It was my dad who introduced me to video games by giving me a Nintendo DS after my accident. After that he made me discover a lot of games that made his geek culture so having wanted to talk about retro gaming from time to time I thought that “Dad’s games” would be a good choice of title for this little column .
For this first edition I wanted to talk to you about Doom. I let myself go a little on the subject so I separated it into 3 parts but I promise, the next articles will surely be a little shorter!
The development of doom | Id nomine satanis
Ask any rockstar you know: the hardest part isn’t writing an album that’s going to top the charts. The most difficult thing is to write the next album. After the monumental success of Wolfenstein 3D, which made id Software the absolute star of PC development, the studio is expected to turn around and, true to its excessive ambitions, does not want to be satisfied with doing so well. Their goal, once again, is to create the impossible.
At ID Software, everything is fine. Or rather, should we write, at id Software, which has changed the spelling of its name since Tom Hall taught them that the id (the id, in French) is the instinctual part of the human soul. In any case, ID or id doesn’t matter, everything is fine. The cumulative sales of Keen and Wolfenstein 3D bring in two million a year (four million today), which these gamblers from Carmack and Romero invest in their first Ferraris, which will quickly become the symbol of the success of the studio. But even more than the financial success, the critical success of Wolfenstein exceeded all their expectations. It is rightly recognized as a major turning point in the history of video games. “More an interactive film than a game,” exclaimed the critics, while others found themselves gripped by nausea or panic attacks in the halls of Nazi castles (urban legends about gamers throwing up at game length rotate on the BBS). A Vietnam veteran writes to id to tell them how he used the game, and its striking realism, to overcome, little by little, the post-traumatic stress he has suffered since his escape from a prison camp. Players in 1992 are as fascinated, and terrified, by Wolfenstein 3D as viewers in 1896 were by L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. For John Romero’s hefty ego, it’s a dream come true.
But the work must continue. Shareware having its limits, the team decides to publish a commercial version of Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, for a publisher called FormGen. If the game is similar to Wolfenstein in almost every way, it is remarkable for its last level which, unlike the previous ones, does not take place in a Nazi fortress but in Hell, where the hero, B.J. Blazkowicz must snatch the spear of Longinus at the hands of a demon. The level is brief and without much ambition, but Adrian Carmack, who was getting tired of drawing Nazis, put all his twisted soul and all his talent into it, with ghosts, quirky demons and cages overflowing with debris. humans. The team’s taste for imagery and satanic references was nothing new: their passion for metal, of course, has something to do with it, but the Dungeons & Dragons campaign that John Carmack continued to be mastered since the days Softdisk had been taking an increasingly dark turn for some time, until its terrible conclusion: the invasion of the material plane by demonic hordes that the character of Romero, although equipped with a powerful Daikatana, failed to push back.
The need for speed.
Although he hasn’t played D&D since this apocalypse, John Carmack continues to iterate on his 3D engine, and ends up taking home the NeXT station on which he programs so that he can work non-stop and without distraction from morning to night. In addition, he recently worked with Raven Software, a video game company with which the id team befriended during his stay in Maryland, for the simple reason that they were the only other game developers in the city. Raven was working at that time on Shadowcaster, an action-adventure game, which Carmack had agreed to collaborate on to put some of his experiments into practice. On behalf of Raven, he is developing an improved version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine, capable of displaying textured floors and ceilings, outdoor areas and still rare graphic effects, such as fog and increasing darkness with distance. From this starting point, Carmack will improve the engine, breaking in particular with the logic of orthogonal walls inherited from old 2D maze games: instead of being composed of a grid of blocks, as in a Minecraft which would have a single floor of cubes, the levels were going to be composed of polygonal “sectors” of varying heights and shapes. The result is impressive but, unfortunately, quite slow, especially when many different sectors are visible on the screen (for example those which constitute the steps of a staircase), and Carmack is not satisfied.
