The Automap is Not the Territory (Doom)


There are two other Philips in my family, and both are intimately linked with Doom. My uncle got the game for me - one of his periodic gestures towards doing end-runs around my parents’ rules on media consumption. (The same uncle who got my parents Soulblazer, notably, an amusing case of the opposite process.) He made sure to emphasize the chainsaw, which I appreciated, as it was self-evidently the game’s most brilliantly transgressive option. Come to think of it, he exposed me to Evil Dead 2 somewhere in the vicinity of this too. Heh.

My grandfather, on the other hand, died of Alzheimer’s while I was failing to beat the final boss of Doom 2 one day, my father coming into the computer room and putting a hand on my shoulder until I paused the game and just told me “it’s over,” and all I remember after that is not crying, and then a minute or so later hearing my four-year-old sister start to.

I came back to the game a few hours later, just before bed. I don’t know why I didn’t just quit out - some sort of private and symbolic gesture, I imagine. I died in seconds in any case, screaming, my flesh burning and shredded apart by a Mancubus or something similar. I wonder if that’s a better way to go than Alzheimer’s. It’s more painful, obviously, but it’s also quicker and doesn’t have any awkward moments where your twelve-year-old grandson has to chase you down a busy road and try to convince you that your wife isn’t having an affair with the cleaning lady and that you should probably come home. So a toss-up, I reckon.

This was in 1996, at the start of ninth grade, which was by no means a good year for me. My grades faltered, largely because I couldn’t be bothered to do homework. I went through the worst patch of bullying of my life, and got the dubious honor of being my town’s first victim of cyberbullying. (The school did OK with it, actually, largely because my parents were tenacious as fuck about it.) The incident I remember with the most vividness was blowing up, full out screaming at a science teacher after school. He was an old and grizzled veteran of a high school teacher and just shrugged it off, and I went home and nothing more was said, but I knew then how close I’d skirted to major fucking trouble, and the years since have only made me more glad it was only 1996 and schools still erred on the side of caution with angry young men.

Doom, after all, was at the scene of another death in the 1990s. Fifteen of them, in fact, in Littleton Colorado, less than an hour from where my Uncle Phil lives. The Columbine massacre is a curious cultural moment. It was not the first school shooting by any measure, although it was at the time the deadliest. But the extent to which it captured the imagination is still slightly uncanny in comparison. Much of it is simply down to the sheer potential for lurid sensationalism that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold offered. It wasn’t just that they were near-perfect archetypes of the angry white man, but that they were almost perfectly plugged into the most scandalous of 90s alienated youth subcultures. It was almost as perfect as a California hippie turning out to be a mass-murdering cult leader in the 1960s, and indeed Eric Harris’s collection of Doom mods provides a sort of digital equivalent to “Never Learn Not to Love” and “Look at Your Game, Girl.”

At the time this turned into a banal moral panic about video game violence as stupid as suggesting that “Helter Skelter” was in some meaningful sense responsible for Sharon Tate’s murder. But beneath the idiocy is a sensible question of why the all-black “trenchcoat mafia” garb, a list of bands that included KMFDM, Rammstein, and Marilyn Manson, and a predilection for Doom fit together into such a coherent portrait in the first place. Some of these links are easy enough to draw - the black trenchcoat was the standard uniform of the suburban American goth kid, who no doubt listened to Marilyn Manson, whose mentor had been Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the band that did the sound design for Doom’s follow-up, Quake, and who have been persuasively argued by Daphne Carr to have their roots in white midwestern alienation. And sure enough, Harris and Klebold were Nine Inch Nails fans as well. (That they weren’t actually Marilyn Manson fans is largely irrelevant to the sort of thing we do here.)

None of this is anything even remotely like causality, but it’s still absolutely the popular culture you’d expect a late 90s white boy angry enough to try to massacre his school to be drawn to. In a very real way, it existed to reflect their concerns, if not always on the level of artistic intention, at least on the level of marketing. There is a real sense in which the 90s marked the endpoint of a particular approach to counterculture as the aesthetic of… well, Doom, basically reached the mainstream. Flaming skulls, rampant Satanism, occasional swastikas (though id wisely backed the fuck off on that), and a soundtrack with obvious debts to metal and industrial rendered Doom something of an endpoint in the same way that an album titled Antichrist Superstar did. There’s probably some room for transgressiveness past that point, but the returns start to diminish rapidly.

