By Don Jolly
On December 9th, 1993, Senator Joseph Lieberman laid out an ultimatum to the videogame industry. He and fellow Democrat Senator Herbert Kohl were disturbed by the increasingly violent content of games, and had brought its representatives to Washington to discuss regulation. “The best thing you can do, not only for this country but for yourselves, is to self regulate,” Lieberman said. “Unless [you] people draw some lines, the sense that [America is] out of control is gonna lead to genuine threats to our freedom — which nobody wants to see.”
That night, as the hour ticked from 11:59 to midnight in the Central time zone, a group of game developers called id Software uploaded a chunk of “shareware” levels from their newest project to a fileserver owned by the University of Wisconsin. The server could accommodate 125 simultaneous users — impressive for its day. That night, it clocked over ten thousand. Everyone with an internet connection wanted a taste of id’s new game.
It was called Doom. “Out of control” is a good way to describe it.
In 2014, the American videogame industry pulled in around $13.1 billion dollars in sales. Its biggest success, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, placed each player in the role of a futuristic soldier, the game’s point-of-view resting comfortably behind his eyes, with a gun bobbing in the right-bottom corner of the screen. This genre, the “first person shooter,” or F.P.S., has dominated videogame sales and culture for more than two decades. Doom was where it all began.
There had been first person games before — some of the most successful, like the World War Two themed Wolfenstein 3D, had even been produced by id. But Doom was something else. In it, for the first time, players could navigate a wholly 3D world, running up stairs and through mazes and across pits of toxic waste, seeing everything exactly as they would through the eyes of their digital avatar.
The plot was simple. Players take on the role of an unnamed space marine in an indeterminate future, banished to the moons of Mars for striking a superior officer. Once there, a teleportation experiment goes awry — releasing demons from hell in the futuristic complex. “As you walk through the main entrance of the base, you hear
animal-like growls echoing throughout the distant corridors,” concludes the readme file packaged with the original game. “They know you’re here. There’s no turning back now.”
In practice, Doom is an exercise in reflexes and the conservation of resources. You travel through the increasingly surreal corridors of the Martian base, collecting weapons, including a shotgun, a rocket launcher and several types of energy rifle. Grotesque demonic monsters block your path, requiring speedy movement and accurate shooting to defeat them. Ammunition, health and armor are scarce, and every encounter is a gambit on the part of the player — a challenge to survive each combat while expending a minimum of supplies.
Aesthetically, the game draws on anarchic 1980s science fiction and horror films, soaking every spare patch of floor in blood and brains and entrails. Its soundtrack, composed by sound designer Bobby Prince, approximates Metallica as closely as the hardware of the early nineties could allow.
Doom was a legitimate phenomenon — totally unconcerned with the kind of restraint and forbearance Senator Lieberman wanted for its fledgling industry. In fact, id Software didn’t care much for the industry either. Doom was released, at least partially, for free. Its first chunk of levels were uploaded as “shareware,” free to play and copy. If you liked them, more were available — directly from Id. The developers didn’t scrape and bow for press coverage, nor did they advertise. Doom was its own advertisement — and loose on the nascent Internet, it went “viral.” Nothing had ever done so before.
At the time, the success of Doom seemed to presage a new way of doing business. “Profits from the Underground,” a profile of the company which appeared in Forbes magazine shortly after Doom’s release, speculated that id’s ridiculous profit-margin on Doom made “Microsoft look like a second-rate company.” Their revenue, the piece estimated, was in excess of ten million dollars — with practically no overhead. The American mainstream took notice. Doom was optioned for a film adaptation. Microsoft used a version of the game to demonstrate the multimedia capabilities of the then-upcoming Windows operating system. The answering machine at the id offices was inundated with opportunities. “If you are calling to discuss some great idea you have on how you can make money with our product, please press five now,” it said.
In 1994, the science fiction writer Dafydd ab Hugh was presented with an odd assignment. “My then literary agent was overly fond of assigning me to sundry media books, especially Star Trek books,” he told me, over e-mail, when I reached out to him this year. Pocket Books had just gotten the rights to produce a series of novels based on Doom, and ab Hugh was given the commission.
