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.

On Doors in Games

It’s been a while since I’ve written about games here. This is a draft post from a few years ago; on rereading I think it’s worthwhile.

Doors in Penumbra: Overture

Some time ago, I started playing Penumbra: Overture, the debut first-person horror-adventure title from Frictional Games. I never finished the game or ever played very far in, but I wanted to comment on a satisfying mechanic seen early in the game: manual manipulation of objects — but particularly hinged, swinging doors.

Yes, I’m going to talk about doors in a video game, but I’m certainly not the first.

A little background on the game. Penumbra: Overture shares the perspective and control scheme of first-person shooters (WASD keys and a mouse), and although one combats enemies, this is not a first-person shooter. Your avatar, one Philip stuck in an abandoned mine, has panic attacks when he confronts enemies: breathing contracts, vision is marred, and Philip may stand and reveal himself in a nervous outbreak. Combat is similarly frantic and amateurish. Outside of doors, a player can manually slide, slam, stack, etc., various objects in the game by clicking and holding them, and then moving them onscreen with the mouse. This leads to some physics-based puzzles and object manipulation, and provides a strong sense of analog mechanics at work in the world.

Doors in First-Person Shooters

Let’s return to the operation of doors in the game. It makes design sense that so few (if any) first-person shooters contain hinged doors opened by degrees with a mouse. If the central activity is gunplay or melee, operating a door is a distraction.

Apart from gameplay, it is computationally much more expedient to implement a simple sliding or pocket door. This door will use the same animation every time, and if the game runs a genuine 3D engine, it may remove the need for on-the-fly numbers crunching. In a pseudo-3D system such as seen in the original Wolfenstein 3D, implementing a hinged door would be absurdly difficult and perhaps technically impossible. Thus the player is confronted with the same door sliding door for the entirety of the game and its sequel, from the opening jailbreak setting to officers’ quarters, secret labs and bunkers. Whatever the fiction of the setting, the door never changes.

Going back to gameplay however, a sliding or pocket door features only two states for the player: open or closed. Instead of the player encountering a panel on hinges which he or she must manipulate by degrees to pass through, the player encounters a flat, essentially 2D barrier (even in the case of more modern titles like Halo) that only needs a single button press (if that) to open. The player passes through such doors completely or not at all. Even when it is opening and visually between open and closed, it is functionally closed; when it is seen to be closing it is still absolutely closed and impassable. Many games that feature hinged doors use a preset animation, or use it as a loading screen (Resident Evil). In all cases, doors are a binary gate.

And this is acceptable. It is of course the point of doors, to let something in or out, or keep it in or out. We didn’t make doors for them to be halfway open, although as it happens many are.

Doors of this type are found in numerous older first-person shooters: Blake Stone, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad. Even a modern title like the aforementioned Halo, which could easily implement a hinged door, has no need to do so. Esoteric or exotic settings have their clear attractions as game worlds for players, but they arguably have equally if not more compelling attractions for programmers, developers and designers. Automatic, two-state doors are infinitely easier to implement than a board that swings, by degrees, on hinges, and it’s reasonable to expect to find such doors in science fiction or otherwise futuristic settings. By that time superior door-tech  would have eliminated any instances of halfway open doors.

(This of course goes into the long tradition of technical constraints informing a game’s fiction. I have a growing mental catalog, from Mario’s design to the preponderance of bald space marines.)

Immersion and a Hinged Door

So Penumbra: Overture‘s doors can be neither entirely open nor entirely closed. Why is that so interesting?

I’m sure some of my interest has to do with how such creaky, realistically old doors contribute to the atmosphere of the game. But it’s also jarring to see something in a middle state, a state that’s not precisely describable. I could say the door is open just a crack, or mostly open, or even halfway open, but these are not absolutes like open and closed. I can have any number of different views into the next room depending on these highly adjustable degrees, as I try to imagine what is still obscured by the door panel.

It is the mundanity of operating the door, and of noticing the space it occupies, which is so compelling. Taking the time to operate the door feels slightly unreal – I’ve never had to think about opening a door in a game, and I mean really think about moving the hinged board over. Each door is opened differently, depending on my angle to it and the position of my mouse. Having to concentrate on this, however briefly, immerses one into the game unexpectedly, and reifies the world suggested onscreen.

