Phobos, Deimos and Hell

Mars is the most fascinating planet within our solar system – besides Earth, of course. Where does this fascination come from? It’s not exoticism or because Mars is so intangible, quite the opposite – Mars is the most Earth-like planet and quite familiar to us. That’s reason enough to project childish fantasies of space travel onto it. Was there life once? Water? Can we colonize Mars? After all, humans are never really concerned with the unknown, but rather with themselves. Every major sci-fi soap opera, from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to The Expanse, grants Mars a central role in space exploration. I watched the successful landing of Perserverance on the surface of Mars in the Corona summer of 2020 with the hopeful excitement of the kids who witnessed the first moon landing 51 years earlier. Well, almost.

In addition to all those lovely utopias of biospheres and terraforming, Mars can also be used to dive into the deepest abysses of humankind. Exploitation, civil war, morally dubious experiments – you name it. And why stop at corrupt governments, cover-up scandals and corporate greed? From Mars, you can weightlessly descend directly into hell via its two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Literally. That’s Doom. When the game came out in 1993, Doom was the boogeyman of the schoolyard. The grittiest, harshest, unspeakably violent game that no one was allowed to play. Nor should they – their dreams will be grateful.

To privileged teenagers of the 90s, this kind of thing holds an even stronger allure than terraforming. According to myth, some of us even signed elaborate contracts with their parents in order to finally play this game.

But I don’t want to write about that for obvious reasons. It’s not about the violence and the ludohistorical significance of Doom. I couldn’t even have a say in that, because I first set my virtual foot on Phobos when the aforementioned Perserverance gently hit the surface of Mars. 2020. Four years after Mars had already been presentred in all its glory for a new generation of Doom games.

I caught up with the game not because of the Perserverance, but because I finally wanted to play Doom. And I wasn’t disappointed, because even 27 years after release I got sweaty palms, a pounding heart and moments of triumph. And of course, it wasn’t because of the setting, since it didn’t really look like Martian moons at all. It could have just as well been a post-apocalyptic Bielefeld. It was the gameplay, the level- and enemy design. Doom simply is a sensationally good video game.

What was less obvious at the time than it seems to me now: Doom has no common thread. To this day, new maps are created, even by the original team. And that’s exactly how the game feels: It has a distinctive look and feel, but it is nothing more than disjointed maps brought to life by various combinations of enemies, items, and spatial concepts. The setting is slapped on because games have to have some that sort of framework. At one point, I found myself standing in front of a menacing hell gate that led to a boss fight. As I approached, I looked at it from the side at an angle. It was – like everything else in the game – a two-dimensional texture, and behind it I could see the eternal emptiness of the game world glitching through the wall. That was a tad disillusioning.

I trace my aversion to fairs to a similar effect: when I had to take an enormously urgent piss at the Hamburger Dom one evening and there was no toilet nearby, I took refuge behind all the bright and shiny stands and found myself between power cables, garbage bags and RVs. The place seemed pitiful and dreary and the fact that I peed right there seemed more appropriate than indecent.

It shouldn’t be surprising or bothersome that the setting of Doom is so obviously only a facade. It is a technical masterpiece of its time as it is, and anyone who looks into the history of this game will realize what a likeable project it was and is. Doom is not an expression of occultism and glorification of violence, and certainly not an elaborate example of deep sci-fi storytelling, but the passion of a couple of quirky metal dudes who were remarkably talented but also just wanted to go apeshit. The story about a research facility on Mars that opens the gate to hell bringing a demon army into our world is meant exactly as that sounds. An excuse for the enjoyment of frantic gore. Out of this delightful nonsense a whole universe of serious doom lore has emerged with novels, comics and whatnot. It’s absurd what can be gathered from the Internet about the exact sequence of events and the people involved in the catastrophe. It all goes back to a soldier stationed on Mars who wants to avenge the death of his pet rabbit and for this reason beats up demons in hell with his bare fists. An “afterthought” that was presumably scribbled on a pizza box after a bottle of rum, following weeks of crafting solid FPS maps.

Phobos, Deimos and Hell are a cheap cardboard backdrop, a scrawled frame to give the spectacle a home. It’s folklore. A bit of sci-fi goth, and that’s where Mars comes in naturally. Mars is the most fascinating planet in our solar system. It’s so similar to our Earth that there may have been water there at some point. And if that’s possible, you might as well open the portal to hell right there.

Doom was released in 1993 by id Software for MS-Dos. There are so many interesting documentaries about it that this paragraph refrains from putting it into context and instead recommends this video series about the making of the 2016 reboot. A game that understands what Doom is – and isn’t – about.

This article is part of an ongoing series of texts on 30 games out of 30 years.

This post is also available in: German