The First Time I Played Doom Was Yesterday

More than 17 years after it was released, more than a decade after I was first paid to write about video games, I have finally played Doom. For an hour last night. My belated snap judgment?

I like Doom! I like the way it looks. I like the way the gun bounces as you run. I like how stingy it is with help and how nasty it is with pain. This game is good.

I am not sure how I failed to play Doom during the last 17 years. While I have long been primarily a console gamer, I dabbled with PC gaming before, during and after Doom's launch. I had a Commodore 64, a PC that ran games off DOS and, later, Windows 3.11. I had friends who loved playing Marathon, which they described as Doom for their Macs. But somehow I never played Doom. Maybe it was too gritty for me. I was one of those kids who collected Superman comics, not Batman and never Wolverine.

This week, for the second August in a row, I will attend Quakecon, the big Dallas convention that doubles as a festival for Doom's inventors at id software and the games id spawned. I couldn't go to a second Quakecon still a Doom virgin. At some point, once the secret is out, a man's got to play Doom.

Finding Doom

Last night I decided I would finally do it. It was time for Doom. To the Steam games downloading service I went. I grabbed a copy of Ultimate Doom and the bundled DOSBox program that would run it. No luck. Ultimate Doom failed to load once; froze my computer the second time.

Doom, I reckoned, was ubiquitous. While I had missed the game, surely the openness with which id Software has shared the game, the fact that it has been freely ported to just about every possible technology platform that exists, meant that I should have means to play the game. If my first play of Doom would not be through Ultimate Doom, would it be Chocolate Doom, the Doom recommended to me by a helpful soul using Twitter? Would it be Doom on the Xbox 360?

I chose Doom in my browser, programmed in Flash with no music, but supporting the original WASD key commands for character movement. That sufficed. The Xbox option was attractive, but I was not going to sully my first Doom experience with a video game controller.

The First Surprise

Before I could fire a shot, before I could spot an enemy, I reeled from the first surprise Doom had for me: It contains the colour blue. This was not what I had envisioned, though it is in the first frame of what you see when you start a game of Doom.

I may not have played Doom until last night, but I have seen clips of Doom being played. I have seen screenshots. I have played so many first-person shooters, heard so many people describe Doom, been exposed to so much Doom-ness in my life, that I believed I could imagine Doom as if it was real and before me. I could close my eyes and see Doom play out. In my mental port of Doom, the game was all greys and browns, with red highlights of violence. There was no blue. Wrong. There is blue.

The blue surprise may seem trifling, but it gave me the sensation that my assumptions were wrong. It ensured that, for however long I played, I was likely to discover that, in other ways, Doom had more to offer than I had expected.

My second surprise was that the game looked beautiful to me. From GoldenEye to Modern Warfare 2, I've played first-person shooters made of polygons. As the years advanced, I've watched the worlds and figures these games depict advance from the aesthetic of roughly-modelled papier-mache to photorealism. I'd not played a shooter that looks like Doom. I'd not one that presented each of its figures as a stack of pixels rendered at the fever-dream intersection of real and colourful, relevant abstract. Be it dirt, blood, hair or the barrel of a gun, everything I saw was a block. Each block was a tile of a nightmare mosaic.

This is how I did in that first area of the first level of Doom:

I ran around. I shot at enemies. I tried to acclimate to using the left side of my keyboard to control all of the movement and turning of my in-game hero. I found it funny that the items littered in the game that ostensibly could heal my character's wounds only raised his health a single percentage point; I didn't understand the armour system. I played through that full first area of Doom with just a pistol and was confused that I had no better gun.

Modern games would have armed me more heavily sooner. They would have given me five or 10 health points per health pack. I didn't care, though I did feel weak. I needed a shotgun.

