In the year 2525, if Ken Burns is still alive, he will probably be making a documentary about the computer game Doom. Consider: Doom is one of the most actively discussed topics on the hyper-loquacious Internet, commanding at least five separate newsgroups, with hundreds of new messages added daily. Computer Gaming World magazine voted it the best game of the year. Estimates put the number of players of this ultra-realistic, ultra-violent, ultra-addictive PC software program on the high side of 10 million worldwide. That's at least 10 million more than will watch the 1994 World Series. And those ranks will undoubtedly swell after today, when the much-anticipated Doom II is released.
Doom is the creation of id Software, a tiny game-design company on the outskirts of Dallas. Inspired by such stylishly sensational films as "Alien," "Terminator" and the "Evil Dead" series, Doom is a fast-paced shoot-'em-up, the goal being to destroy hideous monsters from Hell -- and some disturbingly convincing "former humans" -- who are rampaging throughout a military-industrial complex on Mars (and, in Doom II, on -- gasp! -- Earth).
The follow-up to id's successful Wolfenstein 3D, wherein players tried to escape from a Nazi bunker, Doom was initially released as shareware, free for the downloading.
One tantalizing upgrade from Wolfenstein was that Doom could be played by two people over a modem, or by up to four connected to a computer network. As Hank Leukart, author of the Doom FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file floating about the Internet, says, "Who doesn't enjoy shooting a rocket into a friend?" Thus, Doom quickly spread from college campuses to home PCs to corporate and government computer systems. Literally within minutes of its release in December 1993, Doom was establishing its legend by causing a massive logjam on the computer network at Carnegie-Mellon University.
The net-crashing bug was quickly corrected, but Doom has more than lived up to the prideful boast in the Doom FAQ: "In 1994, we fully expect to be the number one cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world." (Sources disclose that a Doom tournament was to take place this past weekend within the computer systems on Capitol Hill meant for the support of our tireless lawmakers. Doom-playing during working hours has been declared grounds for dismissal.)
In fact, the game has proved so addictive it was in danger of being banned at id headquarters. "We had to have conversations with some of our people," admits id CEO Jay Wilbur. "Projects weren't getting done."
Like the best fantasy novels, all of the elements of Doom coalesce around a clearly realized vision to create a believable -- if bizarre -- universe. Holding everything together is the ingenious "Doom engine," a "spiffy algorithm" that allows players to move through the detailed landscape of interconnected tunnels and rooms. There is a compelling sense of distance in Doom -- lights flicker and fade and sounds get louder or softer as one moves in and out of areas. Doom has a "frame rate" greater than that of film or television, which produces an effect as close as any yet to realizing the over-hyped promise of "virtual reality."
Though Wilbur feels that the VR tag is "a misleading term," Doom players often exhibit what he calls the "body English factor" -- ducking and leaping back in reaction to an on-screen surprise, and peering around the screen to see "beyond" a corner. Like a day spent on the ocean, a long stretch of Doom-playing can leave the synapses of the brain still racing to its rhythms.
Also unique to the game, and a major contributor to its appeal, is that after you get tired of playing the 27 id variations, you can make your own. Soon after Doom hit the market, inspired hackers created software that allowed users to modify it, adding, replacing and moving monsters, as well as designing custom "levels" -- new rooms, castles, even office parks.
Amazingly, instead of calling their lawyers, id practically handed over the keys to the store.
In an act almost unheard of in the closely guarded computer industry -- or any industry, for that matter -- id released crucial portions of Doom's "source code" to the public. It's as if Coca-Cola sent out free samples of its mysterious Merchandise 7X so that anyone with a thirst could whip up a batch of Your-Name-Here-Cola and truly have the Real Thing.
"It gave legs to the game," says Wilbur of id's magnanimous gesture.
The result was a flurry of "wad" files, as the homemade versions are called, passing back and forth over the Internet. There are now "wad" files reproducing the D.C. Metro, Trinity College at Cambridge and the corporate offices of publishing giant Ziff-Davis. In addition, there are "patch" files that alter certain monsters, turning them into such tempting targets as the Energizer Bunny, exploding Macintosh computers and -- a very popular option -- Barney. Someone created a "Disney.Wad" file, which prompted defenders of the Mouse Factory to log onto the Internet and complain.
It is also possible to record a game being played. Files capturing "Deathmatches" between champion DooMasters fragging one another are hot downloads. Freelance Doom level designer Tom Neff studies these instant replays "much as an NFL coach watches game films, for clues about what kinds of levels to build."
There is no getting around the fact that Doom is a violent game. Creatures meet sickening, graphic and bloody ends, complete with death screams. The Software Publishers Association is sticking its second-highest rating on Doom I -- Level 3 out of a possible 4 -- for violence and gore. This, says the SPA's Glenn Ochsenreiter, "is quite apt." But Doom avoided Level 4 (unlike the even more controversial Mortal Kombat) because its carnage is not "gratuitous." The monsters of Doom, Ochsenreiter notes with some understatement, "are coming after you."
Sandy Peterson, one of Doom's creators, has described the game as "the Three Stooges with blood." Reasonable people, goes the id argument, should be able to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Says Wilbur: "I have a 4-year-old. He sits on my lap and he loves to play Doom. He knows the difference." Likening Doom monsters to the hapless Wile E. Coyote of "Roadrunner" cartoon fame, Wilbur also dismisses complaints over some of the game's impious imagery -- scenes of crucified victims and effectively realized fountains of blood abound. "The game takes place in Hell," Wilbur points out. "That's our vision of what Satan's interior decorator would do."
Glibness aside, Wilbur's sentiments are echoed by most Doom players -- blasting away intangible creatures is a highly satisfying stress-reliever. Ian Mapleson, creator of the alt.games.doom.newplayers Internet newsgroup, speaks for many when he says that "at the end of the day, Doom is visually, emotionally, perceptually and mentally the most gripping computer game made to date."
"It's a moving comic book," says Ronnie Bell, an Arlington computer professional who plays with his 12-year-old son, Ronnie ("Different middle name; I call him Bo").
The Bells play as a team, each commanding part of the keyboard and inviting neighbors and friends to hook up modems and have at it. Bell believes Doom "is more on the level of chess than checkers." While the game requires manual dexterity, one has to think strategically to succeed, he notes, especially when playing against another live body. "Rather than just having a monster who, when he sees you, blindingly walks at you and shoots, you have a person who thinks. You get into tactics and strategy," he says. "That's why I think it's good for kids to play. It stimulates their mental capacity."
Finally, Bell offers the best description of the Doom experience: "It's unbelievably infantile and lots of fun," he says with a laugh, adding, "It beats sticking your face in front of the TV for two hours."