<b>Made possible by Bethesda:</b> The Chinese Room creative director literally wrote the book on <i>DOOM</i>, so we visited him for a chat about the legendary shooter.
This article is part of DOOM Week on VICE Gaming, exploring the legendary 1993 title and its 2016 counterpart, released on May the 13th, and the wider world of shooters. This content is made possible by Bethesda.
Dan Pinchbeck is best known for being the multi-award-winning writer and creative director of 2015's bucolically sci-fi walkabout Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, which scooped three Gaming BAFTAs in April 2016 having been nominated in ten categories. The studio also put out Dear Esther, originally as a mod and later a full game in 2012, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, in conjunction with publishers Frictional Games, the year after.
While these titles might lack Big Fucking Guns and Gratuitous Explosions of Gore, Dan's adoration of all things DOOM-y is nevertheless to anyone who spends more than ten minutes in his company. And then there's the small matter of a book he wrote, called DOOM: Scarydarkfast, published by University of Michigan Press in 2013, 20 years after the first release of id Software's legendary shooter. So yes, he's literally written the book on DOOM. Or one of them, at least.
Having spoken to Dan in the past about his own games, but seen our conversation change direction towards DOOM matters, I knew he'd be an ideal expert to explain the lasting significance of the 1993 classic. It's a game that's been copied ad infinitum, but that few titles have ever held a bloody stump doused in diesel and set alight to. So with id and Bethesda's new DOOM promising to deliver thrills on a level with the series' first game, I sat down with Dan at The Chinese Room's new offices in Brighton, cup of tea in hand and gaming memories set to ultra-violent.
VICE: Were you "on" DOOM from day one, then? Was it an immediate attraction?
Dan Pinchbeck: Yeah, I was at university, in my first year. One guy in my block had blown his student loan on a PC, so everyone was in his room all the time. And then he came into my room one night and said, "You've just got to see this this game." I'd already played Wolfenstein 3D, and loved it, so we all crammed into this guy's room – and five minutes later, it was just jaws hanging open, all over the place. After that, his door wasn't closed for months, because people were just coming in all the time.
It took about a week, in the computer labs, for signs to start going up: "Anyone found on DOOM will be kicked off their account." Because we were having all-night sessions. There was a guy I used to work with in Portsmouth, and he lived opposite another guy who liked DOOM, and he gaffer-taped an Ethernet cable across the street and up the side of their houses. Really quickly from that local multiplayer scene, people got really into modding. Now, I'm not very technical, so the idea that I could actually put together levels without needing to know about scripting or coding or anything like that, it was amazing.
It's hard to underestimate just how special DOOM was. You knew it was technically advanced, but you also felt like it was a game made by people like you, who were into the stuff that you were into. The buzz of being a gamer was in there, and that's a really important part of it, as a cultural landmark, as it closed the gap between gamers and game developers.
I actually stopped playing games not long after graduation, because I couldn't afford a computer or a console. It was five or six years before I could. So playing DOOM then wasn't a massive influence on me going into the games industry, but it's amazing how many people you meet in the industry who started as DOOM modders.
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What you do in the game is ultimately very simple – you go from A to B and there's some stuff to kill along the way. But it did feel futuristic, didn't it? Like nothing that'd come before it, even if the objectives were ones you already understood?
Yeah, and one of the amazing things about DOOM, and one of the major factors as to why it lasts, is that it changes quite a lot when you adjust the difficulty level. Ramp it up just a notch and it goes from being this speed-running arcade thing to being really tense, this stop-start experience where you have to play incredibly cautiously. And to get two very different feeling games in the same game, just through the difficulty switch-up, something awesome is going on in there.
You talk to people like (id Software co-founder and DOOM designer/programmer) John Romero, though, and he'll tell you that the team was knocking out a level a day, making DOOM. And that is almost gutting, because how are these things so fucking good? It's sickening! But the levels really, really work. It's like id got first-person level design so right the first time, that they instinctively got it, and every level is aced. But you can play them in a few different ways, and it can challenge you in different ways, and that's why it's a game worth talking about. It was very "unprescriptive", and that really separated it from any games released in the last ten years, which are very much: "You have to turn the key in these patterns, until it fits." And that gives them this racing line through the levels; whereas DOOM was messy, and that made it really appealing.
When you go back to DOOM now, you see how cracked it is around its edges, but that feeds into the fan culture of it. I think Devil Daggers has a really similar feel, in so much as it's fan culture game development.
Did it never bother you, as a games maker with a real emphasis on telling stories, that DOOM didn't really have one?
What's interesting about the DOOM story though, isn't that it doesn't have one – it's that it only gives you what you need. It never overcooks anything, at a time when games were already chucking in cutscenes. DOOM showed you that you only need just enough, just enough of a peg to hang a story off. And that's fine. That streamlining, it never forces you down a certain path.
