When The Pro Turn Weird

Doom Eternal was delayed until March 20. It dropped – unintentionally – in the middle of a pandemic. Suddenly invasion of Earth by a terrifying inhuman force no longer felt like an abstraction. What I’ve found – sadly – quite fascinating is how the Doom 2016 reboot timeline’s narrative backdrop feels oddly in tune with the times. Even though it is very unlikely that the writers meant to tap into some kind of collective zeitgeist. I attribute this to the way in which the original Doom’s two primary inspirations – the Alien franchise and zombie/demon horror – have aged over time. These no longer feel fresh or iconoclastic. Rather, their social satire and iconography have become accepted landmarks in the world we use to orient ourselves. Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal evoke nostalgia for them, for sure. But the match of its mood to our current atmosphere shows we did not make a giant leap into a cyberpunk dystopia. We incrementally plodded toward it until the bottom dropped out.

The Doom franchise has never been big on plot – with the exception of Doom 3 – and narrative mostly emerges via action. The story is, in theory, really simple. Cyberpunk mega-corp Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC) keeps on summoning monsters from hell. Almost everyone dies. You, the Doom Marine, are the only one left and you have to shoot, punch, and chainsaw your way to victory. In the process, the Doom Marine’s burden takes on a kind of Sisyphean quality. Instead of Sisyphus pushing up his boulder, the Doomguy chainsaws the same demons over and over again. And unlike what Camus thought about Sisyphus, the Doomguy is not happy. He’s actually really angry. At the end of Doom 64, the Doomguy decides to stay in hell because he figures he might as well deal with things at the source instead of waiting for the hell portals to keep on getting opened over and over again. Without giving much away about Doom Eternal, he’s really, well, doomed to repeat all of this. Again and again.

When you awaken in Doom 2016, you are greeted with a message from Dr. Samuel Hayden, the head of the facility that the demons have just overrun. “I’m willing to take full responsibility for the horrible events of the last 24 hours, but you must understand: our interest in their world was purely for the betterment of mankind. Everything has clearly gotten out of hand now, yes, but it was worth the risk, I assure you.” This sniveling non-apology is juxtaposed with a mutilated corpse sitting next to you, and you smash the machine delivering the message in sheer rage. It doesn’t get any better. Walk through the abandoned UAC Mars facility and you will collect Codex entries filled with UAC diktat, which are simultaneously sociopathic and surreal. For example, “the FEAR of Hell is seen for what it really is: False Emotions Appearing Real.” And this, um, piece of guidance:

Should you find yourself caught in a level 3 demon contamination event, it is important that you remain clam. A Tier 3 advocate wouldn’t panic, and neither should you. We have a saying here in the Lazarus Labs - “if you want the job, act as if.” So, stop, think, and act as if you are a Tier 3 advocate. here are the steps you should follow:

1) Attempt to reach an emergency force field safety zone or a bulkhead door. Do not run as some of our transdimensional visitors are sensitive to movement.

2) Shut down any volatile equipment you may be using. Should you be unable to escape from the demons, it is important that you don’t leave that plasma cutter running where it could damage an important piece of machinery.

3) If there is no obvious escape route and you have powered down your equipment, give yourself over to the demon willingly. Studies have shown that infuriating a demon by running away can cause additional frustration in the predator, and that may result in your body being too badly mutilated for useful post mortem study. Simply kneel down, close your eyes, and wait. Remember you can be as useful in death as you are in life.

Similarly in Doom Eternal, demons are referred to with the euphemism “mortally challenged.” When demons overrun the lower levels of a UAC military outpost on Phobos, a UAC technician exclaims with astonishment “corporate says we should let them through!” There are of course several things going on that are familiar to genre fans. Earth cannot survive without the magical Argent energy – which has solved the Earth’s energy and environmental woes at the cost of literally extracting fuel from hell. Obviously the UAC is willing to take the “risk” that Hayden referred to. And certain elements within the UAC, led first by Olivia Pierce on Mars and later by cultists on Earth, believe they will find religious salvation from letting the demons cull humanity.

The UAC is of course not the first cyberpunk mega-corporation and Doom is not the first media product to depict Earth overrun by evil creatures and zombified humans. But what is fresh about the Doom reboot games – Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal – is their depiction of an utterly useless world in which entities like the UAC are more pathetic than menacing. No one is willing to take even rudimentary responsibility. And unlike the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the UAC is more incompetent than sinister. Passivity reigns. It would be one thing if greed and self-interest accounted for it, but clearly that isn’t really the only explanation for what is happening. Something much more outrageous, but also far more fatalistic and cynical.

