Digital Disquiet: How 8- and 16-bit Games Taught Me the Power of Dread


by Jesse Miksic

I. Trainsylvania

It’s cold and wet – the worst kind of early winter morning.

I’m traversing a landscape under endless gray cloud cover, the ground softened to the consistency of flesh by a long night of rain. I pass through areas that look like small cities, sprawls of gray buildings groped by the fingers of decay, but almost deserted – whatever people I see are glazed over, lurking in doorways and around corners. The rest of the journey is through light woods, among leafless trees… or over swamps, the endless texture of jaundiced reeds broken up by stagnant brown streams. Occasionally, I pass a hulking structure of brick and iron, falling apart from the inside, begging to be demolished so people can stop asking what it was ever for.

Is this Castlevania? Or is it New Jersey?

In fact, it was a depressing train ride up the Northeast Corridor line of New Jersey Transit. Depressing, but somehow faintly nostalgic, reminding me of the empty, disquieting landscape of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. It strikes me, now and often, that this game has made such a mark on my subconscious. This is not the first time it has been evoked by some incidental quality of the outside world.

For those who grew up with them, those late 1980s/early-1990s golden-age console and PC games can represent a great many things. They can still evoke long-lost affective states, emotive chords that have never been struck by any other medium. I’m an avid reader and a part-time cinephile, but books and movies have never done to me what Castlevania and many of its 8- and 16-bit peers did. There is a special sense of dread and anticipation, a special experience of the sublime, that belongs uniquely to those games, and that will be forever captured in my earliest memories like a solution in a jar, waiting to be occasionally stirred up by a passing remark, a news story, or a train ride.

That sense of dread is unique to those particular video games, that unrepeatable phase of gaming history that lingered for a few years and then vanished into the slipstream of forward progress. Within a decade, that style of gameplay was entirely lost, crowded out by cinematics and back-story and sensationalism. I’m glad I got to live it at that receptive stage of my life, because it’s not coming back.

II. Castlevania II and the Indifferent Universe

The Castlevania series has always been a showcase of excellent game design, but the most audacious (partly because it was so early and innovative) was Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. In blocky NES-era sprite graphics, the designers at Konami created an ominous world abandoned by God, a Victorian Gothic Romance landscape interspersed with Houses of Usher. This world was not created as a cradle for its characters, but rather, as a slight against them, a meditation on decay and mortality.

Castlevania II’s barrage of Gothic themes was ceaseless and brutal. You could feel the weight of the gray sky during the day, even in the towns, which were mysterious, shuttered suburbs that felt empty and uneasy. Houses were single, empty rooms with an occasional single resident standing alone at the far end. The only place where this felt natural was the church, where you could be healed, if you could make it there. The impulse of the story – loosely explained by the anemic instruction manual – was that you were mortally cursed by Dracula, your old enemy, and in order to shed the curse, you had to collect his body parts from their tombs, reassemble the dark adversary, and destroy him utterly. It seems that even in his dismembered state, Dracula could weave a doomsday spell over you.

As if the barren landscape and vagrant monsters weren’t enough during the day, in Castlevania II, you had to deal with a primitive diurnal cycle. After a few minutes of gameplay, you would suddenly freeze, and out of nowhere an alert would spring like the voice of a cruel deity:


Suddenly, the monsters would be fast and strong – aggressive, rather than merely troublesome. The townsfolk would disappear, and they would be replaced by the restless dead, casing the locked houses and hunting for bystanders. The church was still a safe place, if you could get there, but it seemed to be less a function of God’s presence, and more the result of an aura that the monsters found distasteful.

Martin Heidegger spoke of something called ‘thrownness’ – that we are born into a universe not of our own choosing, and we have to confront it on its own terms and attempt to carve out a space within it. This is certainly the fate of Simon Belmont. Nobody would choose to be born into this blasted antiquarian Earth, where whips and headstones are your only companions. Every other Non-Player Character (NPC) keeps a low profile and huddles in a row-house, but Simon has to wander out into the wilderness, facing dark nights and itinerant werewolves, and he has to burrow into the depths of stone fortresses to dispel the curse that afflicts him.

Lest you forget, this is the hero of Castlevania! Once, he was a chosen son, saving the world! Now, according to this sparse backstory, he’s paying for it with his own suffering. His reward for his good deed? He now has to reverse it, reassembling his enemy for a retrial and a second punishment. He has not “risen” to this task, nor been appointed patron hero by some protective monarch. There is no ritual of anointing or acceptance (vis à vis Campbell’s monomyth, reproduced in all the Zelda games). Rather, he has been condemned to it – thrown, as it were, into an afflicted life.