Considering again the automatic sliding and pocket doors of first-person shooters: their prime function is to demarcate rooms and divide the player’s challenges appropriately. They reinforce the gameness of the world in that way, in their ability to be completely in the way or completely out of the way. Penumbra: Overture‘s developers do make use of their doors in gameplay. In some cases one needs to block the door from a pursuer. The tension here is that the door returns to its original binary function: it will either be open for the pursuer or closed, and one can watch as the door, by degrees, is forced open. Frequently however the doors are simply wonderfully described objects that exist in the game, outside of your immediate concerns.

This leads me to wonder what other games have used mundane details or provided interactions utterly unrelated to the central gameplay to enhance the realness of the world (and I do not count side quests and such as are found in RPGs: they almost all have very applicable benefits for the player)?

In any case, that lack of a definite state is refreshing, as it happens so little in games. When opponents are felled in a shooter, they are almost always absolutely felled: you do not often maim an opponent with an errant shot and have to deal with his or her suffering. Levels are completely finished, quests are definitely open or closed, achievements are either unlocked or locked, etc. How often can one badly hurt an opponent, and then move on to the next area? If you came back, would it still be there — would you have to hit the opponent a few more times to finish the job? This is the sort unsavory midway point games have dealt so well in discarding, one could argue games have to discard this aspect of our lives to be games at all. In any case, so many games belong in the province of fantasy that dealing in totalities makes thematic (along with the aforementioned technical) sense. Still, it is awfully nice to engage with a world where a few mechanics, at least, are not figured in such absolutes.

ZZT, Anna Anthropy and Preserving Games

I just finished reading Anna Anthropy’s ZZT, from the Boss Fight Books series. While I have a few issues with the book, I was really happy with her work and felt that it struck a great balance between personal narrative and game history.

On the latter, I’m especially happy that the author has taken pains to convey the culture surrounding the ZZT game and its creation tools. There are two reasons for this which tie well into game preservation.

First, it’s a prime example of discussing games and game development outside the context of entertainment. I previously linked to Jaroslav Švelch’s article in Game Studies, “Say it with a Computer Game”. Anna Anthropy’s book demonstrates how a game (in this case ZZT and the games made from its toolkit) facilitated groups, rivalries, skill demonstrations, personal expression, cultural commentary, and so on.

It’s also a great example of looking beyond gameplay as the final result of game preservation. I recently attended the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage conference in Melbourne, put on by the Play It Again group there. In his keynote Henry Lowood emphasized looking to end products of the preservation process beyond playing the game, such as recordings of play, narratives of play, the cultural materials surrounding the game, etc. ZZT preserves some of the experience of play, and of being enmeshed in that culture, through a wonderful preservation technology that goes criminally under-emphasized: writing.

(As a further example, if you download Stanford’s DOOM collection you’ll have the shareware copy of the game, but along with that you’ll find a wealth of artifacts surrounding the game: .WAD collections, web pages and fan sites, articles, reviews, forum user threads, and the like (and I will add, many copies of beta and alpha versions of the seminal shooter, which I have argued before ought to be a key priority for game archives). It’s an excellent resource and any researcher would want to move through this collection as a way to understand the game and some of its critical context.)


Simulation Fever

From Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost:

Previously, I have argued that videogames represent in the gap between procedural representation and individual subjectivity. The disparity between the simulation and the player’s understanding of the source system it models creates a crisis in the player; I named this crisis simulation fever, a madness through which an interrogation of the rules that drive both systems begins. The vertigo of this fever — one gets simsick as he might get seasick — motivates criticism.

Procedural rhetoric also produces simulation fever. It motivates a player to address the logic of a situation in general, and the point at which it breaks and gives way to a new situation in particular.

Born Digital and Probably Died that Way: Content Loss from Yesteryear

Greetings from QBasic - Wish You Were Here!
Greetings from QBasic – Wish You Were Here!

I’m often asked – in the course of my job or by an acquaintance – to explain ‘digital preservation’ and what I mean by it. And as I’m sure others in this field know, a frequent first guess is scanning – you’re scanning stuff, right?

It’s a reasonable and valid guess – digitization can and is used as a preservation strategy – but it’s a reply that leaves me stumbling, “Yes, but…” as it’s the born-digital content that is most likely to be overlooked for a newcomer.

