April 7, 2013

Doom vs. GoldenEye in broader perspective

You can learn a lot about social and cultural change from looking at popular entertainment. It takes place within the larger social context, and typically is part of a more general cultural zeitgeist. Few observers or historians include video games within their review of popular / mass culture, even though they're (sadly) bigger than TV and movies for young people, and video game nerds themselves tend to either get all gushy or vitriolic in their reviews, taking things personally rather than charting the course of history.

An earlier post took a look at how shifts in both the visual culture and social interaction were reflected in the dominance of fighting games in the style of Mortal Kombat over the earlier Street Fighter. This post will run a similar comparison between first-person shooter games that shows the same overall social and cultural changes. The most successful early first-person shooter games were Doom and Doom II (1993 and '94), before GoldenEye 007 and its imitators took over (1997).

First, though, it's worth noting that the very popularity of first-person shooter games signals a shift away from sociability, just as the rise of player-vs.-player fighting games did. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, games where you beat up other people had the player beat up characters controlled by the computer, and if another person joined in, they teamed up with the first person to take on the computer. Player-vs.-player fighting games pitted two people against each other.

For games where you shoot people up the whole time, the norm during the '80s and early '90s had you shoot lots of characters controlled by the computer, and if another person joined in, they teamed up with the first person against the computer. This included games like Contra, Ikari Warriors, and Operation Wolf. First-person shooter games grew to focus primarily on player-vs.-player gameplay, where two or more people try to shoot each other up.

When the Doom games came out, there was some interest in shooting up other players, though most people found that boring and wanted to take on the far greater number of enemies in the normal one-player mode. Still, these were the first to introduce player-vs.-player, so even by 1993 the shift away from team gameplay had already begun.

This trend continued with the Quake series, the next series from the developers of Doom. By the time GoldenEye and the similar Perfect Dark took over, I'd say most people chose player-vs.-player if there was someone else in the room to play against. Once home consoles allowed players to shoot each other up over an internet connection in the 2000s, this became by far the most common way that people played first-person shooters.

We can see other major behavioral changes reflected in the replacement of Doom style games with GoldenEye style games, such as the shift toward OCD, collecting/hoarding, and joyless treadmill progress toward 100% completion of boxes in a checklist.

In Doom, your only goal in a stage was to reach the exit. In GoldenEye, you were given a list of specific objectives to carry out before reaching the exit. More, you were given the option of three levels of difficulty, so you could complete three different checklists per stage. In Doom, you only had one player you could play as. In GoldenEye, you were encouraged to meet certain characters in the one-player mode so that you could play as those new characters in the player-vs.-player mode. In Doom, special abilities were gotten by simply typing in a cheat code. In GoldenEye, such abilities could only be had by performing certain objectives in a stage, usually under a time limit. Often this meant replaying the same stage over and over, going through the exact same motions, hoping to shave off a few seconds here or there. The now common treadmill practice of "unlocking achievements" began with GoldenEye.

The trend toward over-the-top extreme-ness shows up as well. You only kill aliens and monsters in Doom, although they do look gory when they're dead. GoldenEye has you killing people, and there are far many more opportunities for sadistic humiliation. For example, once they're dead, you can shoot them in the head, sending it jerking back while a pool of blood pours out. Although the entire dead body did not yet resemble a rag doll in this way (as it would come to), you could still pump the corpse full of lead, making it bleed.

You could also torture the enemies to death by targeting a limb and watching them hobble around in pain and frustration, before tagging them again, until they finally took enough hits and keeled over. Players even fucked around with unarmed bystander characters in that way. It was even easier to pull this off when you targeted them through a sniper rifle at a safe distance where they couldn't see you or shoot back.

These features -- torture, sadism, overkill, voyeurism -- recall the unwholesome nature of mid-century comic books, which as a medium video games have largely taken the place of. While they do not lead to higher crime rates, they do warp the minds of young people and encourage them to pretend they're a sick badass when in reality they're just some sheltered dork. None of these features were included in the Doom games.

