The Backlog (2): The Art of Running with a Gun

Doom, Wolfenstein, and Picking Your Poison

Disclaimer: I’ve not finished Doom, but as always, these aren’t reviews, just thoughts I’ve had based on my experience. Also, I know they call the player character the Doom Slayer, but I’m sticking with Doomguy because it’s more fun.

Under a yellow sky, the Martian landscape is covered in strange rock formations and a demonic church rising in the distance.
Mars seems fun, eh? (Doom/id Software/Bethesda/Steam)

There was very little for me to figure out with Doom, really.

Run, shoot, keep running, actually don’t stop running, and hope your Glory Kills spew out enough health so you can keep absorbing damage like a brutal, violent sponge.

Doom revels in its tone — accompanied by pounding electro-metal, the grisly violence, techno-dystopic aesthetic, and self-aware B-movie plot scratch a very specific itch. It really makes you feel like Doomguy, a singular-purposed entity who knows nothing but violence, cool-guy apathy, the endless vermilion of Mars’ atmosphere and the viscera of demons. Its brief moments of respite feel barren and lifeless, the emptiness just waiting to be filled by another fast-paced firefight, punctuated by Glory Kills — melee finishers with a cinematic flair, filled with bones, blood, and the cries of your slaughtered enemies. They feel satisfying and give the combat enough brief pauses to carry its momentum without becoming incomprehensibly fast (just). A good player — which, again, I don’t claim to be — can treat it like a dance, a ballet of violence and demon-slaying euphoria.

Contrast this with Wolfenstein: The New Order, another Bethseda-published sequel-reboot of a seminal 90s first-person-shooter, which came out two years earlier. It’s much more deliberately paced, its levels spaced out by a clear, cutscene-heavy narrative. Wolfenstein opens with you, as BJ Blazkowicz, failing to not crash a plane at the end of an alternate-reality WWII. It’s 1946, and it’s your last chance to prevent Hitler’s chief mad scientist from enacting his latest, undefined, plan. You fail, end up in a mostly-unconscious state, finally coming-to in the 60s during a Nazi-killing spree at the asylum you’ve been stuck in since the 40s. You torture a Nazi officer, shoot your way through a Nazi outpost, have a very tense interaction with a Nazi general on a train, have sex for the first time since the war also on the train, and then end up in an extended rebellion against the now-entrenched Nazi regime.

Doomguy wakes up, murders some demons, puts on his armor, and then keeps going.

Impromptu back surgery (Wolfenstein: The New Order/Machine Games/Bethesda/Steam)

The contrast in tone carries through in their combat. Wolfenstein lets you be sneaky, at least some of the time — I’m able to throwing-knife my way through many situations, and there’s a whole skill tree for it. You also have one for lockpicking, blowing stuff up with explosives; some of your skills are in fact decided by a narrative choice you make early in the game. You have a surprising amount of flexibility in how Blazko’s (as his Scottish compatriot calls him) killing machine ethos plays out in the game world. The combat can be exciting and fast, but you are rewarded for being subtle and slow as well — eliminating Nazi officers (with a silenced gun, or a well-placed knife) prevent them from calling reinforcements, which makes combat a lot easier from a not-being-overwhelmed by Nazis way. It’s actually easier to avoid being overwhelmed by Nazis in Wolfenstein than it is on the internet, sometimes. Doom, of course, presents choices, but they exist around that core loop — run, shoot, Glory Kill, dodge. It’s a completely different gameplay approach than Wolfenstein, and it works really, really well.

I don’t particularly like it, however.

I should point out Wolfenstein isn’t in my backlog — I’ve beaten it and played through most of both of its two potential pathways (if I NEVER have to play its opening air-combat section again I’ll be ecstatic). Doom has been in the backlog for a while; I’d played it for a bit on the Switch — surprisingly fluid, if graphically limited — but I wanted to play it on my PC and try to get through it properly. It was exciting to play, no doubt, and is absolutely brilliant at the thing that it does. I didn’t, however, get that moment of satisfaction that violent video games can give you — the feeling of blowing up a multi-storey communications base in Just Cause 3 comes to mind (I really like Just Cause 3). Doom is perfectly constructed, but it didn’t feel that fun to me.

