Tuesday, March 21, 2017

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The original Doom (1993) was a first-person shooter noted, even notorious, for its comically intense graphic violence and early, immersive pseudo-three-dimensional world. What it lacked for in plot (and it lacked intensely in plot), it made up for by bringing the speed and fluidity of arcade style gameplay to the nascent FPS genre at home. This past year, while much of the world was transfixed by the increasingly bizarre American presidential election, a niche but still mass market of gamers saw id Software release the long-delayed DOOM (2016), a reboot of the 1990s game. What in May looked like a bizarre retread, an uninvited “blast from the past,” looks considerably different in cold winter light. Everything old is new again, and DOOM knows how you feel.

It is often assumed that a fundamental question in games is one of “agency” — particularly the player’s ability to make meaningful “choices” within a game world. However, DOOM is built with a different, and, I would hazard, more accurate assumption in mind: games work primarily on an affective plane. The question they ask is not “what will you do?” but rather “how do you feel?” And DOOM doesn’t think you’re feeling particularly good at the moment.

At first glance, DOOM is unremarkable. The mining of recent cultural memory and nostalgia for cheap commercial cash-ins has reached near parodic proportions, with no “intellectual property” deemed too insignificant to be recreated ad nauseum. But one does not need to spend long with DOOM to know that the game is in on the scam. In DOOM, you play as a nameless, faceless “space marine” so bereft of characterization or quality that across the many iterations of Doom, internet commentators have come to call the protagonist, simply, “doomguy.” Doomguy was a useful skeleton to hang the 1993 game on — a game far more focused on introducing then-new game mechanics and game coding practices. Now DOOM plays doomguy’s emptiness back at the game-playing public.

Doomguy sells. DOOM (2016) sold approximately one million copies by the end of summer 2016, and likely many more since then. This is probably around $50–$60 million in sales at least (not counting fall of 2016). For a game with its unusual design — and one that is not part of a dominant franchise (Call of Duty, Pok√©mon, FIFA, et cetera) — it did quite well. The global market for video games is estimated at somewhere between $91 billion and an optimistic $99.6 billion mark. Some projections put a 2017 market peg at approximately $106 billion. In just the first three days after its debut in 2015, Call of Duty: Black Ops III was responsible for 550 million of those dollars, with Call of Duty being probably the largest first-person shooter franchise, and also the most generic. So DOOM is neither a tiny, independent game nor a powerhouse juggernaut. It’s a revival of a dormant one, which came on strong to mostly positive critical reception. DOOM sits in an interesting interstitial space economically and culturally: mass market but niche, known but not ubiquitous. (...)

Following these opening moments, we quickly learn the setting of DOOM through a series of voice-over conversations, holographic corporate PR messages, and, for the truly curious, endless reams of hilarious flavor text exposition. The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself.

The UAC is played as one long, ghoulish gag reel of neoliberalism’s greatest hits. The entire game — with a nudge and a wink — reminds you that the contemporary ruling class would rather tap a rich vein in Hell than release the reins one inch to non-doomguys and gals everywhere. It also presents the player with constant reminders of the self-help-inflected, corporate newspeak of our era. (...)

DOOM’s rage is telegraphed from the very first moment of the game, but it is only when you are somewhere in the middle of one of its fully fleshed out scenarios, dancing from one platform to another, whirling through your array of weapons, prying the jaws of some Hell beast apart while cursing the utter inane idiocy of DOOM’s world — which is to say our world — that DOOM begins its rage education in earnest. Games are machines for producing affect, but they are also pedagogical ones: DOOM is instructing us. Pankaj Mishra recently argued that ours is an age of anger. Doomguy occupies the subject position of the 21st-century rage agent par excellence: put-upon, yet powerful; crumpling like a fragile heap from just a few demonic projectiles but with a rage potential unmatched; disenfranchised but with so many tools of power at hand. Mishra wisely encourages his readers to turn to the social theorists of the 19th century who took irrationality seriously; to the Darwins, the Freuds, the Webers, and Nietzsches who saw in modern humanity sexual impulses, old Gods, churning natures, and ressentiment instead of simple, orderly, maximizing rationality. But DOOM already knows that. DOOM takes us as we are.

by Ajay Singh Chaudhary, LARB | Read more:
Image: Doom