Today, we're a lot better at integrating story into games. I still hate cutscenes, but that hatred of cutscenes probably comes from games like DOOM, which showed that you just don't need them. If you're smart, you do just enough – don't force the player into feeling a certain way, or into having a certain reaction. Throw the pieces out there, and let them pick them up. And DOOM gave you a lot of space for doing that, with a rough theme; but it also never took itself too seriously, which is really nice. The final scene with the bunny's head on a pole – that's brilliant, and I'm really hoping that the new DOOM has a similar tone. I want that old-school DOOM: messy, stupid and fast, and who cares? Run and chainsaw things, and it'll all be alright.
"In a world that's drowning in nostalgia, DOOM is a title that's actually worth going back to." Dan Pinchbeck
Can "old-school" DOOM really work today, though? We've seen some critics declare it too violent, by today's standard.
Jessica (Curry, Chinese Room composer) tells me that I'm "such a fucking tourist" with games. I've just dragged myself away from Just Cause 3, onto Far Cry Primal, which I see as being an intellectual step-up. There are some things I don't like to see in games – hell, I accidentally started a war on Twitter this week, because of that. But I don't mind violence in games; I don't like sadism, and bigotry, but with a game like DOOM? When I interviewed (DOOM level designer) Sandy Petersen for my book, I asked him: "You're a Mormon, how do you square all this violence?" And he said: "They're demons. It's fine." If you rip the arm off a demon and beat it to death, it's not real, and it's doing the work of God. So, DOOM is such a cartoon. It's ludicrous. I mean, it has enemies in it that look like they have testicles for heads – it's really not something that's going to encourage real-life violence.
What will be interesting is seeing how it performs against games like Battleborn, and Overwatch. The Halo games, to me, are like playing a first-person shooter with mittens on – they're so spongy, and the newer games have that same console-y feel to them. I think if the new DOOM really gets that old-school PC shooter vibe right, then it'll be fine. There's definitely a place for a shooter with a really refined, hard edge. And I think it's well timed, to cut through all these other shooters – to offer an option without any of the baggage, and do everything so much faster.
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How do you want the new DOOM multiplayer modes to be, having played the original against friends?
The game's always had this multiplayer culture that was a lot about how you took other people out. What will be interesting is how the game's historical LAN multiplayer appeal translates to online multiplayer, because there's something about being in the same room, or at least in earshot of, the people you were fragging that really gave it a cool edge. And you can't get that when you're typing in a pithy message after executing a kill – it's much better to call someone a bellend as you rocket launch them in the back of the head. I think we'll play it a lot locally, in the office.
I don't actually play a lot of online multiplayer games, as I can find them quite po-faced. Players take themselves so seriously; but then you laugh because, fundamentally, we're all just sitting in dark rooms, playing with ourselves. Let's be honest with ourselves – we're not being sophisticated when we're doing this stuff. I think it's hard to kid yourself that you're sophisticated when you're playing DOOM, though, so perhaps that will play in its favour.
I love stupid games, but I hate stupid games that think they're smart. DOOM was smart because it didn't pretend to be – it knew it was stupid. The original is both profoundly stupid and profoundly clever, because it's so brilliantly honed. And then it throws some tomato ketchup on the walls, because it's entertainment. How they run their lobbies will be very important in matching the obsessives up with people of their level. Or, it might be better to not regulate it at all – they ship it, and it's yours. I do want it to still have that LAN party ability.
Watch preview gameplay from the new 'DOOM', with id's Marty Stratton (who we interviewed here) and Hugo Martin
Are you hoping that the new DOOM revitalises the franchise? Because it's been a long time since DOOM 3, and I'm not sure that the run-in to this release has gone down quite as well as Bethesda would have hoped. I think there's a lot of scepticism out there.
Well, this is id's first game without Romero and (fellow id co-founder and programmer on DOOM) John Carmack, but they have some fantastic developers at that place. So this could be the making of them as a studio, to be out from under Romero and Carmack's shadow. I think that's a good thing, and I really hope they've done a good job. Romero and Carmack never got in the way of id's progress, but they definitely cast a long shadow, so it'll be good for the studio to sort of claim this DOOM as theirs. There are people there who've been there from the word go, so they know what they're doing.
For me, id is one of the best developers out there. Even in Rage, there's so much good in that game – it just shipped six months too early, and they really took a hit on it. So id has something to prove, now. I hope DOOM puts them back on the map as a major, world-class developer.
The first DOOM, though, is one of those games that anyone wanting to make them needs to play, because of the economy of it. People curled their lips at me when I said that DOOM was really important to the development of Dear Esther, but the lesson we took from it was to strip everything back, to the thinnest experience. If that still works, then you're onto something. And a lot of the philosophical drive behind Esther was getting rid of things, and then it still worked. The analogy to jumping in Dear Esther is a cutscene in DOOM: you just don't need it. In a world that's drowning in nostalgia, DOOM is a title that's actually worth going back to. You can still learn a huge amount from it.
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