DOOM, DOOM, and VR

Sean Barrett
June 2016

In light of the release of a new DOOM game, and the ongoing seeming success of VR, I wanted to express some opinions, despite having played neither. Here they are.

DOOM and immersion

In my peer group, DOOM (1993) wasn't scary because of satanic imagery. That all seemed pretty hokey to us. But I still remember being scared the first time I went through the darkened maze in E1M2, not sure what was around any corner, afraid of "dying". Encountering an imp around a corner was effectively a jump scare. Why was this scary? I think because DOOM gave us a heightened sense of immersion, of "being there", of identifying yourself with the in-game avatar.

This sense of immersion was something we all knew was around the corner and we had long been trying to achieve, but DOOM suddenly brought us seemingly all the way there.

It might be a mistake to design sprawling, hard-to-navigate levels like those in DOOM in a modern game (and confusingly I've heard conflicting reports about how DOOM (2016) handles this). Generally people say that game design has moved on, that we've learned that lesson. But this implies that it was, in hindsight, a bad design for DOOM, and I don't think that's true. Even if this were the true for games now, it doesn't necessarily apply retroactively. DOOM would probably have been a worse game at the time it came out without those sprawling, hard-to-navigate levels, because those designs helped make the DOOM levels feel like a real place.

I think Half-Life 2 was the first place where the alternative, linear level structures, really bothered me. And I think this was because Valve, like many developers since, had found an uncanny valley of environments (of cities, of suburbs, of buildings, of canal systems). They looked very real; "real enough", at least; and yet they strangely funnelled you from one entry point to one exit point without giving you any significant choices or branching points like you find in the real world. Like an animated character in the uncanny valley, they were very real in appearance, while feeling wrong.

To be clear, I don't mean this as a criticism of Half Life 2, or of modern games with linear level structures. I just mean that this interfered with the perception of them as real spaces, instead of merely game spaces.

I think the sprawling DOOM level layouts contributed to them feeling like real spaces. That they were "real" seems laughable now, but the context and expectations were different then1. (Consider all the old movies whose special effects seem really blatantly bogus now, but at the time were convincing simply because the audience had never seen such things before and had different expectations.)

VR and presence

Eventually game designers generally reached the conclusion that realistic environments with abstracted, implausible connectivity better served gameplay than the sprawling levels of the mid-90s (with exceptions, such as modern 'open world' games). The additional viscerality of "being there" in "real spaces" wasn't valuable enough to offset the cost in the design of game experiences, pacing, and game flow.

What, then, of VR? Right now, VR is highly touted on the unique experience of "being there", presence. A lot of VR games seem like the only value in them comes from that experience of presence. Certainly the control scheme of the Vive contributes a lot of value; but e.g. can't you imagine a game like Job Simulator being perfectly playable with Vive-esque motion controls and without VR? It might not be a good game without VR, but then what does that say about the value of VR? Is it magic sauce that turns bad games good, or is it magic sauce because the experience is new?

If you were to design a DOOM-like game to release today, you might well argue you'd want to avoid the sprawling, non-linear structures of the original game, because they wouldn't serve any purpose. It's no longer important to people's sense of immersion, because people have adjusted to modern designs that avoid it, even though it was super-valuable at the time. Might not the same be true of VR?

I don't expect people who are working in VR to change their opinion from this essay. And indeed, other people have claimed that VR is a fad, although I don't think they've really advanced an argument for it beyond 'novelty'. I'm not even saying VR is definitely a fad, nor am I really offering an argument beyond 'novelty'. But I see a similarity between that sense of reality that DOOM spaces had that modern games don't, and the sense of reality offered by VR games, and it does make me wonder if in 5 or 15 or 25 years people will just take VR presence 'for granted'; it's just another mode their game brains can be in, and it will no longer be particularly experientially 'better' than non-VR. (And if so, will there still really be value to the game being VR at all?)

1 I almost always find it frustrating when people look back at games from that era--DOOM, System Shock, Dark Forces-- and try to pronounce those spaces as "representational" or "abstract", unless the person doing the pronouncing is actually versed in development techniques and restrictions of the day. Proclaim "death of author" all you want, but I suspect most of the time those designers were struggling for the best representation they could achieve using extremely limited technology and polygon budgets. (Of course they could be purely abstract--all my DOOM multiplayer levels were purely abstract play spaces--but I'd argue it's generally dangerous to infer 'abstract' from 'hard to see how it's realistic'.)