On Brutal Doom

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As a rule, I am generally skeptical of fan remakes. Often, the rhetoric around them can perpetuate the already problematic discourse around videogames that conflates ‘more’ with ‘better’. The kind of discourse that assumes if a game has more polygons or more gameplay or more features or more levels or more stuff then it must be better than a game with less stuff. This is the games-as-content-buckets approach mixed with a technological progressivism that sees game design on this linear trajectory of continual improvement where new games will always be better than old games. Fan remakes often fall into this discourse uncritically: what if Link to the Past came out on the WiiU? What if Super Mario Bros was made in the Unreal engine? It’s this general idea that games are continually held back by the technology we don’t have yet, and with better technology we can finally fix these games. Of course, this is also the source of the excitement behind Final Fantasy VII’s official remake: now, at last, we can see Midgar for what it really is.

But somehow Brutal Doom avoids this. A mod for the original Doom that adds kicking, mouse movement, iron sights, new lighting effects, and a whole range of other features, somehow Brutal Doom doesn’t feel like an attempt to make a ‘newer’ Doom. Instead, despite the addition of all this extra stuff, it feels like an amplification of a core Doom-ness. This is Doom made Doomier.

I’ve been playing Brutal Doom for the last few days and trying to figure out what I mean by this. It seems counter-intuitive, this idea that adding a bunch of extra superfluous stuff can better expose a core personality of game rather than obscure it. I think this is because everything that Brutal Doom adds to the game feels like a careful consideration. It doesn’t feel like it has been added just for the sake of adding it, but like a careful extension of what already exists. The original textures and sprites have not been replaced, but augmented with extra animations for the enemies (the overwhelming majority of which being different ways for them to die). The original game already worked with permanent corpses and gore; Brutal Doom extends on this with permanent blood splats and limb chunks and viscera. The shotgun already felt punchy; now it literally pushes back enemies as they crumple. It’s an absurd, over-the-top, almost hilariously campy exaggeration. But, really, that is what Doom already was, so it works.

It feels satisfying the way Doom feels satisfying, but amplified with the little touches of extra feedback, such as the way your shotgun now blows chunks off the zombie and demon horde relative to where your crosshair is aimed. The way the already inhuman movement speed is made even faster. Where modern elements are included (such as the iron sights), these almost feel like a joke rather than a sincere notion that new equals better.

In fact, Brutal Doom’s relation to the original game it modifies feel less of the “What if Doom came out today?” time-as-a-straight-line-forward variety, and more like time-as-cyclical-and-returning-in-on-itself. It seems to say all these conventions in the first-person genre can be traced one way or another back to Doom, so what if we then built Doom a la 1993 but with these mutations of the genre that came afterwards? It feels like a time traveling “I am my own father” situation. The relationship between Brutal Doom and Doom is not simple. It’s weird and paradoxical!

(As an aside, the one area where Brutal Doom does not seem to amplify the original is in the abstract and expressive level design of the original that Doom critics like Liz Ryerson draw attention to, instead going for a much tamer look of ‘coherent’ military bases and the such.)

But even Brutal Doom’s existence risks contributing to that useless and destructive rhetoric I mentioned above. I could not find much coverage of Brutal Doom on mainstream games journalism websites, but the stuff I did find claimed it to be a “definitive” version of Doom, even going so far as to recommend it over the original for someone that wants to experience Doom today. This is a hugely worrying, problematic, and ahistorical way to view old games that does nobody any good. Brutal Doom is not Doom. Brutal Doom is not ‘better’ than Doom. It is a cover, a remix. It is its own beast that is intimately connected to and dependent on the original, but simply by adding ‘more stuff’ it has not automatically made a better Doom. Such ways of thinking about games prevent interesting analysis and promotes a disinterest in preservation.

So I remain skeptical of my enthusiasm and utter enjoyment of Brutal Doom even as I truly, sincerely enjoy it. It walks a thin line between homage and revision. The work in itself, I think, is mostly a success in its ability to understand the core aspects of Doom and then amplify those aspects to an utterly absurd amount. But the discourse around it, and the revisionist relationships with the original Doom that risk being shaped by an engagement with Brutal Doom continue to bother me.

In the meantime, I shot a Cacodemon out of the sky with a shotgun and painted a whole room blue with demon blood, and that was real satisfying.

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