Ah yes, that Doom – and the original 2004 version of that Doom no less; the game with the monster closets, an entire tech company’s worth of gigantic PDAs stuffed with audio logs, a noticeable lack of demonic hordes to rip and tear your way through, and for all the extreme science going on there’s somehow not a single inch of duct tape on all of Mars.
Doom 3 could’ve been, perhaps should’ve been, and certainly isn’t, a lot of things but today we’re going to talk about one thing it definitely is: An excellent horror game.
It begins not with an epic guitar riff and the familiar sight of a leather glove wrapped around a pistol in the centre of the screen but a routine docking procedure, a bag of belongings, and an extended and very ordinary signing-in-for-work process. Other employees along the way will point you to the various desks and offices you need to visit, sentry bots will turn their heads to make sure you’re obediently following them, and you’ll have to stand still a lot as scans are performed and comm systems are checked. The restroom you can find along the way is a very ordinary restroom, the kitchen area has people on break sitting down at a table exactly as you’d expect them to, the freestanding terminals contain only information a freshly-transferred UAC nobody such as yourself would want to look at, and so far the closest thing to the visceral thrill of classic Doom is the Super Turbo Turkey Puncher 3 arcade cabinet tucked away in a corner you’re not even guaranteed to notice it in. It’s a perfectly mundane environment, a functional workplace staffed by people just trying to get their daily tasks done…
As you trudge along your permitted route you’ll overhear chatter between colleagues at work privately discussing unreasonable demands, machinery made to operate at its absolute limits, and people suddenly “leaving” without so much as a goodbye, as well as optionally receive sinister offers to volunteer for “exciting” work in the base’s tightly-controlled Delta Labs stress-testing their
gateways to hell teleporters and performing evasively described “specimen handling”; quietly weaving together a story of unusual behaviour and mounting supernatural phenomena that’s consistently excused, ignored, or covered up in a place that can barely cope as it is.
Doom 3 needs this. You need this. If Doom 3’s most icky and uncomfortable reveals are going to hit their mark then it needs to offer a good glug of normal to contrast them with first – this is the detail that separates the arcade-like amusement of “Blood-covered game gives the only guy still alive a big gun” from the bone-gnawing terror of “Everybody on the radio is screaming for help, there’s a sinister laugh in the air, and you have no idea where your next ammo clip’s coming from”. This calm before the storm, this early effort to give scientists and soldiers individual names and work to begrudgingly be getting on with, takes those zombies and now hellishly twisted soldiers – traditionally forgettable low-tier cannon fodder – and presents them as former humans, as people who once had jobs and ambitions, reinforced by all those petty emails and audio logs on every subject from ice cream to office grumbles to critical maintenance work. The dead and undead alike are people rather than ghoulish props, and that still holds true whether they’re found collapsed with their faces torn off against dimly-lit desks or slowly shambling towards you out of shadows so thick you could almost believe they were holes in reality rather than the simple absence of light.
Of course sixteen years on intricate real-time shadows are now so ubiquitous they’re barely worth mentioning; they just sort of happen somewhere along the development pipeline, as necessary and inevitable as texture mapping, controller support, and a list of achievements for players to chase after. But back in the distant past of Doom 3 getting shadows looking this good took serious technical dedication and a meaty PC to display – they were a key feature to be shown off at every possible opportunity rather than the common-sense collision of light on three-dimensional objects, the perfect marriage of programming skill and artistic vision covering dense knots of pipework and sci-fi scenery in impenetrable swathes of darkness or throwing distorted demon shadows across a nearby wall. Dealing with the shadows Doom 3 revels in is very much a core part of the game’s atmosphere: it’s only by making you choose between holding a torch or a weapon – to force you to decide whether you want to be able to peer into the gloom or be able to defend yourself – that tense conflicts where teeth and claws are lit up only by flashes of gunfire or demonic blasts are created, enemies often only becoming clearly visible when they’re close enough to cause you harm (this visual disadvantage is balanced out by their reasonably predictable movement patterns – they tend to come straight for you, so you’ve always got a good idea of where to aim even if you can’t see a thing). Doom 3 is still however very careful to never leave you bumbling around in the dark – doors you can go through are brightly lit even if they are surrounded by inky black. Usable monitor screens, PDAs, and security locker inputs are eye-catchingly large and give off a distinctive glow that are all easily spotted in locked rooms through their large glass windows. Suspiciously illuminated corners draw your attention towards them – and there’s no doubt you’ll find a med kit or some armour shards nearby if you dare to investigate them closely. Even hell makes allowances for its torchless shade, marking its rocky platforms over fatal drops with bright glowing sigils and lighting level-progressing stairways with small pools of deadly lava.
