header is screenshot from DOOM
All Their Engines
Tara Hillegeist

When John Carmack coined the phrase "game engine" to describe the original DOOM's programming code, he meant it to evoke a car: a manufactured thing, assembled in sequence by multiple hands. Much like the rest of Carmack's career, it was a deliberate attempt at image and tone control, as much a piece of social engineering as the game was computer engineering. It reflected his endless pursuit of building impressive hardware architecture to create super-efficient ways of thinking about very old representational problems and presenting them as innovative solutions. The small size of id Software's team during DOOM's development means his ideas about engineering linger vividly in the game’s architecture to this day. 

DOOM was built to run on what, at its time of release, was the still-novel home or “personal” computer following Carmack's belief that it just made sense that everyone would want a "PC" of their own. DOOM was distributed as shareware in order to reach as many computer owners as possible and showcase what this hardware they'd just bought could do. In calling his code for DOOM an engine, Carmack eagerly demonstrated his own ambitions for what the success of their game would one day enable him to become. Cars are proprietary machines, the belching legacy of the General Motors of the world: a testament to chief executive egos, impressed upon a consuming public with no choice but to accept them as a replacement for a more publicly beneficial good, the corporate leviathan disrupting all its competitors so that challenging its mediocre efforts becomes materially impossible without a totalizing systemic revolution. 

But by calling his code an “engine”, Carmack offered an inaccurate description of both the game id Software programmed and the easily obtained and copied shareware file through which they initially released it to the world in 1993. There are too few names to name as workers on the game for it not to become obvious how they approached building the game on an individual basis; there were too many expectations from the workers that built it that the audience would repurpose its assets to make new work of their own. DOOM, as an engineered, architectural object, is far closer in execution to Brutalist artwork—simple, communicative, designed to make the impact of its environment upon it and the personality of those who put it to use immediately visible by reflecting what we do to it back at us. We can touch the strokes left by each worker's trowel where they scraped it into the shape that would best reflect its own distortion, feed its own decay by pressing our hands into its grooves. We merely have to bother reaching out.

It's plain to see Carmack's design goals were to create complex programming that required the most cutting-edge technology on the market to run—but "cutting edge" technology meant something very different in 1993 than it does today. id's staff at the time still included men like Tom Hall, John Romero, and Sandy Petersen—all of them avid lovers of tabletop "role-playing" games, Petersen himself having come to id with an already impressive resume in writing several games, including the original rulebook for Call of Cthulhu. DOOM's code had to run as simple as possible, which made it easy to reverse-engineer its code and create level editing tools that also had to run as simple as possible, which made it easy for anyone who played DOOM who wanted to make more stuff like it for herself to play to do so, if she had the desire to try; and through their shared interest in tabletop wargaming the entire staff of id Software at the time were avid participants in a scene that encouraged every player to reconfigure the games she liked with specific house rules, modified playstyles, and custom modules, only some of which were officially licensed releases from the original source publisher. 

Petersen, in particular, built his spaces with an eye inflected by his decades of hand-drawing maps on which to play Dungeons & Dragons: Petersen's maps, beginning with his collaboration with Tom Hall on DOOM’s E1M8 level, are expansive, trap-infested, but simply adorned spaces. Their textures are applied with no interest in harmony and every interest in provoking a sense of Lovecraftian catastrophe as the player struggles to play the odds in such a way that she can crawl from one deathtrap to another with her health intact. More players are familiar with John Romero's empowerment-fantasy approach to DOOM level architecture and its flattery of a player's capacity for reflex and pattern recognition, concentrated as his contributions are in the shareware release, but even limiting the number of spaces the player encounters with his name on them only to those levels whose spaces were constructed and whose actors were placed within it by Petersen alone, the definitive architectural fingerprint on DOOM as a full game is Petersen's—a spatial sensibility that is easy to recognize, simple to learn, and difficult to master, and built to express its architect's certainty that a good game is one that inspires its player to make more games like it, not merely refine her skills at playing ones she already has. 

