Post-colonialism in Doom

Often called “Doomguy” by fans, the hero in Doom (1993) is a marine, first and foremost. Demons have overrun the Martian lunar colony on Phobos, much in the same way the xenomorphs swarmed Hadley’s Hope in Aliens (1986). In Doom 2016, the hero actually has a name: the Doom Slayer. Unlike the Doom marine, the Slayer is essentialized, an ancient warrior dug out of the rock. Ellen Ripley was also a relic from the past, used to solve a colonial mess reoccurring in the present. 

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The Doom marine, from the classic 1993 box-art.

Like Ripley, the Slayer unwillingly serves a powerful, corporate employer—in his case the slippery Dr. Hayden, head of the UAC corporation. Faced with an energy crisis “the world had no answer for,” Hayden has colonized Hell to harvest its energy. Who inhabits this unlucky 4th world? Demons, of course—monsters, whose only purpose is to be slain. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible to see the demons of 2016/2020 as an extension of their 1993 forebears: heavy metal pinatas. Smash them; have fun. However, it’s hardly the sole interpretation, even if the makers intended otherwise. It’s even possible for the player to see his enemies in-game as pinatas, but for this to reflect a parallel viewpoint held by him outside of the game.

In this video at AGDQ for example, the livestreamer Byteme pauses Doom 2016 to thank United States military members for their service. When I heard this, I found myself unable to view his words as neutral praise; an army has orders, after all. This remains true despite AGDQ being a charity fund-raiser where Doom is just another game being played to generate cash. Soldiers, or people who support them, still play Doom to revel in its slaughter and jingoistic camaraderie. It might pale against the reality of military service, but it still reflects said service through a videogame made for a larger audience. Not all members of this audience are soldiers, but those who are can revel in the game for their own reasons.

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In-game collectible guitars, featured in Doom Eternal.

This includes the music. Doom was founded on a love for heavy metal, illustrated by Bobby Prince taking influence from the likes of Slayer, Metallica, and Pantera. To say that heavy metal is simply meant to be enjoyed in Prince’s singular manner is a bit absurd; like the violence it sings about, music can be approached from multiple angles. To say otherwise ignores the reality of how music can be applied. The same goes for any form of media, from Pepe the Frog to Nordic Runes. 

Doom is much more accessible and concrete in terms of what it reflects: military action. So is the external militaristic fervor that might insert itself into the game’s conveniently Spartan power trip. Conversely the game is something that can be enjoyed by people who aren’t soldiers or hawks. I detest war and violence, but love demons, heavy metal and videogames focused on war. To consume them is not to say one enjoys war, but things about war—a bit different than saying you love soldiers and their service.

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Ripley or Rambo? James Cameron only directed Aliens, but he drafted its script alongside Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).

Take Aliens, for example. The movie was an allegory for the Vietnam war. If this allegory is entertained, this would make the xenomorphs the Vietcong: The xenomorphs resisted the colonial urges of Weyland-Yutani and their American flag-wearing colonial marines; the Vietcong were a communist threat in the eyes of the CIA, whose doomed colonies were arguably a front for shadier practices. Yet, the story in Aliens is less about the marines being good, and them simply doing their jobs. Ripley is the central character, and we’re meant to root for her. 

The tendency to do so is perfectly fine; Ripley’s struggles are separate from the company’s. This being said, it’s not unwise for the audience to question their knee-jerk response to what they see—Ripley laying waste to every xenomorph in sight—and to consider how such violent imagery is applied to real people in parallel situations. The Vietnam war happened; the people in it died, but you still have to tell the story to an American audience somehow. 

The same arguments apply to Doom. The marine is not “good” at all, is simply a man doing his job in an insane situation; the story takes the form of a videogame whose aim is ultimately to have fun. This means empowerment, despite colonialism often having the opposite effect. Bear in mind, the original story in Doom was incredibly basic, as were its levels. They were essentially “kill rooms”—boxes built for you and your foes, with barely enough detail to merit calling them anything else. With the advent of the Quake and Build engines, further information could be supplied, future levels starting to resemble actual places.

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The “neutral” hero from Doom (2016).

Fast-forward to Doom 2016. The game openly politicized its violence, its overarching plot beating “energy crisis” over the player’s head. The metaphor was also a bit Promethean, this energy being stolen from another place/greater power. Doom 2016 was smaller in scope; it focused on the brutes, fodder or army belonging to whoever owned this energy source to begin with. We never saw the mastermind behind the Trojan Horse.

Similar to Doom II (1995), Doom Eternal throws the player into a larger conflict, wherein the Earth becomes a target chosen by an ultimate threat. Totalitarian regimes invent this threat in order to justify the hero’s violent actions. What is the Queen in Aliens save a rival monarch, one whose power infringes on Weyland’s, including Ripley as the company’s unwilling servant? Likewise, the villain in Doom Eternal, the Kahn Makyr (a not-so-subtle nod to Genghis Kahn; in Mongolian, “khan” means “leader”), is simply a power greater than the UAC corporation. The Kahn is foreign, fantastical; and, she uses her technology to trap humanity and lure them to their doom. With the company exposed as a tin regent, the true “ruler” must emerge, a disenchanted outsider from an older time where disputes are solved through violence: the Slayer. 

In Aliens or Doom, it’s mutually-assured destruction, the colony and the natives being destroyed by an indifferent leveler. However, Doom Eternal does less to build on this premise than embellish on the universe that houses it. This lore is largely window dressing for the underlying metaphor of military conquest. Despite it being framed as good-versus-evil, the Slayer is an equal-opportunity ass-kicker. Doom Eternal literally has him fighting demons, but also angels. Traditional symbols for good and evil are equalized through ultraviolence. Unlike older “neutral” characters like Ripley or Rambo, there’s no one to rescue; just enemies to kill.

