Playing Doom with a source port

Doom is in retrospect probably my favourite video game insofar as real play hours can be used as a measure. For a couple of years in the mid-90s it was a solid baseline for my gaming; not a memorable experience of art like Ultima Underworld or some of the other games of the era, but a staple that defined the well-balanced action game for me. This includes Doom II, Heretic and Hexen, which are all basically variations on the theme.

I installed Doom last week out of a random impulse, as has been my wont through the last couple of years now and then. I’ve been gearing up to play the Inferno (the third episode of the original game) on Ultraviolence (the fourth difficulty level), mostly because I played through Knee-Deep in the Dead and Shores of Hell (the first two episodes) a couple of years ago, I seem to remember. Inferno is hard, though! I might have to gather some momentum by looking at Shores of Hell again; I’m not quite convinced that I actually finished it last time I had the game installed. Perhaps a run through that will hone my rusty skills enough to allow me to finish the Slough of Despair (the second level of Inferno) with some ammunition left.

Anyway, some thoughts on Doom follow. This is a random lot, just some musings from playing the game.

Making the game go

Getting an old game like Doom to work on a modern machine is not trivial, but neither is it difficult: the game’s code has been released to free distribution for a long time, and there are many “source ports” that essentially replace the original executable with modern code that accesses modern 3d-acceleration and whatnot directly from Windows. I had to trawl a bit to choose a good port; the one I ended up installing for now is Doomsday with the Snowberry load interface. The reason was mostly that this was what I installed last time I played the game, and Doomsday seems to do the trick. I also wanted a port that can run Heretic in case I get off my rocker and want to really get into this nostalgia thing.

The “thing” of Doomsday in the Doom retro-scene (yes, there is such a thing) is that it supports higher-resolution graphical glitter and higher-grade sound than the more original source ports, making it a sort of beautified viewport on the old game. Being able to run even Hexen (which deviates from the original Doom engine somewhat)  is also a plus – I’ve never played Strife, the last Doom-engine game, so lacking support for that isn’t too big a deal for now. The important thing is that Doomsday is trivial to install, feeding it with wad files (the actual data of individual games) is easy, and the game itself works essentially like it used to in 1993. The system seems to have plenty of customization options, too, but so far I’ve been happy with what comes out of the box. Easy to recommend this source port over Dosbox or such if you appreciate usability, playability and some audiovisual glitter.

One practical point that will throw the casual Doomer here: if you’re planning to install Doomsday, make sure you grab the “beta” development version and not the stable release. I haven’t had any stability problems with the beta, but the important reason is that only the beta includes the new “Snowberry” game loading interface and not the “Kickstart” thing that comes with the stable release. Snowberry is considerably superior in usability, so if you’re basically clueless about the Doom scene like I am, you’ll rather have the easier system.

Another practical point if you’ve never reinstalled Doom through a source port: the tradition with these source ports is that they do not come with the .wad files that include the actual game data, such as level maps. Each game basically has one big (some megabytes, that is) file named “doom.wad” or whatever. You need to copy the files for the games you want to play from the original disks, buy a compilation of some sort for a couple of dollars, or perhaps pirate them off the Internet. No big deal once you know about it, and most people interested in this sort of thing will probably have some version of the game stashed somewhere, I imagine.

Doom’s a great game

Replaying a bit of Doom here and there over the last week (some few hours in total; busy with work) has once again affirmed for me that insofar as my personal preferences go, Doom is possibly the best game in the 1st person shooter genre. I have a pretty controversial relationship with this type of game, no doubt caused in part by my changing relationship to computer gaming over the years, growing up (I was just 12 years old when Doom came out, for instance) and so on. Still, discounting the personal angle, there is plenty to appreciate in Doom even for somebody who never played it in any length when it came out. Consider:

  • Doom has a very straightforward control scheme, which makes it easy to play. This is probably a rather critical reason for why I haven’t really gotten into 1st person shooters after Duke Nukem 3D or so; I remember vividly how Half-Life, once I got around to trying it, didn’t really entice me due to the hassleful mouse-based aiming and other developments that had happened since Doom. I much prefer the balance of chaos vs. control in Doom, in which I can usually move and aim somewhat purposefully even when surprised by enemies; in Half-Life, as memory has it, I would just flop around like a dead fish in panic, shooting at the ceiling or floor while the enemies killed me.
  • Doom is about massive enemy firepower advantage vs. superior player mobility. Key concerns in play are calm execution of basic maneuvers (dodging, shooting), strategic positioning (choosing where to engage the enemy), preserving resources (ammo, health) against massive enemy forces and not getting disoriented and surprised in the creepy corridors of hell. All this works impressively well, the game’s playability is very high: simple ingredients come together to form a logical and suspenseful play experience.
  • The pace of the game in Doom is emergent, which I think is rather clever. Fast and chaotic sequences make way to tense sneaking as the player finds wise; the enemies are stupid, but overwhelmingly powerful, necessitating understanding their behavior and planning your play accordingly. Play is broken into levels and there are clear caps on all resources, which keeps the constant resource death cycle under control and helps pace the play and reduce backtracking.

