Friday, January 6, 2017

Doom 2016 In Translation: Tension, Horror and the Evolution of the Doom Guy

Earlier this year, the long awaited sequel/reboot/revival of the classic Doom series arrived to a cautious and skeptical crowd. The original Doom released in 1993 during the grunge heavy days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and cemented one of the biggest genres in video games, the First Person Shooter. You could forgive fans of their trepidation. Like most long lived franchises, the sequels and follow up projects to Doom had failed to capture the imagination in the same way. Doom 4 had languished in development, only to eventually be morphed, reborn into Doom 2016. In a pleasant turn of fate the fans ended up being wrong. Dead wrong. Doom 2016 was not only awesome, not only a stellar celebration of everything Doom had been and could be, it was also a damn fine video game.

It appears the making of the game, like most projects, was not without its own battles. Thanks to the great work of Danny O'Dwyer and his excellent noclip series, viewers are given an eye into the internal struggles the team went through in trying to decide the game's atmosphere, tone and gameplay style. One of things brought up frequently in the interview with Hugo Martin, the game's creative director (you can watch his extended interview here), is the inspiration that came from action movies and comic books. Ideas of tone and pacing that helped guide them in their vision of a new doom, something that was fast paced and bad ass in all the ways the original had been.

The shadows bathe the corridors. Lights, struggling to maintain power flicker and spark. A woman, dressed in a lab coat and business attire runs though the darkness. She reaches an intersection of once pristine metal corridors. To her left, light, salvation, to her right, only darkness. Two beady red eyes appear, attached to a hulking black shape in the shadows. The shape lets out an angry snort. The woman runs down the corridor, toward the light. Toward safety.

The thing that makes Doom 2016 so brilliant, so satisfying is not the action, not the push forward combat as defined by the creative team, but the tension. The tension that is formed by all of these things and feeds back into them. The art style, the animations, and especially the amazing soundtrack pump the player up, it gets their blood boiling until they need that release, until they are dying to punch something. We've all likely had that feeling before, when your blood pressure it up, when you're angrily pacing back and forth and you just want to hit something. Its a violent urge, an urge that must be controlled in a productive and safe society, but when you give in, when you let out that pent up rage it feels good, damn good. And that's exactly what the new Doom taps into.

There's a great scene in Breaking Bad where Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston goes to the doctor. He's fighting cancer, his life is a mess. All the tension, all the rage that has been building up inside of him is finally threatening to boil over.  He goes to the bathroom, chest heaving, face contorted, fists clenching. Finally, in an explosive release of anger he goes absolutely ape shit, beating the hell out of a paper towel dispenser. It doesn't sound like much, but it's an excellent scene, one of the most memorable in the series. That's in large part to that tension, that anger slowly building up in the character that we the viewers also feel. The act of losing control, of pummeling this inanimate metal object not only acts as release for the character and the audience, it shows how close the character is to losing control, and how dangerous he will be when he finally does.

She can hear it behind her. The massive, fleshy footsteps of the beast. The heavy, snotty breath. The doors are just ahead. The lights gleaming around the edges show it is still alive, still has power. The doors can still save her, if only she can reach them before the beast does. The doors open automatically, welcoming her, offering her their salvation. She gets inside, she slams her hand on the control panel. The doors shut, they lock. She's safe. The woman leans against the wall, her own chest heaving, breath labored. All is quiet. Then SLAM, the beast crashes into the double doors like a fright train. They hold. She lets out a breath. Outside the door she can hear it, hear the beast's snarls. It snorts and walks away, the massive steps echoing in the silent corridor. 

I have to admit, in this internet confessional, I have never much cared for action movies. When I was a kid action movies were big explosive things. The eighties era was winding down to a close, flooding old action movies into syndication. The nineties were still living in the shadow of the previous decade, struggling to find a voice of their own. Action movies were loud, vulgar things. Big guns, big explosions. The good guys were gruff, unshaven, beat down by the world. The bad guys were rich and sophisticated, trying to make a buck off of people's misery.

