Michael Hancock is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, and book reviews editor at FPS. He is also sad no one has yet submitted a review of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory.
“This is a book about the most important first-person game ever made, about the blueprint that has defined one of the most successful genres of digital gaming. It is about a controversial, hyperviolent, scary, funny, exciting game that manages to be both profoundly, self-congratulatory dumb and exceptionally clever at the same time. All this and a chaingun—what more can you ask?” (1) – Dan Pinchbeck DOOM: SCARYDARKFAST
There are a great many videogames that can justify some claim or other for being seminal works that changed the course of the game industry, but id’s 1993 DOOM makes a better case than most. It pioneered the first person shooter genre, it popularized the shareware method of distribution, and, perhaps most significantly, it created a gamer culture, as its multiplayer brought people together in attempts to shoot each other to pieces. It is an appropriate subject, then, for the University of Michigan Press’ Landmark Videogame series, and for Dan Pinchbeck’s book, DOOM:SCARYDARKFAST. And while the book occasionally seems uncertain of its intended audience, in general, it is an excellent study of DOOM and what the game means for the first person shooter genre at large.
The book consists of about 170 pages, and sixteen generally short chapters. It begins with a brief introduction wherein Pinchbeck recalls his own experiences playing DOOM as a teenager, and argues that DOOM’s legacy ranges Half-Life and Call of Duty to Portal and Mirror’s Edge. It was one of the first games to take advantage of Internet distribution channels, and a focal point for discussion of videogame violence. The first chapter traces DOOM’s lineage, starting with the dawn of the First Person Shooter genre, with the 1973 Maze War and 1974 Spasim. id’s own efforts in FP gaming started with the 1989 Catacomb 3D, though the better known game is the 1992 Wolfenstein 3D, the game that, Pinchbeck notes, created the ground rules for DOOM to follow.
Chapter 2 introduces the id design team, outlining the role of figures such as artist Adrian Carmack and designer Tom Hall alongside better known names such as John Carmack, John Romero, and American McGee. Pinchbeck lists the company’s advantages: it was small and ambitious, it was a team of gamers, and they (especially Romero) were doing everything they could to cultivate themselves as the punk rock of game developers. Chapter 3 traces the early history of Doom, as it progressed from the original design document penned by Tom Hall to its beta release in October 1993. Pinchbeck sees the influence of tabletop RPGs in the original design, and approach to virtual reality that emphasized visceral experience.
Chapter 4 gets into the technology behind the game, outlining id Tech 1, the engine Carmack designed for DOOM. It’s continually emphasized how technological restraints led to the final aesthetic; for example, the engine could handle texture-mapping, a relative first at the time for games, but the color palette was kept simple to compensate for the processing time allotted to the mapping. Chapter 5 continues the more technical focus, as Pinchbeck explains how DOOM, a game defined by its chaotic action, is actually governed by numbers, for everything from AI pathfinding to damage spread. Chapter 6 highlights the game’s sound design, which consists largely of Bobby Prince’s compositions and a lot of heavy metal. Pinchbeck makes some bold claims for DOOM in this regard, arguing that DOOM is “one of the first games where audio came out of the background and stood alongside the visuals, creating a world that is as much a product of the audio as of anything else” (55). Finally, Pinchbeck covers DOOM’s launch, sales and critical reception next, in chapter 7. It’s here that he goes more fully into the shareware model, and very briefly touches on the political consequences of the game’s violence and gore.
Tower of Babel
Chapters 8 through 10 are a blow-by-blow—or shot-by-shot, as Pinchbeck calls it—study and playthrough of DOOM, each chapter on one of the three original episodes. He charts the game’s departure from the original sci-fi level designs to the gothic overtones introduced by designer Sandy Petersen in the later levels. Much of these chapters are description rather than analysis, but there’s also some analysis of levels such as The Unholy Citadel’s optional chaos and the multiplayer-like set-up of Mount Erebus. In Chapter 11, Pinchbeck sums up his thoughts on DOOM thus far, praising its unity in minimalism, and the integration of technology and form. Chapter 12 examines the DOOM mod scene and introduces a taxonomy of game mods, including reference to Pinchbeck’s own mod-turned-game, Dear Esther.
