There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, but basing our entire popular culture around it probably isn’t a very good idea. The occasional remake or reboot is undeniably fine, but if we continue to eschew original content in favor of repeated trips to an increasingly dry well, that’s all we’re going to get. Recycled ideas, over and over and over again. More TRANSFORMERS, more INDEPENDENCE DAY, more TROLLS.
But there’s a difference between recycling an idea and resurrecting one, and that’s where the latest reboot of DOOM comes in. The original DOOM may not have pioneered the first-person shooter genre but it helped usher in an age when FPS gameplay would become a dominant force in the medium. Without the well-deserved popularity of the original DOOM, we might not have CALL OF DUTY or BIOSHOCK or HALO, to name a few.
And yet the video game industry often seems to be playing this non-stop game of “Follow The Leader,” in which one game’s innovation quickly becomes the standard, and then so on with every single innovation that follows. For example, it has become relatively difficult to find a contemporary FPS action game in which the player’s health doesn’t automatically recharge. It’s a perfectly reasonable mechanic but utilizing it in every video game is like utilizing 3-D in every movie. Sometimes it isn’t the right way to go.
So just this once, a steadfastly old-fashioned reboot like Bethesda’s new DOOM is a breath of fresh air, as opposed to a stale one. The makers of DOOM (2016) have made a wise decision to return to retro gameplay mechanics like health packs and overwhelming run-and-gun monster melees, evoking an era of less sophistication but more visceral thrills. Even the single player campaign in DOOM (2016) has, at least a few times per level, the chaotic madness of a massive multiplayer brawl.
The story is the same as it ever was. Someone has opened a gate to Hell on Mars, you are Doomguy, and you must stop an army of demons. The plot doesn’t get much more complicated than that. Every level has specific goals that are ostensibly about fixing life support machinery on the station or preventing a mad person from doing so-and-so, but it usually boils down to killing all the demons, finding all the key cards, pressing all the buttons, and remembering to look for secret passageways so you can find all the health and ammo. DOOM (2016) is blissfully straightforward.
It has been beneficial to the “video games are art” ethos that many games now sport meaningful social commentary or explore rich philosophical ideas, but DOOM was never about that. DOOM, in the 1990s, was death metal. Take a look at the original cover and tell me otherwise. It was raging against non-stop forces that want to destroy you. It was glorifying in the murderous power of a chainsaw. It was marveling at the sight of a cyborg hellspawn and not giving a damn what that meant. DOOM was cool for its own sake.
And by extension that means that the original DOOM was also adolescent as hell (pun intended), and the new version isn’t any different. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that. Just because the original DOOM was sophisticated for its time doesn’t mean the impetus is one the game designers to constantly stay on the forefront. Their impetus is to make a solid DOOM video game, one that evokes the panicked mania of running backwards from a horde of monsters, unleashing all your ammo and hoping to Christ you get through this without having to die and return to the last checkpoint which — in true retro fashion — is a heck of a lot further away than you’re used to nowadays.
The new DOOM may not be a truly amazing video game, but it plays just like DOOM (with a few minor advancements), and it still works. It’s a happy reminder that nostalgia can have value beyond simply reminding us of what we liked when we were kids. Nostalgia, when brandished effectively, can also remind us that the evolution of a genre sometimes makes us lose track of why it worked in the first place. (Now if only those TRANSFORMERS movies would try to remember what made the cartoon series work in the 1980s, perhaps we’d be getting somewhere.)
So thank you, DOOM (2016), for simultaneously raising and lowering the bar, and for helping us all learn a valuable lesson about the pros and cons of nostalgia. Now stop trying to make me think so much. I’m trying to beat an imp to death with its own severed limbs…