Back in my days as a preacher, before hanging up the clerical collar, my congregants had come to call me “Brimstone,” due to my propensity to preach about hellfire in my homilies. It was by no means a derogatory nickname; as evidenced by the trade I’ve taken up since, I’ve always been a naturally gifted writer (and outstanding orator, as well), and could spin a sermon with the same skilled syntax, verbose vocabulary, and intellectual insight as I now apply to comic book and video game reviews. It was, if anything, quite complimentary, a sign of their affection and appreciation for the one part of the job at which I truly excelled.
Conversely, the part at which I performed poorest was translation. Sure I loved Latin, and was good enough at Greek, but I hated Hebrew. Now it may seem to an outside observer that a modern minister has no need to know how to translate texts which have been in English since the time of Tyndale, yet the fact of the matter is that the whole process – from selecting which manuscripts to work from all the way to the sermon on Sunday morning – is all a single, continuous act of translation. It is taking not only an ancient text but the context and culture of those who wrote it, parsing which parts are indispensably important, and repackaging that pre-modern message for modern men and women. To translate is choose between what to keep and what to change – and as such requires intimate knowledge of the original text as well as the modern context.
Doom (2016) is a translation of Doom (1993), and is as perfect a translation as possible. The far shorter time frame might seem to give the game developers an advantage over Biblical translators in that respect, but far too many franchises from the ‘90s have tried and failed to work in the modern market for id Software’s work to be dismissed so lightly. The Sonic games are from the same era as Doom, and ever after Sonic and Knuckles have continuously attempted and failed to translate the hedgehog into the post-16-bit landscape.
Moreover, the language of gaming has changed so drastically since internet connectivity has become ubiquitous on all platforms that some developers and marketing departments consider online-integration something of a shibboleth, as if failing to capitalize on connectivity signals to potential players that the game in question is outdated. Such famously occurred with the disastrous SimCity (2013), a translation of the eponymous 1989 urban planning simulator and its 1994 sequel SimCity 2000, in which core components such as sprawling cities and natural disasters were jettisoned in order to integrate persistent multiplayer. Just this week EuroGamer ran a fantastic post-mortem on Lionhead following the studio’s closure, citing its collapse as due to corporate overlord Microsoft’s insistence that their Fable franchise be translated from a single-player role playing game into always-online asymmetric multiplayer matches. Like SimCity, too much was lost in translation.
The same easily could have been the case with the recently released Doom. In seeing the financial success of Destiny and the hype surrounding the Division, id Software could have claimed to fans that shared-world shooters were where the genre is in 2016. Or less obtrusive but equally alien to the franchise would have been all manner of modern contrivances in shooters – cover, regenerative health, reloading, third-person perspective, etc. Doom deftly defies such conventions, calling back with its gameplay to the classic arena shooting popularized by id Software in the original, as well as Wolfenstein 3D and Quake.
Even the aesthetic is strikingly exact, save for an extremely shiny coat of paint. All of the classic demons return – the Barons of Hell, Cacodemons, Cyberdemons – rendered as one remembers them, or at least always imagined the developers had intended them to appear, past the pixelated representations. Despite nothing novel in their designs, such certainly feel so. Given the ubiquity of most modern enemies as either aliens, terrorists, or zombies – their sameness symptoms of the risk-averse nature of high-cost triple-A game development – Doom’s demons in contrast feel fresh and exciting. Such is a luxury afforded by the pre-existing brand awareness and nostalgia for the seminal shooter. This may seem a contradiction, enemies and other elements simultaneously classic yet novel, and it is indeed other than to say everything old is new again.
None of which is to suggest that id Software merely slapped better graphics on to the original game. There are indeed modern elements, reactions to games that have come out since the last installment of the series (Doom 3), but their integration feels organic to the direction in which Doom was already heading. There exist a number of new upgrade systems for the player’s character, suit, and weapons. But their focus always feeds back onto the core mechanic of shooting, so much that I’d hesitate to even label such as lite-RPG elements. Rather, every one of these exists to encourage the player to familiarize himself with the arsenal at his disposal -particularly the weapon masteries, ruins, and map challenges. Completing these and discovering secret locations lead to further weapon upgrade points, incentivizing explorations and experimentation and creating a dopamine-inducing feedback loop to compliment the adrenaline-rush experienced whenever surrounded by the hordes of Hell.
Most of these new systems are integrated into the environment naturally and with a plausible narrative explanation. Weapon Mods are unlocked by interacting with a field drone which had previously been accompanying UAC forces on their expeditions. Praetor Suit upgrades are earned by looting the corpses of fallen Elite Guards who died at the demons’ hands, or from Argent energy cells, the clean energy of the future (though, given their source in Hell, perhaps not preferable to fossil fuels after all). The internally logical explanation for their placement in the universe overall, and these locations in particular, is reminiscent of the various vending machines, Gatherers’ Gardens, and Power to the People stations placed around Rapture in the BioShock series. In fact, BioShock seems the most significant influence on id Software in their determinations on how to modernize Doom. They never achieve the narrative depth or metafictionality that BioShock became beloved for, but Doom at least has both a better story and shooting as a result.
One exemption to the internal consistency of id Software’s world-building is the various health packs, shield pick-ups, and power-ups strewn about. Sure, they have codex entries purporting a place in the world, but the design is so faithful to the original aesthetic that they tend to break the immersion. I would not go so far as to say that this is too faithful a translation of the original text; their inclusion creates a nice sense of continuity to the previous titles. There are times when a translator has two equally fitting or equally problematic ways in which to word a translation – this seems to be an instance of such for id Software.
Doom is a perfectly competent and arguably even a great game. It’s mostly mindless shooting in a world dictated by the “Rule of Cool” as interpreted by designers with Heavy Metal sensibilities, all drenched in blood and nostalgia. Still, there’ve been better games in 2016; I’d recommend almost any other game I’ve reviewed this year – Oxenfree, The Division, Quantum Break, Duelyst – over Doom. Rather, where it truly succeeds is in being as perfect as possible a translation of the 1993 original into a 2016 landscape, preserving everything essential to the franchise while introducing only those modern conventions which make sense for the series. In that respect Doom is a rousing success, accomplishing with gusto exactly what it set out to do. Part of Doom will always be a relic from a time now past, but enough of it still works to be well worth your time today.