Just as DOOM inspired one of the earliest mod scenes—thanks in large part to id’s decision to provide freely distributed modding tools—it was also one of the earliest games to make a big impact in terms of multiplayer, and Chapter 13 outlines the history of the game on those terms. Apparently, the id team originally had created multiplayer as a sort of afterthought, and were rather surprised over how popular it became. Chapter 14 covers the game’s numerous ports and sequels, including DOOM 2, Final DOOM, and DOOM 3, and its relative failures. In a similar vein, in chapter 15, Pinchbeck considers DOOM’s legacy as the protoypical FPS game. Anyone interested in the more theoretical aspects of Pinchbeck’s work should probably start reading here, as it’s where Pinchbeck really delves into the design philosophy he sees present in the game, and the genre. The approach here is affordance theory, and Pinchbeck states that looking at what later FPS games allow that DOOM does not explains the evolution of the genre: sandbox style play, a greater emphasis on strategy, multiplayer dedication, highly configurable PC options, and non-combat orientation—in other words, a movement away from mindless violence. I found particularly interesting his argument that the lack of NPCs in shooters in general, and a tendency to have NPCs that aren’t visually represented—think the radio in Bioshock, or HALO—can be traced back to DOOM, and its technological inability to implement them properly. A final chapter sums up the game once more, and Pinchbeck delivers his final words on DOOM’s speed, gameplay, designers, and technology.
Those familiar with Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence will no doubt recall its central premise, that writers are always influenced by previous similar writers, to the point where their works can be read as responses to those earlier works. That notion—though it is generally an oversimplification of the actual relation between texts—has a few interesting echoes for DOOM: SCARYDARKFAST. First, DOOM has clearly had a major influence on Dan Pinchbeck’s own design habits, as creative director for the studio The Chinese Room. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to play any of their games, Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the recently released quasi-sequel to Frictional Studios’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But I do know that all three are marked by a deviation from typical FPS elements, yet still, by nature of their interface, working with the conventions and framework DOOM provided. On that level, this book is useful not only for studying DOOM, but for studying the games in The Chinese Room’s oeuvre.
But there are also other influences to be anxious of here, literary influences. In chapter two, where Pinchbeck addresses id, he also makes reference to the book-long study of id, David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, which covers the careers of John Carmack and John Romero, as well as the cultural influence of DOOM in great detail, albeit in a more informal manner. Pinchbeck is caught in a bit of a double here, as repeating the information Kushner presented would be to repeat what has already been said on the subject; to skip over that information entirely would be a rather noticeable omission. I think Pinchbeck’s compromise here works rather well, as he chooses to focus on a close playthrough of DOOM (as behooves the Landmark Video Game series) and when he does focus on id, he emphasizes the contributions of the team beyond just the “Two Johns,” as Carmack and Romero were sometimes called. At the same time, though, there are still small gaps, especially in terms of DOOM’s cultural influence; those interested in fully fleshing out that side of things will have to look elsewhere.
Finally, a third influence of note is one that was probably more an issue for me than anything else. As I’ve mentioned, DOOM:SCARYDARKFAST is part of the Landmark Video Games series, a series whose stated mandate is to “cover a historically significant game or game series, and collectively produce an intimate examination of the video game medium, through the concrete details of the famous and influential games that have set the course and changed the direction of video game history”–a worthwhile goal, to be sure. My reading of Pinchbeck, though, was influenced by the previous book I’ve read in the series, Mark J. P. Wolf’s Myst and Riven: The World of the D’ni . I found that book to be somewhat disappointing; in trying to strike a balance between a general audience and an academic one, it falls a little short of either and spends a little too much time on the blow-by-blow descriptions. With Pinchbeck, I think the series has found its footing a bit more, and Pinchbeck seems more comfortable dwelling on the technological aspects of the game in question than Wolf. Pinchbeck also had the advantage that DOOM’s influence on future game design is easier to trace than that of Myst and Riven, which grants more material to work with. At the same time, though, the book does seem to have a bit of a problem deciding on its audience, and, perhaps as a consequence, rarely delves far into theoretical matters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the book very accessible. (I haven’t read the other book in the Landmark Video Games series, Bernard Perron’s Silent Hill: The Terror Engine for the very unscholarly reason that I hope to play the games first, but from what I recall of the introduction, it is much more willing to dive into theory and philosophy.)
Before I finish up, I’d like to follow up, on the notion of the book being accessible. It is accessible in more ways than one; the Video Game Landmark series is part of the University of Michigan’s digitalculturebooks imprint, and consequently, every book in the series is freely available online here, and usable under a Creative Commons license. The imprint claims that this availability is part of an ongoing desire to promote discussion over the future of the scholarly community and introduce openness and open platforms to the scholarly peer review process. And since we here at First Person Scholar are rather enthusiastic about the potential of alternative publishing models, I’d like to say it’s a very commendable goal, and one that makes the books in these series much easier to recommend.
Unto the Cruel
DOOM: SCARYDARKFAST is part of a growing trend in game studies and critical game discussion to focus on single games or series or platforms, and as such is similar in scope to Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless, Zoya Street’s recently released Dreamcast Worlds, and the upcoming books in the Boss Fight Books series. I’m very pleased to see all these examples of close studies approaches, and it’s interesting to note that all of these books are pursuing publishing models outside of the industry standards. For its part, Dan Pinchbeck’s book is informative and engaging, albeit perhaps less academic than some may be anticipating. But its ease of access and refreshing pace means that it is worth a look for any scholar who is doing work on DOOM, or even starting work on the FPS genre in general.