DOOM and the horror of gameplay memory

Watch this essay on YouTube:

Memories are rotten, and memories rot. Entropy and age take their toll on our brains. We forget that we had ever remembered some fond glance, some summer's favorite song. Memories that remain form a stain upon the present: nostalgia, regret, and frustration boil out of the same misremembering. We clutch our past so tight that we squeeze its life away, and then the corpse shambles along behind us. It's bi-directional: the present moment, corrupted by decayed memory, itself falls into memory and decays as well.

This is a grim way to introduce a Doom WAD, isn't it.

In July 2022, Doomworld forums user YourOpinionsAreWRONG released a fan-made level-set, better known as a WAD, entitled “The thing you can't defeat.” He posted a playthrough of the WAD on YouTube that same month. If you're interested and an experienced DOOM player, I'd recommend checking it out before watching this video. If you're not an experienced DOOM player, I might still recommend giving the YouTube playthrough a watch.

Full disclosure: I did not play “The thing you can't defeat.” I watched the YouTube video, and I think for me this was the better and more clarifying experience of the work, which preys on and manipulates a player's thorough extant understanding of DOOM's original levels, secrets, and enemy placements.

In his YouTube playthrough, YourOpinionsAreWRONG role-plays the reactions of a knowledgeable player, the growing confusion and frustration that a playthrough wants to elicit. I wouldn't expect to have much of this reaction myself, because although I have played DOOM's first episode as recently as a few months ago, I have no eidetic memory of its scenery and no speedrunner-caliber ability to recognize and conquer its designs.

But I would say that most people posting on a forum like Doomworld, and most people seeking out WADs in 2023, do have this connection with DOOM. DOOM's a funny game that way, played from the start so many times as early as its original 90s shareware release. For a certain generation, a certain group of people–among which I assume Tim Rogers counts himself, despite the caveats he'll give you in his over-thorough yet wonderful review of the game–playing and replaying and re-replaying levels to the point of total mastery was and is essential to of the DOOM experience.

“The thing you can't defeat” uses that experience as a weapon and a tool to build a particular strain of nightmare uncommon to the WAD scene (I presume) or in general within this genre at its inception or all the way up until the modern day and the recent trends of boomer-shooter revivals. If DOOM teaches a long-time player what total mastery feels like, then this WAD tries to teach what a loss of mastery, and subsequent loss of self, feels like in turn.

The explicit analogy is Alzheimer's. YourOpinionsAreWRONG titles his playthrough “DOOM (1993) but Doomguy has Dementia”; an explicit reference, made in both the video description and the original forum post, is to Leyland Kirby's experimental work “Everywhere at the End of Time,” a 6-album musical exploration of the stages of Alzheimer's progression through the distressed and dying brain.

(In my research I came across some meme creepypasta stuff surrounding this album. Leyland himself sees this attention as a good enough way for listeners to come by his work and consider its themes. I myself find it a bit tedious as a method to assess art, so I'm not discussing that aspect any further here.)

The first album in the “Everywhere at the End of Time” series doesn't include much of the distortion or damage that affects later tracks. Instead it places a crackling vinyl gloss over music that sounds like it echoes out from a gramophone. This is the filter of nostalgia, a soft sheen over fond and distant memories. Though the first map of “The thing you can't defeat” introduces this notion by making relatively few distortions to the E1M1 famous to any DOOM player, a veteran player's past DOOM experience pre-establishes that nostalgia, so that the WAD can accelerate its devolution relative to “Everywhere at the End of Time.”

From the start the WAD's tricks serve principally to disrupt and confuse established expectations. A switch is on the wrong side of a wall; a secret door does not open where it should; a single texture is missing, replaced by dull grey. These early, minor knife-twists destabilize the player's recollection: was that switch always there, after all? Did I forget the location of this secret, maybe one of the first I ever found in my first DOOM playthroughs?

Again, the explicit analogy is Alzheimer's, but I'm comfortable saying that this is a near-universal experience. Have you ever been certain where you left your keys, or what music was playing at the bar when you met your girlfriend, only for others' recollection (or physical, objective reality) to prove you wrong? Do you ever experience deja vu when arriving at a location for the first time in your life? (I do this a lot – enough that my wife is accustomed to humoring and then lightly mocking me each time I do it.)

