Posted on August 16, 2004 Posted by John Scalzi
This morning a friend of mine called and asked me how I was enjoying my Doomage, a question predicated on a previous comment to him, in which I said I planned to play Doom 3 for about 12 hours straight over the weekend. I told him the doomage was going fine, but what I didn’t tell him was that I didn’t play Doom 3 for 12 hours straight. In fact, I figure the most time I’ve played the game at a stretch is about an hour, which is the amount of time I need to clear a level. And the reason for that is simply the the game makes me too edgy to play for any period of time longer than that. Or more accurately, the game just plain scares the crap out of me.
Don’t get me wrong: This is what I paid for. It’s been several years since I played a video game that was bowel-evacuatingly creepy (the last one being the vastly underappreciated Undying, from Clive Barker), so it’s fun to get all tense and twitchy about what’s coming at you in the dark (and Doom 3 is dark — oppressively, nerve-janglingly dark). But it’s tiring. Maybe I’m getting old, but I just don’t have the desire to exist in an artificially-engendered state of adrenalization for more than an hour or so a day. Any more than that and I need a nap. So I imagine kudos go to the team at id software for creating a game so juiced up that I can’t spend as much time with it as I’d usually spend with a game like this. That’s a neat if odd trick, especially when you consider that I’m someone who would cheerily play first person shooters all day and night if he didn’t have to, you know, eat and poo and sleep and pay bills.
It’s a reminder also that as far as largely passive entertainment options go, video games really are the most visceral choice you can have. It’s been years since I’ve been genuinely freaked out at a movie — I think you have to back all the way to David Fincher’s Seven (although the all-time creep-inducer is still The Exorcist). I enjoy a good creepy movie, but I’m not actually scared by one. I imagine this is because, in my sensory vocabulary, films are too passive in the direction of fright; I know nothing’s actually coming to get me. I’m much more emotionally engaged by a good film drama or comedy than I am by a horror story.
With video games, on the other hand, I’m far more sensually engaged in the idea of terror, since it’s usually actively predicated on the moves I make in the game world. Moving through a doorway triggers an onslaught of demons; walking into a dark corridor runs the risk of something evil trying to open my avatar’s chest open with its claws. Now, clearly, I’m no more at risk from id’s pixellated demons than I am from Freddy or Jason on the big screen. But I’m active in the game, so the attacks matter more to me. I’ve yet to play a video game where the drama (or comedy) affects me as much as a good movie in that genre, but when it comes to terror, video games are a far more effective medium for me hands down.
Doom 3 is visceral enough that I don’t even mind that the story — aside from being lifted baldly from the first Half-Life game — is pretty thin. Let’s put it this way: As stories go, this would be a Paul W.S. Anderson movie (he of the filmed versions of Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat, not to mention the new, critically savaged Alien Vs. Predator — also a video game title). Anyone who’s seen a Paul W.S. Anderson film knows what diss that is. Video game reviewers have been making a lot of Doom 3’s story complexity, and compared with the other iterations of Doom (which pioneered the “run and gun” FPS genre), this one is very nearly War and Peace. But that’s not to say it’s good or complicated in its own right. What carries this game is the id folk’s mastery of game design, and in creating the audio and visual elements to scare the hell out of you. This is a spook show, pure and simple. And why not. Complaining about the plot is missing the point.
(Anyway, I’m saving my high-quality plot expectations for Half-Life 2, the previews of which look so good I am fairly a-twitter with expectation. The original of the game was the first video game that I found as engaging in its way as a decent movie or book; This new one looks like it’s going to be even better. It’s going to be the one I play for hours on end. I’m glad I upgraded my video card; now if I can only remember to blink while playing I’ll be set.)
I think Doom 3 is a very good game, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s a good game for me. The game’s done a fine job of pushing my nervous buttons, but I think I prefer to be a little less freaked out when I play a game. I’ll finish Doom 3 — I’m too far in not too — but it’s hard to say that I’ll entirely enjoy the experience. It’s more to say that for an hour a day, I’ll tolerate it obsessively.
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