In that first level, with just a pistol, I admired the bounciness of my gun. What an unexpected visual treat. I didn't expect the pistol held out by my hero to wobble with each stride through Doom's deadly corridors, but it delighted me. It made it look like hauling through the halls of Doom was, for the hero who I was steering, a labour. Running through Doom's buildings was not a mission he struggled to start, but it was one that involved weight and muscle. Modern shooters often let me feel super-powered to the point of weightlessness, the gun in my virtual hands no heavier than a helicopter in the grip of Superman. In Doom I felt like I was a hero who had to work and was good at that work.

I was lost and confused in the first level. I was not always sure where to go. I used an online map to help me out.

Not everything was right with this game. I wondered, more than once, why bad guys on staircases could shoot down at me, but I could not shoot up at them. I wondered why some doors could open and others, the silver ones, could not. I wondered where in the world was the shotgun I'd heard so much about?

The Wrong Ways To Play Doom

I enjoyed my first level of Doom. But I feared I was playing Doom wrong. The Flash version, as I mentioned, had no music. The game felt appropriately violent and deathly, but it felt lonely. I felt I had tunnelled into Doom, and yet I think of Doom as a social game, a game people play together and talk to each other about.

To the Xbox 360 I went.

The second time I played Doom was also last night. I was using an Xbox 360 controller. I was circle-strafing thanks to the 360's two analogue sticks, slipping around my enemies with ease. I was playing the game on a TV. I was playing with music, yes, but - oh! - my Xbox Live Gold account had just expired, so I was not playing it with friends. I was, in fact, playing just the demo of Xbox Live Arcade Doom. (I have now played Doom twice, but I have still never paid to play Doom which lumps me with the majority or minority?) The Xbox controller made Doom feel too easy. I felt I was doing violence to the game's legacy. Doom with a keyboard seemed proper to me. Or am I just one of those late-coming instant-purists, the latter-life convert who emerges dogmatic?

My bigger concern with getting Doom wrong was not the controller, but the shotgun. As I played the Flash version on my computer, I began to stress that I would not find the famous weapon. Eventually I found the cheats, of course, and unlocked all the weapons. But into the game's second and third areas of its first level, I had no shotgun. I was a pistol man in a world of nasty, unfriendly foes. In the midst of one firefight, as I slid to the side with the Q key and wheeled around with the A, then ran with the W... there I saw it:

Shotgun.

Virtual shotgun armed, I was finally going to play Doom for real. A second later, I understood the allure the video game weapon has had. In Doom the shotgun feels mighty, at least partially I believe because they make first-timers like me wait for it. The creators make us sweat until we have it in hand. But once we have the shotgun, its big shots and its slow, fetishised reload are the floored-accelerator-pedal stuff of macho fantasy. The shotgun is, in all senses, instant puberty, which is to say, delicately, that to obtain it is to have the assumed added potency that a boy believes a man possesses vis a vis a world on which he'd like to have some impact. The shotgun is the punch in the face the once-scrawny boy on the beach gives the bully when he returns a muscled linebacker.

I fired some shots with the shotgun, admired its game-altering might. Full of bravado, of course, I got killed.

A Third Time?

I do not know when I will play Doom a third time. Probably when my Xbox Live subscription turns Gold again, so I can experience Doom against other people.

I enjoyed the game more than I thought I would. I had expected a dinosaur, something that felt outmoded and unevolved. Instead, I found a cave-painting, gorgeous in its primitive beauty and built with an intelligence that rendered mean conflict with a thrill it is hard to ignore - or forget.

I have now played Doom. I'm sorry I missed it for so long.

(All images in this post, except for the map, were captured from my web browser playthrough of Doom on Kongregate.)


Comments

    Haha, all of this nearly perfectly describes my experience with Doom... last year, I think it was!

    The first time I actually played it was briefly at a girlfriend-of-the-time's place back around 2006 or so, when her little brother and a friend were playing it on two old computers they had there. I made mention that I'd never played it before, and sat down to have a go. Think I only had a very brief go, probably got kicked off by her brother or something. But it didn't really stick.

