Sunday, 3 January 2016

Doom: The Force Awakens - a comparison

Without any great enthusiasm, I went to see the new Star Wars film. To my surprise, it was actually good. I enjoyed it.

Certain plot events mirror the earlier films. But I was particularly struck by the careful way that the new production team had replicated the appearance of the older films. Instead of attempting to reimagine the droids, spaceships, and computer displays with modern special effects, as "The Phantom Menace" had done, they had instead replicated the appearance of special effects of the original trilogy. This was exactly the right thing to do. The atmosphere was right.

I was reminded of a series of home-made episodes for Doom, which attempt a similar feat: replicating the design approach of the first Doom game, while making a new game. This series is called "Doom The Way id Did" and it is a painstaking, high quality fan-made work. It was released in 2011, so this is old news, though probably also obscure.

The first Doom episode, "Knee Deep in the Dead", was mostly designed by John Romero. Two levels were made by other people, but the majority of the work was Romero's. The levels stand out among the very best of that game. It is the usual result of combining natural talent with considerable effort. For example, you can see some early versions of the maps in alpha versions of the game, and these show that Romero was willing to throw out large chunks of work and redesign in order to make improvements. That is, if it wasn't good enough, he went back and did it again. The resulting quality of "Knee Deep in the Dead" has granted it a classic status that is, in my view, unmatched by any subsequent id Software game.

"Doom The Way id Did" is worth playing for its own sake, but also because it mostly succeeds in recapturing the feel of the old game. It's like an alternate-universe version of the game: the same sort of thing, without being the same thing. There was a strict editorial process, many contributions were rejected, and the designers even got feedback from Romero himself, so it was not merely a matter of studying his work.

At the same time, it was probably a lot better than anything Romero could reasonably have done today. He moved on to other things long ago, and would not have had time or motivation to create work of the same quality for some freely-downloadable Doom levels. It's not just talent, it's also effort, and a willingness to redo things. There was an official freely-downloadable Doom expansion, called "Ultimate Doom", which did have contributions from Romero. And they're not as good. Not terrible - certainly not "Phantom Menace" bad - but certainly less good.

The comparison to George Lucas is now inevitable. The Phantom Menace was a blatant first draft, completely lacking any effort to retune, redesign and improve. The filmmaker had protection from editors, but some sort of review/improvement process is crucial for high-quality work. The project should have been left to fans, with Lucas advising from the side, if at all. When the fans actually do the work, as in the more recent film, the results are far better. They replicate the appearance and the atmosphere of the earlier work while creating something new, and it really matters to them to get it exactly right.

Postscript. If you play "Doom The Way id Did", I can also recommend a couple of similar Doom projects, which were produced before it. These were both made by a single person, rather than a team of designers and an editor, but the quality is still really high. "Needs More Detail" is an earlier project which went against a trend towards greater detail and complexity, returning to a classic design that ended up being quite similar to the original game. "Wonderful Doom" is also a predecessor with a similar design goal to DTWID, and it's good fun too.

Update 18/1/16. By an extraordinary coincidence, Romero did release a new level for Doom two weeks after I wrote this. Details are here. I have not yet played this level, but I look forward to doing so.