The Surreal Beauty of DOOM 64

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You wake up in a abandoned space facility, it’s familiar, but something’s not quite right. The colors are off, darker than you expect. You see a window into the vastness of space above you, light pours in from the ceiling onto a familiar weapon below, but before you can think you hear the unholy growl of grunts. You turn to see two soldiers, suspiciously in blue-lit cages. You dispose of them quickly, as you move into the next corridor another enemy surprises you. The corridor is long and narrow, warm light, like from a campfire, filters in from multiple directions as you ask: “where am I?” You continue down the hallway, open a door filled with zombie soldiers, you start to take them out as a Pinky flanks you, you turn to run but you get shot in the back and die. Welcome, to DOOM 64.

Four years is a long time, especially in the video game industry, and time was the problem Midway Games ran into when they were tasked with making a new DOOM game for the Nintendo 64. It had been four years since the original game had come out, and DOOM clones had grown beyond just emulating their progenitor, they were expanding and updating it. In interviews the game’s designers Timothy Heydelaar and Randy Estrella write that the hardest part of creating the now cult classic, DOOM 64, was trying to make the franchise feel fresh again. But the thing is, how do you make a game feel fresh while reusing most of that game’s look, design, mechanics, weapons, and enemies? Working in the same system that produced not just DOOMs 1 and 2, bu thousands of WADs, or fan made maps. What if the biggest change you made was not to the game’s mechanics, but to the game’s atmosphere? Would that be enough to make DOOM feel fresh?
You might think not, but lighting and atmosphere are perhaps the biggest leaps forward that DOOM 64 takes over its predecessors, and these relatively simple systems to implement on the then new hardware of the Nintendo 64 managed to do more than make DOOM 64 feel fresh, it made DOOM 64 great. DOOM 64 is DOOM, made unfamiliar, surreal. In this video, we’re going to explore how DOOM 64 manages to reimagine DOOM from a straightforwad action shooter into a moody, atmospheric, and beautiful experience to hell and back.

To describe how DOOM 64 departs from the DOOM series in this surprising and effective way, we first have to understand what makes DOOM, DOOM. There are many other, more talented voices out there who have paid significant lip service to the immortal and influential series, so I will just give a brief overview. DOOM is primarily an action game. By that I mean that the game is a test of the player’s ability to withstand hordes of enemies, its primary actions are to shoot enemies and move fast. There are puzzles throughout DOOM, but they are there to mix up the experience, whereas the most important part of the experience is hunting and killing the enemies populating each of the games levels.

The most important action the player takes in DOOM though is not shooting their gun, but running. The “sprint” key defines DOOM, which is already a fast game without it, but it’s at its best when the player is blazing through its levels at breakneck speeds, dodging projectiles, ducking in and out of rooms, and smiting foes along the way. This is part of what makes DOOM so fun to replay, as the more familiar the player is with the game, the faster they can fly through it’s levels. I think for a lot of players, replayability and speed are quite compatible, once you’ve beaten something you don’t want to wait to play it anymore, you just want to play it! Likewise, the original DOOM is at its best when we’re making decisions every second, taking in information, and reacting to it without a moment’s hesitation. Every other aspect of DOOM reinforces that this is a game about speed, whether it is the simple and bright graphics which make it easy to digest the game’s information, the vibrant and fast-paced metal music most levels are set to which amps you up to kill some demons, or even the little things, like the “par” included at the end level screen, tempting to the player to try again, but faster.

DOOM 64, on the other hand, is not a game about speed, or at least not in the same way. It makes DOOM feel fresh again by slowing down the pace, not just by inserting more puzzles and backtracking, which it certainly does, but by installing an atmosphere of fear and tension in each level with its lighting, music, updated graphics, and level design.

Lighting is perhaps the primary way this is achieved. DOOM 64’s lighting often puts a hazy, colored veneer over the top of the game, generating an air of mystery and suspense. The game’s second mission illustrates this quite well. The player starts out in a moody, red lit room with a few enemies. After dispatching with them, as the player continues through the level they reach a room that is pitch black, with only red lights to indicate some amount of space. This is eerie moment will almost certainly stop the first time player in their tracks, as they cannot tell if there are enemies lurking in the darkness. The lighting in DOOM 64 often slows the player down, with changes in color and mood halting the player and forcing them to tread lightly. While darkness and things like light amplification goggles have always been present in the DOOM series, DOOM 64 uses the presence of lighting to alter the pace of the game, something that is pretty rare in the original DOOM, a game predicated on speed. Beyond this, the colored filters that proliferate the DOOM 64 experience help give the game a much more otherworldly feel compared to the original DOOM games. It often doesn’t feel like the player is traversing its predecessors space stations and hellscapes, but instead a completely different void filled with a kaleidescope of bizarre colors. The monochromatic shading tends to make DOOM 64 feel like an alternate-universe DOOM, a little spookier, a little scarier, a little more mysterious, a little less familiar. Whereas the first game’s graphics and lighting were designed to make enemies pop out from the surrounding terrain, the lighting in DOOM 64 makes them blend into the world around them, just enough to change how the player views the world, from one to be conquered, to one to be at least a little afraid of.