    I can't even remember why, but at some point last year or the year before I decided to go and play the actual thing, properly. It might've been when I discovered all my old DOS games on floppies and copied them all to my computer. I'm still running win98, so most of them work fine, and I got Doom to run through Doom95. So much of what you said, that's how I felt with it too. And the gun bobbing! It's the best.

    After I was done with that, I went on to do Doom 2 as well, although for the last half a dozen or so levels the enemies had somehow gotten switched off without me realising, I just thought they were strangely absent for some reason. But I couldn't be bothered going through it all again when I realised, so I just had them switched on for the final level or two.

    Then once that was complete, Dick Smith happened to be clearing some games out. One of them, Doom 3. For $2.50. I found a copy and pounced :P But I was disappoint, it didn't really feel like a Doom game to me. Oh well.

    Good article, really funny. You do suck for not playing it when it came out though.

    Doom is evil. I got it last year on xbox live and after playing through it a bit I got up to one level (can't remember which) that caused my 360 to crash. I tried every thing and couldn't get it working so I took it to a repair guy who said it was screwed and I'd have to buy a new one. Luckily the hard drive was ok so I just brought a arcade version of the 360 that was on sale and came with a couple of games. Immediatly after getting it home and turning it on I deleted Doom of my hard drive. I've never risked downloading any games on xbox live again but I do still get DLC.

      Yeah its all dooms fault and had nothing to do with the console.

    I made my dad pay 400 dollars extra for our first IBM PC back in the day for the 2 extra megabytes of RAM that we needed to play the Doom demo, and I played it ad nauseum for about 2 years when I was finally given the Ultimate Doom for a birthday present.

    Playing it back then was definitely a life changing experience for me, I had never experienced fear or immersion in a video game until then.

    The shotgun is still probably the most iconic weapon in a game for me, followed closely by the Super Shotgun in Doom 2, just so so so satisfying sticking it right in an imp's guts and blasting it, or in the case of the Super Shotty, killing even some of the strongest enemies in the game with only a few shots.

    I love Doom.

    I can understand why Stephen had trouble interpreting the map, the map is not for the first level, I think it is the third level. This strangely coincides with the first image which also appears to be near the entrance of the third level.

      Yep... Toxin Refinery. Thats a fun level until some arsehole knocks you into one of the numerous slime pits you cant get out of.

    I love the XBLA version. Got to love being able to strafe easily, especially in this game.

    Now... go right back to the beginning and play Wolfenstein.

    I'm a Doom vet and to me, the 360 port is the best fun I've had with Doom since the 90s. The twin stick control suits Doom's frantic running pace and circle strafing just feels more natural and fun for some reason.

    Also split-screen.

    My. Goodness.

    Um, look, Stephen. Sure, nice article but frankly if you have been paid to write about games for a decade (off and on I assume) this is not something you should share with us.

    It's like writing about food (even as a hobby) and saying "Oh, I tried eggs for the first time last night." (and not having a valid medical explanation)

    I'm serious. Next time don't share.

      Man I wish the internet had a sarcasm detector, because I really can't tell if the above is sarcastic or not?!?

      I really enjoyed the article, it was great to see what a grizzled vet of computer gaming makes of their first experience with a classic game, not a 'remembered' experience, but their actual first one. It threw a lot of insight into where gaming is now as well.

      But I gotta say, if you played doom without music, you didn't play it. The stupidly over the top music adds so much to the stress level of the game, and as soon as I saw the screenshot, the music began in my head, even though I haven't heard it in over ten years.

        Did you listen to the recent Kotaku podcast about pc gaming? Honestly, it sounds like Stephen was just picked up off the street at random.

        Doom was way before my time, and I've played it. By far most gamers would have played Doom. For a man who writes about video games, it's appalling that he took so long to play it.

    You *can* shoot up at enemies... You only have to aim horizontally, the game will automatically aim vertically (even though visibly your vertical aim does not adjust). At least this is how I remember Doom originally (before the added the ability to strafe and use the mouse for free-look).