Hayden – a genius scientist whose formidable powers have been augmented by a cyborg body – is more than aware that things from “their world” could destroy not only the UAC but also Earth itself. But his speech at the beginning really says it all. We had no choice. It was for everyone else’s benefit. There is no future beyond Argent energy. So while he takes “full responsibility” rhetorically there is no real responsibility taken in actuality. He’s a mere functionary that has been subsumed – both metaphorically and literally – into a huge machine. And in some ways, the Olivia Pierce faction’s outright willingness to offer themselves to hell is just Hayden’s philosophy taken to a logical extreme.

Hayden’s belief that there is nothing that can be done and that everyone should just passively accept the possibility of demons from hell invading can be spiritualized into a theology of salvation through culling. Let the demons come. It isn’t as bad as it looks. Maybe you can be “useful in death” as you are in life. Pierce is of course not sincere and her last message viciously mocks the lay followers who sacrificed for her. She will ascend to heaven, they will rot alone and forgotten. The insane UAC codex messages you recover in Doom 2016 often feel like a mishmash of Hayden’s faulty justifications and Pierce’s religious fervor. But they both point to the same outcome. Time to rev up that chainsaw, space marine. Because there’s some demons and they got big guts!

Like Hideo Kojima, the original 1993 Doom creators were primarily inspired by movies. They were raised on 70s and 80s movies with a recurring and shared set of themes. The catastrophic consequences of large institutional failures loom large, which creates the context for lone heroes being stalked by horrifying creatures through claustrophobia-inducing and decaying dystopian technological environments. The dramatic stakes are downplayed by heavy metal riffs, power fantasies, and campy humor. Duke Nukem, a similar 1990s FPS franchise, tilts even more in the latter direction with a heavily muscled wisecracking hero that can’t stop incessantly referencing genre movies. In context, this combination is very familiar. Snake Plissken’s sense of outlaw cool and ironic distance is what makes Escape from New York fun despite the assumption that Manhattan has been turned into a giant prison in a post-apocalyptic United States.

But in 2020, it is no longer fresh. At the same time, it also isn’t stale either. There is a very big debate lately about how relevant cyberpunk is, and it is hard to answer that question for many reasons. What is cyberpunk? How is our experience of it mediated by particular national context? And is “cyberpunk” here also separable from the generalized wave of nostalgia for cinema, comics, music, and other media from the late 70s to the early 90s? Most importantly, what in aggregate did cyberpunk promise about the future? I don’t think it is possible to answer that question universally. But the omnipresent cynicism the genre exhibited about authorities and governance – even within things like The Running Man that were more jokey than serious – provide something of a crude answer. Take, for example, this quote from a recent article on political theory:

What appeared clear though, is that there was strong resistance to the notion of the government actually doing anything… Viewed alongside this invocation of…wartime stoicism, the complete lack of executive leadership, discussion of providing essential resources, mobilisation of industry and population in the service of a common good, is particularly striking… Philosopher Stanley Cavell once asked the question: ‘what kind of world is it in which, though recognized to be patriarchal, there are no patriarchs?’ We might ask a similar question of a world seemingly predicated on ‘leadership models’; ostensively structured around a leadership culture (there are a great many books straddling the self-help, business, and sport section overlaps of bookshops, or within the catchall of ‘smart thinking’ that centre and widely diverge on the subject and strategy of ‘leadership’ – the same shelves that house Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge…and which the Guardian describes as a ‘jolly economic romp’); that is, this conjuncture’s structure is organised around apperceiving itself as led, to the extent that leaders themselves might then drop out of the equation, and a form of human fronting take their place. This is to say that leadership in this conjuncture has become virtual or hauntological; mechanised and bureaucratised to the extent that human agency can become circumvented.

When disaster strikes, the public is told to remain calm, sit back, and wait for the government to come to their aid. Don’t be alarmed, just keep watching television. But no help is forthcoming, because no one actually wants to do anything. Leadership itself vanishes into the machine, and the machine itself functions based on the premise that there is someone at the controls even though any such agency has long since been subsumed. Despite the public performance of leadership, leadership is ultimately always someone else’s problem. Hollow invocations of past sacrifices and calls to keep on keeping on persist even though it is unclear what sacrifice and patience will accomplish.

Ultimately all of this is just the future depicted in the 70s-90s culture tranche linearly progressing forward. The future is now evenly distributed. Which is why the UAC feels more pathetic than dangerous. Why everyone – from Hayden to Pierce – is so passive. Why “corporate says we should let them through” right as the demons are overrunning the lower levels. In the new Doom, the only way to improve on the pre-existing formula is to simply make every other source of authority look so pathetically worthless that you, the Doom Slayer, feel tremendously powerful.

Despite, of course, being a lethal janitor that spends the majority of your time cleaning up after everyone else’s mistakes. It is unsurprising that you have no personality and your only emotions are just mindless rage. The new Doom is not really an advance or regression in themes people have grown very accustomed (maybe too accustomed) to. It’s the point at which their increasingly stagnant quality mirrors the generalized stagnation of the society that surrounds them. And very effectively so.