Wolfenstein 3D, if you recall (and I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone who hasn’t yet finished this 23-year old game), ended with B.J. escaping the dark, gloomy Castle Wolfenstein by running down an open corridor. A corridor that, at the far end, revealed a glimpse of the bright blue skies and rich green grass outside. Freedom. Half way down the corridor, the game fades to black starts rolling the credits.
Most people would have patted themselves on the back and finished there. I, however - not quite old/smart enough to understand how these things worked at the time - wanted to know what would happen if the game hadn’t faded to black. What would happen I ran to the end of the corridor? Would I get outside? Would I see Castle Wolfenstein’s exterior?
Turns out, it was just a solid grass-green and sky-blue painted wall at the end of that corridor. The game had tricked me and there was no exterior at all - but the designers really had no other choice given the limitations of technology at the time.
Doom did better - from the very first map, it had actual windows revealing sky and fully-realised 3D outdoor courtyards, that in some cases you could access via secret doors or other means. When playing the game normally (i.e. not cheating) getting ‘outside’ felt liberating, a privilege and reward for finding the hidden switch or concealed passage. When playing the game less normally, tapping out
idspispopd let you walk through walls and explore the inaccessible areas, or the ones you just hadn’t worked out how to get to yet.
Both Wolf3D and Doom were primitive compared to the technology we have now, but at the time they were the most immersive 3D experience you could enjoy on a home computer. Many called these games ‘realistic’, not anticipating the true photo-realistic capabilities that engines would start to acquire shortly after the turn of the century.
Wolf3D taught us that realtime 3D games were possible, albeit if the world was a series of strictly flat, rectangular rooms arranged on a very coarse grid. While I did a little bit of map editing for Wolf3D - after all, using the fan-made map-editing tools was reminiscent of playing Minesweeper - it was Doom that got me hooked on level design. Doom had looser restrictions - it let us change the height of floor and ceilings, create walls of any angle and length, change light levels, and even moving elevators or stairs that rose out of the ground. Doom was just powerful enough to let us craft facsimiles of buildings we knew in real-life - provided we confined them to a single floor (‘true’ 3D - versus Doom’s ‘2.5D’ - arrived with Quake a few years later.)
It was Doom, therefore, that let me escape my anxious teenage self and experience the world in a way that I couldn’t in real-life. Not by blasting through hordes of demons in a fictional marine base on Mars, but by recreating the very real places I’d knew in real-life - school.
I can still vividly remember tracing out the edges of classrooms, trying to nail the scale and positioning of walls and doorways. Handily, my school had regular square tiled ceilings, providing a real-life grid I could use as reference for the transposition. I’d count the tiles during lessons, and hope I would remember the dimensions by the time I got home. It was strangely exhilarating to recreate broadly accurate - if ugly - versions of the classrooms I was familiar with then run around them at incredible speed. I wasn’t too bothered with placing monsters, I just enjoyed the personalised experience and ridiculous freedom that made me wish life were a video game.
I suppose, to a degree, I enjoyed playing a kind of God - albeit one more concerned with the minutiae of architectural design and function of an arbitrary British high school rather than the more pressing requirements involved in the design, creation and maintenance of an entire universe and all its inhabitants. It was the same feeling I got when playing with Lego when I was younger. These days, Minecraft scratches the same kind of itch for others.
Alas, Doom was not quite powerful enough to create my school in the detail it deserved. While Doom worked best when you stuck to sensible, computer-friendly numbers, for some reason the architects of my school weren’t quite as disciplined and insisted on using measurements more suited to real-life. Try as I did to appease both parties, ultimately I had to accept that perhaps the Doom engine really was better suited to depicting fictional military bases set on Phobos than classroom L2.
BTW - if you enjoyed this post, I recently contributed a chapter to The State of Play along a similar vein, recounting the making of Dust. And once you’re bored of me droning on and on about that bloody map, there are thirteen chapters from other developers and writers to sink your teeth into. It’s available on on Amazon here.