Happy Halloween, everyone! If you were expecting spooky articles on Infinite Rainy Day, real life sadly got in the way for pretty much everyone. However, I didn’t want to leave the holiday empty handed, so I decided to try looking at a horror game. But I wasn’t in the mood for survival horror or super tense games, and I didn’t want to go over super popular titles either. I also had trouble finding a good obscure horror game, since so many out these days are obnoxious and derivative.
But then I noticed that Steam was having a sale on a mixed entry in a classic series, so I figured this would be as good as a time as any to finally talk about the incredibly confused DOOM 3. But since I could only get three hours in with my hectic (heh) schedule, I’ll only be focusing on how the game handles its horror elements. Like the rest of the game, it’s handled with great care and an absent mind.
DOOM 3 was the last game in the series worked on by some of the original team, and they went in a wildly different direction with it. While the original games were fast paced shooters, DOOM 3 transitioned to full 3D without that same level of speed. Instead, they decided to put focus more on atmosphere rather than gunfights, upping the grotesque demon designs and adding a suffocating setting, along with an increased focus on narrative that probably should have been averted. DOOM doesn’t really work when it puts narrative up front, because most of it is there to frame gameplay and stretch out runtime. There’s some wild payoff, but it takes a long time to get there, and I did not have the patience or time.
What I did play impressed me in a lot of ways, mind you. The game has some of the thickest, vile atmosphere I have ever experienced in a game. The hallways of the Mars research center have an intimidating, lonely feel to them at game start, with a lot of shadows and dim florescent lighting. But once Hell literally breaks loose, the power malfunctions and the place suddenly becomes a living nightmare.
Some of the earlier lights remain, but most everything is drenched in pitch black darkness, glaring red lights, and sometimes even scorching flame. The environmental storytelling at work is masterful, not really interested in telling stories more complex besides “eaten by demons,” but it tells that one story perfectly over and over. Blood and body parts litter the halls, as computers and doors lie broken or barely functioning. The slow first level is a perfectly paced exercise in familiarizing the player with a space, and then making it frightening to traverse through.
The first few minutes I spent in this space had me on edge constantly. Just the colors used was enough to inspire fear. The sound design only added to this, as sound is so central to surviving in this game. Enemies love to appear behind you, or out of your line of sight. To avoid damage, you have to take them out fast and listen for when they may be coming in on you. The game is also littered with jump scares, and most of them are legitimate threats. Hearing a demon screech never sounds quiet, it always sounds like something is right next to you and ready to rip you apart. And they always are.
And here’s where the “but” comes in. DOOM 3 has very effective atmosphere, but it starts to dissipate once you start taking things slow and begin to make out patterns. Jump scares and sudden surprise enemies are triggered by player placement. Because the entire game is designed via small hallways and rooms, the designers can easily lead players into scare moments. It has the trappings of a survival horror game in this regard, except the Marine you control is not lightly armed. You are a powerful entity in the game world, and once you have bearings, can confront most all the game throws at you.
Once you start realizing out how jump scares trigger, the game becomes radically less horrific and feels more like a neutered action game. Which it kind of is. There’s a lack of space to maneuver in, so most of the game comes down to hiding behind a wall until you can take shots at an enemy, or wait for them to come to you for a damaging shotgun blast (and let me tell you, that shotgun is a godsend). Horror games that work are able to hide their scares, or make them harder to predict through techniques like enemy swarms (Resident Evil 4 is particularly good at making you fear by throwing overwhelming numbers your way). That’s absent here, and the pattern is easy to make out as a result. Safe space? Probably check behind you for a surprise enemy, or maybe clear that corner. Quiet hallway? Go slow and wait for something to suddenly appear or occur. Odds are high something bad will happen, and you will be screwed moving quickly. Rinse and repeat.
DOOM 3 is a game that’s trying to be two different sorts of games at the same time, and they don’t really mesh. Action and horror can be done well together (Resident Evil 4 is a legitimate masterpiece), but DOOM 3’s solution of putting chopped down DOOM mechanics in a more reserved survival horror story set-up doesn’t do the trick. But hot damn if it doesn’t impress in that first hour. I can see how DOOM 3 probably inspired a few future innovations in the horror genre, and I respect it greatly for that, but it will be awhile before I finish it because the predictability does not make it that engaging to play.