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A Journey Through Hell: 20 Years of Insanely Dedicated ‘Doom’ Modding

A Journey Through Hell: 20 Years of Insanely Dedicated ‘Doom’ Modding: 'Ancient Aliens'

'Ancient Aliens'

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.


It’s Saturday night, and we can’t find the red key.

It’s not from lack of trying. In fact, our motley crew—comprising myself and two friends, Ken and David—has spent almost ten minutes screeching over piles of dead demons at the equivalent of 55 miles per hour, checking and re-checking every blocky lava flow and corpse-choked corner for that damned red skull. I’m not really sure how a skull works as a key—perhaps it’s powered by the same Hell-sorcery that lets those corpulent Cacodemons fly—but I’m damn sick of considering it.

After all, we’re here to blast demons, not consider lore.

Finally, after giving my comrades a lecture on the proper use of the automap, Ken stumbles through an obscured teleporter that vaults him to an upper platform. “Hey, it’s up here,” he says. As he sprints forward to pick it up, a choir of hell-din detonates around us, harmonizing with the whistle of plasma rifles and the whirr of chainguns. “Yeah, I’m dying—and—I’m dead,” Ken says, a digitized human scream punctuating that fact. Yes, yet another curtain of demons has spawned and it’s up to our merry band of “Doomguys” to take care of it.

Such is a fair microcosm of multiplayer Doom in 2016; or, at least, one version of it. While the technology powering the two-dimensional carnage has evolved dramatically over the 23 years since the game’s initial 1993 release— necessitating the use of external programs called “source ports,” labelled with appropriately Hellish names like “zDaemon” and “Zandronum”—the base pitch has remained intact. There are demons and you should shoot them, preferably with the largest weapon available.

Though the game’s engine is rudimentary in retrospect, especially in its graph-paper enemies given just the illusion of a third dimension, this simplicity has proved to be quite the boon. Compared to later entries in the same genre, such as its spiritual successor Quake, the barrier to entry for creating new Doom content is rather shallow, primarily because of its simplicity.

Thanks to this fact, as well as the game’s advancing age, amateur fans have created thousands upon thousands of Doom maps, each with hundreds of demons waiting for a shotgun shell or rocket to splatter their forms. And, as you might expect, the vast majority of these “WAD” files—named for their file extension, derived from the acronym “Where’s All The Data?”—don’t stray very far from the claustrophobic tech-bases, booby-trapped hell-pits, and be-pentagrammed coliseums that id Software luminaries like John Romero and Sandy Petersen built in the original game.

Spend enough time on the forums where the people producing these works gather, however, and patterns begin to emerge—you might even call them genres, or even disciplines.

Maps like the vaguely conspiracy-themed Ancient Aliens, which hosted the above massacre of me and my friends, take the already-considerable difficulty of id’s creation to another sphere entirely. Dressed in luminescent pinks and greens, Ancient Aliens may not look like the underworld, but the thick swaths of fireball and plasma-spewing hellspawn it throws in your path from the get-go makes the nightmare of the original Doom look like an idle daydream in comparison.

Some call them “slaughter maps”—an appropriate term, if my party’s experiences are any indication. But while creations like Ancient Aliens—by a creator who goes by the handle “skillsaw”—continue to flood the forums at an alarming clip, there are a great many more modders at work than just those who prize difficulty above all else. And few know that world better than Gus “Alfonzo” Knezevich, self-described Doom enthusiast.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

‘Whodunit’

“I can’t take too much of those maps, to be honest,” Alfonzo admitted in an interview after my party’s demonic adventure. “After all, I’m bad at the game. I’m rubbish.”

Despite this apparent handicap Alfonzo has spent more than half a decade chronicling the ample output of the Doom community, most notably at the “Cacowards,” the aptly-named end-of-year jamboree that highlights the best WADs of the year. And though he’s just one of the half dozen or so community members who write up the blurbs, it’s a job that he takes very seriously; multiple times throughout our interview, he hesitated before offering certain information related to selection of the prizes, even once saying he had to make sure he wasn’t “breaking any oath.” I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking.

