The Custodian #1: DOOM

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Today, we’re going to talk about DOOM. However, before we get to the buckshot and demon giblets, let’s establish that it’s been a year and a half since I’ve written about games. Might as well wind the clock back and make it an origin story. And before anyone asks, I haven’t told this story before, so don’t worry about the integrity of the original. This isn’t a Marvel comics adaptation.

One of the most intense arguments I’ve ever had was in high school. I was a junior, which meant it was time for me to present and defend my first thesis project as part of my rhetoric class. It’s my understanding that most high schools don’t do this, but at a Classical Christian institution like Oak Mountain Classical School (now Westminster Classical), a thesis defense is the culmination of the entire Classical curriculum, in which the memorization skills of the Grammar stage (elementary school) and the thinking skills of the Logic stage (middle school) synthesize together in the Rhetoric stage (high school) to, I dunno, argue that society should invest more in gardening, or something. It starts by going to your rhetoric teacher to get your thesis proposal approved.

Naturally, when you’re 17 years old and faced with a giant paper that has to be defended in front of a panel of teachers, you– I –flee to the one arena in which you–I— feel secure: videogames. Ah, but how to make this subject consequential? How to justify it before a group of people who spend their free time elsewhere? You claim that videogames are art. You climb that hill and pledge to die on it because any other topic means having to do actual research.

I was in my rhetoric teacher’s office for about an hour. The finer details are hazy to me at this point, but he was hostile to the proposal because it was his job to be hostile to everyone’s proposal. In my case, however, he seemed particularly aggressive. Keep in mind, this wasn’t that long after Hot Coffee, and the year before, one of my classmates had been found gawking at a Final Fantasy X-2 art book in class (“For the boss strategies,” bless him.). Thus what little exposure the faculty had to videogames was founded on Pong and buttressed by whatever scandals or tackiness the game industry rustled up in the mid-two thousands.

My rhetoric teacher was obligated to defenestrate me.

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I made the case that videogames needed to be taken seriously as art because they were a new medium of storytelling that allowed for the audience’s control, and they were immersive, and this changed everything, and I’m already rolling my eyes typing out arguments that have been so thoroughly trod in the academic mud they might as well be fossils by now. He asked me, pointedly, how games reflected the truth of the world.

Where did games exhibit the utmost of Classical traits, the Trivium: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness? What games would I put alongside Herodotus, Milton, and the Epic of Gilgamesh? Even in their larval stage, which games, what gaming concepts, could entrench themselves confidently in the pantheon beside the Norse eddas, Homer’s poetry, and the Mathematical innovations of the Fertile Crescent? To put it in more current terms, could Martin Luther have produced the 95 Theses with a game jam?

I countered, arguing that these questions were irrelevant because the world was rapidly sliding into post-Christianity, and given the youth of the form, we couldn’t expect games to begin carving their place in the Western canon. I went on to point out that respect for secular media and the ability to criticize and discuss it was a cornerstone of Classical Christian education; what barred videogames from that respect?

What we should be asking, I insisted, is what control means for storytelling, how participation in stories changes the experience for the audience, and how games force players to empathize with their protagonists– an idea I still have trouble articulating; I think the only reason I said it so many times is ‘cause it sounded good and smart. Thank God this argument took place before Clint Hocking coined “ludonarrative dissonance.”

For the duration of the meeting, I sold out on the idea that games were art moving forward, and asking them to marshall under the banner of what we understood as traditional art was pointless. Asking what ideas they evinced and promoted was useless. Videogames democratized the experience of the audience, and for this reason, they were superior. They weren’t just art, they were The Art.

gilgamesh_cylinderAnd then, probably because time was running on and I had done my share of defensive shouting, my teacher played his trump card: “Adam, when God decided to give His story and teaching to humanity, what form did it take?” A book, of course. Written words. His point felt so cheap. “Hurr durr God didn’t make the Bible a game, therefore games are dumb, ‘kay?” But a moment’s thought also revealed its elegance: God revealed himself through language–he spoke everything into existence, after all–what did games do to reflect and represent that creational foundation? In what ways do they convey God’s eternal glory to the player?