And make no mistake – he is alone in this endeavor. Townspeople are silent and monsters are everywhere. Death itself quickly becomes Simon’s most precious companion… he dies so often, it becomes second nature to hit continue, accepting his resurrection, returning to the fray. If he isn’t done in by a missed jump or a watery sink-hole, he inevitably dies by pure attrition… eventually, he gets clipped and bitten by monsters so often that he submits to fatigue and blood loss.

Castlevania II‘s gothic themes were painted thickly on the surface, more than almost any other game of its era. The next one I know that was so bleak was a number of years later, the RPG called Daggerfall, for the PC (to be covered later in this piece). But the deepest and most dreadful assertion of Castlevania II was the indifference of its universe – the frigid demeanor of its citizens, the vastness and hostility of the countryside and the cruelty of its skeletal narrative. You had no reason to want to live in Castlevania, so it’s fitting that you learn to die there, always pushing as far as possible before the next demise.

III. Prince of Persia and the Cycle of Self-Destruction

Castlevania II was tough on players, but it wasn’t the toughest. Among the contenders for that honor is Prince of Persia, a fluid side-scrolling platformer released in 1989 and migrated across many platforms over the subsequent years of gaming advancement. It was exotic. It was sadistic. It was a game forged in the fires of madness.

Like most games of its age, Prince of Persia had little back-story to speak of. There was something about a Grand Vizier keeping a Princess captive in a great palace; you were a lithe prisoner dressed in rags, dropped unceremoniously into an endless dungeon below the aforementioned chateau. At the outset, those narrative details were irrelevant… your raison d’être was to survive your first step in a building that is apparently designed to kill you. This is not the time to be distracted by romantic encounters.

In case you haven’t played this type of game, I’ll clue you in to the basic procedure. You try to advance, and you die. Repeatedly. For hours and hours. And eventually, you get to the stairway to the next floor, and you take it. And then, it’s back to the dying. Run a step too far? You die. Put pressure on a trapped tile? Death. Don’t get a running start before jumping? Death. Encounter a guard while unarmed? He will not even try to apprehend you. He will impale you on his saber, and you will breathe your last breath along the steel of his blade.

In fact, the whole architecture of that dungeon seems designed to place your cycle of deaths at the center, like you’re a specimen under glass, compelled by unseen forces into an endless repetition of suicide. Dammit, why didn’t they put you into a cell and slip you an occasional bowl of gruel? And why are there no other prisoners, except maybe the guards themselves, some of whom seem to have died on the job? This obviously isn’t a normal penitentiary, or even a general-purpose torture chamber or punitive labyrinth. This is purely personalized, a Hell designed just for you.

Suddenly, all sorts of precedents spring to mind. Perhaps the most instructive is Dante’s 8th Circle for the Sowers of Discord, who were forced to walk in rounds for eternity. On each repetition, they would encounter an armed demon, and they would be systematically dismembered. They would gather their severed limbs and return to the back of the queue, and by the time they reached the front, they would be healed enough to be chopped up again. For a player of Prince of Persia, this should sound familiar.

Who would impose such a punishment on a lone, possibly innocent youth? What kind of sadist would create a dungeon devoted to such a cycle, an eternal recurrence of gruesome death and rebirth into hopelessness? This question is further complicated when you climb up to the palace’s higher levels, where you discover something even more disturbing: this palace’s dungeon was only the beginning of its derangement.

As you climb, your surroundings grow more opulent, but they don’t give way to banquet halls and sitting-rooms. In fact, the higher you go and the more decorous your surroundings, the more vicious the traps and the more elaborate the tangled hallways. This isn’t a place of residence, a seat of politics, or a repository of art… Rather, it’s the writhing interior of a lunatic’s mind, a deranged universe where luxury is correlated with confusion, torture, and death.

The Grand Vizier’s palace is an afflicted world, a demented Plato’s Cave crafted in the fires of sadism and anxiety. There’s something self-abusive about the sheer density of these traps and the bizarre arrangement of spiked floors and inaccessible corridors. As you ascend, you are infiltrating some sort of paranoid subconscious, as if you were the psychologist, probing this neurotic, unrepentant landscape. You can only reach its elusive pineal gland, the coveted Princess’s chamber, by submitting endlessly to its murderous whims, distracting it by presenting your many deaths as a spectacle to its inwardly-turned eye.