To hear him tell it, the Doom community is still whirring along, albeit in the same fragmented form it always has. “Entire branches of the community died off without people really realizing…we’re too busy to notice. And the multiplayer community is still torn between two or three different places offshore.”

By “offshore,” Alfonzo means “not at Doomworld,” the host of the Cacowards and perhaps the most vibrant online Doom resource-slash-fansite, founded by three community veterans back in 1998. Seeing how he’s a fixture of the site, his enthusiasm for it is understandable; still, as our conversation continues, I begin to suspect that his love for Doomworld outstrips even his love for the game itself.

When I asked him what Doom has that modern games don’t have, the frankness of his response startled me: “Honestly, Doom is very simple. It’s movement as defense, movement as offense, and big guns. If this community existed for any other game, I would be writing about that game instead. It’s the limitations that interest me.”

But as we play through the list of multiplayer mods supplied by Alfonzo, it becomes increasingly apparent that, to newcomers like Ken and David, the limitations of Doom can be just that—limiting. It gets to the point that they both begin to call the cues. “Well, I picked up the key. Here comes a shitload of guys,” David says. “And I’m opening the door—and there’s more guys.”

If another game came out that was better, I would be free from my curse. I would be unshackled.

Gus ‘Alfonzo’ Knezevich
‘Doom’ enthusiast

While one could certainly argue that this is a rather unfair approach—after all, almost any shooter’s scripting can be reduced to rote recitation if you try—I can’t exactly convince them that they should be having more fun.

As for me, well, what can I say? Much like Alfonzo, I’ve played Doom my entire life—when I was five, my dad sat me down in his computer chair, punched in the invulnerability cheat, and told me to go to town. The rhythms of its bloody ballet, tuned in the key of W-A-S-and-D—baiting a swarm of crawling Imp fireballs as you circle-strafe around the pack, lining them up like the milk cans in a carnival game for the blast of your super shotgun—come as natural to me as tying my shoes.

For Ken and David, however, three maps’ worth of Cyberdemons, chainguns and catastrophe was more than enough. It was time to vary it up. I suggested NUTS, the infamous “joke-WAD” filled with ten-thousand-plus monsters, custom-designed to crash your computer. Unfortunately, K and D vetoed that. Thankfully, the other creations of the community were more than up to the task.

“Everybody is always doing something different. That’s what makes it so special,” Alfonzo says. Though he personally prefers single-player experiences, he speaks fondly of the multiplayer community: “They’re always making something good.”

These more comprehensive modifications aren’t afraid to take a chainsaw to id’s original blueprint, sometimes to their detriment. In the case of “Russian Overkill,” a mod that grants the player a ludicrously overstuffed weapon-set packed with at least a dozen that seem to fire pure explosions, the guns were indeed overkill, as three people firing particularly large ones in unison was enough to crash the server repeatedly. (I have since played Overkill in single player, and I can confirm that it’s the best Michael Bay film simulator since the last Call of Duty. In all seriousness, it’s quite fun.)

The multiplayer-focused “WhoDunIt” turns the chaotic firefights of the core game into horror movie melee battles between a lone super-powered murderer and a gaggle of uncertain allies who have traded their plasma rifles for pipe wrenches. Set in abandoned schoolhouses and dim back alleys, the mod’s tactical nature reveals its Counter-Strike-inspired origins, but its one-versus-many power dynamic feels like a breath of fresh air when juxtaposed with the conventional free-for-all. We couldn’t quite get the balancing to work right with three people—the killer always mauled the other two with ease—but it was still a terrifyingly good time.

Out of all of the multiplayer exotica we sampled, nothing did it for Ken and David quite like Push, a minimalist mod that—yes—“pushes” the traditional structure of Doom multiplayer into a nearby slime-pit. In it, players have no health or conventional weaponry—instead, they are armed with a small rifle that drives fellow players back a few feet when hit. Zap another player off the edge of a particularly perilous platform, and they’re kaput, scoring you a point.

