Second Opinion: In Defense of Doom 3’s Flashlight

As Much A Classic As The Originals, But In A Different Way

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

Hi, everybody!  I’m Doctor I Coleman.  No, I may not be a “real” doctor if you’re the type of person who insists on labeling everything, but I do play a lot of Pandemic, which is basically the same thing.  I know a lot of people might be feeling a little stressed or nervous right now, so I figured this week I’d talk about a game that was just good after spending the last two weeks sacrificing sacred cows.  Besides, I figure we’re overdue for a return to what first made me popular on this channel, which is to say, the Doom series of videogames.  Yep – I’m gonna give the polarizing Doom 3 a much-needed Second Opinion.

Now I understand that some of you might not think this video is necessary.  With the release of the Doom 3 BFG Edition a couple years back a lot of critics rescinded their prior ire towards the game and admitted that it was actually pretty good.  And even at release it did a lot better than, say, Battleborn.  But there’s no denying that the third game in the storied Doom series remains one of the most polarizing games of all time, a real love-or-hate experience, and while mainstream games criticism may have shifted towards the former in recent years there’s still one group that hasn’t: the hardcore Doom community, whose main praise of the reboot that came out earlier this year was “Oh, thank G-d – it’s not like Doom 3.”

And sure – y’all know I loved DOOM 2016.  I’ve done two videos on it already and I’m sure there’s more on the way. And I get why hardcore fans liked it more than Doom 3 – it’s because the latter really isn’t a Doom game.  Unlike the other three, it’s not about making you feel like as tough a badass as possible.  It’s not focused around large-scale fights requiring an intricate knowledge of your weapons and the monsters you’re fighting with them.  And most of the bright colors of the other games have been replaced with brown, grey, and brown.  But as nice as it was to have a reboot that took everything that was great about the original games and brought it back for the modern era, Doom 3 was an example of something we don’t see very much in games: a reboot that took the original and used it is a starting off point to make something that, while completely different, was still amazing.

That’s right: Doom 3 isn’t just “good”, it’s not just something where you shrug and go “coulda been worse”, it is a modern masterpiece.  A real 10/10, not an IGN 10/10.

And to talk about it, we first need to understand what Doom 3 actually is.  Like I said, it’s not a Doom game.  It’s not a fast-paced action game.  Instead, it’s a horror shooter, and that can be a tricky thing to get right.  How do you make monsters and situations scary when you can just blast your way out of them?  By doing what Doom 3 did, which is to keep the player constantly on edge by making sure they never know what to expect.

Oh, sure, you can kill an imp with a single shotgun shot.  If you know where it is.  But since they can teleport in anywhere, even behind you, or even in areas you’ve already cleaned out, you can’t just move forward guns blazing.  Instead, the player is forced to be constantly checking all sides, and even then, you’re going to be scared by something jumping out of what you thought was a normal patch of wall.  There’s several places in the game where you’ll hear the distinct sound effect of some monster – something which the first two games trained you to listen for – and no monster will actually arrive, making you even more paranoid.

In fact, one of the best (and sadly, least-talked-about) moments in the entire game is when you finally get to Delta Labs.  The entire game you’ve been hearing about how Delta Labs is the most dangerous place in the whole facility, the eye of the demonic invasion.  You know this place is going to be filled with monsters, and you’ve been saving up ammo for when you get there.  And then when you do…there’s nothing.  For almost the entire first area there’s no monsters whatsoever, just a lot of blood and destruction, and then every so often there’s the sound of a monster coming in.  I must have played the game ten times or so by now, and even I still panic and think that the monsters are coming sooner than they actually are, every time.  And then, when the fight finally does come, it’s so brutal and difficult that you almost wish it hadn’t.

And you know what else, and this is something that’s likely to get really controversial even if you’re a fan of the game?  The fact that the game’s so dark is a good thing, as was the design decision where you could only use the flashlight or a weapon.  The horror of the game, which is the emotional response that makes it fun to play, comes from the fact that you’re never quite sure what’s going on, or whether what you’re doing right now is going to be the right way to proceed without getting killed (spoiler: it never is).  Not being able to see the monsters properly, even when they’re right there in front of you, is the next logical step after not knowing where they’re going to come from, and the environment is intelligently designed so that the areas where you most desperately want there to be light are the darkest.  And this was completely ruined when the BFG Edition, in all other ways a superior port of the game, made the flashlight and your gun one and the same.