The folly was in assuming that reaching an endpoint actually meant that anything would end. Instead, well, the returns diminished. Indeed, there’s a real sense in which Columbine was the diminishing return of counterculture. In the cases of Doom or Marilyn Manson, the maximal transgressiveness was always massively irony-laden. Indeed, much of its unreconstructed testosterone was fundamentally tongue-in-cheek, with Doom’s underlying metalhead aesthetic only ever having been distinguishable from geek culture by who the Dungeon Master was. But irony is a fragile tether, and once that strand is cut all that remains is the furious alienation at the heart of the transgression. Add a fucking ridiculous number of actual guns and things proceed with grim inevitability.

It’s not like I can take some haughtily detached perspective on all of this, of course. If you’re going to pick a point where Nemesis’s aesthetic infected me, you’ve basically got to pick Doom, which I loved without hesitation or reservation. I wasn’t just unbothered by the excessive violence - I took the same giddy thrill in gibbing enemies that everyone else did. I was an alienated teenage white boy; this has never been a story about my innocence.

But just because the world of 1996 moved towards its inevitable conclusion doesn’t mean it was obvious at the time. That’s not how it works; I needed only to look at my grandfather to see that. I don’t know that I’d spent a lot of time imagining the progress of dementia before him, but whatever I had imagined was much more of a slow fading away. I hadn’t imagined something more akin to the frame rate dropping or a clipping glitch - a broken thing staggering forward, the underlying structures of personality and social engagement still there, but misfiring. I hadn’t imagined, in other words, that the disintegrating mind would still make sense to itself long after it had stopped doing so for anyone else.

So what is Doom, then? A podromal state before the fall? A cause? Or just a crackle of apophenia bursting through the static of the cultural landscape? That’s the point, of course: you don’t know. Which, of course, is the most basic shift in gaming history that Doom augured, replacing the side-scroller, in all its directional certainty, with one defined by creating an entirely subjective perspective. Doom obviously doesn’t introduce exploration, but it does introduce subjectivity in a fundamental sense. Not as the first game, obviously - Wolfenstein 3D exists, after all (it came out for the SNES in 1994) - but as a paradigm, in the same way that Super Mario Bros. had done a decade earlier. It was the point when we stopped moving forward, and started stumbling blindly ahead. It was, in other words, the last time we knew where we were.


James Wylder 4 years, 3 months ago

I wish I had more to say other than, yes, I adore this essay. This is your best piece of writing since I read Basilisk.

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John G. Wood 4 years, 3 months ago

That was quite powerful. For one thing, it made me think about my own relationship with games in the 90s (it's not the most important aspect of the article, but it's the only one I have any comments about). My first thought was that I'd avoided the "dark side" - I never liked Doom, or indeed any first-person shoot 'em up - but the comment about irony made me consider the fact that I wrote games called Better Dead Than Alien and Deathbringer!So maybe not...

(I treasure the magazine review that rated BDTA higher than Elite. The reviewer was wrong - BDTA was just a silly thing I wrote to teach myself how to code for the Atari ST, while Elite had far more play value - but it's still a good feeling.)

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Anthony D Herrera 4 years, 3 months ago

This was really great.

I was in 10th grade when Columbine happened and I was one of two people picked out for a "talking to" by the school administration which I felt was funny because I didn't listen to NIN or Marilyn Manson (my favorite song at the time was Nikki French's cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart) and I had given up on video games by then violent or otherwise. Really the only reason I got singled out was I wore a long coat which I did because I was fat and was trying to hide it. The other guy they spoke to was this dude that I would lend my Preacher comics too and he was most well known for talking endlessly about either cobbling (yes, cobbling) and how the best way to rob a bank would be to tie a bunch of babies to your body and your getaway car.

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