John Carmack, the cofounder of id Software and co-creator of the original Doom, once said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
That’s not true anymore, and it’s certainly not the view of Hugo Martin, the creative director at id Software and one of the creators of Bethesda’s recent Doom remake. Martin knows that some action fans don’t want the story in a first-person shooter game like Doom to get in the way of the gameplay. But he still sees it as critical to fans of single-player campaigns, and it’s a great way to keep more mature gamers engaged in a video game. And for this storytelling style, Martin turned to the art of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta and his iconic painting, Death Dealer.
Martin talked about storytelling in video games at the Gamelab 2016 event in Barcelona. Afterward, I interviewed him about his talk. He said that game makers should reveal part of a story to the audience at the outset of a game, and then leave them guessing so that they can either fill in the blanks themselves or find more pieces of the puzzle along the way. In Doom, the story is layered in different ways, such as cinematic cut scenes. But it also has “echoes,” where a scene from the past plays out when the player reaches a certain spot. And big pieces of the Doom backstory are in tablets that the player finds in the various levels.
Some players will absorb all of that storytelling, while others will simply catch the surface bits. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You expressed an idea about showing the audience something, but not showing them everything, as a storytelling technique. How is that applied in Doom?
Hugo Martin: Even in the opening scene, seeing the sarcophagus—we’re dropping a piece of the story, the A piece, but we don’t give you B and C. Later on in the game, if you pay attention, we give you D. Then, if you find the codex entries, maybe we give you some more clues, but there are lots of gaps, intentional gaps. That way the audience can fill it in with their own ideas and theorize about exactly who the Doom Marine is, where he came from, why he’s there.
He’s kind of a blank canvas in the other games. He has a bit of a story, but we felt like there was an opportunity there to do some more cool stuff with him. But we didn’t want to spell it all out. We wanted to go with more of that approach that involved a lot of audience participation, to fill out what the story was for themselves.
GamesBeat: You related this back to a Frank Frazetta painting, the Death Dealer. It tells you a lot, but doesn’t fill in the whole picture for you.
Martin: Most of his paintings, and the Death Dealer painting in particular, are lost in shadow. There are only little elements of the painting that he renders out. The rest is all in shadow. That’s what I think makes the painting so compelling. You fill in the gaps in so many things.
The Death Dealer himself is one of the most famous fantasy illustrations ever made. The character has been turned into comics, toys, statues. The name is widely known, just from one painting. Yet he doesn’t have a face. In the painting you can’t see his face. Just his eyes. Which is pretty awesome, when you think about it. That’s the power of the audience’s imagination. If you use that, you can make really compelling imagery.
GamesBeat: The expectation with Doom is that is doesn’t even have a story.
GamesBeat: But you can layer this story on top of just the action. A lot of people who just want the action, they don’t, but people who want a story will notice. They pick up on a sort of meta-message there. If there is a message like that for the people who do absorb all of these hints, what would you say that is?
Martin: It’s not so much a message as you get to find out more about who he is and his place in this universe that we’re creating in Doom. That’s the main thing.
GamesBeat: He’s not just an accident. There’s a reason he’s back.
Martin: Right. There is a reason he’s there. He plays a role in the universe. But again, it’s really pretty vague. It’s been amazing to read, online, all the fan theories. Because there is no right answer right now. We’re leaving it open for the fans. Their theories have been so cool to read, just about who he is.
Like you said, the A experience is just the action, killing demons and all that stuff. The B level experience beneath the surface is about the UAC, what happened at the UAC, even the UAC as a cult, kind of, the tone of the UAC. If you stop and listen to the echoes and the spokesperson who pops up every once in a while, and if you read the codex entries, you get a good sense of the UAC as a company and how messed up they are. That all sets the tone for the world. But a lot of that, again, you could just skip over most of it if you want to.
GamesBeat: I see a parallel in maybe the Lego games, or with Pixar movies. There’s a basic entertainment for everyone. Kids get all that. But there’s adult jokes in Lego games. You understand the joke if you’re old enough and you know some of the background to a Star Wars movie or something like that. Or in Pixar movies you get the more adult jokes, like the one about Luke and his father in Toy Story 2.
Martin: It’s cool, because if you read the feedback from the fans online, people will post about their experience with Doom, and some of them had that straight ahead—“Man, I just I wanted to wreck demons. I love that the story wasn’t in my way. Just killing demons.” And that’s awesome. We made the game for those people.
But then there’s always somebody who will say, “Yeah, but did you check out this part? The Doom Marine isn’t just this, he’s that too. Did you pick up on this thing about the Night Sentinels?” It’s really cool to see the fans comment and talk about their experience and see how different it was for different people.
GamesBeat: Your Easter eggs, too, like the old Doom levels thrown into various places—I didn’t find many of those, but when you find them you’re really taken back to the good old days. That seems like another layer in there specifically for old Doom fans.
Martin: Totally. Jason O’Connell, our principal designer at id, he put that stuff in there. He did one in Foundry that was just so cool, and we said, “Oh my God, you have to do more.” He put them in every level. Again, you keep digging into the corners of this Doom and you’re going to find something cool for everyone. Especially for hardcore fans.
GamesBeat: Now that you’ve said this, everyone’s going to start looking for whatever levels of meaning they can. There’s all this Satanic symbology and stuff. Is there anything for them to find even on that level?
Martin: It’s mostly exposing the narrative. On the surface, yeah, the UAC is another zany cult—and it is. It’s all tongue in cheek. It’s very comic book, all done with a wink and a smile. But I think what they’ll find is just more about the UAC. It’s entertaining. Some of the codex entries are, if you read them, pretty hilarious. And sick and twisted. We were going for a style. It’s kind of Robocop.
The thing about Doom is, we didn’t want to waste the audience’s time trying to slowly reveal that it’s demons and slowly expose the UAC. Right out the gate, the UAC is nuts, totally into demons. But within the codex messages you find out a bit more about the personalities.
GamesBeat: If you think about these layers, has the internet pretty much found everything?
Martin: I don’t want to say too much, but if I think about it—I don’t want to say. They’ve found a lot. It’s crazy how much they’ve found. It’s awesome. They hooked into that so fast. It was so cool to see. It was really exciting.
GamesBeat: If you pull back at some point, filmmakers, game companies, everybody can use this or learn from this kind of storytelling, do you think?
Martin: Absolutely. Like I showed in my presentation, it’s used by a lot of different people in a lot of different mediums. It’s an effective tool. I just wanted to stress that. Robocop, as I pointed out, has a lot of layers to it. I think that even if you’re making a mainstream action experience, you can still add as much depth as any other piece of entertainment might have in any other genre.
Disclosure: Gamelab’s organizers paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.