This is the scaffolding—not the engine—that id erected around the carnie splatterhouse that comprises the principal draw of DOOM, to this day. This is the nature of the catastrophe facing id Software, still the trademark-holders of DOOM's brand: legally, they own the rights to the name, and to anything sold officially using that name, but the nature of the original DOOM's production is such that its source code is legally available to any player curious enough to go looking for it, where she'll find alongside it a variety of editors, equally accessible, available to encourage her to make more games like it, in turn. It's so easy to do that the modding community this inspired has not stopped making more DOOM since those first editors were released—unofficially, but legally—on CompuServe in 1994. Anyone who wants to play more DOOM games can visit websites like the idgames archive or the Doomworld and ZDoom messageboard forums and have instant access to more DOOM games than a single human being is capable of playing in her lifetime—for free. Only id Software or those willing to pay it for the licensed privilege+ can legally use the DOOM brand name to make a profit. But calling the company that made DOOM in 1993 and the company that made DOOM in 2016 both "id Software" confers a continuity of material origin that isn't meaningfully there.

id Software in 1993, a small group of computer geeks in a cheap office in Texas, is not id Software in 2016, one massive tributary game development factory among many yoked together under the publication tent of Maryland-based Bethesda Softworks. To compare the two studios is to compare apples to oranges—they are materially incapable of producing games that resemble each other. No one is well-served expecting they could. To vindicate their government-issued right to make money off the DOOM brand, they have to make a game only they are capable of making. 

We have an object lesson in the futility of placing such a demand on both a studio culture and an industry environment completely unsuited to meet it in id Software's 2004 release of DOOM 3. Styled as an attempt to push the technology at the time as far forward as the original had done ten years prior and also an attempt to mold the game's narrative structure into an explicit horror story to do its leap forward in gory realism justice—the id Software of 2004 was in no other respect at all like the id Software of 1993 but it was still the id Software of John Carmack, with its explicit focus on the technological innovations of its idTech "engines"—DOOM 3 is unmistakable as anything but the product of a studio that was not going to recapture the experience of the original because it was no longer the type of workplace that would. 

Presented in "the idTech4 engine", DOOM 3 is a claustrophobic nightmare of pipes and shelves and darkness, so much darkness it cuts like a knife through the hand into the player's ability to fight off anything except its swallowing black. Like each Wolfenstein game since the first Wolfenstein up through The New Colossus, all 2004 id software's DOOM 3 has in common with 1993 id Software's DOOM series is a few designs, a three-sentence plot synopsis, and a name. The military bases are a tangling cluster of data-log hunts and walls that loom out of the darkness before the player as she attempts to dodge a stalking revenant and slams her space marine avatar back-first into one instead; the Hellscapes a throbbing grind of firelight and rickety-looking mud and bone. Jaundiced grotesques that look like nothing so much as a Hieronymous Bosch painting squeezed uncomfortably into identikit military wear populate its numerous cutscenes, mumbling or screaming their way through every line. To play the game is to be struck by its inability to act anything like its namesake. 

The fundamental principles undergirding its construction are also unlike the original. Because the original DOOM's code—retroactively termed "idTech1"—is so simple, the impression of each member of id's staff at the time where they touched it is as unmistakable as it is easy to erase in the act of taking their work and using it to make your own. But idTech4 is an "engine" that demands an assembly line, a series of calculations too complex for any personal touches on the part of those asked to work within it to render themselves visible except in the form of unhappy, disorienting accidents; a code leviathan, inaccessible and incomprehensible to any player considering if she could take the experiences she had in the game and reinvent them to convey anything of herself back to the rest of the world. The possibilities for modding the game, already a difficult prospect except for the most advanced programmers in the playerbase, are slim. idTech4 is too complicated a piece of engineering, with the console-driven shift away from local area networking to server-side databases opening up too many variables, too many ways for potentially inconsistent player preferences to interfere with each other; struggling to make something viable out of idTech4's structural toolkit that isn't another DOOM 3 is so impractical it becomes impossible. 

DOOM 3's crackling hellwaves and muttering actors are a strange distortion, a warping mirror room any player too comfortable with the haunted house ride of its predecessor will stumble into and balk out of, its conviction that it can make familiar shapes feel uncanny and new coming on too strong by half; its inability to move beyond reflecting its own predetermined expectations of her back at her gives the player no room to perform a response. DOOM 3 provides the player only enough space to experience what id Software, as a conflated whole, has made for her. It's too big to provide anything else. It has to be, to demand its pride of place as something only id Software could legitimately present as a follow-up to and redefinition of the DOOM brand.