To make matters worse, the company id delegated to port Wolfenstein 3D to the Super NES is an absentee, and if id doesn’t deliver the prototype in time, he’ll have to pay Nintendo a hefty penalty. Heartbroken, the team decides to put the work on hold to carry out the porting itself. Despite the talents of Hall, Carmack and Romero, who pulled their old assembly manuals out of the closet to program the Super Nintendo’s processor as efficiently as possible, nothing to do, the port is too slow. The Super NES, designed for 2D scrolling, is simply not capable of displaying a game like Wolfenstein at the correct speed. Luckily, during his nights spent going through the latest research in computer science and applied math, Carmack came across a paper from the research laboratory of AT&T, the American telecommunications company, entitled “Constructing good partitioning trees” (Building good partitioning trees). partitioning), which describes the principle of binary partition, consisting of dividing space in two several times in a row, to create a tree containing only convex areas. Then simply “go up” the tree starting from one of its leaves to draw only the elements currently visible on the screen. Optimized in this way, the Super NES version of Wolfenstein finally runs at a tolerable frame rate. And Carmack is quick to use the same algorithm to improve its new engine.
Hell and purgatory.
If the technical problems are solved, the same is not true of the creative problems. Tom Hall, unhappy that the team again seems to want to work on a game with dark corridors rather than a new Keen triology, pulls the face a little. For his part, Jay Wilbur, former Softdisk that id recruited to take care of administrative and commercial tasks, has an idea: to create an adaptation of Aliens. After all, the whole id team loves the James Cameron film and the rights are available. But Romero and Carmack, who value their independence more than anything, do not want to cede any creative control, which would be inevitable for a licensed game. And then John Carmack has another idea, an idea that has obsessed him since Catholic school and his role-playing games: a game where you fight demons. Romero, of course, exults. Adrian too, convinced that he will finally be able to put his unique talents to good use. That’s good, Carmack has already thought of a title, inspired by a scene from The Color of Money by Martin Scorsese: at one point in the film, Tom Cruise opens the briefcase where he stores his favorite pool cue. “What do you have in here? asks his opponent. “In here? Doom,” Cruise replies with a smile.
At the end of 92, the team already knew they had a future cardboard in their hands and, aware of its value, decided to abandon Apogee and to self-publish. Carmack’s new engine pushes all the technical limits, and the atmosphere of the game, which Romero imagines halfway between Evil Dead and Aliens, will push back those of decency, of what a video game can afford to show . For Tom Hall, such a game must also push the limits in terms of narration. He launches a draft scenario: the story will be that of scientists confronted with the demonic invasion of a lost planet, Tei Tenga. Tom Hall writes an 80-page design document, the “Doom Bible”
(which you can consult online: 5years.doomworld.com/doombible/doombible.pdf)
in which he throws all his ideas: an open-world game (Carmack told him that his new engine would no longer divide the world into levels) with four different characters, complex NPCs, cutscenes, twisted puzzles – for example a door which must be unlocked by severing a corpse’s hand and placing it on the palm reader -, six episodes plus a retail sequel, Spear of Destiny style, set on Earth… Huge ambitions, that the rest of the team doesn’t pay much attention to. Carmack thinks only of improving his engine and Romero of creating levels. As for Adrian and Kevin Cloud, they have fun with their new toy: a digital camera with which they photograph monster sculptures, which they animate in stop-motion, before retouching them in Deluxe Paint. It’s as if no one cared about the work done on his screenplay. “Tom, replies Carmack in a line that has remained famous, the story in a video game is like the story in a porn movie: we expect there to be one, but everyone don’t care. And then anyway, specifies Carmack, who discussed it with Romero, you have to drop the idea of the open world to return to a sequence of more classic levels: not only was it horrible in terms of the management of the memory, but players like the sense of progression that comes with getting to the next level. In short, all his work is good for the trash.
The Tom Hall of the Damned.
Freed from the task of writing a scenario, Tom Hall is given the task of helping Romero, who is currently the only level designer (even if the word does not yet exist). True to his usual serious manner, Hall goes to the local library and accumulates documentation on military installations in order to create the most realistic levels possible. But during the meetings, where the team takes stock of the progress made, the judgment of his colleagues is not very good. The Hall levels certainly look like authentic space bases, but especially those of Wolfenstein 3D, with walls at right angles and more or less rectilinear floors. Those of Romero, on the other hand, certainly only remotely resemble buildings designed and inhabited by humans, but they are baroque, crazy, full of surprises, with quirky shapes, switches that plunge the rooms into darkness. at the player’s first misstep and the monsters that pop out of the cupboards. Much more fun to play, and most importantly, much better showcases of the war machine that is Carmack’s new engine.