This landscape calls to mind the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was a master of creating complex inner worlds and experimenting with the cyclical, irretrievable paradoxes of time. Prince of Persia certainly has that Spanish Arab flavor, reminiscent of Borges’ stories like The Zahir and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. This becomes especially true later in the game, when you start encountering shadow versions of yourself and discovering reality-slipping architecture that seems to respond to your essence, rather than your mass. There are stairs upwards, and occasional encounters with the open sky, but no apparent doors to any outside world. The Grand Vizier’s palace is an isolated Borgesian universe.

Yet, Borges was a more gentle and cerebral writer than whatever consciousness has imprisoned the Prince. If the palace is part Borges, it’s also part Harlan Ellison, the author of such manic and dystopian stories as Deathbird and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. The latter tale is about a small band of human survivors, kept alive indefinitely to suffer for man’s final sin: the creation of a conscious computer that would eventually swallow all of the world’s resources and reality. The computer invents an endless parade of torments for his human subjects, just as the cruel God (or Sheitan, or Set) of Prince of Persia seems to have done with the Vizier’s palace. Like Ellison’s computer, Prince of Persia‘s overlord keeps you forever running, jumping, and tip-toeing in fear, with only the barest sustenance to keep you alive for the next encounter.

There are potions you can drink to mend yourself, but in a vicious labyrinth like this one, is prolongation really an act of mercy? After all, your deaths in those vast, twisted halls will send you far back, undoing a great deal of progress… most of the time, those potions are simply giving you a few more minutes, a few more steps forward, and adding an extra degree of frustration to your next failure.

And if the healing potion is a mocking prolongation, the CONTINUE button is a complete submission to the cycle: death, continue, death, continue, another impalement, another hesitant step. Every time you hit Continue, you are gathering your body parts and reassembling yourself for another round of abuse.

Literature has examined the burdens of immortality (Melmoth, Dorian Gray, Tuck Everlasting), and films have reflected upon death’s brutal banality (Antonioni, Haneke). But film and literature can’t do this. Even the most shocking torture-porn or the most unexpected termination (Marvin in Pulp Fiction) don’t amount to the meaninglessness of a main character’s life in these golden-age electronic games. Even when they’re bizarre, or out of left field, movie-deaths at least register as events and turning points in the narrative flow. In the nihilistic early side-scrollers, your death was one of hundreds, endlessly repeatable, and the world was indifferent to it. Everyone else else came back in the appointed role in every cycle, just like you.

IV. Out Of This World, The Digital Sublime, the Leap of Faith

If Castlevania is Bram Stoker and Prince of Persia is Jorge Luis Borges, then — at the risk of getting into a game of 8-bit lit crit — Out of This World is Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. Designed by Eric Chahi and released in 1991, Out of This World had a massive influence on the platformer genre. In it, your avatar is Lester Knight Chaykin, a physicist who is caught in a lightning-induced particle accelerator accident and displaced onto an alien planet. There, you find yourself in a situation similar to those of Simon Belmont and the imprisoned Prince: alone in a hostile environment, doing your best to survive, emerging from an abyss at the foot of the vast unknown.

The planet of Out of This World is empty and nameless, like the desolate reaches of Castlevania, but it is far more picturesque. You are born into this world from a strange, deep, perfectly-square pool of water, modernist in geometry, but natural in origin, as far as I can tell. At certain moments, the landscape feels like a jungle, harkening to Pitfall (as you swing from a vine and stomp on poisonous leeches). At the same time, you can see in the distance an array of mesas, buttes, and hoodoos, rock formations common to the arid American Southwest.

This is a quiet, soft-focus remix of the Earth we inhabit. It is a landscape at the intersection of familiarity and strangeness, tinted with loneliness and oppression — Lester is taken to an alien city that harbors a decadent, militaristic culture, and all the lurking citizen-soldiers seem idle and distracted. In your brief visit to this planet, you barely penetrate the shallowest surface of its mysteries, whose traces you see all around you, in the swinging cages, the subterranean tunnels, the fortified corridors. Not knowing, but SENSING, the staggering depth of this alien world is one of the most powerful effects of the game’s experience. You move from setting to setting feeling the weight of your own uncomprehension, which becomes a sense of wonder, felt in the face of the unknown.

If you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, you may be familiar with the resonance of Out of This World. Chahi’s game isn’t so subtle as Bradbury’s dying Mars, which is steeped in the warm embrace of a final, luminous slumber. However, at the same time, Chahi’s vision may actually be more effective than Bradbury’s at making the participant feel like they’re truly lost in this alien landscape, and thus, more free to engage with it and dissolve into its mysteries.