Machinegames—another Bethesda Softworks subsidiary—provides a different sort of object lesson in the inevitable necessity of such discarded expectations with their revival of the Wolfenstein brand. Machinegames' Wolfensteins, like DOOM 2016, are full of monotonous rabbit-warren layouts punctuated by murder arenas and arch dialogue—but where DOOM feels trapped by its inability to breathe, the Wolfensteins play like a candy store robbery. There is no massively thriving Wolfenstein modding community for Machinegames to persist contrasted against, no question as to why they should bother. With rare exceptions, new Wolfenstein games only exist when a new company decides to pay for the license to make one. Wolfenstein, unlike DOOM, has seen itself reinvented enough times by enough developers since id themselves reinvented Castle Wolfenstein as Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 that a Wolfenstein title's only demand of its license-holder is that they put Nazis in it and give the player guns with which to murder them. People who buy video games like killing Nazis mainly for the same reasons people like killing demons in DOOM, and in the absence of a modding community to dull the buzz, new Wolfenstein games continue to sell enough to inspire someone to think there's money in funding more of them. Machinegames had free reign to craft a stirring propaganda piece for America's Dirtbag Left atop this simple foundation of Nazi slaughterin', and craft it they did. That some of the studio's hundreds of employees had the task of including winking nods to reinventions past in the game's tilesets, selection of weapons, and its dreamlike suggestion of a plot becomes a happy bonus. 

id's 2016 take on DOOM—no longer Carmack's company, the news that it runs on "the idTech666 engine" was delivered with only perfunctory enthusiasm at its Quakecon announcement—seeks to perform the same simple brand-reinvigorating trick as Wolfenstein: The New Order. The guns are satisfying, the speed is blistering, the demons are swarming, the music is screaming bloody murder—what else should define DOOM as a brand in today's first-person shoot-em-up landscape, after all? DOOM 2016 believes the answer is "nothing", and refuses the player any means to learn otherwise. Does it need to? With such a thriving mod community for the original DOOM, there's a mountain of evidence to suggest that the brand need not feel pressured to carry any of its legacy torches forward if it doesn't want to; for what those players want, "paying money to get it" is a secondary concern. Any player willing to dig through the /idgames archive has all the exposed scaffolding and visibly lathed handiwork at her fingertips she could ask for already, if that's what she wants. The id Software of 2016 prefers to be in the business of selling her a new car.

It's a very nice car. DOOM 2016 picks up aesthetically where DOOM 3 flickers out, brightening the corners of the UAC's bevel-cluttered industrial maze with makeshift candlelit shrines and frequent excursions outside the facilities to give the player excuses to carve out a little breathing room for the player to kill a bunch of demons beneath a majestic sky, clouded by painted swirls of bronze, green and brown, in between her killing handfuls of demons in samey corridors. The movement, for what is nonetheless still just another contemporary first-person game made with studio-exclusive 3D rendering software like so many others of its kind, is quick and demands the player be quicker; the demonic enemies possess none of the complex flanking patterns typical of the modern FPS actor, but exchange it for relentless speed and flawless pathing. They know the territory better than all but the most seasoned player, making it child's play for even the lowliest of them to get their beautifully ugly shapes filling the frame for a close-up. The player can really see, in these moments before she takes a chainsaw to their torso or punches them in the face or shoots them with a new twist on an old gun, that it took dozens of people working together to smooth out any personal touches of their own to ensure each character could maintain that careful blend between detailed and cartoonish. 

The player—tired of her other preferred games' complex cover mechanics and bottlenecked hallways—surely enjoys the dozens of tiered arenas done up in facades of industrial or cavern, vast and empty, all the better to appreciate the navigational prowess of the demon AI as it tackles what little these spaces force it to need to navigate around. She has clear lines of sight to enemy actors as they sparkle in vulnerability, goading her into using its Glory Kill mechanic to regain a scrap of health at the risk of taking a blow from anything nearby that might cost her triple the health she just restored the second the animation concludes. New enemies warp into these arenas in telegraphed waves, beelining towards the smoking barrel of her chosen gun; environmental storytelling at its finest, according to the lengthy dossiers the player may peruse if she likes while lost in another unrecognizably overfamiliar rat-maze made of exposed-pipe-and-yellow-railing corridors, as all these demons live for nothing but violence and death, whether it's their death or someone else's. There is an extensive running joke of a plotline about a cheerful corporate deal with literal devils for a sustainable energy supply, satirizing tech culture and skewering environmentalist concerns about fuel costs in the same commiserating "But aren't both sides ... actually both idiots in need of a punch to the face, am I right?" breath. It would, of course, have ruined the joke if id Software's writing team considered any resemblance between their office culture and the UAC's to be—as the Twitter joke goes—valid. 