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An angel from Doom Eternal.
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Milton’s Lucifer, falling from Heaven (fun fact: Milton popularized the term Lucifer, not the Bible).

This is another stab at neutrality. There’s still room for politics, though, and certainly room for duality. Consider the Miltonian backdrop Doom Eternal establishes. Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also featured a great war between angels and demons. This war remained a dissident allegory for the Church of England. Writing it was an act of demonstrable sedition. 

It’s one thing to say that playing videogames is or isn’t political; it’s quite another to say that videogames can never be political because they’re videogames. If Byzantium’s infamous chariot race riots between the Blues and Greens were political, then videogames can charge different social groups to congregate and interact in political ways, too. It might not seem like it because of the modern world, and how fragmented games are as a product to be sold, versus how atomized and insulated people are as individuals. Regardless, messages can still be conveyed across different platforms to unite people of different political standings.

However, even if videogames were demonstrably neutral, neutrality is still a political stance. Just as the Slayer is part of a larger, us-versus-them conflict, those controlling him in-game or out can potentially assign him to a particular group. This assignment not only becomes a form of ownership over the game by claiming its hero as being made for a particular faction; it also fails to wholly divorce itself from people in terms of how they behave in the real world. This includes real-world activities that parallel a videogame’s own content. The game becomes something to identify with, to claim.

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Eat your heart out, He-man.

Those who play Doom Eternal might argue otherwise. “It’s just Gamers™ killing demons,” right? And it is gamers killing demons. The Slayer calls the Doom Fortress home, a lion’s den in outer space stuffed with Doom paraphernalia, including a triple-monitor gaming rig (none of which has gone unnoticed by gaming channels, online; they love that shit). He’s basically a jacked-up, digital version of the game’s target audience, personifying an image of themselves resupplied in this game from older works. This may be a concept that applies to videogame heroes in general, but it feels especially meta and overt with the Slayer. Art referencing players referencing art.

Perhaps it’s better for those who benefit from Doom Eternal’s gregarious qualities to avoid having it stamped as a military recruiting tool, a la America’s Army: Proving Grounds (2015). Even if Doom Eternal wasn’t built strictly as a recruiting tool, its imagery can, at the very least, be adopted laterally for this purpose. People with similar views can arguably flock to the same banner and say it belongs to them, not unlike a national flag.

Already there’s a sense of division, wherein someone like myself who enjoys Doom feels divided from its more warlike customers. I’m against war, so politically we’re already of two opposing camps going in. Doom is still being marketed to a larger, heterogenous group: the old-school shooter crowd. Not all shooters shoot things in real life, but when gamers openly support the military “slaying demons” around the globe, the door for postcolonialism gets thrown wider than the gates of hell.

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Neutral, or neutralizer?

Is the sort of camaraderie Doom inspires always so bellicose? No, but the dualistic nature of what’s being conveyed cannot be dispelled by saying it doesn’t exist, either. And those of you who might say “Well, you just don’t like Doom or heavy metal or demons” can just hush. I’m a Gothicist by trade, and adore all of these things. It also means I can’t ignore the liminality in media, or social exchanges orbiting media. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the game and criticize it, because my criticisms are aimed at its potential for colonial misuse, rather than it being the only option. 

This could all be a joke to the developers, selling their game to all groups within the shooter fan-base regardless of politics. However, their joke is still informed by the masculine, warlike properties of 1980s Americana told through action movies, domestic heavy metal, and the occult. It’s worth noting that Slayer was anti-war, exposing its horrors through their enthusiastically macabre music. Likewise, the shock of military overreach and inevitable failure is a running trope in colonial war narratives like Aliens, whose director, like George Lucas before him, is ultimately anti-authoritarian, not anti-war. They sold “war” to tell a message, because, like a stockpile of weapons left behind, you can’t simply be rid of these factors; they linger, as do the cultural attitudes tied to them as entertainment.

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The smart gun was based off a Steadicam vest, worn by cameramen, and the WWII-era German machine gun, the MG-42. Cameron used the same technique in The Terminator (1984).

All of this is relayed in future pastiche, continuously reassembled and resold. Consider the design of weapons like the Star Wars blaster, or the pulse rifles used by the colonial marines: all kit-bashed real-world weapons, some more well-known than others. Movies like these, or miniseries like The Mandalorian (2019), display drama wherein the prime mover/center of attention isn’t simply the gunfighter but his boom-stick, a real-life, antiquated firearm dressed up as science fiction. And what is Doom Eternal if not a present-day example of the lone gunman, a one-man army squaring off against the enemies of Colonial Earth with a street-sweeper? Its a blast to watch, but also illustrates another curious aspect: pandering to gun violence (not sex, though; Hugo Martin explained in a recent video how they removed the boobs from Id Software’s first female demon’ for “marketing reasons”). How American.

Whatever the media, the selling of this violence is business, and always has been. It can be serious, or funny. Doom and its many-flavored sequels treat the love for violence as an entertaining part of the story—its raison-d’être. It becomes an opiate of sorts, one whose drug euphoria parallels a fatal attraction towards the troubling aspects of humanity’s colonial past, but also its present. That’s what the Gothic is all about. There’s no shame in loving these devices with an open mind; it becomes a problem when you overlook the destructive potential of what they stand for in the world at large, and how this factors into entertainment more generally. Il n’y pas de hors-texte.

***

Having an MA in English Studies: the Gothic, Nicholas van der Waard has written about movies, horror, and videogames regularly for several years. His specialty is speedrunning as it pertains to Metroidvania as Gothic videogames. Apart from his work on Video Hook-Ups, he also has his own movie blog, art website, Patreon, and Twitter account.

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