Of course, this deceptively calm planet harbored its share of punishment. When you materialize in the depths of that pool, there’s already a tangle of tentacles creeping toward you to pull you into its depths. If you don’t press “Up” within a few seconds, you’ll die your first death, and discover, almost immediately, the unforgiving nature of this environment. Though it was short, this was the harshest of all these early games… at least Prince of Persia occasionally allowed for a shortcut or gave you an easy turn. In Out of This World, you have to die at least once in virtually every situation, and normally, you die a great number of times before you ascertain its solution. Your deaths occur in quick succession, without warning or ceremony, banal contingencies in a universe with other things to worry about.

Somehow, death’s frequency does not numb your sensitivities, but rather, amplifies them. After a few deaths, you become a sort of paranoid android, your behavior alternating between jumpy tip-toeing between rooms and terrified flight from certain death. It’s striking that against these still blue vistas, your only hope of salvation is to embrace the desperate neurosis of a convict caught up in an impossible escape.

At these times – in the depth of the flooded tunnels, or locked in the hanging cage – Out of This World starts to feel less like a Ray Bradbury reverie and more like an HP Lovecraft nightmare. After all, you were sucked into an inter-dimensional portal and flung somewhere into the distant cosmos. Your first death was probably in the grip of some inexplicable, very grabby tentacles. And this planet does seem characterized by an emptiness and isolation that’s very peculiar to Lovecraft’s universe, as if the life on this planet has never flourished, and has to struggle to maintain its hold on the biosphere.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, Out of This World is permeated with fear, no less than awe, of the unknown. In this respect, it occurs at a fault line between the wonder of Bradbury and the horror of Lovecraft, and at this convergence, it approaches something like the sublime. Despite the 8-bit graphics, you can feel in your bones the depth of those tunnels, and the height of those towers. Part of what keeps you, the player, coming back for so much punishment is the sense that each minor advancement in gameplay may herald a new discovery about this gorgeous, traumatized landscape.

And if each new frontier feels like a flight of discovery, it’s because these many deaths in the interim drag you down like an existential anchor. Out of This World is challenging enough, cryptic enough in its puzzles and obscure enough in its mechanics, that you are never guaranteed to find a solution to a particular puzzle. The old assurance of, “If I keep doing it long enough, I’ll HAVE to figure it out eventually” doesn’t hold with a game this difficult, and surely thousands of players abandoned it because of some apparently impossible puzzle. After all, those deaths start to take their emotional toll, even through the filter of a TV screen.

The nightmarish hostility of this world – and the devastating loss of progress entailed by failure – make each life and death cycle seem laden with consequences, however inconsequential it’s ultimately rendered. What keeps you coming back is an obsessive insistence within yourself: “I know what I did wrong. This time, I’ll get through it. I just need to get to the next save point.”

Every decision to continue is fertilized by a profound sense of responsibility, a willingness to deal with the consequences of mistakes. In each case, this seed grows into an act of will, a conviction to return to the scene of failure and make another attempt to convert it into success. Though it rapidly becomes clear that victories – even minor ones – are never guaranteed, the wonder and frustration of the game still calls upon the player to keep making that leap of faith… to keep committing that offense against inevitability by pressing “Continue” and resurrecting Lester on that nameless alien planet.

V. Quest For Glory III and Cosmologies of the Absurd

By 1992, platformers were no longer the only game format available, especially on PC’s. The stage had been set by text- and still-based adventure games (Tass Times in Tonetown, etc), and Ultima, Dragon Warrior, and Final Fantasy had established the template for the CRPG. The eventual offspring of the scenic graphic adventure games was Sierra’s King’s Quest, a series of games in which you wandered a large universe of individual scenes, each hand-rendered from some convenient camera angle. You were free to travel at your own discretion, and you would encounter NPC’s and puzzles, which you would solve by noting details around you, interacting with objects and characters, and gradually untangling a mess of offbeat minor plotlines.

Sierra followed this up with the Quest for Glory series, which followed a similar template, but included such RPG elements as inventories, trade, skills, character classes, leveling, and combat. The Quest for Glory series was structurally ambitious… originally, it was planned to include four games, each reflecting a season and an element, and each set within a different regional atmosphere. After the first two games (Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero, and Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire), the creators veered from their planned trajectory, deciding that the hero wasn’t yet ready for the escalation and climax of his final two adventures.

So they created Quest for Glory III: Wages of War.

