This article is part of DOOM Week on VICE Gaming, exploring the legendary 1993 title and its 2016 counterpart, out now. This content is made possible by Bethesda.
"You're a soldier, one of Earth's toughest. Three years ago you assaulted a superior officer for ordering his soldiers to fire upon civilians. You were transferred to Mars. With no action for 50 million miles, your day consists of suckin' dust and watchin' restricted flicks in the rec room."
So reads the bio, found in the DOOM instruction manual, of Doomguy, gaming's original space marine. In the past, I've lamented the predominance of silent protagonists – lacking voices and personalities, they're emblematic of how games can't or won't tell fully-fleshed stories, and how they insist on sucking up to players. How can we take Half-Life 2 seriously when Gordon Freeman, upon seeing his best friend get killed, doesn't shed a tear? How can F.E.A.R. be frightening when the Point Man doesn't even scream?
Silent protagonists are a blight, and reasoning that they allow players to better emerge themselves into video games is an utter falsehood: when a character gets shot and doesn't so much as groan, I feel totally disconnected from his world and his struggle.
But Doomguy – same as virtually everything else in 1993's original DOOM – is designed and works perfectly. Stalking through the Mars base's darkened chambers, fighting tooth and nail against hordes of monsters, entering Hell itself: DOOM is a game about isolation, a one-man army going it alone against overwhelming odds.
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It's perhaps the by-product of a different time, when games, especially ones with guns, weren't expected to have much by way of a story, but Doomguy's silence, unlike Gordon Freeman's, never seems incongruous simply because there is no-one for him to talk to. Those ridiculous moments in today's shooters, where a comrade is speaking straight into your face, and your character is just glaring silently back, never occur, because DOOM is wholeheartedly a game about being on your own. Doomguy is the rare example of a character in a shooter whose silence actually benefits the rest of the game. Wrapped in armour, silently clutching a shotgun, so far from home, you get a sense of being crushingly alone.
Which isn't to say that Doomguy has no personality. On the contrary – and this is something that games, even today, attempt only very rarely – he's characterised by facial expressions and body language. It's important that we see video game characters getting hurt, that we see not just dwindling health bars but physical, painful-looking injuries. We all feel pain. Pain and physical sensations are what make us feel alive.
So when you see Doomguy, in that little portrait in the bottom centre of DOOM's display, gritting his teeth when he gets shot or pouring blood from his nose, it humanises him. DOOM's enemies become more frightening, since, rather than just chip away at a health meter, they cause genuine physical damage, and Doomguy's battles feel more arduous. His running speed and movement don't change, but when he's down to low life and his face is covered in blood, by osmosis, fights feel more urgent. And that is DOOM at its best, a desperate, tactile slog for survival.
Even Doomguy's slighter facial expression – his cautious eyebrows, his devilish smirk when he collects a new gun – help draw you into his world. He's on the lookout for danger, and so are you. When you pick up the BFG 9000, he's as hungry to start blasting with it as you are.
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If gaming's next creative frontier is learning how to tell stories and define characters without using words, Doomguy, in his simple, primitive way, sets the precedent. Without speaking, and using only a handful of simply drawn facial expressions, he ingratiates the mindset to fully appreciate DOOM. He's a silent protagonist, but never at odds with his surroundings and his situation. He's alone. He's struggling. He's on the hunt. He's the perfect go-between player and game – you feel as Doomguy feels.
Twenty-three years since the original DOOM, it's a shame "space marine" has become synonymous for bad, disposable video game characters. In his original incarnation, the space marine was a guy with whom you could connect. Rather than pandering to gaming's basest excesses, he was a man ahead of his time.
The new DOOM is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. Find more information at the game's official website.
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