Another staple of lurid mid-century comics shows up in the GoldenEye and Perfect Dark style games, which is absent in the Doom games -- butt-kicking babe characters, both ones you can play as or play against. I forgot to mention that in the Mortal Kombat vs. Street Fighter post, but the shift occurs there as well. There's only one girl character in Street Fighter, but several in Mortal Kombat II and later fighter games that offer shower nozzle masturbation material for nerds.

Sportsmanship has fallen off a cliff during the Millennial era, and that's very clear in the course of first-person shooter games. Since most people didn't play Doom as a player-vs.-player, there wasn't much room for poor sportsmanship. But when people played GoldenEye in player-vs.-player mode, few to none of them respected any kind of ground rules.

The most common form of acting like a wuss was when another player re-spawned after dying. When you start out, you have little or no firepower, no shield, armor, or other type of defense, so that if someone else who's spent time collecting those things feels like notching an easy kill, they'll find someone who's just re-spawned. There are only a handful of locations where a player can re-spawn, so it's not hard to hang around them and mow down more-or-less hopeless adversaries. The now common cowardice of "spawn-camping" began with GoldenEye.

You could also booby-trap items that other players would want to pick up, simply by placing a proximity mine nearby. That way, when someone else goes to increase their defense by picking up a vest of body armor, they're blown to pieces instead. Whoever put it there would then cackle like a jackass. They'd also put proximity mines next to the re-spawn points, so that you wouldn't even have a chance to play that life. Right when you re-spawned, you got blown up.

Finally, moving on to the graphics, you see the same change in the overall visual culture reflected in this increasingly popular video game genre. Some of the major changes are explored here. In general, the Doom games are closer to the more striking '80s visual culture, and the GoldenEye type games to the duller '90s and 2000s visual culture.

GoldenEye has minimal contrast in lighting and looks too dark (ex), little variety of color, let alone combining hot and cold hues (ex), occasionally features exotic locations but never the fantastic (ex), the characters are all the same scale (ex of the largest enemy, a tall person), the colors are washed-out (ex), and the environment and architecture has no repeated design motifs (ex). This has to be one of the worst-looking video games ever made, certainly among those that were blockbusters.

The Doom games are hardly spectacular in the character graphics, although some of the environments give a halfway decent impression of an apocalyptic painting by John Martin (ex). You can find light-dark contrast both within the matte-style backgrounds (ex) and within the playable areas (ex). Color variety isn't so great, but there are frequent combinations of blue and red, for both the setting and the characters (ex). The imagery is a mix of familiar (ex) and exotic/fantastic (ex). Enemies range from the size of a human skull to three or four times human scale (ex). Colors are not very saturated, but not washed-out either. The environments show repeated design motifs whether the surface is some weird alien thing (ex) or stone (ex). Simple things like signs of masonry or veins over a natural surface make the Doom environments hold your interest more than the flat and homogeneous surfaces that make up the environments in GoldenEye.

I don't think I'll do another extended comparison since the iconic video game genres of the '90s and 21st century were player-vs.-player fighting games and first-person shooters, respectively. So as far as looking at video games to see how broadly the social and cultural changes have reached, that seems to cover the big picture.

7 comments:

  1. I think you're the first person to claim GoldenEye was less wholesome than Doom. I would normally associate Doom with Mortal Kombat. GoldenEye allows you to aim, but is less bloody than Doom (I recall we often turned on paintball mode, with goofy colors instead of even red stains). It's even less bloody than Wolfenstein 3D, the original FPS which I happened to play more of since I had the full version (in contrast to Doom).

    You're right that Perfect Dark had the buttkicking-babe archetype. GoldenEye had that Russian girl you're supposed to protect but kept getting killed. On the other hand, it had the evil Russian Xenia or something. I actually played co-op rather than multiplayer Perfect Dark more often, perhaps my experience is not representative. We also observed good sportsmanship in GoldenEye's multiplayer, waiting for players to pick up a weapon (except for the rare unarmed match). There were no rules against planting mines on stuff, that was part of the fun, and of course people would shoot items to make sure. We often prohibited explosives anyway, not because of sportsmanship but because it would generally result in a huge chain of explosions that filled the screen, killed everybody, and even made the machine slow down trying to process it all. There were usually explosive boxes anyway.