As fantastic as it is these areas perform well as battlefields and lightly puzzle-ish levels they are elevated further by an extreme amount of functional detail; from that first traffic monitor that fills your screen before peeling away to reveal it’s nothing more than one display on a whole bank of control panels, touchscreen interfaces whose easily-ignored updates actually reflect what you can see happening, to finally finding the hidden stash of chainsaws a whole chain of emails have been comically trying to work out what to do with (and taking one for yourself, of course). The forces of hell were lavished with the same level of attention, always reacting as if they are creatures within the Mars research facility as opposed to an enemy for you to shoot at in your fancy new videogame. You’ll find Imps that stop eating a corpse and quickly dash out of sight when they notice you morbidly staring at them through the glass, and later one of them will spot you through the grated flooring you’re crawling around underneath – the grated flooring I blithely assumed made me invisible to anything above, because that’s how game rules usually work. Classic Doom’s “Pinky”, reimagined here as a sort of enormous cybernetic hellhound, spends their introduction bending metal rails and bashing thick doors before leaping straight through a glass window just to get to you, filling the entire room with their smooth eyeless visage. Then there’s the telltale tapping sound of Trites – think spiders from hell coated in flesh – pouring out of small holes in the wall or dropping down from above and other beings with too many teeth and not enough internal organs clambering down from the ceiling, out of vents, up through the floor, or across glass surfaces. There’s a spatial awareness and physicality to these scenes – scripted as they may be – that makes you believe anything can chase you anywhere, that no room is safe no matter how many bodies litter the bloodstained floor.
As dangerous as they may be the armies of hell regarding Earth with envious eyes aren’t the only thing you need to worry about either: Not even oxygen is a given in some areas and those sprints across the barren surface of Mars aren’t gracious enough to ease off on the enemy encounters just because you’re in imminent danger of suffocating to death. To make matters worse you can’t even afford to quickly unleash your most devastating weaponry in these fraught battles either as ammo tends to be a scarce and precious resource: You’ll always have (just) enough to do the job (and the game is pretty good about making sure you’re stocked up before any sort of lock-in situation) but you’ll never have enough to make unleashing a powerful barrage of whatever at a lowly zombie not feel wasteful and any apparent excess carefully gathered from dark corners and code-protected security lockers is frequently shot away not long after, every carefully orchestrated wave of demons chipping away the protection and safety you thought you had finally found. When enemies in Doom 3 hit they hit they hit hard – even the lowliest gun-toting ex-soldier can tear both your armour and your health to ribbons if you’re not careful – and every half-full health station you find only makes you even more aware of how fragile you really are and how devastating this Mars-wide massacre must be.