I’m the direct opposite of an expert in 1st person shooters of today, so for all I know they might have virtues that I could appreciate if I ever would get around to installing some suitably heavy computer equipment and buying a game.  In practice I don’t care enough about the genre, it seems. Still, I apparently like Doom enough to reinstall it every few years. Perhaps it is because of nostalgia, but either way, I sure have fun with this game. I’ll have to make a point of pushing through Inferno once more; if I succeed, perhaps I might have what it takes to tackle Thy Flesh Consumed as well – I never played Ultimate Doom during the ’90s, so it’s an entirely new episode to me.

A modest proposal (actually, a great idea)

An idea came to me today while playing hide and seek with Cacodemons in the  Slough of Despair without even a single bullet to my name. Namely, why doesn’t Doom have an adversial two-player mode where one player controls the monsters? The historical answer is obviously that this didn’t occur during original development, but what with people still fiddling with the game’s code today, why not add something like this? I’m not familiar with Doom’s executable code myself, but it seems to me that there is no fundamental obstacle in the game’s structure for overriding the monster AI, building an appropriate play interface for a monster player and so on. (Nothing fundamental aside from the amount of work involved, I mean to say – of course it’d require a modicum of design work and quite a bit of programming to create what amounts to a real-time strategy game, even one that can use graphical material from the existing game.) I could see a whole new dimension of challenge in the game by adding a human adversary to what is already essentially a strategic exercise in movement, kill-zoning, exploration and objective-priorization. It’d be sort of like a real-time strategy game for the monster player, who could work out proactive patrol routes or whatever for his slow, inflexible forces against the death on two feet that is the Doom marine. It’d be relatively easy to involve monster in-fighting to limit and complicate unbalanced strategies like bunching too many monsters together or whatever.

In fact, why isn’t there a game like this out there somewhere? The only one that I know about is the zombie game… Left4Dead, which I hear involves monsters vs. heroes multiplayer. The game apparently doesn’t approach the challenge with proper RTS tools, though, but rather places individual players in the shoes of individual monsters. Not quite the same thing.

I’m not much of a fan of Doom deathmatches due to the high inherent speed of the marine in comparison with the demons – what is an unique conceit of the single-player game makes multiplayer play pretty ridiculous to my eyes, what with the marines bouncing around and flashing over great distances in the blink of an eye. It’s not quite in the spirit of the thing, not like that alternative multiplayer mode I envision above. The same goes for the cooperative mode, really – I remember being quite disappointed with the Doom cooperative multiplayer mode, which uses the same equipment distributions as the deathmatch mode, completely ruining the single-player level designs insofar as equipment scarcity is considered.

I think it’s something of a testament for the game’s design that I don’t really have much else to suggest in terms of improvement. I seem to remember that the lack of real architectural 3D (being able to have tunnels above and below each other on a map) in the Doom engine was an annoying limitation in the ’90s, but I don’t really mind even that today. Doesn’t seem to be affecting the playability in practice.


I don’t really expect to have much time for gaming through the coming month, but at this point it seems feasible to dedicate whatever time I’ll have to remastering Inferno. I already replayed the first level to preserve more ammunition for the second level, so perhaps I’ll get through it this time around. If going gets too rough, I’ll leave Inferno for a bit and return to the Shores of Hell until my skills equal the challenge once more. I’ve managed this 15 years ago, so surely I can do it now.


2 Responses to “Playing Doom with a source port”

  1. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Ah, I should probably add here a post-script: I did in fact manage to finish Inferno. It was actually pretty easy after I played the first two levels carefully and got onto my feet. There’s a couple of long levels in Inferno (over half an hour of play time for me), but no serious difficulties after the ammunition problems in the Slough. I entered Dis, the last level, with 600 points of energy for the BFG-9000 and made short work of the dreaded spider demon.

    Now my appetite’s whetted for Thy Flesh Consumed, perhaps it’ll teach me some humility. I’m not so excited about Doom II with its 32 level arc; the 8-level episodes are much more compact and less meandering, so what’s not to like.

  2. Haipperi Says:

    Strife is still one of the best 1st person shooters ever, if you can forgive the clumsy graphics. Enemies and weapons look like toys compared to Dooms monsters and weapons.

    Still, after the rather confusing opening, the plot of the game really got me hooked, and the plot twists, role playing elements and improving artefact weapon are really cool ideas. Too bad the budget of the game was not too big, I guess.

    Doom and Strife are the only 1st person shooters from 90s I have replayed, and still enjoyed the experience.

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