Quest for Glory III was the bastard child of this cardinal-directions concept, a game that wasn’t expected among the original four. It was also the first of the series to use the then-advanced VGA graphics interface, and the first to rely entirely on a point-and-click control scheme, abandoning the text parser that was still lingering from the older text-based games. It was also a corrosive compound of apocalyptic anxiety and absurd humor, the latter being a hallmark of Sierra’s game design at the time. There are few games as fit as QfG3 to demonstrate the uneasy combination of levity and gravity that characterized adventure games in the 1990’s.

At the outset of Quest for Glory III, you, an adopted Prince of the kingdom of Shapeir (see earlier games), are summoned to the homeland of your friend Rakeesh, a liontaur (half man, half lion, of course). It is a land in crisis – old hostilities between the three dominant societies are being stirred up, and dark forces seem to be gathering over the region. Of course, your task as the hero from abroad – the Beowulf of Shapeir – is to avert an impending war by exposing and destroying the forces behind its inflammation.

The game’s aesthetic is obviously based on Egyptian and African traditions, and this affects its entire visual palette and vocabulary: towns look like tribal villages and sandstone cities, the climate is hot and dry, and the world-map is clearly a savannah. In the course of play, you encounter a religious icon that resembles a sphinx, a full in-game simulation of Mancala, and two races biologically derived from large jungle cats. There’s definitely a touch of Heart of Darkness to Quest for Glory III, as you, an outsider, discover the inner workings of a “dark continent” under a curse of violence.

Conrad is an interesting parallel, but not a perfect one. In this world, you encounter a great deal of cultural specificity and appreciation for traditions, probably more than Conrad showed the subjects of his own work. The three dominant peoples are all different races – the Liontaurs being cosmopolitan and Spartan, the Simbani being nomadic and aboriginal, and the Leopardmen being isolationist and exotic. There is an unmistakable sense of hierarchy in Tarna, with humans being of lower status than the liontaurs, and with a great deal of respect accorded to religious leaders, warriors, and diplomats. The Simbani, by contrast, seem to have a highly organic and egalitarian society, until you discover that their traditions condone ownership of females and irrational prejudice against magic-users.

One of the more interesting aspects of this cultural landscape is that the religions of the three societies don’t appear to compete, or to be mutually exclusive. The Liontaurs worship traditional gods, including a disembodied presence named Sekhmet, who manifests herself in the temple and occasionally speaks to you directly. The Simbani do not appear to worship a god – if anything, they follow a form of secular tribalism, with a communal and spiritual life based around storytelling. And though the Leopardmens’ belief systems aren’t thoroughly explored, their culture is based around mysticism and sorcery (which, in the high-fantasy world of Sierra, is less a superstition than a straightforward lifestyle choice).

In fact, you (or specifically, the character who represents you) get to engage directly with these cosmologies, these vast, unknowable forces whose threads are woven through the everyday lives of these cultures. At a pivotal point in the game, you communicate with the god of the Liontaurs, who speaks to you directly and challenges you to present yourself to it. This results in a divination and a prophecy that you are called upon to fulfill.

The prism of divinity and prophecy has a number of faces in this game. For one thing, this godlike presence, the “creator,” traces back to the game designer, and by giving you a cryptic outline of your path to victory, this voice is affirming that your destiny has already been scripted, and that you are simply manifesting it. That is the nature of the manifold relationship between player, character, and developer: the game is a mediator between the agency of the player and the authority of the developer, and the character is both a tool and a concession in this transaction.

The developer’s relationship with the protagonist and his world is rich with complexity, but it’s not a topic for this particular essay. This essay is about the relationship between the player and the character, and by proxy, the character’s world. From this point of view, the developer is essentially a god, the highest authority, obscured by suspension of disbelief, and as long as you play, you are submitting to that god’s will.

But here’s the thing – that god has created a world beset by grave misfortune. If they have a plan for you, it’s a wayward one, always threatening to rupture and lay low the characters who populate it. This world is threatened by war, and that possibility is rendered in severe terms… one character is said to want to “wash away his pain in blood,” and many others (mostly the monarchs) essentially promise genocide, threatening to completely destroy their enemies’ small societies. One key character fears that he will starve to death because he’s been sentenced to invisibility by the Liontaurs of Tarna. There are two missions of peace referenced in the narrative, and both end in massacres. It is a violent world, and you are all that stands in the way of its complete self-destruction.

