It’s hard to believe that Doom is ten years old. It’s hard to believe that very few games in the last ten years have so succinctly captured the level of intensity that Doom easily commanded. Maybe it’s because Doom set such a precedent, it was such a powerful first offering in the nascent genre of first-person shooter, that everything else seems like imitation.
Sure, Alien vs. Predator was a great game. Half-Life was a great game. System Shock 2 was phenomenal. Each had a rich game world, and palpable ambiance. Each had jump-in-your-chair scary moments, and a few hold-your-breath tense scenarios. But overall, nothing other than Doom has filled me with unbridled passion: leaning into the turns as my character whipped around corners, hunching forward trying to eek out just a little more speed as my character races for the ammo or power-up, clicking quietly as I try to stealth my way down a darkened corridor all the while knowing full well that nothing I did would actually make a difference for my character. Sure, after playing it non-stop for so long the initial levels grew a little stale: shoot this guy, press the secret button to collect the powerup, open the door and shoot the guy that you know is waiting there, etc. But the higher levels with their more challenging monsters were always something of a thrill to play.
(I wonder now if the reason I was so juiced when playing Doom was due to the music? I almost always disable in-game music when playing a game these days, as I’ve found it to provide very little to the gameplay. But Doom’s great song really pounded along with the action! Am I short-changing myself by turning off music now?)
I detailed my complaint with current games pretty well, so there’s no need to re-hash that. But having finally seen Return of the King, I think I’ve figure out what my real complaint is.
Brannon complains that RotK was just more of the same as the first two films, and as such is a minor disappointment. I can appreciate where he’s coming from now that I’ve seen the film. I agree with the basic complaint, but temper it with a bit more realism: the three films make a cohesive whole, so it is, in some sense, inappropriate to expect each to build upon the last in an ever-growing crescendo of excitement. Unlike trilogies like Star Wars or The Matrix - where years and technology advanced - LotR was created in one fell swoop but delivered piecemeal. It’s natural for casual audiences to expect each installment to be bigger, better than the last. Fellowship of the Ring set an amazing precedent: loving attention to detail, a rich world fantastically presented, lively dialogue and action, and a palpable sense of anxiety and anticipation. I was riveted in the theater, and I still get chills when I watch certain bits on the DVD. The Two Towers ratcheted it up a couple of notches. The battle of Helm’s Deep was spectacular; Gollum was brilliantly executed; the rising action set the stage for a huge climax. Return of the King gave us a couple more big battles, some breathtaking scenery, and a tense climax leading to a tear-jerker happy ending. RotK didn’t deliver the same punch, the same wow!. I’m not upset, because it wasn’t really meant to: it was meant to conclude the story, to finish the tale. Such an amazing precedent had been established with FotR - our appetites so tempted - that nothing could really satisfy the conventional trilogy expectation of “bigger, better”.
And I think this is what my beef with games is. I’m expecting “bigger, better” in a cinematic sense, but I’m really only getting incremental advancement. Doom II offered almost nothing over Doom except new levels to replace the tired old ones, and a new glossy coat of eye candy. Quake added the third dimension and another advancement to the eye candy (plus the introduction of easy multiplayer gameplay). Quake II and III added almost nothing new to the game.
Other games filled some of the void: System Shock II provided a gripping plot that made me really care about my decisions. Tribes and Tribes II provided the cooperative motivation to make running and shooting meaningful. The Thief series (which I’ve never played, to my shame) made the player actually decide whether or not shooting was the right thing to do. Half-Life interrupted constant carnage by integrating innocents that needed salvation.
The multiplayer aspect comes closest to regaining the emotional thrill of Doom. Being the last member of my team in Counter-Strike as the timer ticks down can be nail-biting tension. Defending the team flag from waves of enemies can really get the adreneline rushing. The real distinction here - that which makes these games produce such a powerful response - is the fact that I’m playing against real human beings, so my actions and decisions will sometimes produce unexpected results. If I can execute a particularly cunning or clever strategy successfully, the emotional reward is great. And when I get caught, or bested, the pain of defeat is intense, and not something easily shrugged off due to programming as is the case with computer-controlled opponents. But now that online multiplayer gaming is the norm, I’m looking for the next big thing, the next step up to make me really empassioned about a game.
What is next? Will Doom3 recapture the heart-pounding adreneline-rush of racing down a corridor, almost out of ammo, low on health, trying to find the exit? Or will all that be just more of the same with a fresh coat of paint? What is the next big thing of gaming? What is the sequel that will wow! me the way Doom did?