Game lore, which encompasses story, world building, and contextual details, can be a tricky thing to handle. Make it too much of the focus and you threaten to subsume the rest of the work. But that’s not to say lore is a useless endeavor. Indeed, a rich backstory can complement a game’s story when used judiciously, creating a vivid world that serves to enrich the main plot. It’s at this troublesome nexus that we find DOOM Eternal, so in love with its own lore that it weighs down an experience meant to be fast and brutal. Not only does Eternal’s overwhelming approach to lore go against its predecessor’s breathlessly cavalier attitude towards the concept, but it also draws some obvious inspiration from the ever-popular tabletop miniatures game from Games Workshop, Warhammer 40K (40K), one of the most lore-heavy properties in gaming, and learns the wrong lessons in the process.
To understand how lore becomes a burden to DOOM Eternal, we must first revisit the previous game in the series, DOOM 2016. A sort of soft reboot, DOOM was a fast and bloody take on the storied series. It steered the franchise in a different direction than the methodical horror of the preceding release, DOOM 3. The story of DOOM 2016 takes the ridiculous premise of the original DOOM—that a single space marine can take on the hordes of hell by himself—to its logical conclusion. Doomguy, as he’s affectionately known by fans, is now feared and deified as a god of destruction by the hell creatures. You keep finding references to the “Doom Slayer” in scriptures, referenced as if he’s part of a mythology surrounding the game.
When it comes to DOOM 2016, there is little to connect it to 40K aside from space marines and “chaos beings.” Both games also share an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place on a metal album cover. But while 40K employs a frankly overwhelming amount of worldbuilding as part of its appeal, the brilliant part about DOOM 2016’s lore is how your character reacts to it: with violent indifference. Early on, when someone is trying to explain to Doomguy what is happening on the Mars base he finds himself on, he mostly ignores their instructions, smashing the intercom in the process to advance to the next battlefield. This simple act, which becomes a theme when it comes to Doomguy, permeates the entirety of the game. He doesn’t care about the why of things, he just wants to rip and tear at the hell menace. In this way, DOOM 2016 was the anti-lore game, an indictment of games that take themselves too seriously and get lost in the weeds of their own worldbuilding. It also effectively reestablished the DOOM series as being defined by no-nonsense first person shooters that would rather get to the action and make it fast and furious than weigh you down with notes and audio recordings that you just don’t care about amid all the ripping and tearing.
Most importantly, though, DOOM 2016 seemed to be actively making fun of chosen one narratives in games. The deification of Doomguy and subsequent rejection of said status through his brazen indifference to the plot felt like an extraordinarily strong repudiation of the concept of elevating the player character to virtual godhood. The game still makes your character feel like an unstoppable ball of violence at its best, but it’s you, the player, who is making that skillful violence happen. Doomguy doesn’t really have much of a personality outside of his hostility to lore and the world around him, so everything else is attributed to you, the player. You’re making the bodies hit the floor. You’re responsible for righting the space station as hell invades. A chosen one narrative would rob some of that shine from you, telling you that winning the day was inevitable because your character was fated to do so. Putting the focus on your agency rather than Doomguy’s abilities paved the way to make you feel amazing for getting through DOOM 2016’s fights.
Which is why it’s exceedingly baffling that DOOM Eternal goes back on all that to load down the experience with lore that it wants you to know is very important. Doomguy no longer seems interested in tearing down the concept of lore, instead, he is focused on the mission of stopping hell for good. Instead of being removed from most of the narrative world DOOM finds itself in, Doomguy is now participating in it. Worse still is the game’s apparent retcon of Doomguy’s status as an ordinary space marine to making him part of a mystical order of protectors called the Night Sentinels. He kneels in front of the king of the Night Sentinels, for instance, a form of homage DOOM 2016’s Doomguy wouldn’t even give a second thought to ignoring. Eternal goes out of its way to make the deification of the Doom Slayer a real, valid thing rather than something attributed to him by those who stand in his way. Suddenly, the leaders of hell have personalities, motivations, and monologues—the main antagonist through most of the game, Khan Makyr, takes up considerable cutscene time. Everything about Eternal’s lore and the way it presents it seems to fly in the face of what DOOM 2016 was all about.