I want a buddy-cop movie with these two bois (Doom/id Software/Bethesda/Steam)

The realization that I didn’t really like it, which came as I stepped out of my room and headed for the kitchen as my session had been devoid of snacks, really struck me. It’s super popular and a great game, and it’s a really great violent video game specifically. A substantial swath of my generation grew up with violent video games. I’ll confess my parents were a little more careful with obeying the rating systems, so I avoided anything rated ‘T for teen’ until I was essentially a teenager. As an adult, however, I know that I like violent video games, but I also know that violence isn’t universal. Violence in video games has different purposes, thematically and mechanically. Wolfenstein exists in an oppressed world, with violence bubbling continually just under the surface. Subtlety and sudden bursts of action are you friends; the regime’s constant, barely-suppressed violence and excess are its demise. You, a rebel against that oppression, find your way through the cracks, often exploiting the Nazis’ own violent tools to bring them down. Doom, on the other hand, meets zealotry and mindless violence with mindless violence, righting the wrongs of the world by speaking to those wrongs on their own terms. Your vicious actions are responses to your environment. I’m not going to give the writing in either Doom or Wolfenstein an Oscar, but they knew how to craft the stories for the worlds they take place in and the gameplay they’re built around, which is more than can be said for many of the games I’ve played.

Trying to figure out why I didn’t like Doom’s brand of violence took me a while. I definitely prefer story-driven games, which Doom is assuredly not, but thin, overblown stories are still fun as heck when the gameplay complements them perfectly, which Doom’s does. I’m a big fan of B-movie schlock, which Doom has in spades. Maybe it’s the gore — viscera have never been my thing — but even that becomes such a chaotic mess that you almost don’t notice it. I think, at the end of the day, it’s the pace. Doom’s relentless, mind-blowingly active gameplay doesn’t work for me. Just Cause and Batman both let you fly away from a fight, and Wolfenstein and Batman let you sneak around to shape the conflict around you. Dark Souls’ intentional pace forces you to be careful and deliberate. I get to think my way through fights in those games, but in Doom I struggle to even find time to register a single thought. I’ve got enough of life coming at me fast in the real world — I don’t need my brain overheating just to be able to see wave after wave of mostly orange enemies against the haze of the orange Martian sky.

For some reason this dude feels like a mean vice-principal (Doom/id Software/Bethesda/Steam)

This points at a need I’m finding as I play video games more regularly, making my hobby a habit: I don’t want to recreate the overwhelming nature of our actual digital-age lives when I’m relaxing. Doom feels like it could be about overcoming being overwhelmed, which might be cathartic in the long run, but in the moment it’s just more, uh, whelm. I like excitement, who doesn’t, but Doom takes an adrenaline-fuelled rush and cranks it up to a level and length that gets exhausting for me. It offers an interactive, rewards-driven version of a stressor I already experience on a regular basis: constant stimulus. We’re in an age of never-ending content, outrage, and hot-takes, with a continuous stream of interactive entertainment speeding onto our screens at an incomprehensible rate, and Doom feels like a metaphor for that experience. Heart-pounding, fast, and slightly chaotic, Doom is ostensibly a fun game on paper, but those qualities are precisely the things that keep me from enjoying it. So I’m not going to keep playing it.

We don’t necessarily have a lot of choice in the way we experience our digital lives, with algorithms, advertising, and FOMO permeating every hour of them; the least we can do is be sympathetic to what we like. Hype can make games feel like must-haves or must-plays; experiences that make up a cultural canon of playing games. Doom is one of them; Doom isn’t for me. Your enjoyment, your free time, your leisure, they shouldn’t be defined by what people say you should like. The games media is there to inform us and help us learn about our interests, not to define them. It often feels like we have so little control over our lives, and the pervasiveness of letting media define what you do for fun concerns me (I say, as I type up a blog post about one of the most popular games of the last half a decade). This exercise in going through the backlog is in some ways liberating from that — no rules (well, one rule — try to beat the first level), no pressure, just a principal question: is it fun enough to keep going?

Doom isn’t passing that test, at least not right now. So, with the inevitability of Doomguy slaughtering his way across Mars, we move on to the next one in the backlog.

Sidenote: According to Wikipedia, Doomguy was supposed to be a descendant of BJ Blazkowicz. Fun, eh?

Canadian he/him who likes video games, writing, and music; has more than one job, which isn’t this.