Why I Play Games, Part 3: A Shared Doom

Bolo, my introduction to network gaming, is now an obscure footnote in the annals gaming history. For most players my age or younger, the first chapter is Doom by Id Software.

This game, released as shareware in 1993, popularized the genre of games now referred to as "first person shooters"-- the "look over the nose of the gun" games that are now ubiquitous. Doom had a graphics engine that was better than that in Id's earlier game, Wolfenstein 3d, but still had many limitations: the player could not look up and down, the world was what is now called "2.5d"-- it had an appearance of three dimensions, and could have rooms at various heights. However, viewed from the top down, each map level was two dimensional: no two rooms could be above or below one another.

My first experience of Doom came when I was in graduate school, desperately searching for another distraction from studies and personal life. Another student I met playing Bolo over the campus network, Jack Lawrence, invited me and two other of his friends to a computer lab in the science and technology building, where the computers were networked together, to play the game. Unlike many modern shooters, which lack this feature, even the shareware version of Doom could be played in a cooperative mode: four players, each on their own computer, could play together in the same game at the same time, pitting their wits and reflexes against a menagerie of computer controlled beasts and monsters. The game's difficulty could be adjusted from "Easy" to "Nightmare". The primary effect of this difficulty setting was to increase the number of monsters and to make them harder to kill and more dangerous; this way, even with four players instead of just one in the game, it would still be challenging.

The plot of the game-- if it can be said to have one-- is that an experiment gone wrong at a scientific lab on one of the moons of Mars had somehow opened a gateway to hell, through which all manner of demons and monsters poured, killing that moon base's inhabitants. As valiant space marines, we were sent to counter this threat. And because of our computer network, we could do this together as a group, instead of as a sole adventurer, as in most games.

Instead of having to start over after dying, each player who died would have to wait a few moments before re-entering the game at the starting position in the map, without any weapons or ammunition he had collected earlier, and perhaps far from his compatriots.

The machines we were playing on-- when we could get them-- were 486s. They didn't have accelerated video cards, which were a specialty item then, and it wouldn't have mattered-- none of Id's games supported them until Quake. (In point of fact, nobody's games did at that time.) They didn't have sound cards, although Doom did support them. In fact, it wasn't until later, playing the full commercial version of Doom on my roommate Dave's computer, that I heard Doom's haunting MIDI muscial score, as well as the sound effects of the weapons and monsters. When the four of us played that first game, all we heard from the standard PC speakers was a kind of tortured buzzing.

But it was enough. The experience was completely immersive. Although the graphics and sound of both Bolo and Doom are downright primitive by today's standards, there was still a great difference between them. While Bolo was about gameplay, Doom was about the experience. Instead of watching an icon you control move about the screen, in Doom you looked through the player's eyes at the computer-generated world around you; touching the keys turned your perspective and the world rotated around you. After a few minutes, the world around the edges of the computer monitor seemed to disappear completely. After a few hours, we found ourselves leaning back and forth in our seats as if to avoid projectiles, and hunching over the keyboards, knuckles white with tension, as if pressing the keys harder would kill the monsters more quickly.

And it was not just a few hours. We played on into the night.

We had entered the computer lab when it was still light, around 6 in the evening. Doom was divided into three sections, or episodes. The shareware version featured the first episode in its entirety, which, if memory serves, consisted of about 9 or so maps. And although at least one of our number had already completed the episode before, his memory was fuzzy in places, and our skills at cooperating as a team were not well developed. It took us twelve hours to complete those nine maps.

It was very early in the morning when we reached the end of the shareware game, a huge circular room with a large structure in the middle, with huge green doors on each side. Our opponent was a massive minotaur-like beast, with a rocket launcher fused to the end of his right hand. Playing later on, I would notice that the beast had a distinctive and blood-curdling cry, and that his ponderous footsteps would echo around the level, making it difficult to determine where he was coming from.

On the lab PCs with no sound cards, the only noise we could hear was a shrieking, pounding noise, which was somehow even more terrifying. The beast felled each of us in turn as we ran about in panic, trying to find a place to hide and fire from. If all four of us were dead at the same moment, we would have to start the level over, robbing us of any progress we'd made at slaying the thing. Our bodies piled up around the doors, splotches of red blood and little space helmets. Finally he was defeated, and we were rewarded with a single page of poorly spelled red text that Doom uses for its plot (such as it is) and an advertisement for the full version of the game. I think if e-commerce had existed at that time, each one of us may have forked over a credit card number right then and there.

We staggered out into the dawn about 6 in the morning, to trudge home in the early morning light and collapse to sleep away the rest of the day, and wake again to plan our next excursion into this digital hell.