In the id team, a company founded on technical innovation, code (John) and gameplay (Romero) purists have taken the upper hand, and their decision: Tom Hall is no longer useful, he must leave. . The other members unanimously vote for his departure and Romero, his old friend, reluctantly agrees to be the one to tell him the bad news. He invites him to dinner at his house but, when he confesses the reason for this invitation, does not succeed. The next day, discovering that Romero had chickened out, Carmack took matters into his own hands: “Tom, it’s obvious that we’re not on the same wavelength anymore. The team is asking for your resignation. Surprised, disappointed, but relieved to leave a team in which he no longer found his place, Tom Hall agreed to pack his boxes. That day in the summer of 1993 when he walked through the door of id Software for the last time was seemingly of crucial importance – if Hall had won, if he had succeeded in convincing the two John that players “need a better reason to traverse levels than a switch to find”, as he himself puts it, Doom would arguably have been more like Deus Ex, and the whole FPS story, not to say video game, would have been changed.
Cthulhu to the rescue.
Tom Hall, the last trace of a serious spirit, being out of the game, the team is now entirely free of all childishness. Adrian and Kevin Cloud digitize everything they find, so long as it’s filthy: from plastic guns from the toy store next door (which will become futuristic weapons) to their own knee scratches (which will become the textures adorning the walls of hell). The first images shown to the public, and then the beta distributed to the press in October, were showered with praise and Doom is now one of the most anticipated games. On the BBS, the impatient pile up and joke to kill time. A little joker posts a message there explaining that we have no idea to call a game Doom, and that if it had been called “Smashing Pumpkins Into Small Piles Of Putrid Debris” (crush pumpkins into small piles of putrid debris), the hype would have been less. This makes id laugh so much that they choose IDSPISPOPD as a cheat code to walk through walls.
But time passes and id begins to wonder if the game will be released by the end of the year. However, the team has grown. John Carmack recruited Dave Taylor, a young engineer fresh out of the University of Austin, to work on secondary aspects of the engine, such as the automatic map. The designers asked Gregor Punchatz, son of illustrator Don Ivan Punchatz – who designed the cover of the game – to help them with the monster models. But it’s on the level design side that things get stuck. The departure of Tom Hall left a big void and, if Romero (also busy with game design) had time to finish a dozen levels, the account is not there at all. Miraculously, the team finds an email sent to them by Sandy Petersen, mainstay of Chaosium and creator of the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, looking for a job in the video game. A little chilled on learning that Petersen is a Mormon, Romero lets himself be convinced by Carmack to give him a chance and quickly falls in love. Although older than the rest of the team (he was 37 at the time), Petersen had an intuitive understanding of level design and what Doom should be. Recruited in disaster ten weeks before the release of the game, Petersen will pull out of the drawers the drafts of Tom Hall’s levels and create, in record time, no less than nineteen. His taste for Lovecraft and shapeless monstrosities will also have a considerable influence on id’s future creations.
The taste of sharing.
While Petersen cranks up the level, Carmack works on the last big missing feature: network play. Doom, it is in any case what was promised to the press, will have to make it possible to play several on the computers of a local network IPX (the ancestor of protocol TCP/IP). “If we manage to do that, Doom will be an incredible fucking game, the most incredible in history,” sums up Romero with his characteristic sense of proportion. To save time, it is decided that players will use the same sprites and will only be differentiated by a color change (originally planned to distinguish the different characters described in Tom Hall’s bible). After a few sleepless nights, Carmack finally created working network code. Gathered in front of the two PCs that Carmack has networked in his office, the team watches, fascinated, what no one has ever seen: two characters facing each other in a virtual 3D universe. Carmack presses a key on one of the machines and, on the other screen, the character crosses the field of vision of his companion. In front of Commander Keen, in front of Wolfenstein 3D, Romero had already had the intuition that they held a killer feature, a technical progress, a design element, which exceeded everything that had been done so far. This time, its excitement is beyond comprehension: the non-orthogonal levels, the lighting effects, the atmosphere worthy of Aliens, the gore worthy of Evil Dead, and now the online multiplayer game? Each of these elements, taken separately, would have already guaranteed the success of Doom. But the sum of all these elements? It wasn’t the PC video game that id Software was going to revolutionize, it was the video game as a whole! The history of the animated image! Popular culture! The world ! And at midnight on December 10, 1993, after having kicked some of the connected users who, having come too many, were preventing Jay Wilbur from uploading the files to the University of Wisconsin’s FTP server, id Software put the shareware version online. of Doom.