How 'Doom 2' Helped Me Understand Technology
A trip to the computer store in search of financial software with my dad became a surprising way to learn about how computers work.
Screenshot courtesy of id Software
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This is less of a story about Doom 2 as a game, though it's certainly an excellent one, than a story about what happened to me after Doom 2 came into my life.
Sometime in the fall of 1994, I walked into Comp USA, a now-dead computer warehouse chain, with my dad. I was nine years old at the time, and we had two pieces of software in mind: Quicken, the financial budgeting software, and Doom 2: Hell on Earth, the gory shooter sequel from id Software. That first program might be apocryphal, something my mind's subtly implanted over the years, but it's hard for me to imagine we were only there for Doom 2.
Even though I can't find any photos online, I know there was a promotional standee in front of the pile of boxes. A cyberdemon loomed large, its protruding, bleeding stomach forever etched in my mind. My dad probably (and rightly) wondered what the hell that was all about, but I never got any guff from my parents about video games; they presumed it was all silly nonsense.
(They were mostly right, but I'm forever thankful that silly nonsense became my career.)
I don't remember what prompted my family to get our first computer—school, maybe?—but I do know that everyone in the family looked to me when it showed up. As a kid, I learned how to operate the family VCR faster than my parents. This was the way of things, especially as I got older. The arrival of new technology into the home meant I had to teach everyone how it worked.
But as it it turns out, Doom 2 was the one that would end up teaching me.
Doom 2 introduced me to the concept of software. I'd never installed anything before! Prior to id Software's shooter hellscape, my experience was flipping on pre-loaded Pong and shoving dusty cartridges into Nintendo consoles. Installation meant mulling over hardware requirements—"What's RAM?"—and other head-scratchers. A family friend came by the house to walk me through it, though not much stuck. But hey, at least the game was running? Thing is, when that person didn't answer the phone, I had to figure things out on my own.
That didn't, uh, always work out; I busted my computer (and my friends' computers) more than a handful of times trying to do weird shit. I learned what formatting does to a computer the hard way. It really does straight up delete everything from the hard drive! I learned Windows and OS X are different operating systems, meaning you can't shove a Doom 2 CD-ROM into your friend's Mac, drag a bunch of files over, and try a bunch of experiments to get it running "because you swear you saw someone say they did it on a message board." But each crash was a learning experience, and every time, what brought me back was playing more games.
Doom 2 is the reason I learned about mods. Who didn't want to run around a shooter with sprites from The Simpsons?Hell, my first experience with a horror game might have been with the still-impressive Aliens TC. (Back then, TC stood for total conversion, a mod that completely changed the base game.) Getting mods up and running wasn't easy, requiring players to do funky things with file structures and embark on downloads from creepy places on the internet. Furthermore, it represented my first encounter with people doing things they weren't supposed to with a video game—they were breaking it. This was Doom, yes, but not the Doom that you were "supposed" to play. That felt awfully edgy to a nine-year-old!
Doom 2 is why I pirated a game for the first time. When I learned about the existence of Heretic, a shooter using the Doom engine but swapping guns for magic, I needed it. Still using atrociously slow dial-up at the time—though to be fair, upgrading from 14.4k to 28.8k was a big deal—I'd quietly hope my parents wouldn't pick up the phone, cutting my AOL connection. At night, I'd sneak downstairs, toss blankets over the computer to try and mask the obnoxious modem sound, and download more parts of the game, while everyone slept. Only years later would I learn you could turn off the angry "eerrraarrngghyrrrr" sounds modems made back then.
Doom 2 helped me understand level design, as I downloaded editors that (in theory) allowed me to create my own nightmare mazes. I never got past the concept of making a door, but seeing what a level looked like from the developer's perspective was a formative moment.
Doom 2 got me under the hood of computers, by getting me into into first-person-shooters like Star Wars: Dark Forces, which became a personal obsession. The problem was that Dark Forces wouldn't run on my PC without a bunch of tricks. I barely had enough memory for the game to function, but if I simply turned on my computer, it wasn't enough. Back then, it was possible to boot up and pick and choose what parts of the system came online. One by one, I'd randomly pick which parts were allowed in, like my printer.
Sometimes, those parts were crucial to the game running, sending me back to square one. Other times, you'd thread the needle, feel like a hacker, and the game would magically boot up and start playing. Lord have mercy on you if you figured out the right boot sequence, but forgot to write it down.
Doom 2 was the first game I understood to be made by people. At the end of Doom 2, you could famously leap through a hidden door behind the final boss and find the head of designer, John Romero, impaled on a stake. When I read about the secret, and eventually pulled it off myself, it got me wondering: Who is John Romero? Oh, he's a programmer. Wait, what's a programmer? This internal monologue led to a mountain of research that gave me a better understanding of how games were made, that actual people were crafting these experiences.
The list could go on, but the point is made: I wouldn't be the person I am today without Doom 2. Before I wrote all this down, I hadn't realized how much Doom 2 changed my life. It might not have had much to do with the game's high-speed shooting, or its creepy (if cartoonish) demons, but the impact was profound all the same. My understanding of technology and games was forever shaped by id Software's shooter. Thanks, Doom 2.