Doom, always brilliant, rarely improved-upon. (Image: Id Software)
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All these years later, there’s still nothing better than Doom

Development is an evolutionary process, and newer games end up objectively better than the older ones they replace – yet 1993’s iconic game Doom remains as fun and unique today as ever.

A strange thing about video games is how they age. They get relatively worse over time as other games take what was good from them, refine it, expand it and run with it. Standards change, expectations grow. What was compelling and spectacular 30 years ago is a comedy retro phone game today. Whether you see games as an art form or not they are still predominantly mechanical things, feats of engineering that can be improved as method, practice and technology advances. As such, what was great and grand in its day feels doomed to soon become stale, irrelevant and bettered.

At least, that is often the way. But some games buck the trend. Some games, either because of unmatched feats of artistic flair or more often simple obscurity, are never surpassed.

And then there is Doom, a game that people have attempted to replicate several times a year for the past 20 years. No other game has stood so tall in such a crowded genre for so long as it has done. There have been hundreds of first-person shooters over the years since Doom arrived and hundreds of them have not been anything like as good. Millions of pounds in production costs, thousands of hours of work from thousands developers from all corners of the world. The best and brightest minds in video games development, including the very people who actually made Doom, have swung and missed at making a better game.

Usually making a game that renders another game obsolete is not particularly hard to do – indeed, this is the business model for a lot of the bigger-budget AAA developers. Big-budget games tend to belong to franchises, and these will often yield a game every year or two, the explicit purpose of which is to surpass the previous game. If I am the developer of a Battlefield or Assassin’s Creed title, I want my next game to make the game that came before it look intolerably inferior, otherwise why would anybody buy the new one? The FIFA games, in particular, exemplify this school of thought; though the series has made some changes to the core mechanics and swapped engines over the years, the new releases are more often than not just minor refinements. The FIFA developers would never want to claim that they had nailed the perfect video-game interpretation of football for the ages; rather, they prefer the idea that the journey is made one huge leap at a time, year after year, forever.

Being replaced doesn’t just happen within franchises, it happens to most games. Newer games come along that relegate once brilliant titles to irrelevance. For example, when I was just a little round nerd with a ZX Spectrum +2 hooked up to the TV in the living room I was a huge fan of a turn-based strategy game called Encyclopaedia Of War: Ancient Battles. I loved that game, to the point of buying it twice because my first copy wore out, gradually chewed beyond recognition by my Spectrum's hungry tape recorder. But I wouldn’t play it today, except perhaps as part of an elaborate gambling sting or contest with the devil, or if the only alternative was human interaction. Nor would I play Populous, Elite or Laser Squad, brilliant games in their day, now merely fondly remembered ancestors to better games. Better games that have replaced them not by having revolutionary ideas like those that gave rise to the original greats, but through relentless incremental refinement. Most modern car designers probably couldn’t personally invent the vehicle from scratch but they still make better cars today than Karl Benz, and so it is for games developers.

Yet Doom bucks this trend. It would be hyperbole to say that Doom is the best game of all time, or even the best first-person shooter of all time, but it is fair to say that even now, 20 years since release, it is still one of the best. Not for the sake of nostalgia, not for admiration of how far ahead of its time it was, but because it is still that good. You simply can’t say that about the likes of Quake 2, or Goldeneye, or even more recent titles like F.E.A.R or Far Cry. People ransacked them for good ideas, put those good ideas to work in newer games, and there was no longer any reason to play the oldies. So it goes.

The question of what makes Doom so great has been the stuff of articles and reviews going back 20 years, and there’s a well-trodden line of reasoning. The game looks right for what it is doing, the levels are well-designed, the enemies are fun to fight, the player character moves extremely well and the sound and music fit perfectly. Even with the limited tools of the era the Doom developers nailed it, particularly with the little touches, like how if one enemy accidentally shoots another, the enemy he has hit will turn on him, leading to carnage. Twenty years I’ve been watching that happen and I’m still waiting for it to get old.

The trickier question is why has nobody simply beaten Doom at its own game? Why did even Doom 3, with the apparent advantages of superior hardware and developer experience to call on, fail to top it?

One answer could lie in the change in focus of modern first-person shooter games. Modern shooters tend to place the emphasis on the shooting part of the game, which is something that Doom doesn’t do, despite its fearsome reputation as a violent game. In Doom, the levels are largely flat, and even when they’re not your gun auto-aims on the Y-axis, a throwback to the days of playing purely on keyboard when aiming up and down was a pain. Enemies are not hard to hit, nor do they have specific weak points. The shooting mechanics are perfunctory at best, which is in stark contrast to more modern titles with their customisable weapons, reams of stats and fetish for headshots.

Where Doom puts its focus, instead, is on the movement. Even without a jump button Doom feels slick and fast, and it needs to because the core of the game is evasion. Doom features enemies that attack in hand to hand, that use conventional firearms that will hit you if you stand still and projectile weapons that you can see coming and actively dodge. This combination demands that the player stays moving in a way that you won’t find in a Call of Duty or Bioshock-style game, where the enemy will punish you for leaving cover by enthusiastically murdering you to death. Doom lets you run rings round the enemy, literally, and is more fun for it.

The capacity to dodge incoming fire indefinitely also ties to another anachronistic but vital Doom mechanic: the health system. No regenerating health here, no shields. This forces creativity from the player, if a direct attack against an enemy group fails, you have to improvise. Maybe you try to trick them into fighting each other, maybe you fall back and pick them off one by one as they follow, maybe you try to find a way around or try to dodge your way through. This sounds really basic but it is vastly more complex and engaging than the common modern model of simply shooting everything directly that is in front of you, reaching a checkpoint and then repeating the process.

These changes in focus mean there is much less you can do with a modern-style first-person shooter and this is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. The iterative development from Doom, the evolutionary process so to speak, seems to have gone in the wrong directions and wandered into dead ends, weighed down with pitiful attempts to break up the formula with turret sections and quick time events. Developers looked at Doom, at the graphic violence, the gore, the apparently indomitable one-man-army premise, and they ran with those elements – and in doing so, missed the point. The agility and fragility of the character, the deviousness of the map design and the freedom to go backwards and forwards and treat every level like a sandbox, all this was lost over the years.

Unless developers get a grip on what really made Doom great and work from that, we will never see Doom bettered, and that is a terrible shame. I want to see Doom surpassed not because I dislike Doom but because I love it. I want to see beautiful bouncing baby Dooms cropping up all over the place, games that are about ducking and moving more than shooting people in the face, more about improvisation than scripted events. Hopefully, with indie games such Tower of Guns and more remakes of older school first-person games such as Shadow Warrior appearing, a true successor to Doom is on the cards. Until then, well there’s always the Doomsday Engine version of the game to tide us over. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 20 years. 

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear