In my spare time over the past two weeks, I’ve been binging on the original DOOM and DOOM II, as well as the TNT and Plutonia maps designed by the Casali brothers. Needless to say, the games are all but completely bereft of narrative, save for a few scant ‘text screens’, the first of which (appearing at the end of the first episode of DOOM, which was distributed as promotional freeware), isn’t much more than a thinly-veiled advert for the full version of the game.
DOOM was the first video game I ever played, a game I spent countless hours with my dad clacking away at on a wonderfully loud Model M keyboard, the sounds of the keystrokes mimicking the blaring weapons of the game, as its marine protagonist romped through various Hellscapes.
Thinking about the text screens of DOOM, I wondered what, if anything, they were adding to the game. They almost seemed to detract from the flow between levels rather than add atmosphere or additional weight to the player’s actions. The text screens are so poorly written that they either come across as eye-roll-inducing, ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ cheeky asides from the developers, or groan-inducing attempts at emphasizing the already jacked-up protagonist’s badassery.
What if DOOM’s text screens were well-written? What if reading them offered the player clues for the next level? What if the player could choose between a set of options each time a text screen popped up, and the player’s choice changed the layout, enemy distribution, or secrets in the next level? Now that would be badass.
When I haven’t been blasting demons with plasma weapons, I’ve been chipping away at a colleague’s copy of Espen J. Aarseth’s “Cybertext”, which opens with a brief history of the term, tracing the book’s title back to Norbert Wiener’s use of the term in his 1948 book “Cybernetics”. Wiener’s use of the term makes it applicable only to digital narratives and computing, but also to any system (organic or inorganic), that contains what Aarseth calls “an information feedback loop”. How does any of this relate to DOOM? I was surprised when I began seeing parallels between a seemingly linear game and what Aarseth describes, but not the kind of parallels one might expect.
Aaresth goes on to posit that reader-response theorists have underestimated the level of involvement of the reader, in the context of the reader’s engagement with the cybertext. The reader’s integration is not only cerebral, but rather more ‘physical’, since a given reader’s movement through a cybertext creates a pathway, choice by choice, that is distinct from another reader’s path.
Aaroth then discusses the epistemological confusion surrounding the term “non-linear”, and how many have objected to its use to describe any text, since a reader can only read a text one way at a time, no matter how many choices or how much involvement is at stake. Aaroth responds to this by pointing out that cybertexts make the reader/player/user aware of the aporia of the text, of all the potential paths not taken.
What I enjoy most about the original DOOM games isn’t their gun-blazing displays of pixelated viscera, but the experience of exploring the games’ labyrinthine levels. Each level offers the player some degree of freedom in terms of how that player can choose to progress. Ultimately, certain doors must be opened in a certain order to progress to the exit, however each level contains a plethora of secrets, optional rooms that offer rewards for risks, and even literal mazes that can sap the player’s health, ammo, time, and patience.
Recently, I’ve realized that, when offered certain rare health and armour powerups in the game (usually by discovering a secret room), strategically leaving the powerups there until I reached a particularly difficult room elsewhere in the level made clearing out crowded rooms of more powerful enemies far easier. The last time I played through DOOM a few years ago, I simply grabbed items as I found them, eager to see how quickly I could complete each level.
Upon considering Aaroth’s conception of a cybertext, I realized that DOOM’s cybertextual aspects ironically have nothing to do with the corny text screens the player encounters, but rather with the choices presented to the player in the game’s deceptively linear levels. These choices manifest not only as options available in levels where objectives can be completed in any order, but rather in more subtle ways: what weapons work best for what enemies, when to use powerups, what angle to fire from so as not to get hit as often, etc. What seems like a run-and-gun, linear arcade game reveals its puzzles and options when one considers its cybertextual aspects.
A meme based on a quote from an issue of GAMEPRO magazine has been floating around for quite a while. One issue of the magazine purported to give the reader a tip about how to defeat DOOM’s most difficult enemy, the Cyberdemon. However, the snarky tip simply read: “to defeat the cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies”. Having recently fought several dozen such enemies in DOOM, there is a surprising amount of strategy involved, and more than a few ways to fight this enemy.
When fighting cyberdemons, moving in a circle and using the rocket launcher is best (if the level’s area is large enough for the player to do so), but the player’s momentum makes aiming slightly to the left or right of the cyberdemon, depending on the direction the player is moving, necessary to maintain accuracy. If the player uses the BFG, the same strategy applies, although saving that weapon’s ammo for rooms with multiple enemies is usually a better idea. Finally, if a wall or window is nearby, essentially any weapon can be used if the player strafes out from behind cover and then retreats when the cyberdemon fires back.
Perhaps DOOM doesn’t need its text screens, and perhaps the game wouldn’t benefit from having them improved, or from having IF narrative functions imposed upon them. Perhaps, like aficionados of the vanilla games might say, DOOM isn’t broken and doesn’t need to be fixed, since the game’s focus isn’t on text, but rather on gameplay-as-text. That being said, I would love to see an ambitious modder try to more intimately link DOOM’s text screens with the game itself, if only to see what kind of monster might come of such an unholy fusion.