There’s little question that Doom is one of the most recognizable and culturally ubiquitous games of its kind. This comes with a certain identity; a brand, for all intents and purposes. When you ask someone to describe Doom in a word or two, you’ll see some recurring words: brutal, fast, metal, etc. Words you will almost certainly not encounter include: creepy, unsettling, or scary.
That’s because Doom isn’t a horror franchise — rather, horror isn’t a part of its identity today. 2016’s Doom and 2020’s Doom Eternal are fantastic, frentic shooters that I really enjoy (I’d call Doom 2016 one of my favourite shooters ever), but you would not, under any circumstance, describe them as horror games. They are not about vulnerability, uncertainty, or fear (unless you’re playing Ultra-Nightmare), and that’s great! Obviously it’d be weird to load up a game advertised with footage of a man in power armor beating a demon to death with its own horn and complain about how it isn’t scaring you.
But there’s a curious undercurrent to all this: not something as extreme as an erasure, but definitely a wide misconception about how Doom’s roots sprouted and what the franchise initially grounded itself with. Horror used to be a part of Doom! More than an aspect of it, it was a pivotal part of the franchise’s texture, as essential as any of the brutality and speed in modern Doom games. But the way older Doom is perceived has shifted over the years — elements from older games focused on in Doom today are seen as a true modern translation of the classic experience, while horror is seen as an element that separates the “black sheeps” of the franchise from the more authentic action of 2016 and Eternal.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! These scarier elements were always a part of Doom, and there’s no reason they can’t coexist with the Doom of today. We know this because they’ve been coexisting for thirty years, ever since the very first ideas for the game.
Written in 1992 by id founder Tom Hall, the Doom Bible is a fascinating read. It sets out to serve as a design document for Doom, which was in very early development at the time. Like a lot of early design documents, its contents bear very little resemblance to the Doom that released in 1993. It bears so little resemblance, however, that it’s difficult to even draw parallels betwen the document and Doom itself.
While it outlines an ambitious vision for a game that has almost no similarity to Doom, the largest differences come from its heavy focus on story. There’s an overarching plot with cutscenes and several named playable characters. While it keeps Doom’s identity as an action game, the document outlines an atmosphere more akin to a horror game, with a grounded setting and plenty of scary cinematic moments.
Jame Cameron’s Aliens is cited as an inspiration, and it’s hard not to see just how thoroughly it imprinted itself: the core premise of this early outline is practically the same, but with facehuggers replaced with demonic possession. Aliens is an action movie, but it’s an action-horror movie that emphasizes the vulnerability of its protagonists. For a very brief time (about an hour according to John Romero), Doom was conceived as an Aliens tie-in game. While this idea quickly fell through, it remained an influence throughout development (alongside another horror franchise, Evil Dead).
As written in the book Masters of Doom:
It was something no one had done before. Kevin and Adrian agreed, snickering at the potential for sick, twisted art, something in the spirit of their favorite B movie, Evil Dead II. In fact they all agreed, that was what the game could be like; a cross between Evil Dead II and Aliens, horror and hell, blood and science.
An oft-parrotted but seemingly incorrect fact (widespread enough that Markiplier narrated it out in a Did You Know Gaming video) is that Doom went so far down the path of becoming a licensed Aliens game that negotiations were held with 20th Century Fox, which would indicate that they were incredibly committed to making it happen. Masters of Doom and Romero himself indicate that no talks with the rights holders ever actually occurred.
Though plenty of Doom’s inspirations are noticeable in the final game, almost every narrative and atmospheric element in the Doom Bible is entirely absent. This caused friction with the document’s creator, Tom Hall. His vision for the game was frequently in conflict with other members of the company, who ultimately built Doom into a “raw shooter” with little focus on the elements he outlined in his initial treatment of the game. These conflicts led to him being fired before Doom’s release, leaving his initial 70+ page document as one of the only remnants of his initial hopes for the game’s mood.
Calling the original Doom a “scary” game would probably be inaccurate. It undoubtedly scared people at the time, and it frequently uses its level and sound design to startle the player — monster closets for enemies were probably some of the first jumpscares in a video game — but the game doesn’t actively strive to be frightening. Its core premise (a single marine left to fend for his life against the armies of Hell) could easily be flipped into a scarier game, but Doom ultimately became more “hell” and less “horror.”
A lot of this has to do with the game’s music. Easily one of the most iconic soundtracks of its kind, Doom’s cultural identity has always been “metal.” While there are plenty of tracks that offer a more ambient or menacing tone (Dark Halls and Sign of Evil as an example), they aren’t enough to shift the entire mood of the game. Ask someone what Doom’s soundtrack reminds them of, and you’ll inevitably get comparisons to bands like Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, and other heavy metal artists of the 80s and 90s. In fact, these are more than comparisons: some songs in the Doom soundtrack used various popular metal songs as a base. Even songs that aren’t directly tied to existing rock tracks use common riffs and melodies that lead to debate about which similarities are even intentional, like the closeness between the beginning of At Doom’s Gate and Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
Anyone who’s worked with music on any sort of film or game project knows a pretty common principle: if the visual feel of a piece is telling you how to think, then the music is telling you how to feel. Music is a major component in the art of Making An Audience Feel Things — a scene can be sad, but the difference between a sad scene and a sad scene with the proper, heartwrenching melody can be devastating.
The overall identity of a game’s soundtrack goes a long way to how a game is perceived, even if that perception is subconscious. While a platformer might have a memorable creepy level with a scarier, gothic sound to it, as long as the overall soundtrack is bubbly and fun, you’re probably not going to describe the game as frightening.