Probably the best illustration of this world’s troubled psychology is the story of Khatib Makar’ram, the sole surviving emissary from the first peace mission. You hear his story over dinner at the inn, where he appears to be honored as a hero, but you find that he is a hollow shell of a man. His account of the incident sounds like this:

Seven went out on a peace mission. Reeshaka was the leader. Mtamba was the guide. Seven is my lucky number, I said. Ali brought the trade goods. Mjura of the Tamba people brought his magic. I picked them. I sent them to die. Toni, the young boy who wanted to see the jungle. I heard them all die…we didn’t find the Leopardman village. There were seven of us, on a mission of peace. We were going…I heard their screams. I heard them die. Some fishermen found me. They were afraid of me. They ran from me. They called me demon. I don’t know how I got to the river. I think I went a little crazy. I was covered with blood. The fishermen were afraid of me. They ran away from the bloody demon they thought me to be. I don’t remember…I was brought back to Tarna

This intersection – the convergence point between a divinely-ordered universe and a blood-soaked field of war – is where you, the player/protagonist, find yourself. God has allowed these things to happen so that you may have a role to play, and these dark circumstances provide you with conditions for success and consequences for failure. This world is tailor-made for a hero’s story, a mythical journey of redemption, through which the land is returned to its rightful harmony.

Given such a serious task, it seems like you should be taken seriously.

But that is not the way of Sierra games.

The world of Sierra games, from the first King’s Quest on, has always been absurdist in equal measure to its gravity. This divine voice has never been entirely earnest, and in Quest for Glory III, you find yourself the constant target of mockery. Tarna is sketched in wry descriptions and populated by eccentric humans, of whom the alchemist is one of the earliest examples. He is a broadly-drawn caricature of a spaced-out, whole-food-loving hippie. When you step into the potion shop, this bearded beatnik greets you and offers you a toke from his pipe.

If you accept, you get a lengthy hallucination sequence, and then, out of the blue, you die. Presumably from “the drugs.”

This is clearly a cautionary frag (a typical nod to the ecstatic anti-drug campaigns of the time), but it works equally well to warn you, the player, what this giddy, sadistic world has in store for you. In fact, aside from low-level sarcasm, most of the humor is mortal humor – postmortem jokes and wisecracks when something ends up killing you. Nary an imprudent click or a misstep in a battle scene passes without the narrator providing a smug one-liner about your sudden death.

Sometimes these deaths are predictable consequences of bad problem-solving or forgetfulness. Other times, they are totally unpredictable. Case in point: your character can sleep out in the middle of the savannah, lighting a fire for warmth and protection… but if you forget to click on the fire to put it out the next morning, you are informed, promptly, unceremoniously, that you’ve accidentally lit the whole region on fire and you’ve died in the flames. Is this hilariously dry? Or is it needlessly brutal?

And in that particular reality – that particular abandoned timeline – does the war end up occurring? Are the plains awash with blood? And is the narrator still making little quips over the thousands of innocent deaths that ensue?

VI. Doom and the Ghost of the Body

DOOM (1993) was not the earliest First Person Shooter (FPS) – that honor goes to Castle Wolfenstein – but it was certainly a landmark in the format, and arguably, it spawned the still-dominant subgenre of space infantry FPS’s. And though its shock-value has waned over the years, it was considered, at the time, a prime example of the gory, terrifying, nihilistic teenage angst of video game culture. But if you step back and consider its logic of violence, you’ll see that it wasn’t just about killing space monsters… it was about the brute reality of the physical body, confronting us as an obstacle and inciting us to action.

So here you are, a marine, lightly-armed, thrown into the deepest recesses of a space station. You have no team, no objective, and no context – only a pistol and a mammalian desire to survive. As you progress through the station, you acquire an arsenal of weapons, including a shotgun, a mini-gun, a grenade launcher, a rocket launcher, and some other, more exotic space armaments.

You encounter other marines, but they are obviously under some malicious influence, shooting at you and forcing you to take them out. Is this what happened to your team? At this point, it doesn’t matter – moral reservations went right out the door, along with strategy and exposition. The enemies you encounter rapidly become less human, appearing as massive floating fleshy spheres and barely-bipedal monsters. Everything is hairless and deformed. This is a plague of flesh.

And your flesh is there, as well, even if it’s invisible to you, the player. When you get hit, you register an immediate grunt of pain, and your viewport shades red for a second as the receptors in your brain seize up. More importantly, your face appears in your Heads-Up Display, and when you get hit, the face turns toward the source of the shot. This is not only an important tactical detail… it’s also a reminder that you are situated in this space, and that you have to keep track of your surroundings.

