Doom 1 always struck me as, under the surface, being some sort of psychological or existential horror game. that's why i like it whenever i see mods that play up the psychological aspect (i'm also a huge fan of David Lynch and Silent Hill for that reason, so that's a big part of it). i'm fine with the action-oriented gameplay of Doom 2 but i never really felt that was what appealed to me about Doom - and that's why i felt like a lot of mods just didn't appeal to me for a long time. if anything, the action-y stuff appeals to me a lot more now, though it's still definitely way secondary to the feelings a map evokes - the atmosphere and uniqueness.
i think Doom actually does have a story, though the story is told through the levels. it's only implied, but i think it's there.
look at Episode 1 - i don't think of Episode 1 being very upbeat at all by the way. look at the way the episode progresses, especially maps 5-8. but even E1M2 - the dramatically lit hall off to the side of the main path that leads to dark flashing light computer maze. it's kind of a shock, so much that i'd never go there when i was young. it's only early in the episode, but already it's kind of hinting at what's to come. or the way you come down the lift into a crowd of imps at the end of the map and then go down a weirdly empty, weirdly-shaped staircase to the exit. or E1M3 - the trap in the first key area - right after you go outside into the daylight, by the way - when the lights go out. or the normal exit - with the big cartoony "Exit" sign that seems to be almost mocking you or something. E1M4 seems to brighten things up, but then there's stuff like the weird pinky maze that seems to come out of nowhere.
and then E1M5 does a bunch of things to change the tone of the episode in one map. it begins with a huge pool of toxic waste in front of you. it's significantly more darkly lit than the other levels. it feels like a clandestine complex you're not supposed to be at, which you can really see if you exit outside the secret in dark gray area with one of the keys (that area in general is definitely a tone shift). or the pentagram teleporter in the secret, which is really significant because you haven't seen anything like that up to that point. by the time you feel like you have a handle on the level's layout and can exit, it throws you in the middle of the flashing light maze - which still freaks me out to this day. this pretty much confirms that things are permanently fucked up and not going back any time soon.
i think Episode 1 has stuck with a lot of people because it actually gets more terrifying the more you think about it. E1M6 is a genuinely terrifying map, and i think the smartest of the Episode 1 maps. i don't even want to break it down because it does so many things in one map that are really interesting to me - the weird brutalist celings, the huge tech key trap at the beginning. the square-room key maze that makes you feel like you're a test subject. the secrets that trap you inside. the crazy-ass techy shootout ending. E1M6 and E1M7 may have more computer/tech-base styles but their layouts and scenarios make them both deeply unsettling to me. but you sort of have to view them in the context of the entire episode and what came before it for it to make sense. which is what players in December 1993 would have been doing.
Romero's maps are often festishized by Doom modders, but i think a lot of people really miss out on what makes his maps good. Romero is always subverting your expectations and doing things a little differently, even when they might look similar on the surface. Doom Episode 1 DOESN'T just create an atmosphere, it expands on it in a bunch of directions and then (kind of) destroys it. Like a story, it has a beginning, middle, and (sort of) end. it doesn't get too in love with itself or its style (a mistake a lot of mappers who can do aesthetically pleasing stuff make) - it uses them thoughtfully to tell a kind of story.
Romero was the master of tension and release - you can even see this in his Wolf3D maps (which btw is a very underrated game from a level design perspective, if you ignore the underbaked shareware episode). like the encounter in the exit area of Wolf3D's Episode 5 level 1. Episode 5 of Wolf3D in general has a lot of the kind of interesting ideas and encounters you'll see in Episode 1 of Doom, albeit in a much different form.
and this doesn't mean that Romero just puts an ambush of monsters by keycards or exits, by the way! look at the ambush at the beginning of The Tenements in Doom 2 (which is one of my favorite beginnings to a Doom map). because his style stays similar, the changes that happen are definitely more noticeable even if they're subtle - and BECAUSE they're subtle, they're more unnerving.
anyway, i say all of this to say that Doom 1 maps tend to carry a sort of story behind them. i'm not a Christian and so stuff like Hell has always been a sort of shorthand for human suffering to me. Episode 1 is a sort of a slow descent into madness, which is why i find it the most terrifying. Episode 2 is the protagonist trying to make sense of the madness by still trying to salvage the environments of the first, except they're being horribly distorted and rearranged. this culminates in the really strange juxtaposition of spaces of Spawning Vats. the climbing up the Tower of Babel into the destruction of these barriers he's built leads to the full madness of Episode 3, which is the protagonist confronting his own complete madness and suffering. Inferno - the fires within him. look at how the map names jump from being generic names - Command Control, Refinery, etc - and into stuff like Slough of Despair or Pandemonium - emotional states which imply something psychological. and its return to the tech theme of the end of Episode 1 in the Spider Mastermind level kind of hints back to the craziness at the end of E1M6 and signals that you're taking down the biggest demon - your own mind.
that might sound like a goofy or over the top interpretation - and in some ways, it is. but the general themes are there in the design and progression of the maps, and i think that's why Doom 1 resonates with a lot of people in a way that D2 doesn't. you can read a story like that into it without stretching it thin. even in the moments that D1 falls short, it kind of does feel like it's still about something. E3M4 might not be all that interesting from a design perspective but it's thematically unique and very important to the overall episode. and that's why i would feel very comfortable characterizing the whole thing as a horror game.
Last edited by ella guro on 05-03-14 at 00:55