I never cared. Big dumb action guy fights hordes of less interesting storm troopers. They were invincible, walking tanks of pure destruction in human form. There was no tension, no fear. Not on the side of the hero and certainly not on the side of the bad guys. Everyone was so sure of their purpose. The good guys march forward into the face of certain death to rescue the girl and save the world. The bad guys who would inevitably exclaim "it's just one guy!" only to run out into the open and be gunned down. Set piece after set piece, explosion after explosion, it was all just meaningless noise to me.

Modern action movies aren't much better. Sure they put more effort into the story, sure they take the time to beat the crap out of the hero, but for every step forward they take two steps back. The stories in modern action movies are barely comprehensible, filled with more plot holes than you can keep up with and arranged by a spine twisting number of conveniences and coincidences. The music is instantly forgettable, blending in with a half dozen water downed soundtracks. And the dialogue, worst off all, has drifted from the era of iconic one liners to snarky, comedic quips that often don't gel with either character or situation.

And the action itself. Oh boy. Old action movies would take a zoomed out approach, set the camera somewhere far off and watch the hero run and gun, dive and dash as explosions reigned supreme. In the modern era, people wanted something up close, more real, more intense. What we got was shaky cams, blurry footage and a mess of sound effects and stunt doubles until you can barely manage to figure out what in the hell is going on. much less be invested in it. Somewhere along the way action movies forgot what they were about, the action, and have been diluted into some all purpose big budget thing that fails to capture anyone.

Breath caught, she pushes away from the wall. She's standing in some sort of locker room. Wooden benches without backs sit in the middle in neat rows. Tall, metallic lockers line the walls. All are shut but none are locked, waiting to be opened. She looks down, she's bleeding. Stomach wound. Lots of blood, won't last long. She pushes on. Devoid of the adrenaline of the chase, her steps are slow, breathing ragged. At the far end of the room is another set of doors. There are no lights on this door. No salvation. Cold and unwelcome, she presses on. 

Originally the protagonist of Doom was known simply as "the Doom Guy", a phrase that arose as a way to refer to the wincing face at the bottom of the screen. Over time "Doom Guy" and "The Marine" were fused into "Doom Marine" a phrase used interchangeably with Doom Guy. Now, in Doom 2016, we have the Doom Slayer, a mythic, legendary version to carry the legacy forward.

I think the evolution of the names is important, as it hints at a larger evolution in tone of the series itself. The original marine didn't need to be special. He was just some guy. The Doom Guy. Like the action heroes of the late eighties, of buddy cops and Die Hards, we didn't need him to be special. Then we have the rise of the Doom Marine. Even though he was always a marine, it is now addressed in name. He's not just a guy, not just some random person, but a soldier. A marine. A warrior meant to protect and destroy.

But here, in the modern day, is that really enough? After 9-11, after two wars in the middle east, does that term still carry the mythic weight it once did? Chances are, if you aren't a veteran, you know one. Likely more than one. While everyone acknowledges their bravery, their sacrifice and dedication, can something that common still be legendary?

The scientist punches in the code. The access panel blinks red. Wrong one. She looks back across the locker room, at the dented double doors. She can hear them out there, scurrying, screaming, looking for a way in. With one hand holding her wound, she uses her other to press in another code. Still red. She tries a third time, finger jabbing the buttons, hand shaking. Green. The doors open.

Enter the Doom Slayer. No longer a guy. No longer a marine. The Doom Slayer is now something out of the mists of legend, out of the fables and stories passed down through the ages. Something more than our everyday selves. The Doom Slayer exists not to protect, not to live but to kill demons. That is his role and that is what he does. The Doom Slayer is a symbol of human triumph, of fighting back against the shadows and driving them into the darkness.

