When I heard id Software’s Marty Stratton say in April that telling a story wasn’t really a focus for the new DOOM, I was incredibly disheartened.
“We don’t put story front and centre at all,” he said. “DOOM is about doing this, fighting demons, using awesome guns.” He then went on to say that there would be a semblance of story and mystery to uncover if players wanted to, and a lot of it would be through a codex containing pages and pages of lore.
While there were many cheering for a return to just slaughtering foes without a heinous distraction like some kind of story or context, I felt very deflated. I loved DOOM 3’s single player campaign, I find games like Serious Sam lose my interest after a couple of levels without some sort of purpose behind it all, and while I like Bloodborne and Dark Souls’ minimalistic approach to storytelling, I feel they go a little too far in regards to how vague and cryptic they are. Seriously, I got probably half of Bloodborne‘s storyline from YouTube analysis videos than the actual game itself because I was too busy trying not to die.
But DOOM is now out, and if you’ve read our review that was considered too “abusive” for Facebook you’ll know it’s pretty rad. I’ve played through the campaign, slaughtered many a demon and I must say: DOOM does back-seat storytelling right.
Some mild spoilers for DOOM from here on out.
While the codex entries Marty Stratton mentioned do play a role in DOOM‘s narrative, it’s the in-game elements that really make it feel like it’s part of the experience rather than a separate, optional element. The game begins with an unexpected level of immediacy, with the DOOM Marine lying naked, chained to a stone slab with demon zombies coming to bite his face off. He immediately rips his arms out of the chains and promptly smashes a demon’s skull against the slab, before standing up, grabbing a gun and letting the player blow away the rest of them.
Rather than having an introductory cutscene, this kind of intro immediately has you asking questions. Who am I? Where am I? And why the hell was I naked and chained up on that slab?! Before you can leave the room however, a hologram starts playing a recording of earlier events, showing the stone slab you just stood up from was actually some kind of sarcophagus and there were people kneeling before it. Were they worshipping the DOOM Marine in some kind of ritual?
“We have to contain this,” says one of the people standing near the sarcophagus. Did they mean “this” as in the demonic invasion, or yourself?
The next room contains a set of armour, also set in a stone slab, surrounded by flickering candles, skulls and satanic symbols written in blood.
Once he dons his armour, the DOOM Marine receives an incoming message from Dr Samuel Hayden, the head of the Mars UAC facility, telling you he wants to work with you in ending the demonic event. But before Dr Hayden can even finish his message, the DOOM Marine just tosses the communication screen aside, establishing to the player that he doesn’t give a fuck about where he is, what kind of ritual was happening back there or what Hayden wants with him. He’s here to do one thing, the one thing Marty Stratton said DOOM is all about: he’s here to fight demons by using awesome guns.
And the game certainly lets you do that. From that point on, DOOM pretty much never stops the action, with only the occasional moment where the game pauses so a short cutscene can play out. Now I’m not adverse to meaty cutscenes, I mean games like Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid are some of my favourites, but even I can recognise they don’t belong in a game like DOOM.
Most of the context as to what happened on Mars, with the UAC wanting to harness an energy source found in Hell and a demon worshipping group of scientists unleashing its inhabitance on the base, is garnered through short propaganda entries in the codex as well as through the occasional voice message from Dr Hayden. But the real treat comes from the lore the player learns when they visit Hell for themselves.
Instead of codex entries, the Hell dimension contains these glowing sculptures that speak when the player interacts with them. Each one projects a deep, rumbling voice that tells the story of a warrior who’d slaughtered countless demons, a member of the Night Sentinels they call the DOOM Slayer, the worst nightmare of all of demon kind. For countless aeons he wrought destruction upon Hell before finally being imprisoned in a stone tomb, where the demons hoped he would remain lest he be released and bring about the end of their dimension. Suddenly the opening scene makes a lot more sense, and the idea of your character lying imprisoned for god knows how long re-contextualises why he’s so silent and has a blood lust for ripping apart demons.
And honestly, it’s just really cool to think you’re the thing that the monsters in bowls of Hell itself have come to fear.
Each one of the sculpture speeches is only around a minute long, meaning they don’t pause the action for a long amount of time and they’re infrequent enough so you don’t feel like they’re getting in the way. They can be completely ignored, but that would have to be a concious decision on the player’s part since they aren’t hidden within the game’s secret areas but right in the middle of your path through the level. This, like the questions arising from the introduction along with other hologram recordings encountered throughout the campaign, are really effective ways to tell the story and build the world without having to pause the game and take yourself out of the action like relying solely on the codex entries would do.
My point here being that unlike other back-seat narrative games like Dark Souls where all the information about what’s going on is buried in easy to miss item descriptions and cryptic speeches that are often spread apart and forgotten due to many hours of repeatedly dying, DOOM actually tells you its story but doesn’t let it get in the way of the fast paced, demon slaughtering gameplay. There’s still the fun and satisfaction of uncovering the context of the world, but you don’t need to hop on a forum and a wiki in order to make any sense of it.
With DOOM, id Software somehow managed pull back on the narrative reins to appease the pure action fans while also telling a tale that was compelling enough to drive a story-focus-in-games lover like me to explore it further. It was a very pleasant surprise, and is certainly up there with one of my favourite game stories so far this year.