The level design of DOOM 64 tends to emphasize this as well. The original DOOM likes to surprise its player with rooms full of enemies. For instance, at the end of E1M2, the player goes down an elevator and is suddenly surrounded by enemies they must kill, but such enemies are revealed the moment the player hits the elevator button, there is little build-up beforehand, just a sudden influx of foes. The second map of DOOM 64 has a similar room, but when the player takes the elevator down there is nothing but some barrels and a machine gun on the other end, when the player picks up the machine gun, suddenly the doors open behind them and the room is flooded with Pinkies. The difficulty of these rooms is not markedly different but the way they reach the same end goal, a tight room filled with enemies, illustrates DOOM 64’s design tendencies, where suspense is built up before combat, generating a greater sense of dread as to what may be lurking around any given corner, at any given button press. DOOMs 1 and 2 had moments like this, of course, but DOOM 64 seems to relish in the way it commands the player’s tense relationship to the game’s environments.

The music of DOOM 64 certainly aids in this sense of dread. Rather than the fast paced metal of the DOOM games, which emphasize its action oriented gameplay, DOOM 64’s soundtrack, composed by Aubrey Hodges, is ambient and creepy. There are very few drums or percussion across the instruments, instead the soundtrack mostly lurks in the background, reminding the player that at any given moment something bad could similarly be hidden from them. Like the lighting, this is set as the tone for the game right away. As the game fades in the music is the first thing they will probably strike them. This first track to the first mission, “The Madness,” does not even attempt to bridge the player from older DOOM titles to DOOM 64, instead it is markedly slower and spookier than the music of the those games. For me as a player, when I hear this ominous synth and weird frog croaking sounds I don’t think to myself “I’m going to use the sprint key and kill some enemies!” I think “I do not want to see what is behind this door.” The sound design goes beyond this at times: in some of the hell levels you can hear what sounds like babies crying barely audible in the background. It is imminently creepy and ghoulish as they pop in and out of your ears. The atmosphere of DOOM 64 is deeply indebted to its music and sounds, which like the lighting slow the player down and make them question: is this is really DOOM? This is to say, if you were to just turn on the sounds of DOOM 64 without gunfire and close your eyes, you’d probably think it was a horror game, a demented version of Silent Hill, not a sequel to one of the most fast-paced and influential action games ever made.

Finally, the game updates most of DOOM’s sprites and along the way makes nearly every enemy more imposing and frightening. The imps are perhaps the most striking translation to the Nintendo 64. In the original DOOM, the imps are less creepy and more a creature I just want to punch in the face, but in DOOM 64 the imps seem to take a queue from the conspiratorial grey aliens: they are almost colorless, have big bald heads, lack mouths, have glowing eyes, and are hyper muscular. A DOOM veteran, upon first exposure to DOOM 64’s imps, probably won’t even realize that it is the same hapless imps they slaughtered countless times in DOOM 1 and 2, I know I didn’t. While little has changed mechanically about them, each imp I run into in DOOM 64 gives me a little pause, strikes a little extra fear in me, at least compared to the imps of the original DOOM. Most enemies in DOOM 64 follow this formula, their new sprites do not just make them a little spookier, but makes each enemy a little unfamiliar, like you’re playing surreal DOOM, a nightmare version of the original game with the same mechanics, but with a completely different ambiance and mood.

Critics and commentators, myself included, often describe how a game makes us feel through its design or narrative. In these to realms though, DOOM 64 is pretty much a copy and paste of the original DOOM, sure there are new levels and they tend to be designed to account for the game’s new atmosphere and the Nintendo 64 controller, but the game follows the same tried and true decisions that made the original DOOM so popular. The story, which was never that important to DOOM, is mostly a retread of familiar ideas as well. But when someone boots up DOOM 64, they are getting a markedly different experience, mostly because the game’s dramatic tonal shift through aesthetic features. Obviously, games are not just rules or stories to be told, they are experiences, they are played by real people who are influenced by the subtleties of a change in lighting or the music they hear. These are as much a part of the experience of a game as the rules or story. They change the way the game is played. In the case of DOOM 64, it turns what we’d expect to be a frantic and chaotic gunfight into a slower paced, suspense shooter. This shouldn’t blow your mind, but it should remind us all to look beyond the easiest ways to reduce games to see what’s really there, but to do so we need to consider the whole picture, not just those parts that are easy to describe.

Both DOOM and DOOM 64 feature a descending warping effect to indicate that the player has finished the level. In the original DOOM this effect quickly gets the player to their stats, emphasizing the frenetic pace of the game. In DOOM 64, however, this effect takes much longer and the warping pixels are much smaller, blossoming out into a colorful bloom. This is the chef’s kiss of the game’s surrealist touch. And that is what DOOM 64 is, it is surreal DOOM. It is DOOM made unfamiliar. It is DOOM, but different. What’s funny to me is that DOOM 3 tried to accomplish something similar with a completely updated engine, when really the tools were there all along. It is this surreal quality that ultimately what makes DOOM 64 special and interesting, it shows how you can completely change a game while changing almost nothing. DOOM 64 is 95% the same game as the original DOOM, but with some updated sprites, spooky tunes, and surreal lighting, it generates a wonderfully tense and memorable atmosphere, and fulfills its designers wish to make DOOM feel fresh again.

Finally, if you want to watch some DOOM 64 action, I played it for Lunch Zone a few months back, here is that stream!

Erik Kersting

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