When the original Doom was released in 1993, its unprecedentedly realistic graphic violence fueled a moral panic among parents and educators. Over time, the game's sprite-based gore has lost a bit of its impact, and that previous sentence likely sounds absurd.
Given what games have depicted in the nearly quarter century since Doom, that level of violence no longer shocking so much as it is quaint, perhaps even endearing. So when it came time for id Software to reboot the series with last year's critically acclaimed remake of Doom, one of the things the studio had to consider was exactly how violent it should be, and to what end.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, the Doom reboot's executive producer and game director Marty Stratton and creative director Hugo Martin acknowledged that the context of the first Doom's violence had changed greatly over the years. And while the original's violence may have been seen as horrific and shocking, they wanted the reboot to skew closer to cartoonishly entertaining or, as they put it, less Saw and more Evil Dead 2.
"We were going for smiles, not shrieks," Martin said, adding, "What we found with violence is that more actually makes it safer, I guess, or just more acceptable. It pushes it more into the fun zone. Because if it's a slow trickle of blood out of a slit wrist, that's Saw. That's a little bit unsettling, and sort of a different type of horror. If it's a comical fountain of Hawaiian Punch-looking blood out of someone's head that you just shot off, that's comic book. That's cartoonish, and that's what we wanted."
"We don't kill a single human in all of Doom. No cursing, no nudity. No killing of humans. We're actually a pretty tame game when you think about it."
Stratton leapt in to correct Martin, specifying "some demon's head" instead of "someone's head."
"They're demons," Stratton said. "We don't kill a single human in all of Doom. No cursing, no nudity. No killing of humans. We're actually a pretty tame game when you think about it. I've played a lot of games where you just slaughter massive amounts of human beings. I think if we had to make some of the decisions we make about violence and the animations we do and if we were doing them to humans, we would have completely different attitudes when we go into those discussions. It's fun to sit down in a meeting and think about all the ways it would be cool to rip apart a pinky demon or an imp. But if we had the same discussions about, 'How am I going to rip this person in half?' or rip his arm off and beat him over the head with it, it takes on a different connotation that I don't know would be as fun."
That balancing act between horror and comedy paid off for the reboot, but it was by no means the only line last year's Doom had to straddle. There was also the question of what a modern Doom game would look like. The first two Doom games were fast-paced shooters, while the third was a much slower horror-tinged game where players had to choose between holding a gun or a flashlight at the ready. Neither really fit into the recent mold of AAA shooters, and the developers knew different people would have very different expectations for a Doom game in 2016.
As Stratton explained, "At that point, we went to, 'What do we want? What do we think a Doom game should be moving forward?'As much as we always consider how the audience is going to react to the game--what they're thinking, and what we think they want--back in the very beginning, it was, 'What do we think Doom should be, and what elements of the game do we want to build the future of Doom on?' And that's really where we came back to Doom 1, Doom II, the action, the tone, the attitude, the personality, the character, the irreverence of it... those were all key words that we threw up on the board in those early days. And then mechanically, it was about the speed. It was about unbelievable guns, crazy demons, really being very honest about the fact that it was Doom. It was unapologetic early on, and we built from there."
It helped that they had a recent example of how not to bring Doom into the current generation. Prior to the Doom reboot, id Software had been working on Doom 4, which Stratton said was a good game, but just didn't feel like Doom. For one, it cast players as a member of a resistance army rather than a one-marine wrecking crew. It was also slower from a gameplay perspective, utilizing a cover-based system shared by numerous modern shooters designed to make the player feel vulnerable.
"None of us thought that the word 'vulnerable' belonged in a proper Doom game. You should be the scariest thing in the level."
"None of us thought that the word 'vulnerable' belonged in a proper Doom game," Martin said. "You should be the scariest thing in the level."
Doom 4 wasn't a complete write-off, however. The reboot's glory kill system of over-the-top executions actually grew out of a Doom 4 feature, although Stratton said they made it "faster and snappier."
Of course, not everything worked as well. At one point the team tried giving players a voice in their ears to help guide them through the game, a pretty standard first-person shooter device along the lines of Halo's Cortana. Stratton said while the device works well for other franchises, it just didn't feel right for Doom, so it was quickly scrapped.
"We didn't force anything," Stratton said. "If something didn't feel like Doom, we got rid of it and tried something that would feel like Doom."
That approach paid off well for the game's single-player mode, but Stratton and Martin suggested they weren't quite as thrilled with multiplayer. Both are proud of the multiplayer (which continues to be worked on) and confident they delivered a high quality experience with it, but they each had their misgivings about it. Stratton said if he could change one thing, it would have been to re-do the multiplayer progression system and give more enticing or better placed "hooks" to keep players coming back for game after game. Martin wished the team had messaged what the multiplayer would be a little more clearly, saying too many expected a pure arena shooter along the lines of Quake 3 Arena, when that was never the development team's intent.
Those issues aside, it's clear the pair feel the new wrinkles and changes they made to the classic Doom formula paid off more often than not.
"Lots worked," Stratton said. "That's probably the biggest point of pride for us. The game really connected with people. We always said we wanted to make something that was familiar to long-time fans, felt like Doom from a gameplay perspective and from a style and tone and attitude perspective. And I think we really accomplished that at a high level. And I think we made some new fans, which is always what you're trying to do when you have a game that's only had a few releases over the course of 25 years... You're looking to bring new people into the genre, or into the brand, and I think we did that."