I mean, yeah, sure, the “No Duct Tape On Mars” problem wasn’t realistic, but this is a game series about creatures from Hell invading a Mars base.  Since when was realism more important than good game design, especially in a Doom game?  Adding the two together undermines one of the most powerful and difficult choices in the game: dealing with the lantern man.  In this scene, you have two choices: protect a man carrying a lantern through a pitch-black environment, which calls more and more imps to attack you, or let him die and face fewer monsters but be forced to navigate the dark on your own.  It’s a much less difficult choice – and it kind of undermines your position as the hero of the story – when you can have your cake and eat it too.

Every element of Doom 3 is a fine-tuned horror machine, which is why fans of the original game didn’t like it as much.  The guns feel and sound weak and ineffectual because they’re not supposed to make you feel powerful – they’re supposed to be a scared marine’s last line of defense against a better-coordinated, better-supplied, physically stronger enemy force.  The environments are dark and claustrophobic because you’re not supposed to feel like you can move around freely – you’re meant to feel trapped in your own home base.  And I could go on all day about the game’s iconic moments, a couple of which I’ve already touched on.  Things like your first encounter with a pinky demon.  Look at how well this is scripted – the pounding on the door goes on just a little longer than you expect it to, and then, after all that – he comes through the window, catching you even more off guard when you don’t know what’s coming.  And this is for one of the weakest monsters in the game.  What’s more, the game subverts the expectations of hardcore fans of the classic games to create something that’s even more terrifying for longterm fans of the series – things like how the chainsaw, the go-to demon killer in Doom 1 and 2, is absolutely worthless against the demons in Doom 3.

And this brilliant gameplay is complemented by a brilliant story…and I’ve just lost the rest of you.  Okay, look, I get it.  I know that Malcolm Betruger is about as subtle in his evil intentions as freaking Gargamel, but I still think he’s a memorable, charismatic, and downright disturbing villain who asks the question of whether he’s just being controlled by the demons or whether he was really that gung-ho to sell out his species.  The same can be said of Sarge, and I like that the “good guys”, both the marines and the UAC officials trying to shut everything down, are morally ambiguous as well.  No, it’s not the best narrative a videogame’s ever had, but can there be any doubt that this is the definitive version of the Doom story?  I mean, it’s a hell of a lot better than that accursed film adaptation.

Sure, a lot of the things that make the story as clever as it is were done in other games first.  But isn’t that what creativity is?  Taking other people’s ideas and making them into something new.  Yeah, the opening is a lot like the original Half Life, minus the boring unskippable train ride, but it’s still a really nice touch to for the first and last time ever see the UAC facility pre-demon-invasion and move through the same areas again after all the people you were chatting with have been turned into zombies.  And the oft-maligned audio logs might have been pretty obviously lifted from System Shock, but I think it really works here.  In fact, I think it works better, in part because of the really good character writing of Matthew Costello, who manages to make a hundred different scientists feel for the most part like distinct and interesting characters, and in part because Doom 3‘s endless spooky corridors lend themselves really well to putting on an audio log and walking around, letting the dying words of the UAC employees help to make the spooky setting all the more so.

Costello really doesn’t get enough credit for his work on this game, in my opinion.  He not only gets how to tell a good sci-fi story, he gets how to tell a good Doom story.  The premise of Doom is inherently ridiculous – an impossible mixture of far-future tech bases and Biblical demonic imagery.  The old games smartly communicated this exclusively through atmosphere, combining the two aesthetically through the…well, artful art of Adrien Carmack.  And the new game has basically decided to not even try to marry the two, segregating the tech base parts of the game and its tepid yellow version of Hell in a way that feels really disjointed but which we’re willing to overlook because the game’s just that fun.  But Costello manages to take a story about demons, giant megacorporations, futuristic technology that’s actually surprisingly scientifically viable and Martian civilizations and make it all feel like part of a cohesive whole, all while propelling the player towards a truly epic final chapter.  Only in the last moments of the game, in what is in my opinion one of the coolest boss fights of all time, against an enemy too big to even be seen and too powerful to attack directly, does the player finally get to feel like the badass Doom Slayer of legend, and the fact that it takes so much helplessness, terror, and real human suffering to finally get there makes it feel all the more rewarding.

So the next time you’re making jokes about how Doom 3 was just a black screen, you should consider the following: do I really have a problem with the videogame Doom 3?  Or do I just not like the fact that it wasn’t what I expected, i.e., a followup to Doom 1 and 2.  Because I think if you judge the game by its own merits, and not by anything else, you’ll find one of the best balances of pulse-pounding combat and sheer terror ever programmed.

And that’s my professional opinion.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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