If you played Doom during its heyday in the 90s, I have some disappointing news: it’s not as frightening as you remember. But that’s just how memory goes.
Id Software’s seminal Satanic shooter game, as Robert Rath argues over at Zam, used to feel threatening, transgressive, capable of exerting dangerous power over the real world. Today, it’s more likely to feel tame bordering on silly. The blood looks like pixelated ketchup sprays, the demonic imagery cartoonish. Doom doesn’t feel dangerous.
For a fan intent on recapturing that virgin high, what do you do when the original no longer lives up to its first impression? Maybe you download Brutal Doom, a mod of the 1993 classic made by a Brazilian fan. Released in 2012 and continually updated since, it’s Doom dialed up to 667: Faster, bloodier, with new weapons and revamped challenges. This isn’t Doom as it was, but as Motherboard writes, “the bombastic impression it imprinted on your mind when you first played it.”
Recently, Brutal Doom added another wrinkle to its evolving re-imagining of the ur-shooter–it’s added the weapons from this year’s high-def reboot of Doom. Crammed into sprites and thrown into your memories, the new Doom has infected the old.
Brutal Doom, and projects like it, showcase an interesting facet of our relationship to media in the 21st century. The mutability of digital media allows us to do something new. When faced with an original that doesn’t match the memory, we don’t have to simply face reality. We can revise it.
Rebuilding the Past
Think of your most important memories, your most cherished experiences. What you’re remembering probably didn’t happen quite the way you think it did.
“If there’s a lot of suggestion or inference or wishful thinking, you can get distortion in memory,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of Social Ecology who studies memory at UC Irvine and has written several books on the subject. “It probably happens quite a lot.” As researchers like Loftus have found, memory isn’t as simple as pulling snapshots out of our brains. It’s a reconstruction, based on the prior experience but also on general knowledge and our own expectations of the past.
While strong feelings can help us preserve experiences–Loftus says the heightened awareness of an emotional experience aids memory construction–they also tend to flatten them, creating memories that lose the finer details.
What that means is, when you revisit the things you cherished in the past, you’re likely not going to get quite what you remember, because what you remember doesn’t really exist. Our positive feelings about our favorite games heighten the good and minimize the bad. Taking another look at something like Doom, rife with nostalgia, can be a fraught enterprise. You might run into flaws you don’t remember existing. You might end up disappointed.
That leaves us, then, with an interesting choice. Do we lean into that disappointment, or do we take our business elsewhere? Videogames are both machine and art, and as machines they’re easy to tinker with. Emulators–software that mimics the technology of older game systems–can be used to pump classics up to high-definition and adapt the controls to match modern conventions. For PC games, modifications can be created and shared to tweak just about anything. For a project like Brutal Doom, that means a chance to transform a source text into something that more closely resembles that cherished first impression. In Doom‘s case, that means building a new machine out of blood and cruelty. More guns; more torn demonic flesh.
It’s an opportunity that puts us in an odd relationship with regards to our actual history. In a sense, the reality of playing any game in any particular setting is less important in a world where, with the right know-how, we can instead try to create an idealized version of that same game. Brutal Doom is a temptation: why bother with the original at all if you think this one plays better, looks more interesting, and captures what’s “important” about the original anyway?
Print the Legend
For the average videogame player, all history might be revisionist. Doom, and pieces of media like it, become more than just games. Fueled by nostalgia, fan works and recreations like Brutal Doom transform it into an idea. Brutal Doom is ultimately more than a paean to memory: it’s a reinterpretation. In a modded world, our favorite games become living texts changing with the times, flexibly flowing into whatever shapes we need them to take.
That’s what digital media does: it allows us to create alternate histories, versions of our gaming past that better match our heightened expectations. And as our expectations change, as our memories shift and gather junk data with age, so, too, can we return to our old passions with those shifts intact, remaking them to suit us. Brutal Doom recently added weapons from the new Doom, taking new ideas that seem appropriately Doom-y and rewriting them into the game’s past. There’s not just one Doom, or one Super Mario, or one Half-Life. As we modify and reimagine these games, we’ve created dozens, hundreds, each signifying an alternate version of videogaming’s past.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, exactly, though it’s a practice that’s not without risks. There are insights to be found in the things we forget, and we need to be careful, to ensure that we preserve artifacts of the past as readily as we reshape them. Regardless, projects like Brutal Doom foreground how our relationship to cultural history changes as the tools of media production become more readily available. Art history is participatory and creative in ways more obvious than they’ve ever been. We don’t merely consume. We remember, misremember, and create anew.
Play your favorite game from your childhood. Hold it up to the light. Does it live up to your expectations? No? Maybe we can fix that.