Whereas many other games of the time – including all the ones discussed so far in this reflection – elicited anxiety and frustration, DOOM was the most immediately terrifying. When you turn out the lights and fully immerse yourself in the dim corridors, you start to feel actual, physical fear for your body’s integrity. Your sweats and twitches attest to the porousness of the boundary between virtual and actual. You start reacting to footsteps and changes in lighting.

You may eventually start to feel the existential anxiety that come from being stuck in a dangerous situation for an extended time period. You may start to feel like Everyone Is Trying To Kill You. In fact, you may start to feel like another besieged soldier in an absurdly hostile universe: Yossarian, the frantic and terrified infantryman, stuck in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I think, if I could name my character in DOOM, I would name him Yossarian. It would make me feel like I had some good fortune on my side. Admittedly, if I was to name him based on the game’s philosophical statement, Snowden would probably be more appropriate.

The DOOM series made a particular point of capitalizing on this terror in DOOM 3, which was highly cinematic, with a template provided by horror sci-fi. Even in these later entries, though, the series stayed true to its fundamental focus: the focus on the weight and substance of the player’s virtual body.

If there is a theoretical lesson here, it’s that there is a truly tenuous link between mind, body, and soul. The higher functions aren’t a force unto themselves; rather, they are inadequate and besieged, an exposed passenger in a paper-thin shell of bone and flesh. That passenger, and its fleshy vehicle, are no more sacrosanct than the monsters you are blowing up with rockets. Or, in the immortal words of Yossarian:

Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.

VII. Daggerfall and the Plague of Back-Story

Choose your appearance, your skills, your lineage. Find a balance between brute force and cunning, diplomacy, sorcery; fashion a personality, and then fashion a body to bear it into the world. Pick your skin color and your hairstyle. Construct yourself from an array of conceptual building-blocks, sculpting an identity from the ground up. At the beginning, you are turned inward, and within the confines of character-creation, you are enormously powerful, a God of your own self-definition.

Then, suddenly, find yourself cast into the deepest chamber in the catacombs beneath a medieval fortress, unarmed, with nothing but a few gameplay tips to guide you. You, who were briefly a God, are now laid low; this is how you encounter the desolate world that has been waiting for you.

This is the gothic face of the modern role-playing game… The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall.

Younger players probably know The Elder Scrolls series from its more recent entries, Oblivion and Skyrim. These inherited a great deal from Daggerfall, but significantly altered the core experience. In this, they both gained something, and lost something. Oblivion and Skyrim are luminous and sweeping, subtle narratives in hand-crafted fantasy landscapes, lofty and Arthurian in tone. Daggerfall, now largely forgotten by the younger set of players, was more technically primitive, but it was also more tonally precise, more lonely and desolate and brutal. The game was obsessed with death and suffused with decay. It was massive and elaborate, but this was the decadence of rot, the baroque of hopelessness.

Daggerfall may have been comically primitive compared to Oblivion and Skyrim, but it was wildly advanced for its time. It set precedents that have yet to be surpassed… its virtual landscape was larger than the surface area of a small country (Turkey is the usual example). Long before Grand Theft Auto, Daggerfall was balancing the philosophy of open-world exploration with the presentation of an elaborate, scripted narrative, waiting for you to complete it.

For all of its advances, Daggerfall shares some essential qualities with those simpler 8-bit games of its time. You are thrown deep into the world, starting out in a seemingly impossible situation (washed up in a tiny room at the bottom of a formidable dungeon). You are expected to face an endless cycle of death and rebirth, always learning from your mistakes, always hoping against the odds that you will make some sort of progress. The world is as hostile as it’s been in any of these games… even the friendly NPC’s are gruff and inhospitable, and they are vastly outnumbered by wild animals, evil spirits, marauding bandits, and restless dead.

More importantly, you start the game as, essentially, a generic container. For all the character-creation, all the ability to tailor your avatar to your liking, you have no personal history or satisfying starting-point for your life as an adventurer. Apparently, you washed up in a cave after a shipwreck. You may have chosen sorcery or thievery over combat, but in this world, you have to pick up the first weapon you find, if only to kill some very aggressive rats.

Some heroes, like the fortunate Simon Belmont and Lester Knight Chaykin, carried their own names with them into the game. Others, like the Prince of Persia and the anonymous Marine in DOOM, were condemned to remain nameless. In the RPG-based games, you were given a chance to name your own character before the adventure began. These three options are functionally identical, because none of these early game characters have identities outside the ludic experience… they are blank-faced avatars, created so that you, the player, can project yourself into them.

