Growing up, I played Doom… but I never really played Doom. Does that make sense? Am I making sense right now? Let me qualify that; I was too young to play Doom, I mean, of course I was too young for the violence, but the point is that I was also too young for what is effectively fast paced first-person dungeon crawling. The labyrinthine like quality to levels loaded with secrets were lost on me as I jabbed in IDDQD and IDKFA to activate god-mode, all weapons, and keys just to shoot monsters. As a result I tended to get bored pretty quickly; I’d missed the point.
I don’t know if YouTube’s algorithms extend to delving in to your childhood, but for some reason recently I’ve been recommended many videos that outline the subtleties of Doom in the form of decino’s breakdowns of different game elements (it’s like they’re trying to show me what I missed out on). Picking apart the code itself I’ve been learning about monster, powerup, weapon behaviour and, armed with this insight, decided to pick up the recent Switch port of the original game (now that many of the initial problems have been patched) to finally experience the game as it should have been played. Over the week that followed I ploughed through the original three episodes, and the fourth episode (Thy Flesh Consumed) that was added in at version 1.666; ‘The Ultimate Doom’. It turned out to be one of the better four pounds that I’ve ever spent on a game and in its current state I have no problems recommending it (aside from an annoying bug where the game freezes if you put the system in to sleep) as a solid port. Blasting through the legions of hell I found a new appreciation for ID’s classic, how they’d managed to produce something so visually impressive on the limited PC hardware of the early 90’s, the thought that had gone into the various ingame elements, but most of all how the level design brings the entire game together.
Each level in Doom almost plays like a mini-metroidvania game. The player gradually unlocking sections of the map, and often needing to revisit areas several times over. Teleporters and hidden doors repopulating regions with enemies help maintain the threat level and maps are packed full of secrets keep the player on their toes, always listening for the telltale sound of a door opening. Looking back, I’d be hard pressed to pick out a level that I didn’t enjoy; in a game of such basic elements, the level design is what adds the interest.
Which brings me neatly on to John Romero’s: Sigil. For those of you not up on your PC gaming history, John Romero was one of the founding members of ID, a small handful of young game creators who pushed the boundaries of what could be done in a game, made the shareware model of distribution famous, and challenged the big publishers by releasing some of the most successful FPS games of the 90’s. Romero famously created all of the levels in the first episode of Doom along with a couple in the final episode and a handful in Doom II. He was one of the driving forces in the game’s development not only programming much of the content, but also the tools needed to create that content. Of course he didn’t achieve all this alone; John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, Tom Hall, Sandy Peterson, and American McGee who, along with Romero himself, make up the founding fathers of Doom.
Last year Romero released Sigil; Nine maps forming an unofficial fifth episode to the original game which can now be downloaded and played on the recent Doom ports.
Just imagine if George Lucas released a ‘fan-film’ simply titled “George Lucas’; Episode VII” that happened to be about space combat and light swords… well, this is kind of like that, except there are more shotguns and demons.
Whilst plot is not something that Doom is strong in, Sigil sits between Doom & Doom II, acting as both an epilogue and prologue. Following Doom-guy’s defeat of the legions of hell on the various offworld bases and battle through hell itself in the third episode, Inferno, he returns to Earth to find demons have invaded the planet. Picking his shotgun back up, he battles off the first wave of invaders in the episode ‘Thy Flesh Consumed’ before dropping in to a portal to rid Earth of the infestation once and for all (in Doom II: Hell on Earth). Sigil takes the reigns at this point suggesting that that portal was rigged and transports Doomguy back to hell at the behest of Baphomet.
Dropped in to a smouldering world of fire and demonic imagery, Sigil immediately does a better job of setting a tone compared to ‘Thy Flesh Consumed’ which itself feels a little thematically inconsistent and tacked on. Glowing cracks in the floor and ceiling, jagged rock faces, and one particularly impressive partially destroyed wall show off what this ageing engine can achieve with the freedoms of modern resources and it’s immediately clear that Romero has taken his time to polish these maps. Running like a vein through the episode is the image of Baphomet’s Eye, elusively disappearing each time you attack it and more practically acting as a switch to progress.
What jumps out most is how much Romero manages to do with so little. Sigil is based on the original Doom and, aside from an end of level image, adds no noticeable custom graphical content, items, weapons or monsters. That means there’s none of the Doom II content like the Super-Shotgun or the more elaborate fan-favourite enemies such as the Pain Elemental, Arch Vile, or Mancubus. Within these limits it might have been tempting to ramp up the difficulty by simply increasing the volume of monsters, but instead Romero manages to drive up the threat of even the lowliest of enemy through the level design.
Narrow walkways over lava are a recurring theme, restricting and confining the player movement without resorting to miles of tight narrow corridors. It’s impressive how intimidating a few well positioned imps or a Cacodemon can be when you’re always watching your step. More broadly these walkways retain an oppressive atmosphere whilst being set in more open and architecturally interesting spaces. Alongside this is a severe scaling back of the health available within levels and a focus for much of the episode on basic weapons; I think I was about half way through before I found the rocket launcher and, with ammo being scarce, often had to chip away at bigger enemies with a shotgun.
Mechanically the levels have a puzzle-box feel to them. Multiple paths or loops guide the player to unlock some new facet then return them to a hub region. Moving floors, ceiling and walls are implemented to reconfigure the play area around the player. Piece-by-piece each level is unlocked which, combined with the limited resources, slows the game down compared to the open, combat-rich, regions of the sequel.
That’s not to say that Romero avoids old Doom tropes entirely. There are a healthy number of times monsters pop-up as you pick up a key, or hit a critical switch, but rarely does this feel cheap. The only negative I can give to Sigil is that some of the dramatic height changes in confined areas leave the player open to attack from enemies above or below without a fair chance at spotting them first.
So, overall it was an enjoyable experience, but I guess the real question is do we care? Doom is a game that belongs to the modders now as much as the original creators and, whilst I’m not versed in that scene, I doubt Romero pulled anything out of the bag that hadn’t been seen before in the community. Even so, Sigil is a polished and coherent set of levels made all the more interesting that they’ve been created by one of the game’s original developers. He shows how much can be squeezed from so little, demonstrating what Doom is all about for people like me who maybe didn’t get it the first time around.
If you own Doom then John Romero’s Sigil is available for free, either in the mods section (if you’re playing the re-release) or download it here