DOOMguy Knows How You Feel
By Ajay Singh ChaudharyMarch 16, 2017
— Doom (2016)
The original Doom (1993) was a first-person shooter noted, even notorious, for its comically intense graphic violence and early, immersive pseudo-three-dimensional world. What it lacked for in plot (and it lacked intensely in plot), it made up for by bringing the speed and fluidity of arcade style gameplay to the nascent FPS genre at home. This past year, while much of the world was transfixed by the increasingly bizarre American presidential election, a niche but still mass market of gamers saw id Software release the long-delayed DOOM (2016), a reboot of the 1990s game. What in May looked like a bizarre retread, an uninvited “blast from the past,” looks considerably different in cold winter light. Everything old is new again, and DOOM knows how you feel.
It is often assumed that a fundamental question in games is one of “agency” — particularly the player’s ability to make meaningful “choices” within a game world. However, DOOM is built with a different, and, I would hazard, more accurate assumption in mind: games work primarily on an affective plane. The question they ask is not “what will you do?” but rather “how do you feel?” And DOOM doesn’t think you’re feeling particularly good at the moment.
At first glance, DOOM is unremarkable. The mining of recent cultural memory and nostalgia for cheap commercial cash-ins has reached near parodic proportions, with no “intellectual property” deemed too insignificant to be recreated ad nauseum. But one does not need to spend long with DOOM to know that the game is in on the scam. In DOOM, you play as a nameless, faceless “space marine” so bereft of characterization or quality that across the many iterations of Doom, internet commentators have come to call the protagonist, simply, “doomguy.” Doomguy was a useful skeleton to hang the 1993 game on — a game far more focused on introducing then-new game mechanics and game coding practices. Now DOOM plays doomguy’s emptiness back at the game-playing public.
Doomguy sells. DOOM (2016) sold approximately one million copies by the end of summer 2016, and likely many more since then. This is probably around $50–$60 million in sales at least (not counting fall of 2016). For a game with its unusual design — and one that is not part of a dominant franchise (Call of Duty, Pokémon, FIFA, et cetera) — it did quite well. The global market for video games is estimated at somewhere between $91 billion and an optimistic $99.6 billion mark. Some projections put a 2017 market peg at approximately $106 billion. In just the first three days after its debut in 2015, Call of Duty: Black Ops III was responsible for 550 million of those dollars, with Call of Duty being probably the largest first-person shooter franchise, and also the most generic. So DOOM is neither a tiny, independent game nor a powerhouse juggernaut. It’s a revival of a dormant one, which came on strong to mostly positive critical reception. DOOM sits in an interesting interstitial space economically and culturally: mass market but niche, known but not ubiquitous.
Doomguy begins the game strapped to a table in a room covered with a confusing mish-mash of sci-fi-looking gadgetry and dime-store Satanism. DOOM’s art direction is the Slayer catalog spliced into an Apple Store. In other words, it is brilliant, horrifying, and silly. A quick action sequence later, and the player is taken out of this strange assortment of signs and symbols and treated to a hologram of several white-collar corporate employees literally worshipping a sarcophagus, which previously held doomguy. Other games invest hours — sometimes entire games or other media — into molding their doomguy knock-off empty suit space marines into “believable characters.” DOOM embraces a much more straightforward commodity logic: doomguy is worshipped not for any diegetic reason but rather because of the existence of Doom itself as a two-decade old gaming franchise; the ever-increasing absurdity of the reverence toward its protagonist mirrors only the relevance of Doom as a product.
Following these opening moments, we quickly learn the setting of DOOM through a series of voice-over conversations, holographic corporate PR messages, and, for the truly curious, endless reams of hilarious flavor text exposition. The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself.
The UAC is played as one long, ghoulish gag reel of neoliberalism’s greatest hits. The entire game — with a nudge and a wink — reminds you that the contemporary ruling class would rather tap a rich vein in Hell than release the reins one inch to non-doomguys and gals everywhere. It also presents the player with constant reminders of the self-help-inflected, corporate newspeak of our era. Action set pieces are cued by an even-toned HR voice announcing over the intercom that “demonic presence has reached unsafe levels.” This is so spot on, you can picture the Vox “card” that should accompany it: While you might think that the demonic is unsafe at any level, recent studies show that a 75/25 balance of demonic and non-demonic elements helps businesses and government alike take advantage of innovative multi-realm hybrids, underlining flexible workplaces and employee initiative! Another HR hologram reminds you that the UAC’s is “[w]eaponizing demons for a brighter tomorrow.” In case of a “level 3 demon contamination event” one should, “simply kneel down, close your eyes, and wait. Remember: You can be as useful in death as you are in life.” This is not an empty corporate promise, considering the frequency with which one encounters (and kills) post-employed, post-mortal UAC technicians in the game. Every (hyper)employed member of the new economy playing this game can recognize herself trapped between the UAC’s proposition that “unlike everything else in your life, the work you do here matters,” and their goal of instituting a seven-day work week to outdo God. It’s hard not to see some aspects of DOOM’s world as a commentary on 21st-century work in general and the “do what you love” industries in particular — like, say, making computer games.
