Why Doom Still Holds Up After 20 Years

The iconic shooter is influential in many ways, except for the fun parts.

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ID Software

As the classic PC shooter Doom turns 20 years old, you’ll find plenty of reminiscing around the web today. Much of it is nostalgic, waxing about how beautiful the game looked at the time, how it kickstarted competitive multiplayer, how it revolutionized user-created content and how its violence sparked a controversy that seems silly by today’s standards.

But my favorite take on Doom’s 20th anniversary comes from Patrick Lindsey at Paste. It’s not a nostalgic look back, but an analysis of why Doom stands apart from modern shooters. Like so many great creative works, Doom’s constraints were actually a blessing, allowing the game to break from the shackles of realism:

Doom stands out from its more recent descendants in that it is utterly unpretentious. Games like Bioshock or Call of Duty attempt to situate their shooting within a conventional narrative structure. But trying to use standard shooter mechanics to tell a story or to Say Something is like trying to use a screwdriver to change a lightbulb—it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. The mechanics of Doom(and, by extension, virtually every first person shooter since) were designed solely to support not a narrative, but action. This leads to an inevitable tension between the levels being “fun”, and the levels having to make at least some kind of narrative “sense”.

That’s not all. We’ve seen plenty of shooters that throw plot by the wayside over the last 20 years, but Doom is still unlike any shooter you can find today. And that includes remakes of other classics like Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior:

The secret is that Doom is not actually about the shooting. Released in the days before crosshairs, location-specific damage, precise aiming or the ability to look up, the shooting is not challenging in and of itself. Instead, Doom centers its obstacles not on shooting, but on movement. In an engine where precision aim is impossible (not until Quake does that problem get solved), shooting needed to be as simplified as possible. Aiming in Doom is comparatively very forgiving to prevent the game from being needlessly frustrating.

The challenge, then, is not shooting your enemies, but surviving long enough to be able to do so.

Bingo. What makes Doom so great, and so different from today’s shooters, is the way it made players dance around fireballs and dart around corners, rather than landing headshots while popping out of cover. Paste’s headline (“20 Years of Doom: The Most Influential Shooter Ever”) is actually a play on how non-influential the game turned out to be on anything but a surface level.

It’s why Doom fanatic Danbo has called it the “most misunderstood game of all time.” Even co-creator John Carmack, who last year said that Doom is about “shotguns and demons,” seems to struggle with what Doom is. He was so caught up in the game’s technical advancements–the graphics, the modding, the multiplayer–that the elegance of Doom’s game design seems lost on him.

Then again, not understanding is something that Carmack himself seems to get. As he told Wired in an interview when asked about the possibility of a Doom 4:

It’s been hard—one of the things that was a little bit surprising that you might not think so from the outside, but deciding exactly what the essence of Doom is, with this 20-year history, is a heck of a lot harder than you might think. You get multiple Doom fans that have different views of what the core essence of it is, and there’s been a design challenge through all of it.

The kind of shooter that Doom was doesn’t exist anymore. It can’t. That’s why, 20 years later, we can still marvel over Doom without merely being nostalgic.