Can Video Game Mechanics Be “Trashy”?

I read an interview with John Carmack, the creator of Doom, some time ago in which he was asked what was the most important element of the success of Doom, the game that essentially soldered down the centrality of the first person shooter to American video gaming culture. His response was simple: speed.

What Romero said that what he set out to do with Doom was to create the fastest gameplay experience that he possibly could, and anyone who has played the game should easily understand this explanation. The player’s role in Doom is to essentially play as a roving gun platform, a really, really fast roving gun platform, that simply massacres monsters en masse and as fast as possible.

The speed of Doom is its central pleasure. The gameplay itself is simple. You can shoot monsters with a variety of weapons ranging from a pistol to a shotgun to an RPG, and that is pretty much the beginning and the end of it, a purely minimalistic experience. However, everything is executed at hyperspeed.

When developing a prototype of a Pac-Man knock off (what would eventually become Ms. Pac-Man after they approached Bally Midway with the game), what the folks over at General Computer Corporation did first was to double the speed of the original Pac-Man. And you know which game is the better of the two? The faster, more hyperkinetic Ms. Pac-Man, of course.

Speed is a thrill. In a sense, speed is the pornography of video games. Like adding skin to a film, adding speed to a game isn’t usually about making the game a more thoughtful or profound experience, it is about exciting its audience’s emotions and instincts on the most visceral level possible.

Paralleling speed in video games with the pornographic in visual media seems an appropriate parallel to make due to the nature of the earliest American first person shooters. From Castle Wolfenstein to Doom to Duke Nukem to Shadow Warrior, this form of game was initially paired with the pornographic — the grotesque and the sexual.

From the obviously provocative and salacious decision to feature Hitler as a final boss in Wolfenstein 3D to the grotesque monstrosities that you shoot up in Doom to the gyrating cheerleaders and gross jokes of Duke Nukem and Shadow Warrior, the speedy gameplay of the first person shooter in the 1990s was wed to the themes and imagery of the B-movie and genres like exploitation cinema. But again, this may make sense since the goal of speeding a game up and featuring salacious imagery and concepts is essentially quite similar. The goal of both is to excite the audience at the most basic and banal of levels. These are crude methods used to evoke crude responses.

All of which might suggest that I am criticizing games like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D, but the truth is that I think that both games play very well. Indeed, they are very much a pleasure to play. And, after all, it is pleasure that is their goal.

The crudeness of their gameplay, their grotesqueness, and their humor delights me in ways that similarly crude media can as well. Everyone has their guilty pleasures, and a game like Doom is a reasonable guilty pleasure to seek out — at least in my experience.

The reason that I am thinking about this connection at all, though, is due to a playthrough of the recently released on-rails shooter, Blue Estate. Despite being an on-rails shooter (so not exactly what is usually meant by a first person shooter, but close) when playing through the first level, my immediate thought was how much the game reminded me of Doom.

In part, it was the basic quality of the game’s controls (The left mouse button shoots, the right mouse button reloads your weapon, or if double clicked, switches weapons, and a few onscreen context sensitive prompts require that the player swipe the mouse in one of four directions at times. That’s it. There is no more to interfacing with the game’s world than that.) that led me to think of Doom, but the other part of it was the velocity of the action as you just kill, kill, kill as fast as you possibly can.

The next game that I thought of as I played through that first level, which is set in a strip club and tasks the player with taking on the role of Tony Luciano, a member of the mob looking for his stripper girlfriend, was of Duke Nukem. If Duke Nukem is a crass send up of 1980s action films and action heroes (which it is by the way), then Blue Estate is a crass send up of 1990s and the early 2000s action films and heroes. Both John Woo and Michael Bay are referenced in various scenes in the game and appropriately so. Blue Estate‘s general vibe is generated through a similar type of crass sexual humor that can be found in Duke Nukem 3D and in Shadow Warrior, just frequently more cleverly written and executed in Blue Estate than in those earlier titles.

As a result, I’ve found my new guilty pleasure, this game full of mobsters and strippers, subtle jokes and mostly not so subtle jokes. Blue Estate mixes the pornography of crude humor and imagery with the pornography of speed, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is trash art rocketed at you with terrible irreverence and terrible speed. It is also, I think, terribly good.

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