DOOM: On Silence

So DOOM Eternal just recently came out, meaning that, in tried and true fashion, it’s about time to play the previous game in the series. A bunch of the most obvious stuff about DOOM is all stuff that’s been said before. It’s a welcome change of pace from the glut of crouch-behind-cover corridor shooters (ie Call of Duty). It emphasises free-flowing movement and momentum over the cycle of sprint, crouch, shoot, sprint. It feels liberating. Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is staggeringly good (check this shit out). But what I want to talk about today is the way in which DOOM uses silence.

Honestly, this isn’t the DOOM article I was expecting to write – but it is, counter-intuitively, one of the game’s most interesting elements. DOOM is structured around a series of arena fights. You have a room, it’s filled with demons, you kill them all, and then you traipse to the next arena, with a bit of fucking around along the way to try and find secrets or extra ammo. That traipsing is where the silence happens. During that time, there aren’t any enemies – maybe one or two little rogue demons, but for the most part, there’s nothing. You get to fritter around and enjoy the landscape, the different design details. These guys have a really startling sense of colour – I mean, fucking hell, look at it.

By containing combat within specific arenas, DOOM gives you space to enjoy all of the design work, and to explore the environment at your own pace. It offers a contrasting pace to the violent combat, making the combat more impactful when you actually get into it. It also points to a different philosophy of gameplay. In the Call of Duty games, you’re always ‘on’. There’s always a task that’s right in front of you that you’re supposed to be doing right away – it’s a constant sense of urgency. Smash in the door, shoot down the helicopter. Always moving forward. If you take too long about a task, you’ll get voiceovers from your commanding officer, reminding you of what you’re supposed to be doing. This philosophy finds its apotheosis in the quick-time event, where a heavily scripted moment is set in front of you and you have to mash buttons as they appear on your screen. At its best, this method can be cinematic, as it tightly controls the pace of the gameplay – it makes it easier to create spectacle. At its worst, it can be domineering and artificial. Difficulty is a key sticking point – if you’re running through a quick-time event or something similar, and it’s too hard, and you have to watch the same scripted bullshit ten or fifteen times in a row – it gets really old, really fast. I had this issue with Shadow of the Tomb Raider – there’s a mudslide late in the game, and there are some scripted jumps you have to make – I couldn’t figure them out, so I got to watch the same craaaaazy mudslide over and over until I nailed this one jump.

Against that backdrop, then, the gameplay philosophy of DOOM stands out. Instead of being rushed through a fun park ride where everything happens according to a very strict schedule, you’re given an arena, and told to kill a bunch of demons. And then you can go to the next arena. There’s a lot more breathing room in there, and it’s refreshing. But that’s all stuff that was noted when the game was originally released. I knew about it when I started to play. What I didn’t expect was the game’s use of silence. Its willingness to leave you alone, to give you stretches of time where fighting isn’t happening. I’d actually – here’s a hot take for you – I’d actually compare this gameplay rhythm to something like Shadow of the Colossus, which was originally described to me as sixteen boss fights plus travel time. DOOM could equally be described as a couple dozen arena fights plus travel time. It’s the travel time that’s really caught my attention here. It’s not on the same scale as Shadow of the Colossus – it’s only about ten or fifteen seconds, if you’re going straight to the next arena – but it speaks to the confidence of the developers that they trust enough in the strength of their game to give you moments of silence. They don’t need to be always on, always creating spectacle – they’re happy to let you bumble round for a bit. See the sights, explore for treasure. It’s a philosophy that orients players much more towards the level than towards the event. In Call of Duty, you’re often focused on the event that’s right in front of you. The combat, or the quick-time event. The level is a facilitator of the event, but it’s not really important except as a facilitator. The distinction here is that if you try and step away from the event and explore the level, you’re often aggressively pulled back in. DOOM orients you towards the level first. Events, like the arena fights, take place within the level, but they are finite, fixed, and arguably secondary moments – at least from the strict perspective of organization. Once they’re complete, you’re left alone with the level. It’s empty, it’s silent – and it’s majestic.

I’m still trying to figure out the balance between DOOM being good on its own merit, and it being good specifically against the backdrop of contemporary first-person shooters. It’s definitely very careful to cultivate a counter-cultural aesthetic. It foregrounds arenas that deliberately look like video game arenas – as in the image above. Health and armour are scattered across the map, with no explanation, and if you chainsaw a demon, ammo falls out. It’s a self-consciously retro aesthetic. The silence, I think, is one of the tipping points, where I’m inclined to applaud the game for what it is, rather than what it might be compared to. They didn’t have to have those spaces, but they do. That’s pretty interesting. It speaks to a clever design team, with shit to say about video game design beyond cashing in on the low-hanging fruit of hating modern shooters.

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