In this we see the first possible fingerprint of some worker's hand, as this same winking sensibility to its visual characterization and scripted dialogue also exemplifies the lessons DOOM 2016's art director, Hugo Martin, learned while working on 2013's Pacific Rim, which employs a similarly dextrous willingness to please both sides: Pacific Rim’s boisterous ode to generic glory leans aggressively on Greatest Generation iconography to bolster its insistence that soldiering is hobbled by inefficient and detached committee oversight, even as it pretends this is fine because the protagonists obviously are not really soldiers, not for real. DOOM takes this weaponized, resentful nostalgia equally as far, filling its levels and upgrade systems with references to the noteworthy achievements of the DOOM brand throughout gaming's history repurposed into flattery of the player for achieving them in its name. 

Perhaps the most telling of these, particularly as this article goes up in the wake of id Software's parent company Bethesda Softworks moving to legally prevent the resale of used games and the right of first sale and the announcement that DOOM 2016's sequel takes the name DOOM Eternal as a literal backwards tribute to one of the most influential early mods for DOOM 1993, is the Glory Kill system itself, a loving subsumption of the Brutal DOOM mod's "fatality" mechanic into the official brand. Let us, for a moment, leave aside the implications of id Software giving official credibility to a mod made by a Nazi sympathizer who eggs kids on to suicide and thinks that black people are subhuman joke fodder++ and receiving from the rest of the world nothing but praise for the "subversive" comedy of its storytelling choices. These are bad enough in and of themselves. That this is the method by which id Software then retroactively declares thirty years of DOOM modding to be nothing more than the actions of noble keepers of the flame whose efforts can now be redeemed by the return of the Doom Slayer in a full-price videogame—something that has never been in its power to claim—only deepens the seductive evil of its design; as though id Software took the office walls down to "freshen up the experience" and gave their unpaid interns a complimentary workplace tent to call their own in exchange.

John Carmack no longer sets the tone for id's approach to social engineering, but there will always be Carmacks looking for the next financially beneficial form of disruption. Though little else of his contribution to the DOOM that released in 1993 still lingers, his practice of redefining the terms of people's engagement with their product for market control's sake remains. id Software has never been in the business of respecting DOOM's legacy but in reselling DOOM's brand. The glossy, complexly engineered and finicky games that only its programmers have the technical skill and material access to redesign in any capacity that define the modern id Software are constructed to work nothing like the original id Software's DOOM with its necessarily simple and visible mechanisms that anyone can modify and remake to suit her own ends and despite superficial gestures towards respecting DOOM's memory do not want to be. But with DOOM 2016, id Software have built an engine to harvest this legacy to fuel the brand.

Above the gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno there sits an inscription, intended by the stewards of the brand to be read by all audiences, whether in passing or as they march beneath them to their eternal fate, about Hell's cost of entry: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." A wise observer of id's practices under Bethesda's management might imagine them amending this inscription to add, at the end: "Rip and tear, till the deed is done." Then—in their shiny new car—they drive right on through.


+ Midway Games' 1997 release of DOOM 64 was a completely new project with a radically distinct execution—but it was designed as a console port, not a remake. Had it released a few years later, it might have been approached very differently. In 1997, however, it was not uncommon or unexpected for console ports to be totally new games out of necessity and yet still treated as just another port. The potential alternate history of DOOM as a franchise had they intended it otherwise is a fascinating notion.

++ (CW for linked images) You don’t need to expose yourself to the evidence of him being and doing these things if you would rather not, but it is necessary to emphasize that this evidence exists, all the same, in the face of attempts to discuss Brutal DOOM as though the things he does are irrelevant and even if they were relevant he isn’t really that bad: yes, he really is, and yes, he really does.


As you can see, Tara Hillegeist is a critic.