I'm penning this after defeating the Ultra-Nightmare difficulty of Doom (2016) and I've never felt more disappointed with myself as a person.
This is not how I pictured this moment, and God knows I've been imagining it for days. In the original vision, my shirt is inexplicably off. I rise from the La-Z-Boy, my arms are outstretched wide to the heavens, like a diver leaving the blocks. Somebody has released doves.
This story was originally published in June 2016
Actually, I look more like Andy Dufresne, laughing in a torrential thunderstorm, having finally escaped Shawshank prison through a river of shit.
You know what? I'm getting ahead of myself here. Before we discuss the destination, let's rewind and map out the journey for you.
Ultra-Nightmare is the mode that Bethesda insists none of its internal testers can beat. If you die while playing it, that's game Hendrix. Your save file gets deleted, you cry. Maybe you punch a few holes in your living room wall or spit at the TV. To each their own. Everybody has their coping mechanisms.
If you fancy a go of Ultra-Nightmare, you'll be issued a warning fitting of Dante's Inferno. A dialogue pops up and asks: “Are you willing to put yourself through this?”
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
If you're intelligent, you click no. If you're a completionist, you'll click 'yes', earn the cheevo / trophy that pops when you finish the very first level, and then you stop there.
Why the hell wouldn't you? Ultra-Nightmare is such an Everest challenge, it awards no accolade when you beat it. (Bethesda didn't want to risk pissing off the cheevo whores by asking them to do the nearly-unachievable.)
Ultra-Nightmare is fucking ridiculous, is what I'm trying to get across here. That said, I had a few personal reasons for attempting it. Firstly, I've always loved challenging games. I relish anything made by Miyazaki. The Trials series held me in thrall until Serrels ruined my best run by hitting reset. I almost always gravitate towards the hardest difficulty option when starting any new game.
It's a sickness I have. Pure masochism. Undiagnosed OCD. Nothing to be envied.
Secondly – and this is the most important reason of all – whoever coded this game monumentally pissed me off. During an early, relatively half-arsed attempt, I reached mission 3 of 13, then lost 1hr 23 mins worth of progress to the following bug.
The f-word is rarely shrieked as loudly as it was that day, my friends. I may have dislocated my larynx.
Unfortunately, I cannot stand unfairness. Falling through that floor lit a fire in me. Never underestimate the power of pure, unadulterated spite.
In some ways, I'm glad that I took one last shot at it, because there were lessons to be learned as a critic. At a much higher difficulty (my original playthrough was on Ultra-Violence) I found a greater appreciation of ID's craftsmanship. The individual risk-reward of each weapon becomes much more pronounced, and the skill-based progression system that steadily unlocks and improves “Doomguy's” abilities feels extra addictive. Overall, there's a sublime “bullet ballet” to learn if you're open to it, and not coasting through on “Hurt Me Plenty”.
Other things I wouldn't have appreciated on default difficulty: the nefarious AI of the imps. Forget every other juggernaut in the game; they're ponderous idiots built to run rings around. Your common, garden-variety imp is the real bane of your existence, and the rat-bastards are absolutely everywhere. They're literally coming out of the goddamned walls.
A direct hit from one of their fireballs will chew through half your life. Two-strikes, you're out. It's not ideal then that they run in packs and fling their shit at you like an MLB power pitcher. Typically, you will be peppered from some unimaginable angle, because the imp has xenomorph-scrambled up a wall . Or maybe they'll just lob one right into you from a completely unseen position half a postcode away.
I cannot explain this devilry.
Forget camping and waiting for an imp to wander into your killzone, too. These nasty buggers can unload fireballs in your face at a sprint while rounding a corner. If you're more of a run-and-gunner, they'll lead their shots into you with precog precision.
I actually have footage of one running away from me, flinging no-looker fireballs over its shoulder with absolute exactness like he's the fucking Andre Agassi of the afterlife.
If you're the AI coder responsible for imps, I have the weird urge to simultaneously praise and strangle you, you magnificent bastard.
With base enemies this lethal, clearly none of the many, many kill-rooms in Doom are a cakewalk. And I had way too many close calls. Sheer dumb luck saved my arse more than a dozen times. For example...
This shitshow is probably the luckiest thing that will ever happen to me in this life, and possibly my next three existences. We're almost exactly halfway through the game, and I've just had a brain fart as to how many Hell Barons spawn in this area. If you're unarmoured, these behemoths will easily kill you in one shot. Note my lack of armour.
