Doom 3: Immersion Beyond the Cinematic

by Jim Andrews
Portuguese translation by Paulo Migliacci



he idea of computer games as art is one which has primarily been toyed with by many folks and realized but rarely. If you have a fairly recent computer, I

recommend picking up Doom 3 to experience, as of this writing, one of the most intense interactive thrillers around.

It's 'an experience'. For instance, when you eventually find yourself in Hell, you do tremble a bit, though it be over bits and bytes. And the atmospheres of the audio are amazing. "Cinematic", as in the best of sci-fi thrillers. The theme music and other parts of the audio were composed by Chris Vrenna, formerly of Nine Inch Nails.

The graphics are tasty. The individual demons are, erm, evil in a skanky polygonal sort of way, but it's the art of the worlds created that is most memorable. Particularly the scenes outside in the Martian military-industrial landscape. And Hell, as noted, is to tremble in. And the archeological dig in the bowels of Mars has some awesome scenes. The worlds are as visually memorable as those of Myst in its day (those who played Myst back in 94 or thereabouts found it memorably 'immersive' in its visuals).

Of course, most everything about this game is 'killer'. It borders on a 'visceral' experience. It is a 're-telling' of the original Doom story--but the original Doom story was hardly told. It was all shown. Lots of inferences to make. In Doom 3, there is much more narrative matter. That more narrative matter is one of the main additions to Doom 3 may be surprising in light of John Carmack's famous remark about narrative and computer games:

"Story in games is like story in pornos. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important."

If the folks making Doom 3 (John Carmack being chief among them) didn't think narrative was important, they wouldn't have done so much work on it. So I guess Carmack's line reminds me of another one: why spoil a good story with the truth? In truth, the question isn't whether narrative is important to computer games, but how. Story is almost always operational at some level in computer games.

The new narrative matter in Doom 3 includes cinematic scenes where characters speak and the interactivity is suspended briefly. In these scenes, we hear and see a handful of characters much as in a film. Also, we occassionally pick up some unfortunate corpse's PDA. We can read their email and listen to audio logs. Their email sometimes has numeric codes in it that lets us pick up medicine, weapons (you consume more medicine and fire more weapons in this game than you are likely to in a lifetime), and other tokens. But often it doesn't contain numeric codes and is strictly narrative. I usually scan this for numeric codes, mostly, rather than read it carefully, but it's well-done enough that you do end up reading some of it (there's also humourous spam from Not sure how it compares with how we deal with email. Sometimes we also encounter video disks that we can play in our PDA; usually these are propaganda from the UAC, the evil corporation. These video disks also sometimes detail the research of the scientists into the civilizations, artifacts, weapons, and creatures they have encountered and are now afflicted with.

Still, the story and characters and narrative are, well, mostly for kids. This is not a fine drama. Some of the Alien movies do provide a sense of drama in the relationships between people and how those are handled. Doom 3 is interactive 'grand guignol'.

The basic premise of Doom 3 is that scientists working on a Martian military base run by the UAC corporation have created technology that transports demons (and people) back and forth between Mars and Hell. And of course it gets a little out of hand. But wait; have I got that right? Revisiting this writing a couple more days into the playing, I find myself in the bowels of Mars at an archeological site where the researchers have unearthed (or demarsed?) an ancient civilization that apparently battled the same 'forces of evil' that we are pitted against. The ancient civilization appears to be human, our ancestors. Um OK, but what about the critters? Are they still from Hell? Or are they terrestrial also? I'm not sure yet. I doubt this will be resolved in the game, actually. Oh they're just from Hell, right? From the scariest place imaginable. But wouldn't that be, like, the Pentagon or something? Ah, that'd be another horror story.

It's over the top and plays well into the 'grand guignol'. But we note The Divine Comedy involves trips through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. I haven't finished Doom 3 yet, but I don't expect a tour through heaven, somehow. But their Hell is entirely memorable.

Also, the experience of not only Hell but heights, for instance, is fantastic. In one scene in the bowels of Mars, you climb a crane and dangle precariously from well- rendered heights. Those who are afraid of heights may find this liberating. Or terrifying, as the case may be. But it is certainly an experience. And an experience you may enjoy all the more for it not actually posing the terrestrial dangers we normally associate with heights.

While the story is mostly for kids, so too could this be said of Homer's work. And there are other works of literature such as Eugene Onegin by Pushkin where the story is fairly simple. Eugene Onegin is often cited as the first Russian novel. Though, actually, it's written in poetry and the poetry is divine. The long poem never developed the sort of psychological and realistic narrative complexity we associate with the novel. Long poems can be very complex in certain ways, but narratively is almost never one of them. Why? Because that sort of complexity seems to involve the prosaic more than is good for a long poem. Or more than has been ventured successfully, perhaps, is all.

Still, though, we can imagine computer games that have dramatic depth and significance beyond stuff for kids. It's mostly the market, I think, that makes Doom 3's story for kids, not the form. The budget for a game like this is very high, and the primary demographic that purchases games is kids. This may preclude seriously dramatic high-budget work in computer games—until someone does it brilliantly and successfully or there is more or less as large an adult audience for computer games as for other media such as film.

And then there are the political dimensions of Doom 3. The story is very USA military-oriented, and the human characters all are either marines or military researchers who work for a big corporation. Lots of torture. Quite different from Abu Ghraib, but the associations are currently inescapable. Cowboy capitalism heavily involved in the military and technology. And Hell. Of course Id software is from Texas.

I don't think there's any getting around the feeling that Doom 3 is a bit of a masterpiece as a computer game. It's great that they actually believed enough in Doom to do it again in Doom 3. It isn't a 'sequel' in the usual sense. It's a re-doing. And as much attention has been placed on excavating the narrative as improving the graphics and sound.

The feeling I get is not that it is disgusting and base, politically inexcusable, and a disgrace to digital art. They go so far into the shoot-em-up that they come out the other side, in territory not unrelated to The Inferno and Alien. The violence is implicitly cosmic or psychic as in the best of thriller sci-fi. And of course it is also the violence of post-GHz interactive multimedia processing in front of a monitor with a mouse and keyboard.

It is evidently still quite early. In terms both of dramatic form and processing. But if this isn't art I'll eat my shorts. This work is such a strong experience that we see much better how interactive games and cinema can be fused into compelling art.

PS: links at the bottom to a walkthrough of the game, and is the id site. Though if you want to play the game, probably best not to dive too deep into the walkthrough; it'd just take a bit of the wonder off the initial experience. But each to her own. If you Google Doom 3 you see lots of stuff. I googled for "reviews of Doom 3" and found the following (predictably) from 'Christ Centered Game Reviews':

"Christian Rating: There hasn't been a game that I would more than happily throw away after I just purchased it for fifty-five dollars than this one. The graphics are superb and sound is just down right awesome, but nothing will make up for the complete satanic feel and exposure this game will bring. As a twenty-one year old I have to say I was freaked out, disturbed, and horrified by Doom III's content. I can't imagine what a thirteen year old would feel like. After hours of exposure to this game, I could see a child's attitude and personality change because of this game. I would have displayed more images but due to the graphic and satanic nature of this game I just couldn't show it. Stay far away from Doom III it has no value to it at all. I would highly recommend that anyone who professes themselves to be Christians, to NOT PLAY THIS GAME. Conclusion: This game contains high levels of occult images and sounds, massive gore, and terrifying exposure to hell and demons. No game has gone so far as Doom III."

Jim Andrews
Created: 20/6/2005