I’m often tongue tied though to explain why born-digital material is important at a personal level for an individual. To some it seems immediately frivolous – perhaps resulting from a notion that the digital enterprise is inherently ephemeral, or that the ‘information superhighway’ – a dated term but one still with a legacy – is just a media-carrying superstructure over the real stuff.

Not having someone immediately agree with your assumptions startles you into explanation mode. So I reach for a personal example of born-digital vitality. But the truth is that in my recent past I’ve done a pretty good job of preserving the digital materials that are important to me. Setting up a reasonably safe (and this is key: automated) backup routine and checking media health every once in a while goes a long way. So I have no woeful narrative to relate there about personal digital material becoming lost (yet).

And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I find myself agreeing with David Rosenthal’s research that suggests file format obsolescence in a post-Internet world is not a major risk for the majority of digital materials. So I don’t feel terribly relevant trying to spook someone with the scenario of their Microsoft Word files becoming obsolete in a few years. They are far more likely to become lost through neglect before approaching obsolescence.

So I searched back through my own personal history to think of what born-digital content I have lost to time. Not just any old content that happened to be lost, but something that means a lot to me but is simply no more.

Now I’ve visited a near-loss and partial recovery with a high school art web site, so I recall here a complete content loss. Nothing remains but the recollection. This loss still smarts today – the code for my QBasic games. Hear my tale of woe, as I recreate here whatever will be left of those projects.

My kingdom for some GOTO code

When my family first purchased a computer, it took a few years for me to learn the ropes on it. I recall some unintended directory deletions while I was learning DOS, and at one point I thought I had truly broken the system through one of these errant deletes. The incident was only a mistakenly relocated set of files that broke a start-up routine, but it was not without its moments of vertigo that I had broken the family machine.

Eventually I got to understand command line customs, along with the basics of programming in the QBasic IDE, which came standard with MS-DOS and Windows for approximately nine years. Once I got the hang of basic user input and variable handling, I figured it was time to make games in QBasic.

Ah, to be young and just dive in! None of them were ever completed, though this does not bother me. I still believe just diving in is a handy practice.

Lend an ear and I’ll tell you about them.

The Kingdom of Kroz (1987), shot from My Abandonware
ZZT (1991), shot from My Abandonware

The first effort was a fantastical text adventure with ANSI-style art inspired by the psychedelic landscapes of Kingdom of Kroz and Epic Megagames’ ZZT, but featuring the simple rules of a Choose your own Adventure novel. I got pretty far along before the tedium of hand drawing scenes row by row with the extended character set wore me down. I was still learning a lot.

The Terminator
The Terminator (1990)
Drugwars (1984)

The second game was identical in form, but took some less tasteful tones from Bethesda’s The Terminator title – an early stab for that studio at their now famous open-world design – as well as the Drugwars DOS game. I got even less far along than even the first game – just a couple of sequences before the player was abruptly dumped back into the sharp blue of QBasic’s IDE. I recall becoming bored and directionless at the monotone grimness the setting required, as well as the tedious, screen by screen gameplay.

Legend of the Red Dragon
Legend of the Red Dragon (1989)

The third game, and the most involved, was an RPG collaboration with an elementary school friend, very much modeled after the BBS classic Legend of the Red Dragon – but a single player affair. We had races, classes, a town, shops, NPCs, and had begun modeling the wilderness areas where the player would encounter whatever had to be fought there. However, school hedged in and the friend moved away, and our work stopped there.

I would give my right arm for the source code to any of these projects, but that last one hurts the most. My friend and I spent many hours and long nights developing the RPG – and never got very far – but this piece of digital content represents a huge investment of my enthusiasm and passion at that time. That it is utterly lost is painful. I don’t know what I could have done to have had the foresight to keep it, except to have kept the floppies around somehow by neglect. If this were a project nowadays, perhaps a forgotten email attachment could have wrought it up from the bog. Alas, at that time the only network we had was carting floppies between our houses.

There are other losses, such as my old MySpace page, which captures some of my disposition and contacts in the early college years, an embarrassing old fan site for a band I loved in high school, a lost DOOM level .wad – but the absence of this QBasic code hits strongest. This is simply how things get lost, alas – though I sigh wistfully when hearing of old game code being discovered. That someone, amazingly, has managed to create a modern game coded entirely in QBasic just makes me all the more wistful.

Citizens of tomorrow, your digital content – even if, like myself, you are not a heavy user of social media – can be profoundly important to you and very likely to others. Keep an eye on it, as I wish I had.