Doom Archive

4

On Doom, Morality, and the Video Game Hall of Fame

On June 4, 2015, six video games were inducted in to the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. A cabal of video games editors, scholars, and other notables selected this first wave of inductees, which included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Tetris, and Doom.

Before the dust could settle, the Christian Science Monitor reported on anti-video game activist Jack Thompson protesting Doom’s inclusion in the hall of fame. This from Mr. Thompson,

“It’s only a matter of time before Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Halo are in there. Obviously if they put Doom in there, morality is not playing a role in their selection process.”

Part of me wants to take this joker to task. I love Doom, and I won’t quietly abide somebody shitting on something near and dear to me. As a critic, I could argue for hours about Doom’s technical merit and the complexity of its level design compared to modern games (looking at you, Bioshock Infinite). Say nothing for its ability to spin-off mods and daughter projects from the fan base. If you’ve never played Brutal Doom, you should. Likewise, Doom is fantastic for its subversive use of Christianity imagery – something horror movies did for decades before I shot my first demon possessed UAC Marine.

There’s also the very simple fact of Doom being 22 years old, and we’re still having pissing contests about it. Do we need another argument in favor of this title’s significance beyond its ability to stay relevant for more than two decades? I think not.

Instead, I want to tackle the notion of morality that Mr. Thompson invokes in his criticism of Doom. The first and most obvious question, how is Doom an immoral game?

Asking the question invites a debate on the definition of morality, the likes of which could go on for pages, accompanied by endless comment threads of trolling and counter trolling. Who am I kidding, nobody reads this blog…except for you, mom. Hi mom.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer up a working definition of morality from Bernard Gert’s Morality: Its Nature and Justification.

“Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”

In order for Doom to be immoral by this definition, one would have to demonstrate that it has the effect of increasing evil and harm in society. Alternatively, we could call Doom immoral if, through intention or design, it promotes evil and harm through a set of values. Finding proof that Doom contributes to harm while working within the confines of a public system applying to all rational persons sets the bar high for those out to argue for Doom’s immorality.

First and foremost, Gert’s definition of morality rejects any religious argument against Doom’s morality; as I submit objections to Doom based on Judeo-Christian (or any other faith-based system) morality do not meet the burden of being public or applying to all rational persons.

At the risk of being glib, an impassioned belief in the supernatural to the point of allowing said supernatural being to proscribe corporeal behavior is not, in this critic’s opinion, a rational thing. Moreover, denominational religions do not meet my understanding of a public system. Religion, by its nature, is an exclusive system built around semiotics and metaphors. That sound you’re hearing is the god argument going up in smoke like so many plasma burned cacodemons.

With the religious definition of evil and harm taken off the table, we’re left with a question of Doom’s morality as it intersects with the physical world.

At this point, we could easily be drawn into a quagmire of trying to determine the intention of Doom’s creators. Though I doubt anybody at iD Software created Doom with the goal of producing moral rules for the promotion of harm – a point I will return to in a moment – let us suppose those desires were in play. Yet if Doom exists to promote harm and evil in the world, research from Rutgers and Villanova would suggest iD made a complete hash of their endeavour. Gamespot paraphrased the results of Rutgers and Villanova’s study below.

“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”

Even if Doom had the intention to create harm – a highly dubious notion – it nor any other video game has managed to bring about widespread immoral actions like assault or murder. For the record, murder happens to be the primary action available to players in Doom.

As an audience discussing morality as a public system applied to all rational people, does it make sense to interpret Doom as the spectacular failure of a group of black-hearted maleficarum intent to ruin the world? Is it not more sensible to presume the moral objections to Doom, like those witnessed from Mr. Thompson, are better seen as taste-based objections (e.g. I don’t like this and neither should you) or morality as defined by a religious dogma, which likely fails at least one test of being rational or rooted in public understanding?

Assuming no outward ill-intent on the part of Doom’s developers, we’re left with only one course in exploring Doom’s morality: taking the game at its face value. On this front, Doom’s message is as plain as a shotgun to the face. Only a critical tendency to over complicate matters obscures the fundamental fact about Doom’s moral compass.

In Doom, a player’s foes are the very embodiment of evil. They colonize humans, turning the living into zombies. These infernal forces are beyond reason or compassion. They kill everything in their path. Should this horde escape the confines of Mars, they pose a clear threat to life on Earth. Doom’s protagonist “aka Doomguy” personally resists said evil. Indeed, he quite literally reduces the evil threatening the Earth each and every righteous shot of his plasma rifle. I submit the game’s moral code is clear: resist and reduce evil in all its forms.

