Repetition vs. Atmosphere: Doom 3

Let us look back on the year 2004. A strong year for the first-person shooter genre in video games. 2004 saw the release of Halo 2 on the Xbox, Half-Life 2 for the PC, and Doom 3, also for the PC. Of the three just mentioned, Doom 3 arguably has had the least impact on the world of video games. How can this be? How can a game from the Doom series, arguably the greatest first-person shooting series in the history of video games, make so little splash? I’m not going to talk about the flashlight, although I will acknowledge that that gameplay decision made a huge impact on Doom 3’s reception (as well as the subsequent change in the BFG Edition). Instead I would like to focus on the level design and enemy pacing.

Doom 3 is a tight, claustrophobic game from beginning to end. Think about your memories with Doom 3: where are you? Does a dark corridor with flickering shadows fit the description? Maybe that one corner that’s always out of sight? You step forward, shine your light, walk forward again – then BLAST, a harsh sound behind you announces the arrival of an imp. Really this scene, in my belief, sums up the vast majority of the Doom 3 experience. The result of this constant feeling of vulnerably pressured by unrelenting attacks that creates an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Sadly it also leaves Doom 3 with only one single, repetitive feeling of gameplay.

In my opinion, part of the success of Half-Life 2 lay in its ability to convey an almost theatrical sense of acts. It has been years since I last played through the game but I can still clearly remember the intro, the boat chase, Ravenholm, the ant lions, and the tower. Every portion of that game had its own feel. With Doom 3, all I remembered was the base and hell. I am replaying that game now (the Doom 3: BFG Edition on my Xbox 360) and I still can only recall the base and hell.

Hell should never feel like a breath of fresh air in any medium. The passage through the portal is sold as terrifying. The silent protagonist is literally pulled through the portal after a fierce battle with two Hell Knights (recreations of the Barons of Hell from the first game). You lose all your weapons. So basically you’re trapped in THE dimension of evil, full of monsters, and you have no way to defend yourself. My reaction: at least it’s not another flickering hallway.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Doom 3. I believe it is a very good game, rich in atmosphere that can make the player’s heart race while exploring. Yet every good horror experience has a sense of pacing. There has to be a breath, even a false sense of security, to enhance the horror. Doom 3 never achieves this. At the very beginning the protagonist is plunged into a series of unrelenting waves of attackers that never lets up until the Cyberdemon’s final breath. Yes, it gives the sense of a futile struggle against the forces of hell, but is that fun to play for 10+ hours, nevermind two expansions? The answer: yeah but only if you’re really into that type of experience. I can understand why most players would prefer a game like Half-Life 2 to Doom 3. If you want a sense of horror, guess what: it’s also in the Ravenholm portion of Half-Life 2.

There was a period of between two to five minutes in this last playthrough of Doom 3 where I was wandering the corridors and did not encounter a single monster. That stretch (which I do not remember experiencing in my first time) was, by far, the scariest moment in my second experience of this game. I experienced several stages of emotion. The first: “thank god, finally a room without demons. Oh look, another corridor without demons, this must be my lucky day!” This quickly turned to paranoia: “where are they? Why aren’t they still coming?” and ended in the unbelievable dread of: “oh god, they’re planning something. Just come out. Dear god, they’re going to kill me.”

Just a few minutes of non-attack were enough to trigger this entire wealth of emotion. Yet I am unsure if the result was more from simple luck than game design. The developers at id Software are quite content to bombard me at every other stage so I am inclined to believe it was the former. This is really too bad as that one short period of time gave me a taste as to the terror that a game like Doom 3 was capable of unleashing.

I am really looking forward to playing Doom 4 in the next few years and I hope id refines their technique. Doom 3 was not a wrong step in the series; it is the stepping stone to a new frontier of survival horror in video games. Whatever is behind the door is always scarier; it just isn’t so scary when it has leapt out from behind said door a total of two thousand times throughout the course of the game.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

One thought on “Repetition vs. Atmosphere: Doom 3

  1. Doom 3 was okay, but playing the BFG version, I feel like I’m playing Quake 2: Cramped Corridors Edition. I think they could’ve tried a bit more to progress the game from a design perspective.

    Also, I think a lot of action games, especially action horror games like Doom 3, struggle with pacing and variety. Alan Wake has a similar problem in my opinion. In the game’s opening tutorial section, you take out a handful of enemies… and then you proceed to fight those same enemies over and over again for roughly 10 hours.

    No matter how dark the environments may be, there’s nothing scary about fighting the same guys that you beat up at the very beginning of the game. Familiarity and fear do not mix.

    It’s been a while since I’ve played it, but I think Resident Evil 4 was an example of a game that got it right. Although it wasn’t really all that scary, at least the game kept things varied enough that you were engaged until the end (at least that was my experience).


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