In fact, it would be tempting to leave it at that, DOOM as the ultimate product of a late, late-capitalist (it’s never late enough) culture industry, regulating our leisure time through that most mindless and most regimented entertainment of them all: the videogame. You can really get your Adorno into high-gear thinking about games as the apotheosis of the studio-system Hollywood of his day. This is only amplified by the Jane McGonigal cottage industry of “gamification” proposing augmented, 21st-century Taylorist nightmares of enforced fun at work and enforced work in fun. And, in aggregate, this is almost certainly true.
But games are confusing commodities and confusing art in just this context: in a society demanding ever more time from the underemployed and the hyperemployed alike, games stubbornly insist on, if nothing else, a schedule out-of-whack with those priorities. This can be maddening for the games industry and the cultural critic alike. Yet a purely cynical “culture industry,” or more Bourdieuan “cultural capital” argument, misses the most interesting aspects of what is happening in a game like DOOM. Games are so often touted as a marvel of “agency” that even many critics miss that the joy in games — they are, after all, play — is found in the visceral pleasures of feeling and sensation.
In this way, to begin with, DOOM doesn’t feel much like a first-person shooter at all. It has all the visual trappings of one, although the implausibly large arsenal the player carries feels like an enormous “fuck you” to the gritty “realist” modern-day shooter. But mostly it feels — in its tactile qualities, the way you grip the controller, the sway of the player with the diegetic universe, the closed circuit of single-player feedback — much closer to “character-action” games like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. It plays far more like an ultraviolent ballet or circus than a shooting gallery with check points. Instead of the constant “waves” of enemies or twitch action of contemporary shooters, DOOM presents elaborate, kinetic puzzle set pieces that ebb and flow three-dimensionally. The player must combine the absurd arsenal, current demonic challengers, and strategic decision making. The quickest route from point A to point B might involve expedient demon killing, self-preservation through hiding and high-caliber offense, or — in one of DOOM’s most brilliant innovations — pausing and slowing down the entire scenario for an extra boost of health and supplies by tearing weakened demons limb-from-limb. This rev up to the combo-driven chaos and the rubato marked by the moments of weapon switching and demon “glory kills” transform what otherwise would be an endless grind into a palpably pleasurable punctuated expression of free-flowing rage.
Games are machines for producing affect, and the affect the public most fears in games is rage. The moral panic that surrounds games always turns on the fear that games — steeped in an aesthetic and a comportment of aggression — will somehow seep into the “real world.” Although research into this question has proved consistently inconclusive (and replete with serious methodological issues) the fear is understandable in a year in which it seemed that the most ridiculous controversy of 2014 (the bizarre, nearly impenetrably hateful, stupid, and labyrinthine “Gamergate”) might become part of the body politic itself. But that idea — as slippery as the new obsession with “fake news” — generated through a thousand tweets but less convincing numbers on the ground, also misses what a game like DOOM can do. Unlike in, for example, Valve’s Counter-Strike (almost the Platonic ideal of a contemporary first-person shooter), the thickness and absurdity of the world — complete with its resonances with our own — is intimately interwoven with the gameplay itself. The demons and the UAC are driven with pitch-perfect intensity by Michael Gordon’s beyond-on-the-nose Nine Inch Nails for the 21st-century soundtrack. Instead of the world receding into abstractions of geometry and hit-boxes, as is often the case in especially competitive multiplayer shooters, DOOM’s rhythmic dynamic range keeps the plodding idiocy of a world working to build a brighter tomorrow through the endless squeezing of a (literally) hellish today in sharp focus.
