still say about the gameplay of Doom 3, but I feel like it would just be a waste of words. The story had potential, but it unfolds too slowly for you to really care about it. The atmosphere is, up to a point, incredible. There are plenty of fun and entertaining elements present, but you’ll experience almost all of them before the game is a quarter finished. If Doom 3 got anything right, you would expect it to be the shooty bits, but that’s not the case. There’s a reason I didn’t talk about the game’s weapons; nearly all of them are pathetic, and none of them are fun to use. The gameplay might be passable in small doses, but the thematic and story miscues really put the nail in the coffin for me. If it’s horror and action your looking for, there are other games to spend your time and money on. Doom 3 does have an expansion called Resurrection of Evil which contains new content and supposedly remedies a lot of the issues I have with the original game, but it will be quite some time before I’m ready to step into the world of Doom 3 again. Until then, I’m going to spend some time on games that are actually enjoyable.

 

Dark Souls Journal #01 – What Have I Done?

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough of Dark Souls

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? […] “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care.

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? I blame Zachery and Brandon from the Facebook group I’m a part of, Theology Gaming University. “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care. Anyone who has been around gaming even a little but over the past few years has heard of Dark Souls. It’s a game made by a Japanese developer and released to consoles in 2011, and later made its way to the PC in 2012. So what exactly is it? Over the years I’d seen a lot of coverage of the game but never really paid it any mind because it just didn’t seem like it was my thing. Big guys in armor swinging swords. Torches and castles. No lasers or spaceships. No humor. Supposedly punishing difficulty. Story and background history told in an overt manner. The impression I got is that it was difficult hack ‘n’ slash game made to punish anyone brave enough to give it a try.

Turns out I may not have been too far off the mark on that assessment.

20160509203333_1I got the game for $5 during a recent sale at the Humble Store, donating my 5% Humble Tip to the Wounded Warrior Project. After doing a bit of research I found an excellent  guide to configuring the game at the Dark Souls subReddit. While you don’t have to do everything recommended there, DSfix is an absolute must to get the game running properly. I also went for an HD texture pack and font upgrades.

The first time I started the game I got some weird graphical glitches where the HUD was fullscreen, but the gameplay was only showing in the top left corner of the screen. Turns out that was a result of me not fully reading the instructions for DSfix. I didn’t disable Anti-Aliasing from the in-game menu like I was supposed to. Who knew it would make that much difference?

Starting a new game brings you to a character creation screen where you can choose your class, talents, gifts, and a few other attributes. Not having any idea what differences any of these would really make I went with the Wanderer. If I’m given the option I usually try to pick something that might approximately apply to me, and I certainly don’t have the traits of a soldier or a magician. Picking a “Large” physique character who walks around a lot and carries a cool-looking curved sword seemed to make the most sense to me.

20160510064341_1There is an impressive opening cinematic that lays out some interesting-looking history from the world of Dark Souls, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t any context for how my character fit into the grand scheme of things. When I took control of the game my character was locked in a cell, and someone tossed me a key to allow my escape. The only tool afforded me to help in my escape was the hilt of a sword. Not the sword’s blade, or a knife, or anything sharp, but a handle. Why do I get the impression this is a sign of things to come? For some reason I’m a prisoner in the Northern Undead Asylum and I look decidedly less than human. Am I dead? How did I get to the asylum? Why am I escaping? I didn’t grab any screenshots of this opening level because I was too busy mashing buttons on my controller and trying to stay alive. Things didn’t seem to difficult at first; I think I only died once in the tutorial level. After beating the tutorial’s boss a giant raven grabbed me and flew me to what I assume is the main game’s world.

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Hints and other messages are littered throughout the game in the form of glowing scratch marks.

The raven dropped me in Firelink Shrine, an interesting-looking little place. There are ruins strewn about. There’s a guy loitering near the fire who tells me about two bells; one in a high place and the other someplace down below. The implication is that I’m supposed to go to one of or both of those places and ring some bells. So there’s death, darkness, undead, demons, and now bells are involved. Great. I hate bells.

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You’ll see this screen an awful lot.


There may be multiple paths of progression from here, but nothing really stands out. The most obvious one to me involves some stairs that make a winding descent, eventually leading to an elevator that goes down even further. Eventually I wind up at a place called New Londo Ruins. Visually, it’s a pretty place as far as ruins go. Crumbled structres loom in front of a dark blue haze, backlight by a far-off light source. There are some apparently distracted and quite weak zombie dudes, and so far the ruins don’t seem too bad or too hard to go through. After slicing and dicing my way through a dozen or so brain-dead undead I notice that each enemy I kill makes a counter in the bottom-right of the screen go up. Each enemy has a value or something. Come to find out that somehow I’m collecting “souls” from my slain enemies and this is some kind of in-game currency. Morbid, but I guess that’s why the game is called Dark Souls, and not Happy Fun Souls.

