Lately I've begun following the development of the latest title in the Doom franchise, and I've been excited to see the series returning to its run-and-gun, over-the-top, unleash-Hell roots. Yet, as I’ve been drooling over the latest, positively dreadful images of hell-spawn and mayhem, I've begun to ask myself, what is it about a game like this that is so appealing? Is it strictly cathartic? A desire for a game full of action? If that is all, why not pick up the latest Call of Duty and duke it out in 50 shades of brown? Why the draw toward a game that has you literally taking up arms against the forces of Hell, brutally marching through waves of undead, demonic forces that seem designed to induce nightmares? Is it merely an exercise in catharsis?
Upon reflection I've determined that, yes, part of it is about the action, and part of it is about catharsis, but there is another element to games like Doom that I find striking: For myself and, I’m certain, for many others out there, we don’t merely enter the nightmare world because of a fascination with the macabre, but also because in doing so, we challenge our own fears and learn to face them head-on.
In consideration of this I must think back to the first time I played Doom, back in the mid-nineties, when Doom was still considered the standard of FPS gaming. I downloaded the first episode of the game (it was originally released as Shareware) on my parent’s PC and played through the entire episode on that same night, as my parents were away for the evening. The theme, imagery and brutality of the game was unlike anything I had played before. The theme of the game, of being alone on a Martian outpost where an experiment had literally opened a portal to Hell, was a terrify idea, more so for a kid like myself who was afraid of the dark. However, I had cut my FPS chops on Wolfenstein 3D, which I had played endlessly on all difficulty levels, so I was up to the challenge. However, it was not the mechanical challenge of the game that presented me with the greatest difficulty, it was the mental challenge. A game like Doom, with its demonic antagonists, does not merely assault the player directly with hordes of enemies (although it certainly does that well enough), but it attacks the player’s mind, presenting terrifying imagery and guttural, growling noises that leave you on edge, sometimes before you ever see your foe.
One particular part of the game stands out to me even to this day, because it was at this point that I had to make a decision about who I was, and how I was going to choose to deal with fear. At one point, your journey through the demon-infested Martian base leads you to a dark room. Up to this point, the level had been reasonably well-lit, and now, close to the end, I open a door and stare into a room which seems to be swallowing all light. There is a path forward, but also hallways branching off to the right and to the left, with more branches here and there; it is a small maze of dark halls. It is not a large room, but the moment you open the door to it, you also begin to hear the bleating of demons.
Now, up until this point, when you hear demons, it generally means that they sense you, and will home in on your position, so my natural reaction was to wait by the door for them to come to me, where I can see them and take them out. However, the game is not playing by the rules I had come to expect. I can hear the demons, but they are not showing themselves. I step into the dark room then immediately run back out, hoping to get their attention and draw them away. I fire my gun repeatedly just to make sure they hear me and know where I am. I stand there waiting what seems like an eternity, and nothing except their guttural sounds reach me. For me, this was the most terrifying part of the game. I could handle the creatures while they were in the open and I could face them on my own terms, but now the game was asking me to enter into a nightmare scenario: to walk into a room of halls where I can barely see anything, and allow myself to be hunted by creatures I can hear but cannot see, who may choose to ambush me from any side. As a child I had nightmares of being chased by a monster I could not see and could not escape, and here the game was presenting me with that very scenario.
In the end, with my heart racing, knowing that I had to step in or give up, I dove into the room, running fast through twisting halls in a blind panic, until I saw the exit and dove for it. Was I brave? Hardly. I was terrified, but I made it.
Later on I would replay the game and find myself back at that same room. I knew it was coming up, yet, despite having already made it through I did not find it any less terrifying. It was still playing on my primal and subconscious fears. This time, however, I was determined to face my fear. When I first encountered this room, I not only made it through, but left with demons I had not found still calling out behind me. This time, as I stood outside the room, I determined that I was going to march in slowly and deliberately and sweep the entire area. I would uncover any secrets that may be hiding in those dark halls, and I would myself hunt down and slaughter every demons until the room grew silent.
It was terrifying, but I swallowed my fear, stepped in, and made good on my promise. I completed that level with a sense of pride, not because I had merely beaten a level in a video game, but because I had come face-to-face with the demons of my own mind and refused to back down. To quote Frank Herbert’s Dune, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” As I stood on the other side of that room, only I remained, because my foes lay lifeless in the dark halls where they haunted me. I faced my fear, and from that point forward I knew that whatever this or any game tossed at me, I could stand up and face it. I would not turn away, would not give up; I would press on. I would not merely survive, I would conquer; and if I can do it in the game, I can do it in real life.
So yes, I look forward to revisiting the shores of Hell when Doom is released later this year. I look forward to revisiting my old demons; not just the ones in the game, but the ones inside of me as well. I look forward to staring them down and making them blink. I will do it as others have done before me, as I have done before myself, and as my children will do after me. My dad has a simple phrase that I have heard him use often: “Never be scared or nervous.” It’s not an empty platitude, it’s a commitment and a reminder that when you feel fear in any situation, you have the power to push it away and march on. So as id Software puts the finishing touches on their bloody and dreadful product, my answer to them is “bring it!”