Doom is certainly a violent, possibly frightening affair for someone not disposed to science fiction horror. However, the challenging nature of any work of art, notwithstanding propaganda, does not amount to a code of behavior so much as an expression from the artist. Likewise, Doom has not had the effect of guiding people to harm through exposing them to challenging imagery. At its core, the game’s narrative is about the reduction of harm to humanity, using force as an absolute last resort against an utterly inhuman enemy. When individual taste and morality parsed through religious systems are set aside, Doom presents itself as a perfectly moral video game.


5

Second Person Narratives: I’m not your monster.

As a reader, critic, and occasional writer, I don’t much care for the second person narrative style. That isn’t to say that I think it’s a pointless thing that needs to die an eternal death in the darkest foulest bowels of hell’s antiquated septic system, not at all. Second person can be quite useful. Choose your own adventure novels demand a second person narrative structure. Decades of Dungeons and Dragons DMs have forged elaborate worlds using the second person. Within more “conventional” storytelling (novels, short stories, modern video games) second person seems like a problematic thing.

First, a quick refresher for the benefit of anybody who doesn’t know what I’m talking about.

First person narrative: I couldn’t stand the sound of his voice for another minute. The way he went on and on, and the way everybody listened as if he was god’s chosen prophet. So I did what any coward would do; I kicked him in the nuts.

Note that the narrator is telling the story from their own perspective. FPN is life as you live it every day…or this.

Third person narrative: Adam’s practiced poker face was about to shatter. For three years he listened to his boss drone on and on about a managerial style that increased ROI each quarter. For three years Adam watched his colleagues genuflect to the pontification of a blowhard who outsourced his work to unpaid interns. At exactly eight minutes into the 10am meeting, Adam stood up from the boardroom table, walked to the front of the room, and smiled as he kicked his boss in the balls.

Notice here that the story is being told from a perspective external to the character in question. Both first and third person perspective should be quite familiar to anybody who has ever read a novel. Now things get weird.

Second person narrative: You can’t stand listening to him any longer. He’s taken so much credit for other people’s hard work. Everything he’s done is built on the backs of people half his age but twice his intelligence. You didn’t go to business school for this. You know going to Human Resources won’t solve anything. You don’t think about your next action, really. All you do is stand up, square yourself to the man who has stolen your life, and drive a size ten-and-a-half wingtip firmly between his legs.

Hilarious as crotch shots may be, these vignettes illustrate an essential problem with second person narrative. “Adam” might be the sort of guy who kicks his boss in the junk, but what if “You” are not?

What if the story is about something less cathartic than avenging one’s self against a boss? What if a reader is being told that they are standing at the feet of a dead body, licking a blood stained knife as a crimson pool slowly wraps around their feet. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t feel like giving up who I am to become somebody else’s monster.

A narrative built in the more conventional first or third person style can safely assume that a reader wants an experience removed from their own world. To read Dune, or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is to ride on a worm behind Paul Atreides or follow along in the cab next to Holmes and Watson. At no point does the story ask the reader to do anything other than maintain their suspension of disbelief. Who the reader is, is irrelevant to the issues at hand. Second person narratives depend on a reader’s willingness to abandon their sense of self. If you, the reader, are not willing to become the serial killer, the half-demon spawn of a fallen angel, or the sexy horse vampire, then the story falls apart.

I live in fear of this moment every time I see a play

So what’s the problem? For my part, I hate audience participation (save for choose your own adventure novels, especially the ones that offer a hierarchy of endings [Hierarchy of Endings is the name of my next band]) in printed text just as much as I do in theatre. As a reader, I’m looking to be entertained. As a critic, I’m looking for subtexts and themes. As a writer, I’m looking to see what I can learn from the words in front of me. How can I do any of those things if I’m spending the lion’s share of my mental energy turning myself into someone who is compatible with the narration?

What am I gaining by undertaking this effort? Who is the writer to make me think I would even want to become this person? After all, the reader is the consummate and professional voyeur.

When evaluating recent encounters with second person narratives, the reader in me invokes Benedict Cumberbatch as he sighs “Bored”, the Jay Sherman in me says, “This is weak character construction masquerading as high concept bullshit”, and Adam, the scribbler of words, desperate for the approval of his peers, moves on to a new teacher as the story appears to be the ultimate form of telling without showing.

