When the first gameplay trailers for Doom hit about a year ago, I didn’t really pay them any mind. It wasn’t that the game looked bad. It just seemed unremarkable, another reboot of a franchise looking to recapture its former glory.
It was therefore surprising to discover that Doom is one of the best single player action games in years, a fast-paced, heavy metal thrill with a thrumming mix of exploration and adrenaline. It makes you feel powerful in ways that seem downright indecent, giving you an incredible arsenal of weapons and hordes of fleshy receptacles in which to spray them. Doom is the platonic ideal of a power fantasy, a blissfully straightforward shooter that never makes you feel guilty for enjoying the mayhem.
The efficiency with which it accomplishes that effect is nothing short of astonishing. While violence is often passed off as entertainment, it doesn’t exist without context and it can be extremely difficult to justify. When the original Doom debuted in 1993, the depiction of violence in a video game was so novel that it generated moral panic. Violence invites controversy (or at least consideration), which is why Doom became a lightning rod, an emblem of the depraved future awaiting children.
In 2016 that future is here, yet Doom‘s violence barely registers because the creatures you’re inflicting it on are already so grotesque that they look just as gross in pieces as they did when they were whole. As gory as it is, the game is so over the top that it reads as a cartoon rather than a simulation with real-world implications.
What makes Doom so extraordinary is that it manages to make violence righteous. The story revolves around a company called the Union Aerospace Corporation that has set up a colony on Mars and opened a gateway to Hell to harvest Argent energy and ship it back to Earth. Things go awry when a scientist named Olivia Pearce becomes enamored with Hell and breaks open the dam to unleash its armies upon an unsuspecting populace. By the time you wake up and start fighting back, everyone is dead save for the robotic head of the UAC facility.
It’s probably telling that humanity’s idea of a renewable energy source is a literal gateway into Hell, but that ridiculous simplicity is the key to Doom’s success. Everything that could give you pause, that might make you think or hesitate, has been carefully stripped away until only the guts remain. There aren’t any problematic depictions of race or awkward gender representations to let the air out of the balloon. The person beneath the Doom Marine’s mask could be anyone you want them to be and it wouldn’t alter the content of the game in any way because there would still be ammunition and thousands of hell spawn to use it on.
It makes for a stark contrast with other modern shooters. Military games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are set in the real world, while sci-fi games like Halo have something resembling civilization. In both cases, the presence of distinct cultural factions complicates any questions of jurisdiction and morality, forcing developers to find a way to make the violence legitimate (or at least palatable). It’s often easiest to defer responsibility to someone higher up the ladder. Games cast players as the soldier, as a grunt following orders, and even if you are inclined to disobey you rarely know enough to make an informed decision. Missions are structured around the gathering of intel, which implies that you won’t know what you should do until after you’ve killed a few dozen people on your way into the base.
That’s not to say that games set in the real world are inherently worse – the limited perspective allows for unexpected reveals and the authentic trappings can allow for a thematic weight that goes beyond the anarchy of the playground – but it does limit their potential for raw catharsis. Power fantasies demand an other, a group to impose that fantasy on, and that can have unintended consequences when used to demonize groups of people that actually exist.
Doom, on the other hand, has literal demons. It’s the platonic ideal of a power fantasy not because you have the biggest guns (though that’s certainly a part of it), but because you’re endowed with the authority and the inclination to use them. There’s no grey area. The denizens of Hell are stampeding across the surface of Mars obliterating everyone in their path. It’s the most unambiguously evil visiting team since the Monstar Squad in Space Jam, and you’re fully aware of that situation as soon as the game begins. There’s no reason to hold back. Every other human being is dead. The infrastructure is crumbling and it’s only going to get worse unless you intervene. There is no collateral damage, no possible adverse outcome to euthanizing every semi-organic lifeform you encounter.
In other words, Doom‘s narrative is uniquely structured to make the act of aggression as uncomplicated as possible. Doom gives you perfect information, best exemplified in the intricate, sprawling maps that provide a birds-eye view of every hidden nook and cranny. That omniscient perspective makes slaughtering the opposing side not only fun, but a moral imperative necessary for the survival of humanity. You need to stop the demons because they’ll kill you if you don’t. The game can’t offer much in the way of suspense or plot twists when the player already knows all of the relevant story details, but Doom isn’t trying to surprise anyone as much as its trying to establish a consistent tone.
From there, it’s simply a matter of making sure that the mechanics allow the player to fulfill those expectations, and in that regard Doom succeeds spectacularly. All of the systems feed back into each other, creating a satisfying gameplay loop in which you unload all of your weapons to take out the first wave of demons and then shred a Baron of Hell with a chainsaw to restock your ammo before taking out the second.
Outside of maybe a vague and half-hearted critique of capitalism, there’s not a lot to analyze with Doom, no grand lesson that gives it broader significance or relevancy. It’s instead a game that recognizes that pumping rockets into giant, hideous demons with flamethrowers for hands will never not be awesome, and that everyone wants a chain gun with infinite ammo, especially if you didn’t have to use a cheat code to get it. Doom makes you so powerful that the legions of hell tremble to speak your name, and sometimes that’s a welcome remedy against a world that has a way of making us feel helpless.