“The deadline was […] crazy,” he continued. “Three weeks from dead start to finished novel for each book […] I couldn’t possibly do it alone.” He reached out to he friend and fellow science fiction author Brad Linaweaver, whose alternate history novel Moon of Ice had been given positive notices by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and William F. Buckley Jr.. Together, they turned out four novels based on id’s bestselling game: Knee Deep in the Dead, Hell on Earth, Infernal Sky and Endgame. The result was, at the very least, a titanic work of literary embellishment. Doom’s story had already been stretched thin by the few paragraphs in its readme file.
John Carmack, the programmer responsible for creating Doom’s convincingly three-dimensional graphics, minced no words on the subject. “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie, he said. “[I]t’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
Given the task of filling four paperbacks guided only by a sub-pornographic plot, ab Hugh and Linaweaver felt empowered to explore ideas of their own. “We managed to turn in our manuscripts more or less on time, after which the editors underwent the grinding digestive process to remove as much true innovation as they could,” ab Hugh recalls. “Fortunately, the short turn-around precluded wholesale destruction.”
What survived is beautifully strange: a stream-of-consciousness sequence of gory action, sci-fi philosophizing and parodic nods to the original game, all rendered in prose so affectingly weird that it catches in your brain like a winter cough. Some examples:
— “No time for family background, keep him focused on how and why he became a cybermummy”
— “Old term; this guy’s in his thirties! Virtual Reality; we call it burfing now.”
— “The end of the foot fluffed out like bell-bottom pants, like my grandparents wore, like on The Brady Bunch. God, I was glad they didn’t live to see the monsters kill their children.”
Near the end of their second volume, ab Hugh and Linaweaver get reflective. “Jeez,” says their marine protagonist, “it’s like a sci-fi James Joyce.”
The story of the novels is an adventure; a cosmic odyssey undertaken by a pair of United States marines: Corporal Flynn “Fly” Taggart and Private First Class Arlene Sanders. In the first book, Knee Deep in the Dead, the pair fight their way out of the game’s demon-haunted Martian moons, only to find themselves within striking distance of Earth. The second volume, Hell on Earth, finds Flynn and Arlene back on their home planet, struggling to survive in a post apocalyptic world where demons — and willing human collaborators — have attained complete control. At this point, things take an unexpected turn.
The opening chapters of Hell on Earth track Fly and Arlene as they return to Earth via homemade rocket, landing somewhere in Utah. After a chapter of hopeless wandering, the pair spot Salt Lake City in the distance with its lights are still on. Somebody human, they figure, might still be in charge. Demons, however, aren’t their only concern.
“She was silent for a hundred paces; then she cleared her throat. ‘Fly, I have to confess something to you. Again.‘
‘I sort of have a problem with the Mormon Church,’ she said.”
As Hell on Earth proceeds, Arlene’s suspicions about Mormonism become the novel’s central theme. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, ab Hugh and Linaweaver inform us, was one of the few institutions in America that openly resisted the demonic invasion. For the most part, they say, the United States “has been co-opted by the demons,” with institutions from Hollywood to the I.R.S. to the D.E.A. capitulating to demonic demands.
Prior to the war, the book continues, Mormons across America had been preparing to survive on their own, without depending on unreliable institutions. Mormons, we are told, “have a strong survivalist streak,” stockpiling foodstuffs and munitions. What’s more, they were engaged in a vast, if benign, conspiracy prior to the invasion — working their way into posts at “the FBI, in the various armed services, in the CIA, even in NASA” as a bulwark against persecution as a religious minority. While perhaps a liability in different circumstances, this paranoid and fiercely independent vision of Mormonism is exactly what Hell on Earth’s Marine protagonists require. For them, Mormons are “ideal allies against a literal demonic invasion.” About halfway through the novel, Taggart and Sanders are joined by a Mormon sniper named Albert Gallatin. His theological sparring with Arlene enlivens the proceedings considerably.