As my death charges towards me, completely unnoticed, the Baron overshoots his death-leap due to the stairs I'm on. To be perfectly honest, my buttcheeks still haven't unclenched. It's been almost a week now. My stomach hurts.
You're never truly safe in Doom, but the deeper you get into Ultra-Nightmare, the more insurance you can buy yourself. ID aren’t complete sadists when it comes to rune challenges; dying in an attempt to unlock powerful perks is still okay. Once you find and earn runes like Saving Throw (survive one deathblow per level, but get put at 5/100 health) and Rich Get Richer (infinite ammo if you're above a certain armour stat) both make the going easier. Sadly, they appear very late in the proceedings.
I should also point out that my run isn't the world first, nor was it done in one sitting. I'm a married man with two young sons – me finding an uninterrupted eight-hour block of time to shoot demons is about as likely as me finding ugg boots made from the Golden fleece. Shit just isn't going to happen.
What you won't see in the videos are some shrewd edits that chop out where I've paused to go have dinner or pick up my kids from school. It also made sense to cut out the moments where I had to stop and study footage from my previous run to get a heads up on what's coming next, and where the life-saving ammo and health is. Everything was in stages. Stages within stages, even.
You also won't see the moment where I had to pause the game, mid-firefight, because my three year old, Ben, had an accident in his pants. Toilet-training is his own personal Ultra-Nightmare challenge at the moment, you see. Unpausing the game (after the clean up) really dropped me in the shit; the sudden spatial unawareness nearly cost me everything.
I have so much more respect now for people who speedrun these games in one sitting. As I type this, I can see that some YouTuber has glitch-run his original time down to a mere 1hr and change. A younger, more job-less and fatherless me might have done this all as one smooth take, and not a stitch together, but those days are behind me. I have responsibilities.
Which, unfortunately, brings me to why this was such a hollow victory. Rewatching the videos today, I don't see somebody having fun and pushing themselves to the limit. I see a father neglecting his family. Ignoring his children, unfairly asking his partner to pick up the slack, and for no good reason at all.
The final boss battle in particular will stay in my memory for a very long time to come.
Picture this: I'm in my menus, gearing up for the absolute final battle when I hear a small knock on the door of my “gaming room”. There's a note sticky-taped to said door, it's a Do Not Disturb message as ominous as the one I clicked through to get here, all those many days ago..
I snap at whoever is out there to enter. It's unbelievable to me that the sign hasn't done its job. I mean – holy fucking shit – if that noise had have happened during this ultimate battle to come, and had distracted me into death, I would have been absolutely ropeable.
My six-year old, Luke, peers in. He's been happily playing Lego in the rumpus room next door. My wife has stepped out to go shopping with Ben. She mentioned where she was going, and why, but I didn't retain this non-Doom information. If I had to put money on it: to source some new, browner underpants.
I impatiently ask Luke what he wants. The lecture of “you need to respect Daddy's sign” is all cued up in the back of my throat, regardless of his reply.
“Can I please go downstairs, Dad?”
I ask why, but I already know what the answer is. Grandma is down there. He, being as games-obsessed as I am, will want to go hound her for her iPad and the Angry Birds it offers.
His bottom lip quivers. “Because I feel more welcome down there.”
It's a BFG round to the chest. I'm fucking levelled.
Out the mouth of babes...
I scoop my boy up and give him a big hug. The game stays paused. The controller gets stashed. We go outside and spend the rest of the afternoon eating Pizza shapes and jumping on the trampoline.
The next day, I vaguely remember that the PS4 is still on. My boys are at school and it's 11 am when I pick up that Dualshock. Though there's adrenaline to be felt in the final battle, I also feel a weird detachment to it all.
Spiderdemon dies without much fuss (mostly because I had rigorously prepared for him the day before). End credits roll. I switch off the capture device. My thumb instinctively snaps out to the Share button to take one last screen of the completed save file.
I couldn't tell you why though. Nothing of merit was achieved here. Quite the opposite.
The only real thing worth sharing from all of this is a cautionary tale for the rest of you. Never forget that video gaming is basically an episode of Whose Line is It Anyway. Everything's made up, and the points don't matter.
Your loved ones deserve the best version of you. Shoot for that.