So to the writers of the world, I would offer these words, for whatever devalued Hellenic currency they are worth: it is infinitely easier to appropriate a concept, culture, historical figure, political ideology, or religious doctrine than it is to bank on your reader’s desire to abandon their sense of self as to give your story its necessary cohesion. If a reader is unable, or outright refuses, to participate in what you, the writer and possibly your editor and publisher, think is a transcendent experience, then all of the deeply layered metaphor and allegory in the world won’t amount to jack.


1

The Daily Shaft: Six Video Game Representations of Hell

As a man of no particular religious affiliation, I’ve always found Hell to be an interesting concept. Even as a child, I found something inescapably alluring about a place that contains all the horrors and ironic punishments that man is capable of imagining. I suppose Clive Barker is somewhat to blame as Hellrasier and Hellraiser II are among my most memorable childhood movies, much to my parents chagrin. Still, as a gamer, I’ve retained a quiet interest in titles that try to capture a certain vision of the pit. Though interest in the underworld seems to have ebbed since the late 90s and early 2000s, I thought it would be fun to take a quick walk through gaming Hell.

#1 – Diablo by Blizzard Entertainment

Hellish inspiration: Old School Christianity

The Diablo series appropriates all the fun parts of the Old Testament as well as borrowing from some Babylonian and Sumerian nomenclature. In short, it’s about a war between Heaven, as represented by the Council of Archangels, and Hell, whose front men are the three Prime Evils, Diablo, Lord of Terror, Mephisto, Lord of Hatred, and Baal, Lord of Destruction. Of course, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance of this conflict.

#2 – Dante’s Inferno by Visceral Games

Hellish inspiration: Dante’s Divine Comedy

Dante’s Inferno sees Dante re-imagined as a crusader knight of questionable moral standing who enters Hell to save the soul of his wife from Lucifer. Level design within the game closely mirrors the nine circle structure of Hell as found within the first book of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem. Even the level bosses within the game are creative takes on the denizens of Hell that literary Dante encountered on his trip through the pit.

#3 – DOOM by id Software

Hellish inspiration: Mars / Cyberpunk Christianity

No list of games about Hell would be complete without mentioning the masterpiece of carnage that is DOOM. Notwithstanding DOOM 3, the story behind DOOM has always been an afterthought. Yet amid the ultra violence, this much is clear: Hell has risen on Mars. Pig demons, fire breathing imps, floating eye monsters, zombie marines, and cybernetic man-goats are among the many horrors that populate the Union Aerospace Corporation’s labyrinthine Martian holdings. Even when employing the aptly named God mode, DOOM remained a near impossible puzzle where salvation, in the form of moving to the next level, required countless hours of seeming blind faith that a solution was to be found.

#4 – Clive Barker’s Jericho by MercurySteam and Codemasters

Hellish inspiration: Catholicism with a dash of Chthonic “Old One” mythos

Clive Barker’s Jericho might not be one of the best games out there, but it does boast of an interesting vision of hell. Before God created humanity, he created a being in his own image. The “Firstborn” was god-like in its power, enigmatic, and amoral. So god quickly cast the Firstborn into an abyss and sealed it inside a box. The Firstborn broke out of his prison on seven different occasions. Each time he was beaten back, but dragged a piece of the Earthly plane with him. So Hell is box that contains a twisted mishmash of our world throughout human history.

#5 – Ninja Gaiden by Temco and Team Ninja

Hellish inspiration: Shinto’s Yomi

Okay, I’m not even going to try and broach the complex canon versus retcon history that is Ninja Gaiden’s back story. In short, it’s about a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa who fights demons. Most of the games, both Nintendo/Famicom classics and contemporary reboots, feature a story that begins in the mortal realm and ends with Ryu descending into an underworld that abounds with demonic forces and abject misery. Similar to the Shinto vision of Yomi, the underworlds of Ninja Gaiden appear as a place of death and decay where all souls go when they die. Of course jiggle boob physics in the new games kind of take away from the illusion.

#6 – God of War by Sony Computer Entertainment Santa Monica

Hellish inspiration: Greek mythology

I was content to end today’s list with five titles, but it felt wrong to ignore God of War. Taking its inspiration from Greek myth, the franchise sees a Spartan named Kratos making war against the gods of Olympus whereby he eventually assumes Ares’ war god mantle. During the third game, Kratos descends into the underworld to do battle with Hades. The aforementioned death god looks like a cross between a Cenobite from Hellraiser and one of those helmet monsters from Infinity Blade. Despite using a generic looking Tatarus and River Styx as passing locales, the freaked out looking Hades bludgeoned God of War into my list.