In one passage near the conclusion, Albert & Arlene debate the causes of the invasion. “‘I think we’re all sinners,” Albert says. “We all deserve to die and be damned; we earned that fate when we disobeyed the Lord. Which is why we need the Savior. I take responsibility for the blood on my hands, even if I let him wash it clean.”
Arlene disagrees. “We have a difference there, my friend … I blame God,” she says. “My only regret is that I won’t meet God when I have a rocket launcher,
“You can’t blow up God, Arlene,” Albert adds.
Linaweaver and ab Hugh were quick to announce their agnosticism in our correspondence. “Neither of us is Mormon, aspires to become Mormon [or] has read the book of Mormon,” ab Hugh said. They included the Mormon in Hell on Earth, they said, out of a combination of personal interests and narrative practicalities.
“Mormons are prepared for survival, and in a geographically defensible location,” said Linaweaver. They just made sense as “a last hold-out against enemies invading the United States, whether the enemies were human or not.”
Ab Hugh contributed the idea of a Mormon conspiracy, drawing on G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography, Will, where Liddy complains about being hindered by a “Mormon Mafia” at the F.B.I.. In Hell on Earth’s context, however, the collusion is a help — a moment of pragmatic resistance to the wickedness of the mainstream. “I love putting very religious characters into my writings,” ab Hugh continued. “It gives them a transcendental source of inner strength and […] it annoys the heck out of liberals.”
Politically, ab Hugh and Linaweaver are best charted on libertarian end of the American right. “Dafydd and I are both odd ducks in the entertainment field because we are not part of the Liberal Democrat Mindset,” Linaweaver wrote to me. “Whereas Dafydd is more optimistic in the short run, I’m more pessimistic.” Both are skeptical of mass institutions — especially governmental ones.
“I see the future as an explosion of freedom,” ab Hugh wrote, to me. In the future, he continued, “I see the demise of transnational institutions [such as] corporations, political bodies [and] NGOs, followed by the collapse of nationalism [and] regionalism.” In the end, he said, we will be left with “small and temporary social bonds, often renegotiated.” Before that, presumably, will be years of trial and trouble.
The Mormonism of the Doom novels is, at first glance, bizarre. But in context, it makes a certain romantic sense. Playing Doom is actively engaging in a fantasy of armed, masculine independence. It’s easy to see in the gunfighting, of course — but just as active in the conservation of resources in which such combats are ensconced. In Doom there are no allies, no friends. The player, seeing through his or her character’s eyes, must learn self reliance if they are to advance. The Doom novels stretch this concept as far as it can possibly go — until the ideas of self-reliance and rugged survivability are expanded into the religious and the political. All roads lead to ab Hugh and Linaweaver’s post-apocalyptic Salt Lake City, and its isolated community of believers; An idealized enclave of America under siege. God and first person shooters make strange bedfellows, but ab Hugh and Linaweaver make them into a natural fit — even if one of their main characters wants to blow up God with a rocket propelled grenade.
On December 10th, 1993, Doom fired the first salvo of the Internet’s attack on traditional methods of media distribution, promotion and monetization. Senator Lieberman may have succeeded in getting the videogame industry to settle on a universal rating system (Doom 2, released in 1994, received its very first “Mature”) but Doom proved that the balance of power had shifted. The world of the digital was elusive, it announced, and could be neither predicted nor contained. Doom spread because it was allowed to, given away for free. It stayed around because its themes, while simple, were enduringly appealing and exquisitely communicated: the world is out to get you, trust yourself. Keep your weapons loaded.
“Maybe [Joseph Smith] was a madman,” Linaweaver wrote to me, “but we made the character Albert eminently sane, and one of our heroes.” It was an interesting bit of storytelling, sure — but in 1994, when he co-wrote Hell on Earth, the Internet was metastasizing, day-by-day. The future was in flux, and full of possibility.
It was a good hour for madmen — especially in licensed paperbacks.
 A “readme” is a file containing information about the other files in an archive or directory that is often distributed with computer software.
Don Jolly looks human but isn’t. His work has appeared on Boing Boing, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Ampersand Review.