Of course it is – the entire underworld is mercilessly seeping across the supernatural divide and bringing with it not only monsters desperate for a taste of human flesh but also violent poltergeist activity, an unnatural taint capable of turning humans into gnashing hordes before your eyes, and pulsating masses of organic matter dotted with sharp protrusions growing in the corners of rooms, the facility going from bad to worse with every step. This tortuously slow succumbing to the corrupting influence of malicious outside forces may test the patience of anyone hoping to punch the Icon of Sin in their colossal face but it’s a far more effective way of communicating hell’s (apparently) inexorable consumption of humanity than spending most of your time in disconnected levels that look like a classic death metal album cover with extra decorative offal that’s just been set on fire – this is a horror game after all. Doom 3’s memorable trip through hell to fetch the Soul Cube only has such an extreme impact on its players because all of the rules it so carefully established no longer apply: from the level beginning by forced teleportation rather than a neat and tidy lift transfer sequence to being stripped of all your weapons and even the ground beneath your feet obeying the laws of physics, it’s a fiery free-for-all that quite deliberately feels like a hot blast of hellish air to the face after the nervous tension and dark encounters of Mars.
And if you are hankering after a glimpse of gutted bodies pinned to the ceiling, dribbly candles set around pentagrams, and all the other traditional trappings of an enthusiastic demon summoning ritual then Doom 3’s home dimension could hardly be accused of not making an effort: From the very beginning rooms are not just splattered with blood but painted with the substance, heavy streaks following the curves of metallic corridors implying not just violent death but play while elsewhere swinging corpses cast long shadows down empty gore-soaked halls and ominous script rushes across the walls of an otherwise dark corridor in time to unnatural repetitive screams.
As bad as all that is, what you can hear (sound up – Doom 3 has no subtitles) is even worse: The deep echoing laugh as every bulb in a room dies leaving you in the dark with only the pinpricks of light from shining eyes of zombies shambling ever closer to orientate yourself, the whispers of “They took my baby” before your vision becomes a sea of blood-red and the cries of an unseen baby ring out in a dead-end passage, and all the faint “Over here”s and “Help me”s spoken softly into your ear, never sure whether these voices are about to lead you to some much-needed supplies or a deathtrap full of Imps until it’s far too late.
My favourite example of Doom 3’s supernatural spookiness is one particular door with an armour pickup placed right outside: Why wouldn’t anyone go for it – it’s just armour. Who doesn’t need an armour top-up in an FPS? There are however a few problems with this free gift – there’s a dead body slumped over just a few feet away, the door and the surrounding everything are absolutely caked in blood, and worst of all there’s a powerful banging coming from the other side… So you pick up the armour, because you have a very good shotgun in your hands and can probably handle whatever the trap you’re about to spring.
Except there’s no trap, not really. Instead the head of… something… bursts through a wall of flesh and teeth as the room once again turns a dark red and threatening demonic speech fills the air. Then just as you get your bearings and think you’re ready t- pop! – reality wins – for now – and you’re left standing in front of that bloodied door as if you had done nothing more than walk over and collect a common item in an empty room. As much of an obvious horror setup this scene is it’s also one of many scary twists on the original Doom’s gameplay – how many times when you were Knee-Deep in the Dead did you see some ammo, armour, or a shiny new gun just sitting out in the open, waiting for you to pick it up, and you just knew you were going to be made to pay for it when you did? There it was purely transactional – do you want the thing bad enough to fight monsters for it? – but here the extra layer of terror tries to make you believe this isn’t simply a designer invoking a good idea from a proven classic but also an unseen evil hand daring you to challenge them, hell simultaneously too close and too far away in the most bewildering way possible.
Queries over the authenticity of Doom 3’s traditional-style Doominess are valid in spite of the game being filled with callbacks to its rightly beloved progenitor, but I feel the quality of Doom 3 itself is not up for discussion. It’s an unusual take on the horror genre – a game starring a guy who looks like the first image result for “Generic gun game hero dude” is armed to the teeth and then sent up against the forces of darkness isn’t how these games normally go – but it’s an effective one that uses it’s own incredible tech working in perfect harmony with some old fashioned good game design to maintain a threatening atmosphere choking with tension even as you’re whipping around to point a chaingun at a distant rocket-firing Revenant, a game quick and keen to put you in your place and keep you there, to give you that vast arsenal of weaponry and then still make you feel vulnerable – not weak, but prone – and unsure of what’s safe – of what’s real.