Monday, 27 June 2011

My Most Important Games Ever - Part V

Read part 4 here.

For the final part of this series I’d intended to focus on two games, the two most important games I’ve ever played.  But I quickly realized that I’d need to focus on each game in turn, so this part will focus on one game, and the next part will focus on the other.  Both of the games almost completely define the time in my life that I first played them, and their feel, atmosphere and the music chimed perfectly for me at the time.

Nostalgia is a difficult emotion to describe, but everyone knows how it feels.  In its literal form, nostalgia is severe homesickness.  The word comes from a contraction of the Greek nostos (returning home) algos (ache, pain), but is now more commonly used to describe an interest in or longing for an often idealized past.  It’s hard to say why these games have this effect on me.  Anyone with an attachment to something from their past knows how powerful this emotion can be.  The best I can do to describe it is to ask you to think of something that may affect you the same way.  It could be a TV programme, an album or a toy from childhood.  This feeling is essentially what drove me to write this series.  For example, just the music alone from the C64 version of Uridium could almost make me cry with longing to go back to a time I remember barely anything about.

I think nostalgia reflects more on the person than it does on a certain point, or the comparative differences between two points, in history.  The longing is less for the general “time” than it is for the person you were at that time, and for the experiences you had then that have helped define who you are now.  A lot of nostalgia seems to be for childhood and it’s no coincidence that this is the time in our lives when we have the least pressure, the least responsibilities, and the time when we are most impressionable.  I’ve wondered whether this sort of nostalgia affects us in the present.  I tend not to play any modern computer games and I don’t really know for sure why I don’t find them appealing.  I don’t really accept the argument that games were just  “better back then”.  This strikes me as a conservative, overly sentimental and overly simplistic explanation.  I can only conclude that the answer lies within me, or rather, in the difference between the me of then and the me of now.

Some of the games I’ve mentioned so far haven’t aged too well.  Some are just as playable now as they were then.  The final two games though are the most special to me.  The most important of all that I’ve played.  And this is the first of those two...

Wolfenstein 3D
Back in 1993 I’d been playing PC games for a while.  I’d just bought my uncle’s Amiga and he’d replaced that with a 486 DX-based PC.  I remember playing games like Dune II, Alone in the Dark, the LucasArts adventure games and X-Wing.  PC gaming was starting to come into its own and the capabilities of the machine were starting to make the Amiga look like old news.  Not long before this, a game called Wolfenstein 3D had come out.  It was the first of its kind really. I’d never played anything like it before; a game where you saw everything from a first-person perspective.  And shot things.  It was the first REAL first-person shooter.  At first we had to put up with using the PC speaker for sound.  Just beeps and pops and clicks and not much else.  But some time after getting the game we got hold of a cheap Soundblaster card and the game felt like it had been transformed.  Now there were proper gun sounds.  Chunky clanking sounds when the metal doors opened.  And a small range of speech.  The game took on a real atmosphere and you thought “How can they improve on this?”  The sequel/prequel, Spear of Destiny, was more of the same.  Little more than an add-on pack really.  Different, slightly harder levels.  

It begins
But then in late 1993 something happened.  A game was released which changed the world.  Literally.  I’d heard rumours of a follow-up to Wolf3D for a while but I wasn’t online at the time so I had no access to all the chatter on the BBSs.  And at first, when we finally got our shareware copy of Doom, I didn’t know what to make of it.  I knew everything had changed as soon as I saw it.  It was such a leap forward from Wolf3D graphically, sonically and gameplay-wise that it seemed almost miraculous.  The same basic game concept (find the exit, find the key, kill everything that moves) was taken to another level entirely.  Maps were far richer in detail and texture.  Walls could be at angles instead of always at 90 degrees to each other on a grid system.  Floors and ceilings were textured.  There were stairs and sloping floors.  Ceilings at variable heights.  Outdoor areas.  And the lighting.  Lighting was used as an active part of the game, with often terrifying results.  Graphically the game is almost a literal work of art.  A lot was drawn or painted but several monsters were actually modelled in clay by or latex and then digitized.  

The implementation of stereo sound allowed the programmers to use sound as more than just audible window-dressing.  Sound was used to scare the player, or to provide the player with information, such as when a monster was nearby or when a switch or button had triggered a distant door.  The direction and distance of a sound could be roughly determined by the player by its volume and panning position.
All of this combined to create a hugely impressive and immersive game world; one where atmosphere, gameplay and scares combined brilliantly to push the game along.  All of this is set to one of the most iconic game soundtracks ever, supplied by now living-legend Bobby Prince.  The music suits the atmosphere of the game perfectly and is often more than a little reminiscent of popular heavy metal tracks.

