"Doom" is no longer a generic video game title. It's a name, a job description, and a promise.
Developer: id Software
Release Date: 2016-05-13
I totally dismissed Doom before it came out. I took one look at it during Bethesda's E3 press conference and knew it would be a disaster of a game. I was, perhaps, a bit presumptuous. As it turns out, Doom is a better game than it logically has any right to be, and one of the ways in which it's so surprisingly, shockingly good is in its characterization of the so-called "Doom Gu,," the faceless, voiceless, hyper-violent hero of the game. What's amazing is that he's still a faceless, voiceless, hyper-violent hero, but not in the bland, generic way that defined early shooters. He's been given just enough background and a personality to elevate him from "generic" to "iconic".
On this note, there's a great Jimquisition video that examines how the animation helps with this characterization. I want to touch on some of those same points, but I also want to look more closely at the opening minutes of the game, as this is where the game does a majority of its subtle yet integral characterization. This is where the game turns the Doom Guy from a space marine into a deity -- a supernatural harbinger of destruction.
The character work starts right away. We see a hellish looking symbol fade in from the darkness, then the world fades in around it, and we realize that we're chained to a medical table. The game is playing with us at this point, leaning into images of examination, experimentation, and victimization, encouraging us to see ourselves as the generic soldier thrust into an extreme situation. Doom is playing into our expectations.
But then we break free, shoot up the demons in the room, and when we take a moment to actually look at the table that we were chained to, well, it's obviously not a table. It's a stone sarcophagus surrounded by demonic looking symbols. There's a panel nearby that plays back a hologram recording of the past: People bowed low around the sarcophagus in worship, a woman walks by, deep in thought, and worries out loud, "We have to contain this".
In less than a minute, the game changes us from a generic space marine into a mystical, possibly divine being. We may not know who we are, but the world knows who we are. It worships and fears us. We're not just a guy trying to survive, we're on the offensive this time, someone -- something -- to be feared.
Soon we find another panel, and Dr. Samuel Hayden starts talking to us, trying to make a deal. "I think we can find a way to resolve this problem in a way that benefits us both," he starts to explain, but we don't hear him through. We grab the panel and throw it aside in obvious disgust. Later, he tries to further justify the exploration/exploitation of hell in an elevator. "It was purely for the betterment of mankind," he argues as we glance down at the mangled human remains on the floor before smashing the comm.
We may be some frightening, mystical being, but we're not cruel. These reactions portray us as empathetic, someone that's saddened by the death and violence around us, and angered at those who caused it. If we're really a divine being resurrected into this world, as it seems we are, then we have a clear role to play. We're a punisher, someone who delivers justice to those who deserve it. We're not a protector, as we awaken after the horror has occurred, and we're not a judge, as we're not trying to be impartial to the evildoers who opened hell. We're just here to, as a voice in the darkness tells us before we wake, "Rip and tear, until it is done."
The "Doom Guy" is no longer a space marine. He's become an icon to the gaming world and the game itself reflects this by turning him into something like the Grim Reaper, a personification of a force of nature. The Grim Reaper is Death, and the Doom Guy is Doom. That word is no longer a generic video game title. It's a name, a job description, and a promise.