Of course, 17-year old me didn’t have a response to this. This question may seem unimportant or puzzling to non-Christians. Oh well. It’s important to me. To explain why in full will require its own column. Regardless, I started writing critically about games that same year, and started freelancing for gaming outlets my senior year of college. Ever since, this central question has followed me and my writing.

A decade hence, I still don’t really have an answer, and I’m exhausted. I don’t care if games are or aren’t art anymore. To be perfectly honest, I really don’t “get” much out of games, and I haven’t for a long time. I spent years writing about games because I felt that I had to critically break them down, assess them, study them, wring every last drop of critical and exegetical significance out of them in order to justify how much time I spent playing. I didn’t want to face the idea that there was some sort of intellectual sunk cost in my favorite hobby. I look back on most of what I wrote and what arguments I made and I feel unimpressed or ambivalent about most of it (aside from this, which was actually creative and fun to write).

~

I realized that, as enthralling as they were, games rarely exhibited the True, Beautiful, and Good. In early 2015, I quit games writing and recused myself from the freelance scene because I stopped enjoying games, and I felt that I didn’t have much to offer a semi-professional literary atmosphere that had slowly turned into an odd mixture of identity politics, financial analysis, and computer science knowhow. And then I played DOOM.

Here’s the thing about DOOM: it ain’t True, it ain’t Beautiful, and it ain’t Good. It will not inspire you to think of the Divine, it will not lead you to respect and appreciate the wonders of life, culture, and humanity’s struggle against sin and death, and it will be forgotten by the larger cultural landscape within a decade.

But it’s perfect.

DOOM’s genius is that it is completely aware of its own innate insignificance. It understands that videogames are largely products that are consumed in a brief window of release before being cast aside for the next marvelous interactive experience. It knows this, and uses that knowledge to aggressively dispense with any pretense toward artistic relevance or narrative profundity. DOOM doesn’t care. It postures in much the same way as an angsty teen or a disaffected hipster, but comes out looking better for it because it is expertly crafted and really, really damn fun to play. It’s like having total access to that hipster’s vinyl collection without having to listen to him talk about it.

Videogames are all too eager to portray Hell…but when it comes to portraying Heaven, games are too chickenshit to try.

From the off, DOOM establishes that there will be “no hugging, and no learning.” You are the DOOM Marine. Is that dumb? Don’t think about it. Just wake up. You’re in a sarcophagus. What’s that about? Don’t think about it. Move forward. Here’s your armor. Here’s a gun. Here’s a demon. Solve this math equation for the next 10 hours or leave. Whatever happens: Don’t. Think. About. It.

DOOM is a game about feeling and reacting. All critical thought must be expelled. When Dr. Samuel Hayden, the chief secondary character, introduces himself to the DOOM Marine and says through the comm-screen, “I believe that if we work together, we can–” the DOOM Marine cuts him off and smashes the comm screen with a hilariously dismissive flick of his hand. The DOOM Marine is pure drive. He never says a word, he never stops moving. He exists to disrupt and remove all barriers to gameplay, no matter how disrespectful it is to the integrity of the story. He is a living “Skip Cutscene” button. His goals are the player’s goals, and the player has no say in considering how those goals are decided upon or carried out.

Kill everything.

One of the reasons this is so amusing to me is because this version of DOOM is completely contraposed to its legacy. I remember when DOOM was scary. It represented a pinnacle for counter-cultural, post-80s moral majority spitefulness that sent people careening for their local news and Chick tracts. It was actually edgy. Ironically, the original DOOM managed to do this despite a representation of Hell that had no convincing roots or perspective in the broader Biblical understanding.

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It set a trend, followed by the likes of Diablo, Siren, Devil May Cry, and countless others that has always bothered me: for videogames, Hell has always been just another fantasy setting. I think that’s why I still remember my rhetoric teacher’s parting shot so clearly today. Videogames are all too eager to portray Hell in any number of creative and interesting ways, but when it comes to portraying the necessary utmost counterpart, Heaven, games are just too chickenshit to try.