This makes the gaming experience a sort of vicarious embodiment, as you inhabit a golem, crafted purely as a proxy for the player’s agency. The minor background information (via intro cinematics and instruction manuals) is really just a way to link the character to the setting and create an initial sense of empathy. The conspicuous anonymity of the avatar, its insistence that you fill it with your own Being, is what makes these games so frustrating, terrifying, addicting, and occasionally triumphant. It’s what gives the blocky, abbreviated world of Daggerfall its urgent, unforgiving reality.

If you follow the development of the Elder Scrolls games, you can feel the gradual shift in philosophy since that early age of games. At the beginning of Oblivion, you aren’t simply dropped into a dark cavern – you are immediately embroiled in a pursuit, as a band of assassins tries to murder the King of the realm. At the outset of Skyrim, you are a prisoner on the way to your own execution, and this is ultimately interrupted by a critical plot development that will set the stage for the rest of the game.

Clearly, the influence of cinema has taken hold. Video game characters have always been introduced in media res, but a decade ago, their starting conditions were always danger and anonymity, and they had to find their own terms through which to engage with the virtual world. With the newer generations of consoles, those initial conditions are almost always narrative exercises in character-building and plotting.

Today, back-story is everywhere, creeping over franchises and genres like a semantic plague. It took hold of the Final Fantasy series starting with the second game. Traditional, anonymous First Person Shooters like Quake and Unreal have given way to the loaded, epic, mytho-historical narratives of BioShock and Halo. And franchise cross-pollination has resulted in a generation of games populated with characters who have already been established in comic books, films, prequels, and spin-offs.

This has a powerful effect on the fundamental gameplay experience. The old characters are faceless proxies, and you step into them, relating directly to the world as if you are embodied there. With the new avatars, who are packaged with histories and personalities, you are more like a puppeteer, or even a consultant, alienated from the character; in a sense, your button-presses and menu choices are more like stern suggestions to the character, whose presence in the world is independent of your consciousness at your controller.

VIII. The Refuge of Alienation

Perhaps it’s a ludic curse that the designer’s agency competes with the player’s agency – as game designers acquire more tools and more complex techniques, allying themselves with professional writers and directors, the player gradually becomes creatively disenfranchised. At any rate, it’s an issue that must be considered for gamers and game designers: as the creator becomes more confident in dictating the terms, what is lost in terms of participation and play?

There was no hard line or discernible crossing. There was no precise moment or declaration of intent. Nobody felt a light go dark, or noticed a sudden shift in our philosophical bedrock. But something’s definitely changed, and something has been lost, and it will not return. Designers now control the balance of agency, and they are comfortable in their positions of power.

There are still occasional reminders, and those will continue to come and go. LIMBO, an indie game released in July 2010 on Xbox Live Arcade, harkens back to the days of anonymity and brutality and thrownness in the gaming experience. But as a whole, that world is gone. Games are no longer willing to cast you, unprepared, into a brutal alterate reality. You are no longer chained to an abstract form, embodied and allowed to drown in an inhospitable world.

Perhaps that should be a relief, but as a gamer who has jumped to the moving platform of adulthood, I feel it as a tragic loss. Those were the games that prepared my generation for the cruelty and uncertainty of the new millennium: financial crashes, outbreaks of global conflict, and the apparent decline of Western civilization. For us, death did not hesitate, and though incremental rewards were often close at hand, there were never any guarantees of success. We knew life had no tutorial, and in hindsight, this made us the lucky ones.

Works Referenced:

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Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Penguin Books, 1998.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. William Morrow, 1997.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New World Library, July 28, 2008.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Konami, 1988.

Chahi, Eric (designer). Another World (American title: Out of This World). Interplay Entertainment, 1991.

Cole, Laurie Ann (designer). Quest for Glory III: Wages of War. Sierra Entertainment, 1992.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Dover Publications, 1990.

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. Bethesda Softworks, 1996.

Ellison, Harlan. “Deathbird” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. The Essential Ellison. Morpheus International, 2005.

Hall, Tom (director). DOOM. id Software, 2003.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

id Software. DOOM. GT Software, 1993.

id Software. DOOM 3. Activision, 2004.

King’s Quest series. Sierra Entertainment, 1984-1998.

Lovecraft, H.P. Various stories.

Mechner, Jordan (designer). Prince of Persia. Broderbund, 1989.

Zelda series. Nintendo, 1986-2011.

About the Author:

Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.