Sunday, 2 October 2016

October Nightmares II #2: DOOM 64 (1997) - That's One Doomed Space Marine

People hold many assumptions about video game design, some which are so long standing that they refuse to die. Chief amongst these is the belief that a horror game can only remain effective for as long as it withholds weapons. It was only yesterday, after all, that I lambasted Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth for going all Rime of the Ancient Rambo in its second half. Horror games seem to collapse once they stop forcing you to exist on the firearm breadline, and you no longer have to cling your only gun as though it’s your entry ticket to the beer and blowjobs fair.

Therefore, my classification of Doom 64 as an essential horror game may seem rather brazen. The only people the Doom series has ever scared are the Conservative Christians who feared all the satanic imagery would make young people want to start touching themselves. Or something to that effect. In the average Doom game, there are dozens of ways of committing violent mayhem, and precisely zero ways of making friends. It’s as though the games have been visited by that gun-spewing head from Zardoz, during that month he was really into work and aiming for a promotion. Doom 64 is certainly no exception to this formula (double-bladed chainsaw, anyone?). But I feel the aforementioned rule only applies for games in which the horror aspects rely on the player remaining powerless. Doom 64 seeks to prove it is possible to give the player more firearms than a doomsday cult, and still effectively build horror through a well-crafted atmosphere and soundtrack.

When it comes to atmosphere Doom 64 is as unsettling as a meal with Leatherface’s family. It's Aubrey Hodges’ ambient soundtrack which takes the lead in achieving this. I can only assume Mr Hodge had a blood vendetta against pants as he certainly set out to get as many pairs as possible ruined by streams of terrified piss. Buried in the soundtrack are all manner of freakish ambient noises - breathing, movements, cries, growls, the whirls and drones of machinery – which serve to conjure nightmarish scenarios limited only by your mind. The poor sound capacity of the Nintendo 64 lends a grungy lo-fi quality to each track, and you can never quite tell what each noise is meant to be. But this ambiguity is effective, as it puts the onus on the player’s imagination. It’s the sort of thing which sticks with you long after you’ve finished playing; say at 3am when you’re woken up by the lonely mewling of a stray cat.

At first, a dark ambient soundtrack seems a poor fit for a series of games that are basically three hour long versions of the police station scene from Terminator. But it works well with Doom 64’s take on the series’ FPS formula. The gameplay is still frantic enough that the average level lasts as long as Sam Allardyce’s England managerial career. But the dark, labyrinthine design of the levels creates a sense of nail-biting tension which slows down less confident players. That fear of the unknown is present throughout Doom 64. The idea that something terrible could be waiting around the next corner, even though you know the developers wasted the cartridge's precious memory on the kick-ass burning sky graphic. And I suppose that’s Doom 64’s schtick in a nutshell. Take the run and gun gameplay of the original, run it through the Event Horizon filter, and hey presto, one scary Doom game.

Doom 64 shares the Gothic horror focus of another of id’s franchises – Quake - taking place in gloomy Hell castles and cold, dank industrial bases that could do to put a fucking rug down to spruce the place up. In the place of Doom’s vibrant colour palette Doom 64’s colours are muted, with cold and gloomy filters washing out the colours. This adds to the gritty vibe Midway were aiming for with their adaptation of id’s classic. With Doom 64 Midway managed to make Doom creepy without compromising its identity. Even the redesigned enemies still have that Doom essence; they're just more sinewy, and defined. The Pain Elemental is now a reject from The Thing, resembling two horse heads melded together. At any rate, Doom 64 is a more affective experience than id’s concentrated effort to make the series scary. Doom 3 attempted to be System Shock and Half Life but came off like a wet fart during a full body massage.