Fragging on the Shoulders of Giants
The shotgun explodes in a familiar burst of death, followed by the clank of the reload. I got him.
Across the entryway, what was once a space marine, dressed in grey garb and always holding the same nondescript space rifle, morphs into a mash of red goop, jagged at the edges but unmistakable in its gore. Three frames track its progress from something once vaguely human to a splatter of viscera. In later years, this will be called a “gib.” Today, it’s called victory.
There’s a telltale green burst of energy at the far end of the drab, brownish hall. Pure inertia pushes me forward. The green energy, in the span of two frames of pixel animation, becomes the moving form of the grey space marine that left a stain on the floor. His sprite moves in jagged rotations, yet glides across the floor.
Click. Boom. My vision falls to the floor. Now I get to be the stain.
This Möbius strip of simulated death continues until 11pm, when Joey’s mother picks up the phone and is greeted by the synthetic screeches and howls of the 28.8 baud modem connecting us. “Connection lost,” says Doom II. Worse than a curse.
I’m never one hundred percent sure where the levels are coming from. They get traded around on unmarked floppy discs, three and a half inches that should contain homework assignments or bootleg memory managers. Instead, they’re stuffed with WADs: container files that hold user-generated maps for the Doom engine. We trade them back and forth promiscuously, transmitting the unprotected data without a thought of things like viruses or Trojans. Those are problems for our parents, forced to stare at crudely-drawn windows of folders painted in 256 colors. We wouldn’t waste our time in that world.
Sometimes, instead of passing around floppies, we find the WADs through bulletin board systems. Some are run by friends, or high school kids old enough to know both how to set up Renegade and pay for the extra phone lines. Others are far away, found in the back pages of computer magazines thick enough to bludgeon intruders. Between turns of Legend of the Red Dragon in glorious ANSI, I search through the archives for something to add to our Doom II duels. So few of the original maps work well for one-on-one deathmatch.
And that’s how I find the perfect WAD.
DWANGO5 is a collection of multiplayer-focused maps in a single WAD, mainly for players on the DWANGO network of the 90s. The idea is simple: Players dial into a central server in Houston and trick Doom II into thinking the server is hosting a LAN. This way, you can play full four-player deathmatch with players all over the world, all for the low cost of $9.95, plus enormous long-distance fees your parents wouldn’t discover for a month. In 1995, before widespread proliferation of ISPs, it was a hell of a business strategy.
The compilation packs that DWANGO users spread around were the cream of the deathmatch-level crop. Each successive release culled material from every dark corner of the BBS world, every CompuServe forum spilling over with flame wars, and likely a few originating from IRC channels we could only dream of. Some levels were simple variations on classic Doom themes—a reworked E1M1 or just the wide-open space from E2M9. Others were far more original, even including customized textures with messages scrawled in MS Paint.
The music was never the same. Why listen to the same old thrash from the main game with you could add MIDI-captured versions of 90s club hits or Nine Inch Nails? That a map pack made me spend $90 of my hard-earned allowance on a Turtle Beach MIDI daughtercard is still a point of contention in my adult life. But “Rhythm Is A Dancer” sounded so much better.
Finding these mods was like discovering an out-of-print single in a used record store. They were secrets we were careful to share with only those who would understand.
There were other WADs, too. Memento Mori was a co-op themed collection that replaced all the single-player levels in Doom II and had a hell of a lot of teleporters. Total conversions would change the game into takes on Aliens or Star Wars. We played those, too, enjoying them for the novelty factor or finally getting stuck on a puzzle. But then we’d go back to DWANGO5 and stalk each other through re-imagined hallways and reworked arenas. No competitive experience has ever resonated as much as the nights we’d battle over modem lines, communicating only through short text bursts and the blast of a super shotgun. Maybe the WADs didn’t matter. Other games had add-on levels, but I can’t remember the layouts as distinctly as those in DWANGO5: the chrome labyrinth with an RPG at the center in one map, another with hidden passageways leading you back behind your prey.
That other people generated enough creativity to draft out these hallways of destruction never even dawned on me. Those levels and the games we played in them feel like mine alone. I found them. I conquered them. I lived in them. But as much as I feel ownership of those maps and memories, I will always owe some debt to those faceless strangers who helped create and share them.