Blake Stone
The Doom engine was a marvel of the age in gaming terms, a wonder of the world.  When the shareware version was released it caused a sensation.  There was a rush to download the freely distributed first episode from BBSs on the Internet.  First impressions for me were shock and amazement at how far gaming had come.  X-Wing from earlier the same year was hugely impressive as a space “sim” but it didn’t reinvent the wheel.  Games like that were being released all the time, albeit few as good.  But this – it was relatively new.  Wolf3D laid the groundwork and Doom was going to build a cathedral on it.  In comparison, the same month that Doom was released, Apogee put out JAM Productions’ Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold.  While a decent game based on the Wolf3D engine, it just wasn’t in the same league.  And for years after, games struggled to be in Doom’s league.

The storyline (or lack of it) was a major point of controversy during development.  Director Tom Hall had written a design document he called the Doom Bible containing an outline of a detailed narrative and several playable characters for the game, while John Carmack favoured a much simpler, stripped down design.  Hall was eventually forced to resign from id, and many of the ideas from the Doom Bible later appeared in Rise of the Triad, which Hall helped design for Apogee.

Certain games require a tight narrative structure and some can get away with having little story.  And some games excel due to a lack of narrative detail.  One example mentioned in this series would be Elite.  The lack of any real story gave these games a very open, sandboxy feel, allowing the player to fill in their own story as they played.  Doom is slightly different as it lacks the open-world aspect.  Indeed, Doom is as linear as gaming gets.  But the lack of real detail helped to push the game along, and helps immerse YOU in the game world rather than have you act out the actions of a named protagonist.  Everything about the game, graphics, sound, music, the mindblowing game engine, and just the right amount of storytelling, really pulled you into the game and helped you believe you were there.  This is what gaming is supposed to do.  It’s not supposed to be a passive, detached experience.  It’s an interactive medium.  The game provided moments of real foreboding, when you went into a dark room with no idea what could be lurking there, and moments of real fright.  It tapped into the subconscious desire to be scared into exhilaration in the same way a good horror movie does, and provided interactivity beyond the scope of films, in a way only computer games are capable of.

Need more rockets
Big movie fans tend to get snobbish about games.  They might as well get snobbish about the LP record format.  Games are a medium unto themselves.  Movies, games and music can never be compared.  The ultimate aim of each is to entertain, but that is such a broad purview.  All three also often tell stories and it seems to me that here lies the movie industry’s largest constraint.  When looked at this way, almost the sole expectation of a film is that it tell a story.  You can argue about the art all you want but if a film doesn’t tell a story it’s probably a failure.  Games don’t have this constraint.  They are perfectly capable of telling stories, but it can often be at the expense of engaging gameplay, as anybody who has sat through Metal Gear Solid 2’s cutscenes will know.  Where some games excel is when they deliberately don’t tell a story, where they provide the world and the atmosphere for the gamer to tell their own story, and to play again and this time tell a different story.  The only limit is the player’s imagination.  And in the hands of a good developer this can be dynamite, and you get true works of genius.  Like Elite.  And like Doom.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, Doom also popularized multiplayer gaming over the LAN.  It was the first 3D game to allow friends to play against each other over the network, and actually coined the term “deathmatch”.  Doom helped to bring gaming to a wider audience through a mixture of innovation, excellent design and no shortage of controversy.  Religious groups attacked the game for its violence and overtly satanic imagery.  One level in an early version of the game lowered a maze-like set of walls to reveal that it’s was shaped like a swastika (this was later altered).

Kill Bill
By 1995 it was thought the shareware version of Doom was installed on more machines worldwide than Microsoft’s game-changing operating system Windows ’95.  Bill Gates even gave a presentation superimposed on the Doom world to advertise Windows ’95 as a gaming platform.  Workplaces were formulating policies designed to curtail the playing of the game on company networks.  A worldwide community built up dedicated to modifying and creating new levels for Doom, made easier because the developers had actually designed the game to be easily modified.

For a while, the first-person shooter genre was fresh.  Following Doom and its sequel Doom II were games like the average Rise of the Triad, the half-decent Heretic, the half-boring Hexen, the over-the-top Duke Nukem 3D, id’s own fantastic Quake and Quake II, the wonderful Unreal, Valve’s brilliant Halflife and at the back-end of the 90s came Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament, essentially network-only FPS games, with no real single-player mode to speak of.  And the FPS hasn’t stopped.  Nowadays it seems to be everywhere.  It seems that Doom’s legacy today is for every major developer to have its own online post-apocalyptic brownscape, or military grey world, populated by 12-year-old boys with headsets who seem more interested in holding contests to find out who can say “faggot” the most in a 15-minute period, turning the whole experience into nothing more than a long-distance bellowing contest.

And my memories of Doom’s latest sequel, the third in the series, leave me with just one impression of the game: how beige everything seemed to be and, following the success of the Halflife franchise, how by-the-numbers it felt.  At least until the game crashed and dumped me back on my XP desktop.  I didn’t reload.  I downloaded Legacy* and played the first two again.  And remembered why I started playing games in the first place.

Legacy is an enhanced source-port of Doom.  Get it here.

1 comment:

  1. It's all about Zelda and Resident Evil for me!