DOOM’s rage is telegraphed from the very first moment of the game, but it is only when you are somewhere in the middle of one of its fully fleshed out scenarios, dancing from one platform to another, whirling through your array of weapons, prying the jaws of some Hell beast apart while cursing the utter inane idiocy of DOOM’s world — which is to say our world — that DOOM begins its rage education in earnest. Games are machines for producing affect, but they are also pedagogical ones: DOOM is instructing us. Pankaj Mishra recently argued that ours is an age of anger. Doomguy occupies the subject position of the 21st-century rage agent par excellence: put-upon, yet powerful; crumpling like a fragile heap from just a few demonic projectiles but with a rage potential unmatched; disenfranchised but with so many tools of power at hand. Mishra wisely encourages his readers to turn to the social theorists of the 19th century who took irrationality seriously; to the Darwins, the Freuds, the Webers, and Nietzsches who saw in modern humanity sexual impulses, old Gods, churning natures, and ressentiment instead of simple, orderly, maximizing rationality. But DOOM already knows that. DOOM takes us as we are.
DOOM knows that anger is too amorphous; rage has a vector. DOOM wants you to remember rage or learn it for the first time. The truly frightening thing is that DOOM is, in fact, playing a dangerous game: it wants you to learn rage and to reconnect that rage to the joy of its expression. Some of the new prophets of affect argue that its pure, unmitigated expression is liberation beyond or above reason. Not even as a prime mover of action or rationality as Freud or even Hume would have it, but as an anarchic springboard to freedom. This can cause an intense recursion. Brian Massumi: “A concept is a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window.” But these descriptive claims which become proscriptive claims (states, no; smash, yes) eschew politics (or for that matter morality) as rage adrift in a sea of nothing. #AllCourthouses? Is the window shattered in a revolution or a pogrom? Is DOOM playing this game too?
One of the few political theorists to really get the Trump phenomenon when it was still a popular summertime joke for Slate columnists and Washington Post hacks was Lauren Berlant. “People would like to feel free […] Donald Trump foments hope in the exercise of his emotional freedom.” But while the “Trump Emotion Machine” takes in some valid inputs (inequality, inequity, deterioration), it spits out both nonsense and obscene outputs. It is not wrong because it is rageful; it is rageful at the wrong things. The DOOM Emotion Machine pushes you to move beyond mere expression of rage, not just inchoate, unfathomable rage, not just rage at any old thing or the nearest narratively acceptable target, but to feel free to rage at the people who brought you here, rage at their apologists, rage at the idiocy of HR, rage at the plodding stupidity of looking for one more source of “dead labor” — human, demon, or other carbon-based lifeforms — “that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Rage at Hell but rage at who brought you to Hell and why any of this is necessary at all.
[Doomguy] sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.
Irving Wohlfarth once noted that Benjamin’s “destructive character” is “the faceless model of a positively conceived characterlessness.” You can be doomguy, you can be the “destructive character.” DOOM trusts you. And perhaps more than it should; the cocktail of violence, sadism, and a near unfathomable pit of anger that it wants you to experience as life-affirming joy has a bad track record as art, let alone as politics.
And yet DOOM wants to roll the dice on you. DOOM thinks you will learn to love rage again, to experience its visceral pleasure. DOOM wants you to unlearn all those lessons in civility, in comportment, in tone, in the “benefit of the doubt.” DOOM wants you to consider that when “they go low,” you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. DOOM wants you to feel more. But — and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee — DOOM wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think DOOM has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just — in a measure of mere magnitude — a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.
DOOM ends with the last remaining representative of the UAC, taking some kind of poorly explained “key to Hell” away from you, to preserve the “positive” aspects of the energy project while doomguy is relegated back to storied legend. You are inert in this; there is no gameplay. Fifteen hours of the carefully conducted and orchestrated flow of rage is suddenly bottled up as you realize what every human being on Earth should have realized when Bush pushed through the first bailout, when Obama appointed Geithner, when Schäuble wouldn’t give one inch to Greece, with the half-baked Paris accords, with Nigel Farage and his stupid grin, with the orchestrated failure of the Arab Spring, with the rapid acceleration of climate change, with the gig economy, with unfettered policing, with prisons and migrant camps, and with Donald Trump perched in his gold-plated playroom atop his cold black tower: they are just going to keep doing this, come Hell or high water. DOOM is going to teach you to love rage. This machine kills demons.
Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He holds a PhD from Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society through the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and an MSc in Culture and Society from the London School of Economics. His research focuses on comparative philosophy, social and political theory, Frankfurt School critical theory, Iranian and Islamic intellectual history, modern Jewish thought, religion, and media studies. He has written for Social Text, Dialectical Anthropology, The Jewish Daily Forward, Filmmaker Magazine, and 3quarksdaily, among other venues.
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