    Secret: 0%? You're doing it wrong.
    And why is the shotgun the famous weapon? The chainsaw is where the real action is. That and the BFG.

    No shotgun in E1M1 means not playing on Ultra-Violence. Tsk, I say.

      I had to re-read it as I was gunna call bogus on the whole article because of the shotgun thing. as there is one immediately to the left and there should be more than one grunt with a shotgun even on please don't hurt me level it didn't make sense that he would have missed it in the first level completely.
      Re read it and it does imply the shotgun was recovered in the first stage (second or third section of the first stage)

        No Sarges in there on anything less than Ultra.

        However, I too stand corrected as there should be a secret shotgun behind the imp platform on any skill.

        http://doom.wikia.com/wiki/E1M1:_Hangar_(Doom)

    Haha, doom, one of the first games i ever played on pc. I still remember; IDDQD & IDKFA

    I really enjoyed this article, and it made me feel privileged to have played it from an early age.

    I'm glad to see someone doing justice to the game's art style and overall feel... as opposed to just judging it by it's technical flaws. It really isn't like any other game, and that's what drew me into it's universe. It kind of tells the story through it's gameplay rather than cutscenes, etc... for example, when you see the dead marine in the first level. And yeah, I never really paid much attention to the blues, reds and greens, but you're right... they provide contrast and they look amazing.

    I was lucky enough to have played it before it was the cultural icon that it is now, however, and that's why the game is so important to me... IMO gaming now would be nothing without what Doom did.

    Hey Stephen. I came here expecting to shout you down about how much you didn't understand but was surprised that you seem to really get Doom. :D

    This is fantastic to me for a couple of reasons. First that you seem to really enjoy the game for all its intricacies. Secondly, and most importantly, it makes me feel validated that my gushing for this game is not pure nostalgia (not that I ever thought it was, but people will say that anyway). It is fascinating to read that you can see the inherant beauty in the graphics that transcends the graphical limitations of it's time, and the visceral feel of the game that so many, even modern, games fail to capture. One thing you didn't touch upon but I think is fantastic is the picture of Doom Guy's face that really pulls you into the action. As someone said above I also had the music in my head as soon as I started reading, and whenever I hear that music my face always starts to unconsciously start smiling like the guy when he gets a new weapon. ;) I also feel that the blood on his face gives you a point of reference like you are carving up enemies and your face is dripping in sweat and blood.

    I hope you play the single player more as the games depth of quality is so much more than you even tapped into in your short play session. The level design is fantastic, especially later on. And some of the monsters are so memorable as to be burned into your consciousness years later. Cacodemons anyone?

    Of course maybe you just knew that you would get in trouble if you said bad things about Doom, but nice article either way. ;)

    That's one gaming blindspot down :D!!! Now onto the others. I myself played Doom when I was about...5?? 6 maybe and I do remembering finishing it, I also finished Doom 2. But since I was a little kid I didn't think too much about the way things happened or anything in particular just shoot anything that moved.

    @author - you suck. But my guess is you weren't very old when Doom was around, so maybe you're excused.

    Take your Ultimate Doom WADs over to one of the many available updated Doom engines (the source was opened years ago), like PrBoom [1], or ZDoom [2], or Google for one of the others.

    Also, play with arrows + CTRL + Spacebar for real authenticity - there was none of this mouse+WASD in those days.

    [1] http://prboom.sourceforge.net/
    [2] http://zdoom.org/News

    Yeah, PDF is right. Use on of the new ports with the hi-res texture patch and play Doom w/open gl effects and 3-d enemies ( tho some prefer the classic sprites' look better ). I just replayed the Alien TC mod in hi-res and it was just as suspenseful as ever. Doom was a work of art really. Ha ha Ultima Underworld was pretty darn cool too...But Doom is still great after a hard, frustrating day. I saw James Coburn on a talk show a few years back, "So what do you do for stress James?" "I just play Doom."

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