It is in this that I am reminded not of the Doom Guy of yore, but of Master Chief, from Halo. In the original Halo, the character of the Master Chief was himself a space marine of mythic proportions. A literal super soldier meant to turn the tide against the aliens, against the monsters that people feared and to win the war for humanity. The irony, and one of the brilliant things Bungie did, was the aliens thought Master Chief was the demon, not the other way around.

The tall, tough Elites of the alien forces would run down regular space marines, would slaughter them in mass. But against Master Chief they would dance, side step, push and retreat. They knew he was a worthy advisory, something to be be feared and respected. The diminutive grunts had a strong reaction, out right running away in fear at the first site of the Master Chief. They would wave their little arms in the air and run in circles, crying and screaming for help until the faceless demon cut them down.

It's here that Doom 2016 does so well, executes so smartly. The demons aren't the enemy here, the Doom Slayer is. He's the thing to be feared, to run from. He's the unstoppable, uncontrollable, wrecking ball of a weapon that consumes all in its path. The Doom Slayer has no fear for the demons, he is the fear. He alone is the death bringer, not them.

The room is cold. Cold enough for the scientist to see her own breath as the door shuts behind her. Ahead lies some sort of stasis pod, standing against the wall. Large pipes and wires run into it, keeping it cold. On the right is a control panel awaiting a hand print. The scientist walks forward, stumbles, drops to her knees. She can't go on. The wound is too bad, too deep. She struggles, she crawls forward. Almost there. She reaches out. Not close enough. She curses, grunts, claws her way forward. At last she reaches up, her bloody hand finding the control panel. She places her hand on its surface and waits. The panel chirps and blinks green. The scientist lets out a long sigh, her hand slipping from the panel leaving only a trail of her blood behind.

There's a dual tension to Doom. A horror in two parts. The first is the one we are used too. Giant, hulking demons, snorting with flared nostrils and pointed teeth. We fear them, because they are familiar, yet different. Twisted animal forms beyond the normal pale that mean us harm. While we fear them, they fear the Doom Slayer and by making us the Doom Slayer, the circle is complete. The tension and horror flow freely until they are indistinguishable.

We run through levels, down corridors and across hellscapes. The music ebbs and flows, haunting and metallic, cautious yet loud. Driving us forward, driving us onward. The demons are huge, imposing, hulking. They hurt us, they out number us and they are without end. The horror, the anger, it all melds. It runs together as we pick up ammo, as we fire our gun. The tension builds and builds until at last we get close enough, we close ranks and we punch them. We punch them as hard as we can and they explode. Into health, into ammo, into the things we need to push ahead, to continue the fight. The tension is released. We enter the next room, the next corridor, rise over the next vista and there they are. Dozens of them, hundreds. The tension rises again.

This is what makes Doom 2016 so amazing, so refreshing. And it's exactly the sort of thing modern action movies are missing. Not special effects, not big explosions or cheesy one liners. Not impressive action sequences or witty quips. Tension. Pacing. Release. These are the things that action movies need to return to if they hope to catch audiences in the same way Doom 2016 was able rekindle that love its audience held for it. Maybe the action movies of tomorrow can learn from the Doom of today, just as it learned from the movies before it.

And a kick ass soundtrack. That definitely helps.

The chamber opens. Inside lies not a hero, but a man. Dressed in an undershirt and boxers, he looks small, weak. He steps out of the chamber and looks down at the scientist on the floor. Bleeding. Dead. He knows why. He knows why they have awoken him, what his purpose is. In the locker room he finds what he's looking for. His armor. Cleaned, polished. Ready. Piece by piece, he puts it on. No need to rush, they'll be waiting. Armor on, he stands not as a man, but as a Marine. A soldier ready for battle. He steps toward the dented doors, shotgun in hand. He knows they are out there. He can hear them. With one hand he punches the doors control panel, with the other he pumps the shotgun. The doors open. In the shadows beyond, red eyes gleam back at him. Dozens of them. He's ready. He steps out into the hall, shotgun leveled. No longer a man, no longer a marine. He is the Doom Slayer.

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