    If you're going to mention Jaws as an extreme in height, you should also mention Oddjob. He didn't appear on any single player mission though, nor did Jaws appear in the standard levels.

    One difference you didn't mention between Doom and GoldenEye: music.

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  2. Doom is definitely bloodier and gorier, but it's not human blood. It's not so unwholesome to be wasting a bunch of monsters or aliens.

    Tagging the arms and legs of a person from far away with a sniper rifle, shooting innocent people in the foot and watching them hobble around, overkill, etc., are more clearly catering to warped minds.

    I don't remember the music from the Doom games that much. I always turned it off and played my own, with the sound effects still on. If I was in an angsty mood, it would be the Living in Darkness CD by Agent Orange. You'd like that if you haven't heard it already.

    Otherwise The Man-Machine by Kraftwerk worked well, a nice mellow / haunting contrast with the gameplay that seems made more for metal.

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  3. Doom is definitely bloodier and gorier, but it's not human blood. It's not so unwholesome to be wasting a bunch of monsters or aliens.

    1992's Wolfenstein 3d was less wholesome than Doom? Blowing away Nazis, with more human blood than Goldeneye.

    shooting innocent people in the foot and watching them hobble around

    They're not like Grand Theft Auto civilians or anything. These are enemies with guns who are shooting at Bond.

    I suppose you could long it out with foot shots, but the folks I played with generally took pleasure in quick clean head shots with a pistol (not an element of Doom).

    I don't know if carrying out a checklist of tasks is really more odd than running like a rat in a maze in the fastest time possible.

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  4. You nailed my complaint in the previous post about "campers" in GoldenEye. Still a fun game, but hard to beat your opponent when they used those tactics. Later, I played CounterStrike on PC, and it was a similar situation. I can identify with the posts on the games I've actually played (which in retrospect is relatively few I've learned).

    I never actually played Doom. And the only mode I used in GoldenEye was player vs. player as I didn't own an N64 myself.

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  5. The basic grunt/zombie enemies look a lot like humans. And of course in Wolfenstein 3D they were humans (though were also dogs, and zombies in one level). Though I guess as Germans in WW2 they only count as semi-human. I recall Hitler in particular melting into a bloody mess when he dies.

    There are two versions of Agent Orange's "Bloodstains" off that album, one I really like and one I don't care for. I can never remember which version is named which though.

    I used to drive out to an internet cafe to play counter-strike with friends. I don't think we played missions with respawning, if you're dead that's it until the terrorists succeed or fail in bombing. How does team competition fit on your axis of wholesomeness?

    I think Wolfenstein 3D was my first introduction to WW2/Hitler and all that stuff. My dad explained to me that most of the enemies were not actually Nazis, but merely Wehrmacht. Not that I cared, since all enemies of the U.S needed shooting.

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  6. In CounterStrike, I think the constant respawning is called Team DeathMatch...I think. What also sucks is the 13 year old geeks who would have hacks to make themselves nearly invincible to casual players such as myself.

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  7. If you wanted simple, trigger-happy and mentally undemanding co-op play against AI-controlled opponents, you had some alternatives to the Doom/Quake series. The most known examples were Unreal Tournament and Serious Sam. There were many single-player shooters for the PC both before and after Doom which had less foreboding, not-so-deathly-serious atmosphere and differing gameplay styles - the ones I know personally were Duke Nukem 3D and its spin-offs Redneck Rampage, Shadow Warrior and Blood, Unreal, System Shock I and II, the Thief series (first-person games, but not shooters per se), Deus Ex, Far Cry...

    Golden Eye 007 was produced for videogame consoles, not personal computers, and suffered from typical console gaming conventions and limitations that you have read as an indicator of some sociological "trend".

    Look, if you want to experience a spiritual successor to the Wolfenstein series with a similar level of difficulty and mostly human opponents, but put in a more interesting setting, then buy the Ukraine-made STALKER trilogy (very cheap now) and refurbish it with the latest Stalker Complete overhaul from moddb.com for free.

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