Rearview: Wolfenstein 3D

Wolfenstein 3D Postcard
Greetings from Castle Wolfenstein – wish you were here!

Wolfenstein 3D is a gaming divide. Id’s first-person shooter introduced an experience unlike most console or computer games prior: it produced shock, suspense, disorientation and novelty. Super Mario Bros., Elevator Action, Life Force, Contra: a host of NES games felt like oddities and diversions while id’s shooter stood alone as a tense, horror gauntlet – when it wasn’t an action gala.

Reflections on the title describe the unrivaled immersive play. Id tipped the nascent action first-person genre in its favor with title, and then basically set it on its course for the next 20 or 30 years with Doom. I submit that first-person shooters are still in the shadow of that title (caveat: haven’t played many recent FPSs lately). First-person shooters which are praised for their characterization, story, atmosphere, nuance and art still never fail to deliver genre staples: adversaries to gun, the armory itself, and the gameplay to make this very straightforward action fun and interesting. Modern games have succeeded, fitfully and partially I would argue, in subverting this genre expectation, but it’s never absent. I suppose such is the nature of genre – they are shooters, after all – but still, on a very real level playing a seminal shooter like Bioshock still feels like playing Doom. And for all the expertly and artfully realized world that a game like Bioshock offers – among the very best I think – it still handles like (a slower) Doom, through and through. One begins to wonder how much artfully realized world-building and narrative the FPS genre can bear.

To widen the scope a bit I would like to point out a review of Masters of Doom (2003) by James Wagner Au. Au considers what first-person genre would have been like, and more broadly computer games at all, had id not so dominated the landscape with its games, which, for however polished their gameplay is, are steeped in frenetic action and general mayhem.

Corridor Jitters

During the first few weeks I had trouble sleeping, and I can recall a nightmare where brown-shirted guards hunted me down long, open corridors, and where each of my evasions revealed a new nest of Nazis screaming out in German some declaration of annihilation. For a time, the game was genuinely frightening and horrific.

As I became habituated to Wolfenstein’s atmosphere, a lot of that fear receded. I got familiar with the milieu of enemies and occasionally anticipated the designers’ placement of them. I became accustomed to their zig-zag approaches and with the keyboard controls themselves.

But the tension of play remained. To this day it is still an intense game. Enemies’ screams and cries are over the top but striking and memorable. Level design is often punishing, forcing you down corridors lined with tiny recessions where an enemy may or may not stand waiting, or sticking you in a maze populated entirely by silent opponents – your first indication of their presence is being fired upon, usually at point blank.

The damage model is much closer to Counter-Strike than Doom or “Doom clones.” It isn’t uncommon to die from just a handful of enemy hits. A single shot from the lowliest guard can take you from 100% to 0%. And there isn’t any armor. You get into a lot of survival situations, long and short moments alike where you know a single false step will end it. On top of this, Wolfenstein’s engine only allowed 90 degree angles, so peeking around hiding spots was quite difficult, and as often as not you would end up exposing your back to another stuffed-away guard.

It’s known that Tom Hall, one of the designers of the title, pushed for a more realistic game, one the attempted to responsibly portray Nazi prisons, offices and barracks as the game engine allowed. Some levels do flirt with that realism, but most, and the most memorable, do not. The characteristic Wolfenstein 3D level is one with a few reasonable rooms, but a whole swath of spaces that no architect would have ever constructed for any reason, transparently set to rattle you. A player can nearly hear the level designer rejoining, “Sure, and how about this?”

Legacy of Brutality

On the game’s violence: it’s true that it’s unremarkable by a modern standard, but this has more to do with graphic fidelity than anything else. It’s also true that that gore would be recycled and majorly amplified in Doom, itself quite outdone by the realism of subsequent shooters. But Wolfenstein 3D started it.

I can’t forget the audaciousness of this gore at the time. Id’s previous big seller was Commander Keen, a title that delivered the kid-oriented, all-ages console platformer to the PC. The Catacomb series, while first-person shooters, were strictly fantasy, where one aimed fireballs at neon-colored demons and skeletons. We weren’t talking about knifing guard dogs and gunning Nazi officers. The realism, and moreover the evident desire for realism (if not in level architecture, then in common character design), was not there.

I agree with Au when he detects something personally cathartic for the creators within the gore of Doom (and I extrapolate, to a lesser extent, within Wolfenstein 3D). One can certainly chalk up the morbidness to adolescence, but there’s a seriousness and realness to the depiction (if not the treatment) of bodily harm that suggests, as Au states, that Adrian and others were invested in this production much more than the flippant dismemberment and ludicrous body-splosions of successor games (Rise of the Triad, for example).

A couple of bits to know about that art in Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. For Wolfenstein, Adrian Carmack drew all sprites by hand. That means that each pixel was placed by him, and considered. And, as my interview with Bobby Prince suggests, space restrictions may have forced Adrian to return to his pixels and decide what could be cut and altered. The pixels you see in Wolfenstein are each considered. That means the dramatic descent of the officer character, say, was really worked over and decided upon.


Imp Pixels
The Doom Imp: Pixel by pixel

For Doom, the characters were first modeled by hand in clay, then photographed from multiple angles. Those photos were scanned, where Adrian could then begin his pixel rendition. So again, the creation of these sprites is a manual process. The computer was the tool, but it took the personal hand and labor to make the images.

Quake I - fighting knights

Compare that to id’s own Quake. No doubt there’s labor and consideration here, but the violence has less impact in this title. When an opponent spills blood, it’s done in obvious arcs of red pixels, more the outcome of an algorithm than any person’s hand. When they explode, parts go off in mathematical arcs. Bodily harm and violence is more a computational system, not an animation articulated by hand, frame by frame and pixel by pixel. The graphic violence in Wolfenstein 3D and Doom was affecting and disturbing in a way subsequent efforts were not.

The Castle

Shooters were and still are narrow in conception and in play, and Wolfenstein 3D relies on the quick succession of tiny victories over a near-constant crisis to engage you. No matter how enjoyable this is, the six episodes in the full release are far too much game for the play mechanics at hand. Naturally, the current franchise entries now feature the same commitment to action, visceral combat and slaughter, but has added story, extensive world building, legitimate characters and high production values.

The original shooter though remains an odd beast: a sparse dungeon, remarkably isolating, where nearly every, infrequent glimpse outside reveals a total night. Moving through the game’s endless and often identical halls gives way to a repetitiveness that moves from seductive, to tedious, to fatal. It’s a place of cheap, cartoonish horrors that turn real if you let your guard down. Welcome to Castle Wolfenstein.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s