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Defense of Doom

Wagner James Au reviews David Kushner’s new book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, for Salon, and he has a big chip on his shoulder. While Au likes the book — ” excellent, ripe with vivid, you-are-there details tracking the rise of id Software” — he is just plain pissed off that Kushner thinks Wolfenstein and Doom were breakthrough games, especially when compared to his own favorite:

To anyone who played “Ultima Underworld,” the comparison reeks of travesty. For everyone else, no doubt, the distinction must seem academic. Even many Blue Sky veterans don’t seem all that exercised about claiming their rightful credit, as the first and best.

Here’s how Au gives id’s games their due:

… for what they were, well-made, if unaccountably morbid shoot-fests, they weren’t horrible.

“Weren’t horrible”? Oh, where to begin…

Wolfenstein and then Doom were each technical breakthroughs. Ultima may have been the first game to let you look in any direction (Wolfenstein didn’t let you look up or down), but it played like shit on the computers of the time whereas Wolfenstein flew. John “God” Carmack’s genius was in squeezing performance out of machines. Wolfenstein was the first 3D (or 2.5D as Au has it…fair enough) that let you run through a large world without the machine getting in your way. Playing Ultima, on the other hand, was like trudging up a very long hill.

Doom upped the ante considerably: fully 3D, reasonably-animated (albeit sprite-based) enemies, effective use of lighting effects, and good enough AI, all within a gaming world through which you could run without pause or hesitation.

And there’s another thing: The gameplay of Wolfenstein and Doom were breakthroughs, too. Doom in particular was scary as shit. Rooms went dark and baddies leapt out at you. The growling of the beasts still creeps me out.

Clearly first person shooters don’t appeal to Au. Fine. And just as clearly, what’s really motivating Au is the death of Looking Glass Studios, the creator of quieter 3D games such as Thief, which he attributes to the twitch-and-flinch appeal of games like id’s. (Au wrote about this in an earlier issue of Salon.) But he’s just plain wrong when he says that id’s games didn’t bring us closer to the “utopian vision” of a “play space for freeform imagination and social experiment.” Au writes:

…this is precisely what they did not do. Their games were allowed to be 3D worlds only insofar as you were moving fast and killing stuff in them — and you were allowed to be interactive in them only insofar as you were moving fast and killing stuff.

This is true of id’s games. That’s what they do well. But id is important because it showed the possibility of making visually-convincing, responsive 3D spaces that can be populated by the stuff of the human imagination. And that is indeed a transforming capability. Many of the games set in 3D worlds have been shoot-’em-ups because, well, this is America. But some have been more than that: “No One Lives Forever” and its sequel are better pieces of pop culture than any James Bond movie made in the past twenty years. And the Thief games that Au prefers, glorifying domestic robbery instead of intergalactic war, themselves are part of id’s legacy.

Au doesn’t have to like id’s games. But Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake each were such audacious leaps in interactive graphical worlds that you could practically hear the collective gasp of gameplayers worldwide. I hate to see that achievement belittled.

Jonathon does a good job defending id from Au’s attempted frag.

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