WARNING: This article contains spoilers for DOOM 2016 and DOOM: ETERNAL. But who cares about the story anyway, right?
The videogame market has, for many years, engaged in a form of self-referential cyclicality, from indie games hearkening to the minimalist pixel-art design of the medium’s early forebears, to the current wave of PS1 aesthetic resurgence and the much-beloved resurgence of the “boomer shooter”, all the way to the DOOM series’ reflection on nostalgic memories of the hyper-violent and frantic action of 90s FPS titles. This is, of course, nothing unique to video games as one need look no further than the box office hits of modern Hollywood to see that reboots, remakes, and reimaginings are the order of the day.
Enter Jean Baudrillard and his conceptualization of “hyperreality”, the indistinguishable muddling together of reality and the simulated as originally explored in Simulacra and Simulation of The Matrix fame.
The core contention of hyperreality is that there exists, implicit to the post-modern web of thought that we find ourselves in, models and concepts of reality that lack a stable or meaningfully extant referant, that is an imagining of a reality based on an emergent mass unreality indistinguishable in any notable way from reality itself until the concepts themselves twist into a unified form of hyperreality. Instead of signs being a signifier of an underlying reality, the sign itself infringes upon reality, overwriting it and becoming, for all intents and purposes, the new shared reality based upon imaginary fact. Propaganda is an excellent example of this effect, specifically the propaganda that comes to over-write the reality of the world around it, reimagining conflicts and nations as politically expedient fictions, eventually coming to define history as written by the victor.
To say that this is the state in which we find the medium of video games is far from radical, as it’s the state in which we find the entirety of what we conceive as reality wholecloth, however, video games do offer a fantastic case-study of the effect of hyperreality.
Enter DOOM 2016 and DOOM: ETERNAL. As we’ve previously explored, the modern reimaginings of the DOOM franchise are implicitly built upon a hyperreal simulation that we project back upon its franchise forebears, a world in which DOOM was wholly defined by frantic fast-paced action and badassery, blending the external conceptualizations of the series, the mis-rememberings of the adrenaline fueled experiences of our youth with the franchise, and external materials by way of the oft-mocked DOOM comics from which we draw the now-infamous tagline “Rip and Tear”.
DOOM is not alone in this, of course, given that this simulated sentimentality is projected onto the aforementioned ascendant PS1 aesthetic and the “retro” minimalist pixel-art style before it. What is interesting about the DOOM franchise, however, is how it has implicitly dragged certain mindsets and sociopolitics into the forefront of the modern mind along with its over the top blood and gore.
Much has been made of the idea of Reactionary thought in modern years, specifically its predication upon the conservative hyperreality of a non-existent bygone era where capitalism worked flawlessly, mom and pop stores abounded, and every family was an episode of Leave It To Beaver. If I were forced to describe the DOOM franchise as it stands today in one word, it would neither be “fast” nor “frantic”, it would instead be Reactionary.
Instead of hearkening back to an imagined rose-tinted view of the United States, DOOM’s brand of reactionary thought is that of the 90s video game marketing executive, one that shines through in every aspect of both its marketing and internal presentation. Every arterial spray, every vertical traversal, every ammo pack ejected from the fearful trembling eyes of your demonic quarry speaks to the hyperreal imagining of what the DOOM series not only is about, but has always been about. Gone are the gothic horror roots with the very occasional humorous diversion, instead RIP AND TEAR is in ascendancy.
DOOM 3, for all its faults, is a more true to form extrapolation of the core thesis of the original games, standing in stark contrast to the hyperreality of DOOM 2016 and DOOM: ETERNAL, from its mechanics, to its still-extant horror elements, to the representation of enemy forces being the embodied inevitable desolation of humanity brought forth from rampant hypercapitalist expansion into ever more morally objectionable acts, culminating in literally dabbling in the demonic for a new marketable product. Instead of this progression of excess, DOOM 2016 imagines its conflict as one of dwindling resources, the morality being more ambiguous as tapping into hell itself is presented as a way to solve an ongoing energy crisis back on Earth, a colonialist expansion to replenish dwindling resources as opposed to a capitalist drive for its logical ends of pure profit no matter the human cost- exploitative greed replaced with exploitative need, a core conceit of capitalism’s self-justification as the fulfillment of the necessary.
Extrapolated even further, DOOM: ETERNAL presents the core conflict as one in which the tables have been turned upon humanity. Hell has invaded to extract Argent energy from the souls of humanity at the behest of Khan Makyr, an entity hoping to save their own dimension via the use of vast quantities of the Argent energy it needs to survive. Here we have moved from DOOM 3’s core thesis of the drive for profits leading to the desolation of humanity as its logical endpoint, to DOOM 2016’s dwindling resources as a launching point for the desperate pillaging of the resources of others bringing the aggressor low, to DOOM: ETERNAL’s imaging of humanity as aggressed upon to satisfy the economic anxiety of an absolutely malevolent-coded species.
While there’s an article in this progression in itself, it’s an article for another day, as what is more immediately interesting is the phenomenon that is the newest iteration of the DOOM franchise. If one were to go onto Youtube right now and look through any of the thousands of fawning video essays on DOOM 2016 and DOOM: ETERNAL, you’d be met with the same themes repeated ad-nauseam. Verticality, speed, frantic action, satisfying executions, resplendent blood and gore. This is hardly surprising given the marketing hype around the franchise, based as it is in the hyperreality of 90s action games, an aesthetic easily summed up by the raucous applause and cheers at every brutal evisceration on display in the reboot’s original E3 unveiling.
But what unstated perceptions are we bringing back through the hell-portal of DOOM’s hyperreality? Reactionary thought. The idea of games being better back then, when they were perceived to be as rife with hyperviolence, sexism, homophobia, and objectification as their marketing materials. Through fawning for the hyperreality of an imagined era that never was, one dreamed up by marketing executives who had little to no involvement in the creative process of countless artists, we risk uncritically internalizing the ideas that games are just fun diversions, that they’re at their best as adolescent power fantasies about being a sickass DOOMSLAYER, or perhaps even that games are just better off without politics (that is, with all of the ambient -isms in place that don’t challenge, but instead bolster, the worst parts of the status-quo that reads as neutral background noise to the most privileged among us). I do wonder how much of the vitriolic reaction in some parts of the fandom to DOOM: ETERNAL‘s story feeling at once more present and more fleshed-out is a nascent reaction to what can be perceived as a slight deviation from the last point. After all, without a clear story, politics are often much easier to ignore, and with the implicit contempt DOOM 2016‘s protagonist seemingly held for the plot, his overt involvement in it for DOOM: ETERNAL would make it far harder to ignore.
DOOM 2016 at the least is, in a way, subtly brilliant, presenting a world in which power is drawn from the souls of the long-dead to meet the needs of humanity as envisioned by a massive megacorporation, when the game is, itself, a product of one of the largest video game companies dredging up of the ambient hype(rreality) surrounding a long-dead property to meet the unmet desires of its player base to return to the reactionary yesteryear where men were men and games were fun, to provide not power, but power fantasy.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.