Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Doom, an equally revered and reviled name amongst video game escapists, designers, and right-wing politicians, is one of the most evocative and engrossing series of all time. Why? Hell, of course. Despite being replete with violent and gory imagery, extreme violence, and literal demons, Doom’s most controversial and yet awe-inspiring feat is that every game takes Doom Guy (John Romero insists that’s his official name and I’m not going to argue with him), and you, on a ride straight to its own unique interpretation of Hell.
From the original Doom’s abstract, dark, and cramped hellacious hallways, to 2’s wider vistas and 3’s oppressive caverns and altars, the Doom series always puts the most of its “wow” factor directly into Hell itself. However, be it because the levels are too complex and confusing, or simply because the ambiance isn’t right, Doom’s best feature has had its share of ups and downs. So what is a burgeoning game critic and heck-enjoyer to do?
Break down what about Doom’s various Hells works, and what doesn’t, through a discussion of both measurable things like level design and completely subjective things like how being in the Devil’s domain makes the player “feel”, of course.
Now, on the heels of my having played through every game in the series, and simply because October is a good time to do this, let’s get into the ranking.
Doom 2 capitalized on the first game’s monumental success in every conceivable good way (I see you, Super Shotgun) except for one: Hell. Sure, levels like “Barrels O’ Fun” are, well, fun but they aren’t aesthetically appealing or interesting on their own merits. Overly reliant on backtracking, tricks and traps, laborious key hunting and way too many brown textures, Doom 2’s success isn’t really found in Hell so much as it is everywhere else. Even its most memorable moment, the fight with the Icon Of Sin, is pretty tame compared to every other game in the series. 2 is an absolute masterpiece of a game in most respects, but not the most notable for our purposes.
One of the most critically and commercially acclaimed games of the modern era, Doom’s 2016 reboot leaves an impression, but unfortunately, it isn’t because of Hell. Frequently visited, but infrequently impactful, 2016’s take devolves into rote combat arenas too often, and the while the graphical fidelity has increased tenfold since the original games, very little of that is used to its fullest potential. Yellow, brown, and orange like your local Oktoberfest’s mustard display – 2016’s Hell offers a lot of room for player mobility and gleefully gory forward momentum, but it lacks a defining characteristic or voice aside from some interestingly named zones (Kadinger’s Sanctum, for example, punches way above its weight class in terms of name to gameplay disparity).
Unlike Doom 2’s relationship with its predecessor, Eternal fails to capitalize on most of its lead-in’s successes. Instead, it buries players in a myriad of poorly implemented platforming sections, skill trees, and clumsy storytelling. What it gets right, however, is the ambiance. Eternal’s hellish world is riddled with imagery that evokes massive fights for the fate of the world, stories of demons and angels feuding over mortal souls, monolithic mech-like creations driving divine blades through the hearts of sin itself. It is, quite frankly, badass. It looks badass, it sounds badass, and Doom Guy breezes through it like well, a badass. If you could put Eternal’s Hell into 2016’s gameplay? You might have a single game worthy of defining a generation. Instead, the two pair together in falling just a bit short.
DOOM 1 + Sigil
Because I make the rules in this incredibly nerdy article approximately a dozen Doom fans are going to care about, I am considering John Romero’s 2019-made expansion to the original Doom, Sigil as retroactively part of Doom. With Sigil’s unique level and aesthetic design including seeking out living, ever watching demonic eyes to shoot and open doors, in dark expanses of cavern on the edge of illogical shorelines and flesh-ridden temples of torment (seriously, Romero really stretches Doom’s pallette) I am of the opinion that Doom has been elevated to a level of pure mystification even for the most seasoned of players.
This isn’t to say that the original 4 episodes are bad by any stretch because they’re not. Tales of Sandy Petersen and Romero’s increasing interest in making abstract, scary, and intellectual and reflexibley challenging levels are rightfully central to Doom’s story. Levels built into the shapes of pentagrams, hidden with waves of hellbound enemies and tantalizing secrets were objectively cool in 1993 and still are nearly 30 years later but hey, Sigil’s Buckethead soundtrack doesn’t hurt.
The only mainline Doom game to not be developed by the folks at id, Doom 64 succeeds because it subverts the player’s expectations at every possible turn. Instead of its sibling’s penchant for aggressive playstyles, constant forward momentum, and extremely loud violence (even 3 falls into these, at times), playing 64 is isolating. Hauntingly infrequent musical cues of synthesized breathing, dying space stations, and ambient sorcery follow the player through the series’ most abstract level design. Passing over bridges hanging illogically over massive voids littering the world with gore doesn’t feel empowering in the same way the other games do. It feels instead like you and Doom Guy are doing everything you can to simply…survive. Midway’s complete and total reinvention of a legendary series’ most central elements is disarming, paradoxical, and yet completely and totally engrossing. Within the genre of FPS games, and more narrowly horror-FPS games, I don’t know that have ever felt as on edge as I have in some of 64’s later, and more secret, levels.
DOOM 3 + Resurrection of Evil
The Doom series’ most polarizing game is perhaps also its most realized. Especially, when it comes to matters of Hell and damnation. What Doom 3 lacks in responsive combat and player empowerment, it makes up for in spades with earnestly crafted and aesthetically interesting worlds. The baffling decision to put Anthony Hopkins’ head on a dragon’s tongue notwithstanding, Doom 3’s Hell is uniquely scary and impressive. Sure, it falls into all of the tropes of the typical Dante interpretation: boiling pits of magma, screaming souls abandoned in time, giant gaudy skulls, but it also taps into a kind of storied shared consciousness about what suffering for eternity might be like. There is no respite from misery and mystery in this depiction, there are no inexplicable keys baiting you towards progression, no respite or safe place as some of the game’s most challenging and terrifying enemies barrel towards you in rage-ridden waves. Laden with the taunts of the game’s main villain (fittingly named betrayer) and illogical architecture that confounds and delights, Doom 3 forces a weakened, disarmed player into the very bowels of Hell itself and then says “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” and that’s why it remains the best of the best.