Id Software’s DOOM series has a long history, evidenced not only by its in-game lore but in the impressive breadth of its release catalogue. We’ve been blasting apart imps, chainsawing pinkies, and skewering cacodemons since the early nineties. Back in those years when its creators still had their baby fat, wore their hair glamorously long, and kept themselves permanently fitted in acid washed jeans and flannel, the game was a fresh contender on the scene. Now, thirty years later, despite successive attempts to reinvent the series, DOOM feels old and grizzled, a veteran of many wars, countless sorties against the bright reds and browns of the demonic horde.
What was happening within the universe of DOOM during its protracted release schedule? To its satellites, its moon bases, and, more importantly, to its home planet? We know that Earth got invaded in the direct sequel to DOOM, DOOM II: Hell on Earth. Stuff happened, humans mostly got eradicated by the demonic invasion or escaped to hide in space. Now, a few new titles, spinoffs, remasters, and a full reboot later, Earth gets invaded all over again in DOOM Eternal, a game which revisits the premise of what would happen if (a fantastical future version of) our planet was, once more, the battlefield upon which the indomitable Doomguy clashed with the legions of hell.
But the DOOM games have always been more interested in the bloody outlines of Doomguy’s adventures than the nuances of the stages upon which they take place. Earth is just a backdrop, no different, really, from the red hills of Mars or the gunmetal-clad innards of military bunkers. It doesn’t feel like much more of a real place than those other impossible settings. It can get decimated over and over, but it will always be ready for more sequels. Fire and brimstone can rain down from the skies but humans will always remain to rebuild from the ashes and fund some other interchangeable megacorporation or Earth government to take over and run things in time for the next go around.
Then there’s the Doomguy, as evidently steadfast as the planet he’s sworn to protect. In spite of the game’s stubborn aversion to character description, there is one label that covers the majority of his deal: he’s a marine. It’s the first, and one of the only things we learn about him. Even with the massive new lore dumps that have been added in Eternal, his original job title manages to succinctly sum up most of what we need to know about him. He was a soldier for Earth, and then he became a soldier for an alien race. Those giving the orders may have changed, but the fighting continues, evidently without any need for a firm goal or resolution. Doomguy’s taskmasters go from being the good guys to the baddies without him skipping a beat, without him ever having to take his finger off the trigger.
And though the nature of the battle is a pastiche-drenched fantasy, unmoored from the real comings and goings of the modern world, this aspect of it, this dedication to the process of interminable and endless war, feels familiar to our own reality. The US military, for example, has been involved in wars, both declared and undeclared, for most of the past hundred years. Our government spends many times more on its defense programs than its closest competitors. This is a country geared up and fine-tuned to produce endless war; our liberal party are hawks and our conservative wing is pathologically bloodthirsty. Though Doomguy’s shotgun is aimed at monsters and demons, his bottomless rage and his unrelenting demand for enemy blood doesn’t feel out of place with the posturing toward war endlessly drummed up on America’s airwaves and in the halls of its government.
Seeing a depiction of militarist US ideology reflected within far-fetched science fiction recalls Joe Haldeman’s famous novel, 1974’s The Forever War. Based on his experience as veteran of the Vietnam War, Haldeman crafted a narrative about a battle fought for a millenia against aliens who lived light years away, in order to allegorize the stupidity and destructiveness of war, as well as to explore the feelings of alienation and isolation that come with being a soldier returning home after a conflict.
Some of the most compelling moments of the book take place back on Earth when the main character, William Mandala returns planetside after finishing his first tour. Due to the time dilation that relatively causes when traveling great distances in space, despite only spending a few years on tour, Mandala misses several decades back on Earth. When he returns, he feels like a stranger, completely alien from a society that has moved on without him. “... the main thing that was wrong was that everything seemed to have gotten just a little worse, or at best remained the same.”
Through the character of Mandala, Haldeman seems interested in relating to the reader the uniquely isolated perspective of the soldier: someone trained to be a weapon to kill and maim, and who, as a result, becomes intractably alienated from the world they are apparently duty-bound to protect. In Mandala’s case, he has an outdated memory of Earth which he struggles to reconcile with the much changed version of the world he now witnesses. Doomguy’s situation is simpler: war reduces his intellect to that of a weapon, he is unable to manifest self-conscious thought beyond an instinctual desire to slaughter demons. Whatever opinions he may have once held about Earth stay submerged deep within that scratched and pitted green helmet. He goes to where the demons are, and it makes no difference if that place is Earth or Mars or anywhere else. It makes no difference at all.
Nor does it make any difference to the player. The shooting is the point, the setting is secondary. And blasting demons in cratered city plazas and tentacle-wrapped skyscrapers is as fun as it ever was. Eternal, like so many modern shooters, replicates the confusingly care-free tone of your average military ad. Those ads, full of soldiers leaping from helicopters and splashing up on generically tropical beaches, pondering giant screens cluttered with map data, graphs, and charts, can never bring themselves to address the universe altering occasion of violently ending another human life, nor give voice to the wreck and indefinite ruin America’s exported violence leaves on the societies it touches or the people it uses to do the killing. There’s no fun or comfort in any of that, and DOOM is not particularly interested in making you feel uncomfortable.
Yet in its longevity, at the current terminus of a bloody trail that began in 1993, by a bunch of dorks who were into metal, DOOM does, finally, approach a message. In The Forever War’s concluding chapters, Mandala returns home to find an Earth that, beyond being unrecognizably alien, has shifted away from the practice of war entirely. He learns, too, that “The 1143-year-long war had been begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.” The battles fought in DOOM’s many iterations, feel like similarly silly and pointless exercises, especially when you stack them all up and try and make them amount to something, as the pages of lore within DOOM Eternal attempt to do.
But even upon completing Eternal, it feels well understood that, though power structures may have shifted and figureheads may have toppled, neither hell nor the Doomguy are going anywhere. They are destined to butt heads again, and Earth will just have to steel itself for countless more armageddons, content to be shaped into an environment more fitting for battle arenas and mettle-proving gauntlets. Things aren’t going to get better, because they were never meant to. Earth was never a real place, not to the Doomguy or to the player. Eternal takes the warped myopia of the soldier to an extreme, and it doesn’t leave space for a humanity that serves as anything other than a symbolic prize to be wrested from the hands of evil, regardless of the damage done in the confrontation.
The society that Mandala encounters at the end of The Forever War, the one that has abandoned war entirely, looks unrecognizable to the poor man. He has only existed entombed within the belly of a war machine, while Earth moved on. DOOM, with a hero screaming enraged epithets through gritted teeth and spittle-foamed lips, with an ambivalent technocracy running the show from afar, and a planetside decorated by ravaged corporate cityscapes, closer reflects a society which hasn’t—our own. And until that changes, we will remain stuck in a loop that promises more chances for death seeded by self-perpetuating militaristic ideology and little else.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.