The new Doom rewards the hesitant with death, the quick with brief victory, and it treats its own ability to crouch and take cover with some contempt. Scared? Need to take a breather? God forbid, want to play it safe? Then die, it seems to say.
That, at least, is my takeaway from the Doom multiplayer map I played this weekend at QuakeCon, the two-decade old LAN-party-meets-game-convention held annually in Dallas. It's there that I got my hands on the new Static Cannon, which embodies the upcoming game's philosophy. You have to run to use it, firing off slow beams designed for headshots as you sprint along catwalks above molten steel to charge its kinetic battery. Stop to think, and it fizzles into uselessness. There's no tolerance here for the slow, adumbral horror of 2004's Doom 3, which disappointed many original Doom fans despite its cutting edge technology for the time.
The new Doom is all-out action, in a way 1980s Schwarzenegger might appreciate. As Doom's art director Hugo Martin would say during Saturday's presentation at QuakeCon, playing the new Doom is like being "Bruce Lee with a shotgun on a skateboard."
Doom's executive producer Marty Stratton told me he's pretty proud of it. He wants this to be the new true Doom, tailored for a new generation but stripped of any obligation to play the previous releases, and he says that's mainly why the team just called it "Doom" instead of "Doom 4."
It's also defiantly violent. The original Doom was, too, but the upcoming 2016 game takes those same sensibilities and crafts them with the verisimilitude achievable with contemporary technology. It's not really meant to scare you in the sense that Doom 3 was; instead, Stratton claims key to understanding the new Doom's ultraviolence lies in understanding the over-the-top savagery of Sam Raimi's horror film The Evil Dead.
The multiplayer demo was actually fairly tame, likely owing to the need for speed over drawn-out finishing executions, but June's E3 trailer for Doom ignited a flurry of criticisms as swiftly as the original Doom did back in 1993. Within the space of a minute and a half, chests explode from the force of shotgun blasts, demon arms fly off, and a chainsaw chops through a demon's shoulder right down to its gut. Blood splatters the wall like a Pollock painting, and at one point, the Doomguy, the character you control in the game, leaps down on a fallen demon's head, whereupon it gooshes like a water balloon bulging with tomato sauce.
The criticisms didn't phase Stratton.
"The intimate brutality is part of Doom," he says, smirking. "There's just no denying it; it's just part of the game's DNA." The need for such violence was one of the first things they wrote on the whiteboard when they were brainstorming what needed to go in the game, he says, and he emphasizes that players are doing all these nasty things to demons. The argument carries some weight since the violence in the multiplayer segment is fairly subdued, as far as these things go.
Indeed, Stratton seems a touch disgusted when he recalls the large number of games in which players are "mowing down, you know, humans and tearing through person after person on a battlefield or whatever it is." Developer id Software's goal, he says, is to inject the demon killing with an Evil Dead-inspired dose of "over-the-top comic book craziness" that keeps it fun.
"Our kind of Litmus Test internally is if you're playing or you're watching somebody play and something horrific or gory happens, if you kind of chuckle while react to it—you know we're probably on the right track."
If it makes the team cringe or look away, he says, it's time to take it out.
Halfway through one of my multiplayer matches, a player on the other side of the table started yelling "Brutal Doom! Brutal Doom!", likely after another one of my teammates fell to one of his shotgun blasts. That's a reference to the well-known mod put together by Sergeant_Mark_IV for the original games. Called "hilarious" by John Romero, one of Doom's original developers, the mod injects the original games with body parts that go flying and blood splatters on the walls—in other words, exactly the kind of stuff id showed off in its E3 trailer. Yet Stratton didn't go as far as calling it an influence.
"We've been developing this version of Doom for a while, so I think it's better to say that we've moved in similar tracks," Stratton says, claiming that he doesn't even remember the first time he saw the mod. "Violence is part of Doom. It doesn't surprise me that we've gone down similar paths."
Brutal Doom grew out of Doom's highly devoted modding community, and it's a good sign that the players surrounding me in the multiplayer matches are already talking about the mods they'd like to see in the upcoming version. Most of all, they're excited about user-generated content via SnapMap, the built-in level design system that reportedly lets even novice designers make their own scenarios. To test SnapMap's effectiveness, Stratton says, he uses himself as a bellwether. After 20 years in the gaming industry, he says, he still doesn't use the tools developers use to design games.
"I sit down, and I use SnapMap all the time to create content. I create my own game modes, I create little co-op experiences, single-player experiences," he says. "There is that sense pride when you create something like that. I think that's really popular right now, and I love that it's a big part of Doom."
In fact, user-generated content has been a core idea of the new Doom since the very beginning of its development. Stratton said it was even up there on the whiteboard with violence.
Back at my multiplayer match, Ana, the one woman on my team (and indeed, at the entire table) yelled out mid-match, and slammed down her hand on the mousepad. "Fucking fuckface fucker!" she cried. "He killed me again!"
I laughed, and I laughed harder when some other player suddenly took me out with a knife stab to the back during my moment of inattention. Ana was pissed, and her aggression seemed to give her strength. Boom, down go three enemies with a single shot from the rocket launcher. Her aggression, though, makes me realize she's running around as a dude like the rest of us. Later, I ask Stratton if they team ever considered making the fabled "Doomguy" a woman — or at least offering them the option.
"You know, we've always thought of the 'Doomguy' as the player and what they bring," he says. "The model is a male character, but I think we don't overly impose that 'maleness' into the game." The Doomguy largely stays silent, for the most part, and Stratton says that helps keep the team from forcing players to think or feel a certain way.
"Players think, 'I'm coming to a Doom game to blow shit up and kill demons,' and we use that as our motivation."
It's a good motivation. My time with Doom may have focused on other players instead of demons, but I admired how dismissive it was of more complicated shooter standbys like taking cover. It's a welcome reminder that even though a game's graphics might look just a step removed from reality, it's still okay to inject it with arcade inspired antics like double jumps and inhuman speed. Players, almost without exception, were smiling when they finished the demo, and I was among them. In its lack of pretension, in its willingness to avoid "innovations" in favor of what worked fine 20 years ago, it seems almost revolutionary.