Eventually I make my way to the edge of a giant subterranean pond with wood walkways sprawling out before me. Just before the first walkway is one of those helpful glowing hints that says something like: “Bravery: 1 Required”. I check my stats to see if I have any bravery. …no, it doesn’t look like it. Well, let’s go forward anyway; I’m sure it’s just a suggestion! A few steps down the path I encounter two ghosts. How hard can this be? Whoa! They can reach out like the creepy ghost that stole the baby in Ghostbusters 2! I wonder if I can try to mo-YOU DIED.

Well crud. Brutally throttled in the back by an undead vapor. I don’t think I even landed one hit on those guys. I respawn at the bonfire at the top of Firelink Shrine and do the same thing again. Once I hit the ground floor it quite literally hits me: enemies don’t stay dead. Every time I respawn, either from death or resuming a saved game, every enemy respawns back in the game world no matter how many times you’ve already mowed through them. That’s just rough.

Searching through my inventory I find a curse or something that says it allows me to engage in fights against ghosts, and I just so happened to be carrying two of them. Armed with this new knowledge I rush back to the depths only to find out they don’t help, I still died. Twice. Though those last two times I didn’t die quite so quickly. That’s progress, right? I think the game is trying to tell me that progressing through the New Londo Ruins is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Surely there must be some other avenue to take? We’ll find out.

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Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.

Doom

But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Navigating down the curved hallway of brown stone deep within Deimos Lab, I notice an irregularity in the angle of the wall. Upon closer inspection there’s a small hole in the floor: a passage down. At the bottom of the passage there’s a hidden room containing only a plasma rifle and a teleporter. I pause for a moment to steel myself for whatever comes next. Doom never gives you anything for free. I step on the blood-red teleport pad to be whisked away to destination unknown. As the green energy burst fades I check my map and confirm that this is a room I haven’t discovered before. Directly in front of me stand two large demons within arm’s reach: A Pinky and a Cacodemon. They don’t know I’m there yet so I weigh my options against my meager supply of ammo. The room is too small for rockets, my shotgun will be too slow, and I have barely any bullets. Guess there was a reason I just got a plasma rifle. Taking them both of them out used about a fifth of my cell ammo and I can still hear more demons somewhere nearby. After checking the small room for and failing to find any hidden features, I slowly walk down a curved hallway and reach an intersection with another corridor. The chorus of grunting is louder now. There are more than a few enemies nearby. My health is 44 percent and I have fewer bullets than I’d like, but how bad could it be? I dash out, gun blazing, mowing down a pair of imps with ease. They weren’t alone. Three more imps send fireballs my way and a burst of pink plasma heralds the arrival of a trio of Cacodemons floating down from the ceiling. Running away to gain some maneuvering room brings me face to face with not one but two Barons of Hell! As their green energy projectiles sail towards me I run back towards my entry point, making the unfortunate realization that this narrow corridor I’m trapped in is nothing but a circle. With nowhere to hide I start firing off everything except my rockets, not stopping to be meticulous. After what feels like an extended engagement both my guns and the demon horde is silent. Narrowly avoiding death, I claim victory – for now. My health is down to 23 percent, my supply of ammo is lower than it’s ever been; only 4 rockets and 39 shotgun shells; and once again my only means of progress is to step on a teleporter to destination unknown. When it seems like I don’t have any options left, I realize I have the same option that I always had: kill more demons.

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I still remember my first exposure to Doom. Sometime in the summer of 1994 Jon, a friend of my oldest brother, brought a “legitimate” copy of the game over to our house. He installed it on our family computer and introduced us to the plight of that single green-clad marine waging a hopeless war against the spawn of hell. Many moments from that fleeting demo are permanently etched into my gaming memory. The nervous sideways glances of the Doom guy. Exploding barrels of green goo. A pulse rifle with a sound I can only describe as an “electric rebound”. Floors a shade of blue not seen in real life. The anguished moans from zombies after you graze them with a shotgun. The frighteningly weird hiss of the floating red Cacodemon. My brothers and I loved it. My parents hated it. After the evening’s dinner was finished and Jon went home my parents broke their polite silence, “Get rid of it”. The battles of the Doom guy would have to be waged in someone else’s home, at least for a little while. Over the years Doom and I had an on again, off again relationship. Sometimes it was upstaged by shinier and more fancy games. Sometimes I was just too busy to bother with it. Sometimes I thought it was too simple for me now; compared to new games old Doom was just kid stuff. And yet, Doom has always been there. Somehow, id’s pioneering shooter from the early 1990s has proven its staying power time and time again. After paying attention to the little details on my last playthrough I can confirm one thing for you: Doom is just as good now as its ever been.