The downward progression in the WAD echoes the human experience–Alzheimer's or no–of losing connection to your past identities. We humans often think of ourselves as static objects, believing that even as we grow and learn, there is a proper “I” whose core remains as the periphery expands or contracts. This is, of course, nonsense (thanks David Hume). The human brain is a frail and ever-decaying web of neurons and connective tissue, like a computer only if that computer relies upon an old mechanical hard drive in desperate need of defragmentation.

It's surprising to me how many ways a DOOM WAD can represent this, aesthetically and mechanically. I'm not a DOOM map maker myself, but I can recognize the location-based triggers at play here. “The thing you can't defeat” relies on disorientation through silent relocation, either with half-visible jarring jumps or by removing past corridors and adding corruption where the player isn't looking, knowing they'll try to turn back only to face bewilderment. Enemy placement is as much a part of puzzle design as geometry in DOOM, and here both are warped and misplaced time and time again.

The WAD also violates the visuals and mechanical expectations of level exits. The exit room in DOOM is iconic, in the literal sense–not an actual building exit, but a button-press into a score screen. Like many things in DOOM's primitive 3D rendering, it functions for the player as a result of its iconography–its ability to represent something to the player in a universal sense, rather than having individual cohesion as a physical object in space. The exits mostly do this two ways: with big red “EXIT” text, and more importantly with predictability of result: the catharsis of completion, the pseudo-blood-drip as the level peels away to reveal your game statistics. The exit room has both mechanical and aesthetic centrality and certainty in DOOM's design. Even when a sneaky imp ambushes you on the other side of the door, you can always rely on the true exit's existence, and the corresponding button press, beyond any trickery.

“The thing you can't defeat” disrupts this reliance a lot considering it has fewer than a dozen exits. The exit button might be on the wrong side of the room. The exit might have no visible button to press; the ending peel might trigger before you've pushed anything. Or, the exit might be the entrance, in the sense that the entrance door is now the exit or in the sense that the exit might bring you not to a level-end screen but instead to the beginning of this or some other level entirely.

The WAD betrays a fundamental aspect of DOOM's game design, for the purpose of jarring the player into reconsidering their memory and expectations, and to recognize the feeling of losing both over time.

By the end of this WAD, there are few or no enemies and no purpose for weapon fire except as an outlet for frustrated confusion–or maybe a way to mark some part of the world for “easier” traversal. All DOOM's fundaments, all of consumer gaming's fundaments – violence, power, geometry, spatial recognition, looping music tracks, satisfaction – are peeled as far back as they'll go. What remains–level names, for one thing, and the original DOOM world map of the episode–evokes longing for what has been lost.

The experience of gaming, as a medium, is at once physical and a fabrication of the mind. The game controller for example extends self-expression, much the same way as a car to a driver. Our capacity to process games through the visual, the audial, and the physical colors and individuates that experience. The playing of a game becomes sense and muscle memory.

A game's world, then, exists both within the game and within our heads. That's how play as primitive as PONG can nonetheless generate excitement, stakes, and mastery–we form a mental association between the abstraction on the screen and the reality it intends to convey. Again, this is iconography, and it's more fundamental to the video game medium than perhaps any other. I remember playing Super Mario World – the CRT screens, the pixels of Mario's hat, the friends' houses – but I also remember Super Mario World, the presence in my mind, the conjured specificity and physicality that wasn't really there, dreams of secret levels and a muscular grasp of flight physics.

This DOOM WAD tries to insert itself, like a cancer, into that mental presence. It intends to hijack its player's mental model of the 1993 game and through gaming's capacity for iconographic projection portrays the loss of all mental models, whether via the ravages of Alzheimer's or the less pronounced but no less inexorable decays of age. It recreates the process of losing one's mind within the mechanics and experience of gameplay.

For my part, I can't imagine another DOOM WAD with an equivalent potential for visceral horror. Myhouse.wad, for example, tries a different kind of internet meme “Slenderman”-adjacent horror, which doesn't really work for me as well.* I mean, this is why I said before that the “creepypasta” stuff makes a work like this or Kirby's feel lesser to me. The aims of this WAD aren't terrifying because it's some kind of cursed-chain-mail The Ring object, but because it uses the artistic modes of the medium to tunnel through the wall we erect between our present selves and our recognition of mortality, forcing us to live for a moment inside the hole it's dug.

*This is probably unfair to Myhouse.wad, a thing I have not engaged with except in the most superficial way and therefore only know by this “SCARIEST THING EVER” reputation.