Have you ever played the sequel of a game and then thought “well, this looks like an expansion”? It’s easy to focus so much on what is similar about two games that we completely lose the focus on what is actually different between them and, sometimes, these differences are their heart and soul.
To understand what really sets them apart, we have to look at the mechanics and the design of them both. The first two Doom games are a great example of how two different design philosophies can create two very different products even if their gameplay mechanics are quite similar.
Doom was one of the most mind-blowing games of the 90s and it’s basically the father of the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre as we understand it, despite the existence of Wolfenstein 3D before it, which can be called the grandfather of the FPS if you want.
What was Doom all about?
Ok, let’s pretend you lived in a cave for the last 30 years or that you are 10 years old. Doom could be summarised as an FPS in which you blew demons up. Its visuals were very pixelated (unless you use newer mods) and you can choose from a range of different weapons to blow up your enemies. While the carnage is its coolest selling point, the game is all about movement and precision.
The hitboxes are pretty generous and there is no distinction between aiming high or low so you will hit your targets even if you don’t aim well. The main difficulty comes from the movement, as you have to avoid getting too much damage. The secret for playing well is less about shooting well and more about dodging enemy attacks in a way that you can survive for enough time to kill them.
Because of this core gameplay mechanic, Doom 1 and 2 are, in fact, quite similar in how you play them. Doom 2’s only addition is a new Shotgun and about a dozen new enemies. However, as one could look at these two products and see basically a small upgrade or expansion, their level design is completely distinct.
The Level Design Of Doom
The original Doom was all about atmosphere and realism. While it may sound silly to call something like Doom realistic today, all the areas in the game actually looked like real places, especially in the first chapter. If you were on a space base on Mars in the first Doom, it looked like one. All locations were very real despite the pixelated graphics.
In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the three chapters of Doom 1 was how the world slowly turned into something horrific and unreal. The story was very thin. You were a marine on Mars and you were trying to escape during a demonic invasion that wiped out all the other humans on the planet.
Because of this, the elements of the design helped a lot to tell the story. The first chapter was set in the space base and it featured labs, stations and military bases. The second one was in a world that was started to get corrupted by Hell, so it mixed these locations with hellish elements. The idea that Hell was slowly taking over was very gripping and it helped to create momentum and to narrate the story. In the end, you enter the actual Hell and then all hell breaks loose. Areas are more open and you can see hellfire everywhere.
There is a strong sense of progression and story in creating levels like this. There was even a map that showed your progress between the levels, which was not featured in the second Doom.
Doom 2, on the other hand, was very similar in gameplay yet a lot more abstract in design. The game was full of mazes. While some levels actually looked a lot like real places, most of them simply look like random hellish caves and complexes. Everything was even more furious and fast, too, which gave more rhythm for the shooter.
Why did this happen? We can look for a few causes that could help us to explain these differences. While everything was new in the first Doom it was easier to build a sense of momentum, you simply could not de-escalate things in a sequel. Hell already appeared, therefore, there is no point in actually making the world change into the chaos slowly. The game is now even more brutal. That was what the fans wanted and most of the marketing was about violence.
The team followed the obvious answer, to “upgrade” the game into something even more furious, but this also meant losing something. Doom 2 lost some of its sense of marvel and progression, but it added a rush fury of sprawling enemies and crazy mazes.
The second installment did use some interesting new elements like Earth’s cities, which are very different from anything that you could find in the first one, but they were only in a few levels. Soon you are in Hell again. In this context of chaos and pure fun, the addition of more enemies and a more powerful normal shotgun is obvious and it made sense.
The People Behind Doom
As you might have known if you played Doom back in the day, both games were created by id Software, which had already made First Person Shooters with Wolfenstein 3D, which was inspired by Catacombs 3-D, another product of the company.
John Romero and John Carmack are certainly the two most recognizable names in the series, but there was one man that is possibly the reason why the two games are so different: Tom Hall.
Hall worked on Doom 1 and was fired because he was often arguing with Carmack. He was mainly focused on giving a more focused sense of story to Doom and it shows. While he called the game a “raw shooter” and declared his unhappiness after he left id Software and most of the story that he wanted to focus on was scrapped, you can see his mark in the first Doom.
With the success of the brutality in the first Doom and with Tom Hall out of the way, the levels changed a lot in atmosphere and design. Romero designed many levels in both games and you can also see his mark, but the second installment was mostly created by Sandy Petersen and American McGee along with Romero and the emphasis was a lot more on mazes and fast addictive brutality than story or ambiance.
These choices and the changes in the team created two very different experiences and show us a valuable lesson: every single part of a game is relevant. If you only take the most visible parts of it, everything will look the same, but sometimes the most important parts are the ones that are not so visible at first and they change the whole core experience.