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Given that video games are pieces of media that all too frequently tend not to age well, it takes a special combination of factors for one to provide an enjoyable experience both at the time of release as well as two decades later. But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Doom’s visual design definitely evokes a feeling of art, abstract art in particular. Most of the game’s designs and specifically the level layouts are open to subjective interpretation. It’s something you examine for a moment and while it doesn’t necessarily bear an immediate resemblance to anything in particular, the intention of the artist is unmistakable. Sure, there are levels and areas that definitely try to look like something, but either through the lack of graphical fidelity or intentional design decisions you’re never looking at something and think to yourself, “Man, they screwed that up.” It’s a large part of why Doom is still tolerable today. You can play through level after level without being constantly reminded of how poorly older gaming technology was able to replicate the vision of the artist. Your imagination can make these locations into whatever you think they need to be. For a prime example look to the opening level of the game: E1M1: Hangar. Though this is arguably the most famous level in the history of first-person shooters, I’ve yet to see any explanation for why the level has the name it does. There’s nothing here that even remotely resembles a hangar. Nowhere is there a space large enough to contain a ship, an airplane, or any other spacefaring vessel. The only open space is filled with green toxic goo. And just why is there so much radioactive green goo around in the first place? Why in the heck are there golden candelabras near the exit? These and other questions will pop in the back of your mind frequently as you explore such locations as “Central Processing”, “Military Base”, “Spawning Vats”, “House of Pain”, Slough of Despair”, and “Tower of Babel”. Clearly, the level design was intended to evoke a feeling rather than to serve as an accurate emulation of any particular locale.

The major difference between the levels of Doom and works of abstract art is that works of abstract art don’t try to kill you when you admire them. The opening levels of the game start with fairly straightforward and uncomplicated layouts; all that is required is for the player to navigate from the starting point to the finish and press a button or step on a pad to end the level. Additional hazards are gradually added into the mix. Some parts of a level may be sealed off and require you to find a keycard to gain access. Other levels are laid out like a maze, either by their physical layout or through the use of teleportation pads. Very frequently the level design embraces the game aspect of Doom and will throw you in the midst of all manner of traps, chokepoints, or other puzzles. The only resources at your disposal to help you navigate the often deadly labyrinths are your wits and a handy automap. There are secret areas containing weapons and powerups hidden in nearly every level. Some are marked by intentionally misaligned textures or offer other visual hints as to their existence, and others are implied only by a switch with no obvious purpose. If you wish, you can spend as long as you like exploring each area searching for hidden goodies. The only thing standing between you and passage to the next level is you.

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Here sits a lightly defended red keycard surrounded by a plethora of exploding barrels. Be wary. Be very wary.

Artistic interpretation notwithstanding, it’s hard to deny that some of the later levels of the game are just plain weird, if not disturbingThe cold metal of military bases gradually gives way to nightmarish interpretations of hell, replete with walls of flesh, corpses impaled on spikes, scrolling walls of tortured faces, demonic and satanic symbols, and other oddities. It’s been said that some of the game’s artists often used videos and images of surgical procedures to find inspiration for their designs, and it’s quite obvious a lot of those ideas were implemented. This all plays well with the idea of Doom as a form of abstract art though it’s safe to say that many people will find the game’s content objectionable. I can appreciate a good imagination as much as the next guy, but I still look at certain visual elements and can’t help but wonder, “What were they thinking?”

But I guess it takes a certain kind of imagination to dream up, or have nightmares about, what an army of hellspawn might be like. Doom paved the way in its design of enemies, creating the archetypes that are still followed today. Soldiers and Sargents are your nominal cannon fodder that can be surprisingly dangerous when you’re low on health. The brown, leather-skinned imp is the slightly tougher humanoid that hurls fireballs instead of instant hit bullets. Pinkies are your obligatory melee-damage-only enemies that can take a beating. Cacodemons are an aerial threat with a ranged attack in addition to being bullet sponges. Lost Souls are the original annoying enemy that combines small size, flying, and a shrieking rush attack that’s never fun to deal with. Barons of Hell are giant, lumbering brutes that hurl green plasma that explodes on impact for splash damage. There are bosses, too, but those are more fun to discover on your own. Prepare to do a lot of running.

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Photos don’t do justice to the enemy design in Doom. There’s just enough of a convincing menace in the animation of your foes that you will feel threatened by them, sooner or later. If visuals alone don’t do it for you, the aural experience will. While the sound effect library is small by today’s standards, the engineering is perfect for conveying the tortured nature of the beings you’re dealing with. This is due in large part to the use of animal sounds where one might expect to hear sounds recorded by humans. From the anguished moans of the shotgun-toting Sergeant to the hiss of the Cacodemon to the bizarre trumpeting call of the Baron of Hell, the sounds of Doom effectively convey that you do indeed battle against an army that is not of this world.

Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Your foes in Doom can and will become embroiled in fights between the ranks, and it’s always a good idea to do what you can to encourage those fights. Before long you’ll learn to use your speed to try and catch different types of enemies in their own crossfire. Once one enemy retaliates against another all you need to do is stand clear and watch the survival of the fittest. Doing this is usually just a bonus, but there are a few maps where causing this infighting is absolutely essential to your own survival.

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Notice that I haven’t fired a single shot here.

Also essential to your survival is learning to master Doom’s arsenal, though it really is pretty intuitive. At your disposal are your fists, a pistol, shotgun, chaingun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, BFG 9000, and a chainsaw. Each weapon has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, that lend themselves to particular situations. The pistol, while seemingly useless, is a good choice for long-distance engagements when you want to conserve ammo. Your pump-action shotgun, now a mainstay in first-person shooters, is a good all-around weapon that just can’t fire fast enough when the hordes are thick. While each bullet of the chaingun doesn’t do a lot of damage, the continuous-fire nature of it serves to “interrupt” the attacks of your foes, and can buy you some much needed time to maneuver. Rocket launchers are not good to use in confined spaces. Ever. Doom’s rockets also move with a conspicuous slowness which can mean it’s not the best for long-range engagements. The plasma rifle is a versatile weapon that’s good in any situation, provided you can find the ammunition for it. It works best when fired continuously, as letting up on the trigger leads to a substantial reset time before you can fire again. When something or a small group of somethings needs to die right now, bring out the BFG 9000. It’s slow rate of fire and slow projectile movement gradually unleash a green firestorm of devastation, but it really works best in relatively small environments. And then there’s the chainsaw. For a long time I thought it was only a weapon of desperation, but there is actually a strategic use for it. When dealing with melee enemies, Pinkies or Lost Souls, work your back into a corner and let them come at you. The chainsaw will do the work for you.

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Doom’s shotgun is the best ever. Period.

There’s certainly more that could be written about Doom: the movement mechanics and how the Doom Guy is able to run at a constant 30 miles per hour, how throughout the campaign you never really notice the technical limitation that prevents vertically crossing layers (there can’t be one story of a building directly over another), the story set-up present only in the game’s paper manual, the implied narrative and geographical narrative movement in the level design and loading screens, and more. To try and do all that would require a whole series of posts, and while I’m open to exploring those topics more in depth to do so here would distract from my main point. And my main point is: Doom is still around for a reason. One of the first games of its kind, it’s still one of the best of its kind. It’s just as fun in 2016 as it was in 1993; and that’s saying something.

The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

Granted, it’s not for everyone, but anyone who considers themselves a gamer owes it to themselves to play at least the shareware episode of Doom.

Good:

  • While not the first first-person shooter ever made, it’s the most influential
  • Tight gunplay and fast action in spades
  • Two decades of user-created mods ensure near limitless options for a new spin on an old classic

Bad:

  • Disturbing themes may be too much for some people to handle

Ugly:

  • The visuals of the vanilla, unmodded game are a bit hard to take

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The original game works flawlessly on modern computers, but it’s just a bit too ugly for my tastes. Thankfully the Doom community has been able to make a lot of improvement to the game engine, allowing for higher resolutions and better visual effects. The two most popular upgrades are GZDoom and Doomsday Engine. GZDoom will give you an experience that’s a bit closer to the original game, but I slightly prefer Doomsday Engine since it allows for unrestricted mouselook. Both are worth a look.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Play it on a difficulty that’s hard for you. It makes the game more interesting and will help you write your own stories within the world of Doom. I played it through on Ultra-Violence and enjoyed a good challenge. Be forewarned that the difficulty jumps by a noticeable amount when you get to the fourth episode: Thy Flesh Consumed.
  2. Circle-strafe. Move sideways and keep your enemy in the crosshairs to literally run circles around them. It’s an essential skill to learn if you want to survive.
  3. Everything is a trap. See a keycard? Trap! Is there a button nearby? Trap! Has it been more than thirty seconds since you last encountered an enemy? Trap! Always be ready to move and shoot.

The Details:

Release Date:

  • Original Game: December 10th, 1993
  • Final Doom (Thy Flesh Consumed): June 17th, 1996

Developer: id Software

Publisher: GT Interactive

Where to buy:

Steam – $14.99 – Bundle includes Doom, Doom II, and a bunch of expansion levels

GOG.com – $9.99 – Bundle includes Final Doom and Doom II