And unlike DOOM 2016, DOOM Eternal seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from 40K. The parallels are immediately obvious: A mystically enhanced force of elevated humans fighting against invaders from another dimension, the emphasis on a might makes right philosophy, and the humanity that matters being essentially gods who are really the only ones visible in this world. 40K Space Marines, the Doom Slayer, and the Night Sentinels all are literal strongmen who are elevated to the status of gods, and who are defined by their propensity for violence. And the way DOOM Eternal throws around jargon like “Praetor Suit” and “Argent D’Nur” has the feel of a lot of the lexicon of the 40K universe. Though there are definite differences in the settings—namely, that 40K takes place within an uber-fascist society and DOOM Eternal’s Earth has devolved into a less politically-defined struggle to rebuff the invading forces of hell—but their similarities are difficult to ignore.
Much of the 40K DNA in DOOM Eternal is in its power fantasy, in putting you in the shoes of someone who is all but a god. 40K Space Marines are the ultimate, extreme expression of a power fantasy, with their unbelievable height, immortal lifespans, and genes straight from the god-emperor of humanity. They truly are gods among men, and Eternal wants to evoke that. But 40K accomplishes this directly through its lore, while DOOM does so more effectively in its gameplay.
A revealing parallel between the two stories is how they handle satire. DOOM 2016 made it truly clear that it was attacking the notion of overbearing lore in games, but 40K also has a satirical edge. As it portrays a society brought to heel by the Emperor of Humanity’s seemingly “necessary” fascism, 40K has a lot to say about the role of power and the rot of the state that indulges in it. Humanity is portrayed as the protagonist in the tapestry of the universe, but they’re also indoctrinated to be xenophobic towards species not their own and inured to constant death as a way of life. The common person in the 40K universe is treated like chattel and deemed not worth mentioning. Their deaths keep the war machine and economy rolling. One force made up of seemingly ordinary humans, the Imperial Guard, are notorious for being an army that, despite having tons of character models, inevitably die in droves in service to your victory condition. The Imperial Guard are the definition of expendable, a commentary on the state of the common person in 40K’s top-heavy power structure.
To be sure, 40K’s satire isn’t always the most effective. 40K plays its tropes incredibly straight, and a sincerity exists in the pages and pages of lore that you wouldn’t expect to find in a straight-up satire. 40K’s greatest strength is also its weakness: the fact that you can pore over and appreciate the lore without engaging at all with its satirical aspect. One of the things that contribute to this is how consistent the lore’s tone remains throughout the game’s many editions. You absolutely can lose yourself in the story, but the flip side of it is that the satire gets muddied in the process. Still, its consistent tone means you can interface with the story on either or both levels, which is a triumph of sorts in and of itself.
But while DOOM Eternal very much wants to riff off of 40K, it doesn’t manage to capture the tone of the game in the slightest, and it’s thanks to its spotty history with tone. DOOM has never managed to discover its own identity in the modern era. DOOM 3 was a tense horror game that played around with spooky lighting and took its own story fairly seriously, a departure from the original DOOM games that split the difference between fast-paced action and a very early form of gore-soaked horror. After DOOM 3, DOOM 2016 flipped the switch back to an action-packed direction and laughed in the face of the notion of lore. Now we have DOOM Eternal, which insists that you engage with its lore and take it very seriously. The many mixed messages of all the DOOMs over the years means that the series has never managed to carve out an identity of its own and stick with it. DOOM 2016 came the closest to confidently declaring that missing identity, but now Eternal has come along to switch things up yet again. DOOM doesn’t know what it is, while Warhammer 40K has built on a solid foundation for decades. DOOM doesn’t even know if it wants to be satire or not, and for all 40K’s faults when it comes to being effective satire, it never wavers in committing to its own conceit.
That’s the thing about DOOM: from its inception, it never relied on a rich fictional backdrop to make it special. That’s why DOOM 2016 was so refreshing as an anti-lore statement. Biting satirical power fantasies like Warhammer 40,000 without understanding why their lore works is a misstep on DOOM’s part. The result is a game template designed to be free of lore that now has the weight of unnecessary cutscenes and codices grafted onto it. The very nature of these two distinct types of games means translating a similar sort of world one-to-one just won’t work. DOOM’s identity crisis pales in comparison to 40K’s consistent body of work over decades. No matter how you look at it, DOOM’s strengths are in the ripping and tearing. Lore in DOOM will never make you feel as powerful as the act of simply playing it, no matter how much the game tries to tell you otherwise .
Jeremy Signor is a queer games critic from the wilds of Pennsylvania. He’s a regular contributor to Unwinnable and has been in the business for nine years now. You can find him on Twitter @Jeremy_Writes.