DOOM (2016) sidesteps this glaring oversight and makes fun of it by neutering Hell in the funniest way possible: it turns it into a quarry, a strip mine that humanity is trying to divest of its natural resources to revitalize Earth. Again, critical questions arise, “Wait, what more is there to be said about humanity conquesting Hell in order to solve an energy crisis? Doesn’t this raise interesting ethical questions and frame the broader concept of our own environmental abuse in new and interesting ways–”

“Shh,” DOOM says as it puts its heavily armored finger to your lips. “Don’t think about it. Move forward.. Shoot.”

DOOM is utterly perfect and inconsequential all at once.

That might actually be the most transgressive thing DOOM has ever done, going all the way back to 1993: that it trivializes Hell to such an inconsequential degree. But again, such a criticism is hard to levy because the game refuses to give its audience enough conceptual ground on which to build a case.

DOOM’s version of Hell is so far removed from any kind of Biblical or even Aligherical understanding that the point of comparison is literally just the name. Besides, there are too many enemies, too many guns, and too much action to rest for a moment.

All of this wouldn’t mean much if the game didn’t play flawlessly. Yet it does. It leverages top of the line visuals with best in class control and hair-raising difficulty to create a gameplay loop of such airtight exploration and mayhem that I finished the entire game in two sessions.

The whole package is so exhilarating I smoked a cigar after I was done. Not a joke.

DOOM doesn’t want you to think. It wants you to enjoy it for as long as you want and then leave it behind when you’re done. It wants you to understand that this is okay. If it has any message at all, it’s that games can be absolutely perfect unto themselves, and yet totally unremarkable at the same time. We don’t have to justify them, from any angle. We don’t have to feel guilty about how much time we spend with them, and if we do, that’s okay too; we can always go do something else we find more rewarding. Games won’t suffer for it.

~

DOOM is Roger Ebert’s infamous metaphorical bowel movement: an entertainment product that is utterly perfect and inconsequential all at once. Instead of treating this as an insult, DOOM says, “Sure, why not?” and handles itself with such confidence and craftsmanship that it feels like artistic therapy…not for the audience, but the medium itself.

For years, Ebert’s criticisms loomed large over the hearts and minds of people who grew up loving and playing videogames–the secular version of my rhetoric teacher’s questions. Nevermind that Ebert eventually withdrew his opinion, his comments lived rent-free in our heads and seemed to demand a response, a refutation from gaming’s devotees. I’ve lost track of how many articles I’ve read that took Ebert head-on and refuted his claims, and likewise I’ve seen the culture come full circle, long enough to lose track of how many hand-wringing editorials I’ve read that push for games to be “about more than fun,” that ask when games will “grow up,” when they will make an effort, across the industry, to be more inclusive and address the ills of our age? With respect to games that do satisfy such questions, DOOM has absorbed the energy of Ebert’s criticism and put it to use for its own benefit. DOOM is both totally cool with being compared to a bowel movement, and deservedly picking up its share of Game of the Year hardware come December.

Games can be absolutely perfect unto themselves, and yet totally unremarkable at the same time.

It’s possible you’ve read all of this and been concerned with my attitude. Concerned that I seem dismissive or callow towards videogames as a whole. Furious that I’m not seeing what makes them valuable, or that I’ve abandoned them in some fashion in the name of growing up. I’m not always totally sure of my own positions myself. Your mileage may vary. Your perspective on games may see them as more important or insightful than mine does, anyways. You may think of a dozen experiences that invalidate or disrupt my perspective. That’s okay. I promise I’m not here to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I’m here to share my thoughts, to keep those thoughts refreshed and current as they grow and change — to be a custodian for them.

~

A funny thing happens when you give up games writing: you find that it’s impossible to stop talking about games. Just look at the Destiny chorus line that is my Twitter feed. For a long time, I didn’t really see the value in what I was writing, and I left it behind because I didn’t have much interest in reading what I had to offer. But DOOM reminded me of something that’s true, no matter how good or bad a game is, no matter if it’s satisfying on a deep critical or personal level: if you’re going to be playing games anyway, talk about them.

Or don’t.

Everything’s gonna be fine either way.

Funny that I spent 10 hours in Hell to reach that conclusion.

Adam Condra is GoodGamesWriting-Orbytl’s featured columnist. He was previously GoodGamesWriting curator and Editorial Director, and a freelance writer featured on Polygon, The Escapist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Condrarian where he tweets about Destiny, logic, and other non-trivial matters.

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