‘Push’

Keeping with the theme, Push completely eschews the corridors and chunky arenas of the usual Doom deathmatches for a more splintered approach—with their tiny islets peeking out of a latticed sea, marked by occasional monoliths to give cover from the onslaught of opponents’ zaps, only their blocky nature hints at their origin as Doom maps. Perhaps most controversially, Push doesn’t just encourage jumping, it requires it, with double-jumping to boot. While this might not seem like that dramatic of a departure—after all, source ports have allowed the Doomguy to leap in the air for decades now—the mod’s reliance on it highlights how iconoclastic it really is.

But what really seals the deal is the punch. We didn’t even realize it was an option until I idly scrolled the mouse wheel, more out of habit than anything else; but once we did, we realized the true joys of the mod. Unlike modern shooters, including the recently released Doom reboot, where melee attacks like a punch or gun-butt are a dedicated button available in almost any close-combat situation, the fist in Doom is a weapon slot unto itself. Thus, to punch, you must sacrifice your ability to zap. But oh, what a punch it is.

Upon contact, it lets out a distinctive sound, somewhere between a train whistle and the screech a raccoon might make if it was trapped in your computer. Since we’re all hopeless dorks, everyone in the party immediately recognized it as a reasonable facsimile of the sound the Home Run Bat makes in Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series. And, as with the Home Run Bat, the unfortunate recipient of the right hook gets sent on a one way ticket to the edge of the map, which usually spells immediate death.

When properly executed, it makes you feel like you’re throwing a fist into the face of God himself. When improperly executed, you usually end up dumped in the drink within five short seconds. The final product is a mess of mistimed zaps, whiffed punches and wacky pratfalls, but its turbulent rhythms carry the same elegant chaos that lies at the heart of id’s creation. In that sense, by unmaking Doom, the team behind Push have embodied it.

BRUTAL DOOM

For Ken and David, the verdict is clear: inventive mods like Push clearly improve on the original game. But for purists like Alfonzo, the case is a bit more complicated, especially when it comes to the elephant sipping tea in the Doom scene’s kitchen—“Brutal Doom,” a mod that “modernizes” nearly every aspect of the game, from gore to monster behavior, and has managed to find incredible popularity across a wide variety of demographics, even being featured at several big name gaming-sites. But when it comes to the die-hard fans, the reception is considerably cooler.

“There are some community members that are quite insulated, such that when the outside world erupts…we just wonder why it’s that making the noise when we think the stuff we produce is so much better. But I think when something gets that level of attention, it’s just wonderful for the community,” Alfonzo said, adopting a diplomatic tone.

After a heavy sigh, though, he finally admits the truth: “Personally, though, I can’t stand Brutal Doom.”

Such is the paradox at the heart of the community that birthed the concept of modding itself—after twenty-three years of hunting for the red key and blasting Cacodemons, where do you go? Do you add more monsters, new weapons, more stunning environments for the Doomguy to find his untimely demise in? Or do you jump ship entirely, let the old paradigm sink into the sea and build a new one as you go, hoping to find a yet-unexplored shore?

If our experience is at all indicative, the answer is clear: go everywhere, try everything. Yes, Doom was video game art in 1993—revolutionary art—but somewhere between then and now it became something bigger than that: a medium unto itself, with its own set of tropes, genres, and disciplines. Alfonso likes maps that starve you of ammunition; my friends and I dig the ingenious multiplayer modes that rewrite the rulebook from the first page to the back cover; slaughter maps like Ancient Aliens continue to meet an enthusiastic response from places like Doomworld. For once, the cliche rings true: in the art scene known as Doom, there is indeed something for everyone.

I ask Alfonzo if he thinks the Doom community will ever end. He laughs. “People ask that about once a year. We just brush it aside, because we’re too busy making maps. But if I stop and think about it…everything’s finite, right?”

In principle, I agree with him. But, when scrolling through the multiplayer server list with my friends, or crawling through the Doomworld archives, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that, much like NUTS, where the rows and rows of demons go out as far as the game engine allows, the legacy of Doom will go on for as long as the immutable laws of the universe will let it.


Steven T. Wright is a freelance writer living in and around the Southeastern United States. He enjoys reheating yesterday’s coffee, complaining about wrestling, and listening to rap music from before he was born. He’s still in the market for an OutRun 2 machine.


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