"Doom is back, you guys!" Sean Sands delightfully cheers on the Conference Call. My shoulders bounce from a soft chuckle, then slump.
When I play the 2016 DOOM, I have a good time. I recognize the craftsmanship that has gone into its level creation and the careful hand-balancing each of its encounters. This is not just a good game, it is an excellent game. But the outright aggression the game has towards the player just does not speak strongly to me. And I think that's because my touchstone for the franchise is the maligned Doom 3.
I didn't have the same definitive Doom experience that unites Sean Sands with so many other gamers of the 90's. I grew up a console gamer partially out of preference, but also largely because my family's desktops were always woefully under-powered. The porting of Doom 3 onto the original Xbox is what afforded me the opportunity to really delve into the series.
I loved Doom 3. While others bemoaned being unable to hold a weapon while using the flashlight, I reveled in the tension. My skin crawled as the darkness covered my protagonist like a blanket. But, then, I was enjoying the game without reference to the series.
By being titled a Doom game, Doom 3 sabotaged its own innovations by creating a certain expectation. Like the shadows smothering the Mars base, the legacy of Doom overshadowed the technological and mechanical innovations that would define the franchise for me.
In his video essay defending Doom 3, Noah-Caldwell Gervais observes how the levels were designed around the lighting engine. Subtle cues in the facility's illumination – flickering bulbs, Hell portals, machinery, and enemy attacks – telegraphed incoming ambushes and projectiles to the player. If you remove the darkness, the enemies become less of a threat. Once light is freely available – or duct-taped to the end of a gun – you have merely a much more slow-paced and less challenging version of the original Doom.
But I recognize that I'm in the minority. To many fans of the series, Doom is more than monster closets, Hell portals, and a BFG. Doom is more than pushing our computer hardware beyond its preconceived limitations. Where Doom really broke ground was the accelerated and adrenaline-pumping hostility of a violent game world. Doom 3's shadows and darkness may have been tense and hostile, but it was a different method, style, and flavor. It felt and tasted different.
As with all things, players want a franchise to change and evolve. They also want to maintain that same feel that first defined the experience for them.
I once pontificated on a message board (as you do) that the first Final Fantasy someone plays stands a good chance of being their favorite, kind of how the food you grew up with becomes the de facto standard for how it should be prepared in your mind. A classmate of mine favored Final Fantasy IV since it was their first. Many favored Final Fantasy VII because it introduced them not only to the franchise, but a whole genre. Others grabbed onto and became enamored with Final Fantasy VIII after the wake of its predecessor's popularity.
The longer a franchise goes and the more experiences players have with the franchise, the less this theory holds true. Even so, it's a sort of phenomenon that persists into other game series. Which is better: A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time? There certainly seems to be a generational gap bickering over which best captures the essence of The Legend of Zelda franchise. How many will define the franchise based on the open and free design of Breath of the Wild? What will the legacy of spirit orbs be, and will we gradually see heart containers vanish altogether? Will cooking become as iconic to the franchise as the boomerang and hookshot once were?
The Legend of Zelda is more than those, though. It's exploration, the sense of adventure, and an epic quest. Pushing blocks and collecting hidden treasures may lend themselves to that atmosphere – not to mention developing a language of progress that would become common tongue in game design – but those mechanics don't themselves define the spirit of exploration and epic adventure. Just as The Legend of Zelda is more than scattered heart containers and key items necessary to defeat a dungeon's boss, Doom is more than monster closets and Hell portals.
To make one final comparison, let us look at the Assassin's Creed franchise. To me, the first game had one primary focus: being an assassin. All of the primary mechanics were built with this purpose in mind. You were either gathering information and infiltrating through parkour or blending into the crowd and environment. Some of the most egregious game elements – such as capturing flags – were intended to encourage exploration and study of the environment, but largely were unnecessary for being a successful assassin. They did not properly test one's skills nor did they help the player improve upon those abilities.
Rather than fix these minor issues, the very act of assassination became more and more scripted in the sequels. Instead of eliminating vestigial mechanics like the flags, Ubisoft doubled downed on such elements and decided the "solution" was to offer better rewards for non-assassination quests. Now Assassin's Creed has money. It has city-building. It has pirate ships. Looking at the previews for Assassin's Creed: Origins, the franchise now has an inventory, RPG leveling systems in both the character and the weaponry, and epic loot. It's like a Super Mario game where the fireflower takes five hits to kill an enemy until you've leveled up your fireball skill.
To me, the evolution of Assassin's Creed is one in which a game has lost the spirit of its identity through business decisions and superficial imitation of other games. The core elements themselves become vestigial rather than the actual focus. What I had failed to recognize at first with the new DOOM is that it saved the franchise from losing such an identity. The original design for DOOM 2016 – a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare style of game populated by zombies and Hellbeasts – would have pushed the series closer to the territory of Assassin's Creed, where new attempts at invention would have only further whittled the name of Doom down into demons and Hell portals. Doom 3, like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, may have been a good game, but it had a very different identity to the original. It had different priorities that had nothing to do with the original game's.
This is what I failed to understand. It doesn't matter if the changes in a franchise are good or not. What matters is whether those changes preserve the franchise at all. Both DOOM and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild swept away all of the extraneous mechanics and concepts and asked "what is our franchise about?" The end result were two uniquely built games that felt brand new again. If the E3 demonstration of Assassin's Creed: Origins has taught me anything, it's that Ubisoft saw that a lot of people were talking about Exotic weapons in Destiny and said "we need some of that", building a game that feels ... well, like any other game that's going to be released in the next few years.
It is important, as a player and as a developer, not to get lost in the monster closets and Hellportals of a game. These things are superficial, obvious, and more often than not distractions from the true heart, soul, and identity that makes a game unique. Too much meddling with the superficial elements and you find that truly individual, stand-out title becomes lost to gaming history. A one-of-a-kind experience that fails to be replicated or improved upon in the ways that would have counted.