This is the situation with Doom: you start the first level, hear the Metallicaesque riff, and the tone is set. You’re not thinking about what’s making that growl, or if you can fight back, or what the monsters are going to do when they see you, you’re just thinking about moving fast and blowing their heads off. These tracks shape Doom’s cultural identity today, which is why it’s incredibly fascinating that they almost weren’t in the game at all.
Composing for games was a very different beast in the 90s, with music often being based around pre-production material that attempted to capture the vibe of the finished game. Doom’s composer, Bobby Prince, has mentioned that he never really used the game as a point of reference — isolated from the rest of the development team, one of his only hints to the game’s tone and atmosphere was the aforementioned Doom Bible.
While almost every tonal aspect of the Doom Bible never physically made it into the final game, it inadvertantly shaped the direction of the soundtrack. It was Prince’s primary reference point for the game’s atmosphere: tense and slow-paced and moody. In fact, Prince initially envisioned an “ambient, environmentally sensitive” soundtrack for the game, providing metalesque tracks to show how much better his darker, moodier pieces suited in comparison. Though these tracks were only created to prove that metal wasn’t an ideal direction for the soundtrack, members of id, who had already enivisoned the game with “Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath” inspired music, simply combined the moodier pieces with the metal ones.
Prince has mentioned that the track that he thinks works best in the game is Suspense, used most notably in E1M5. In Suspense, the tone is tense rather than triumphant, building a sense of what the song is titled. Rather than amping the player up, it leaves them with a sense of anxiety, making them afraid. This could’ve very well been the tone of Doom’s entire soundtrack, transforming the game’s cultural identity from a hard metal gorefest into a tense and uneasy game with a dark atmosmphere more akin to id’s Quake.
Enter Aubrey Hodges.
When Williams Entertainment (later Midway) was in the process of porting Doom to the PlayStation 1, new music was sought out due to a royalties dispute with Bobby Prince. The responsibility of composing new tracks fell onto Aubrey Hodges. Unlike Prince, Hodges had all the Doom reference material in the world, and with zero knowledge of Prince’s original vision, came to the same conclusion: Doom should sound weird, tense, and above all else, scary.
But before we talk about PS1 Doom’s music, we should talk about the game itself. Though it functions as a port rather than a new game for consoles (ala Doom 64), it includes a myraid of differences outside of a new soundtrack, including modified levels and much, much darker lighting, including support for colored lighting with a propensity for varying shades of red. Consequently, PS1 Doom looks scarier, especially with the pixellated rendering obscuring hazards like enemies until they’re up close.
Hodges’ soundscapes work as a natural extension of that look, offering some of the most terrifying ambience I’ve ever heard in a video game. Gone is any semblance of rock or metal or anything remotely high-energy, and in its place are the disquieting drones and far-off noises of things unknown. There’s very little “music” to speak of — what exists in its absence feels more like a nightmare. Most of the soundtrack defies descrption for me: they all sound sufficently hellish, some sound downright chilling, and a few of them sound wet, like you’re in the mouth of some drooling creature that defies explanation.
Even the titles on the soundtrack invoke something closer to vague and outright fear. The names of Doom’s PC tracks were usually light, often honoring id employees or referencing in-jokes at the company (“Donna to the Rescue” pays tribute to long-time office manager Donna Jackson and “The Demons from Adrian’s Pen” pays tribute to level designer Adrian Carmack). The PS1 soundtrack includes no such levity, featuring titles like “Hell’s Churn,” “Twisted Beyond Reason,” and, my personal favourite, “The Slow Demonic Pulse.”
The new soundscapes alone would’ve turned PS1 Doom into a sufficiently chilling experience, but the aforementioned lighting and level modifications turn the entire port into a fascinating horror experience, one that almost plays off your preconceptions of the original game. Familiar environments are twisted in disquieting ways, previous landmarks appear uncertain and blurry, and even enemy placements become less predictable.
It feels particularly in line with recent video game horror trends, like the reimagining of other classics like Super Mario 64 into a collection of distorted, unsettling sequences that appear twisted directly out of your childhood. While these efforts tend to be a bit self-sabotaged by modern internet horror trends, there’s something so unintentionally unsettling and not-quite-normal about PS1 Doom that it’s only become scarier with age; we know E1M1 better than ever now, and even something as simple as a missing pillar is enough to raise mental alarms. It’s a pure and universal fear, like coming home and noticing that your closet door has been left slightly ajar.
The culmination of all this was Doom 64. While PS1 Doom functioned as a port, Doom 64 was an entirely unique Doom campaign developed for the Nintendo 64, complete with 30+ new levels, redesigned enemies, and yet another ambient soundtrack by Aubrey Hodges. It was developed by Midway, the same team behind the PlayStation port of the original game, who carried their scarier take on Doom forward and created an entire campaign informed by PS1 Doom’s darker lighting and creepier soundtrack.
The result is an experience that barely sounds or looks like the original Doom, to great effect for the game’s atmosphere. There seems to have been a deliberate effort to place enemies in startling and more unexpected spots, with some incredibly effective shadows throughout doing a lot to give levels an aura of unease. One particularly standout level, Dark Citadel, freaked me out well enough that I had to take a break after I reached the level’s exit (guarded, as one final horrific surprise, by a hidden Baron of Hell).
Unlike other Doom games, which usually saved the location of Hell itself for closer to the finale, Doom 64 uses the setting as its primary backdrop after the first few levels. The game is largely flaming skies, filleted corpses, and twitching piles of meat. If PS1 Doom recontextualized the original as something closer to a horror game, then Doom 64 does the same thing with a much greater dash of visual hopelessness. The game feels a bit more upsetting to experience than its predecessors, with the labyrinthian levels and constant satanic allusions giving the impression that you’re lost and damned in a dimension of pure, concentrated suffering.
Doom 64 is fascinating precisely because it seems like the most pure realization of what Doom was originally envisioned to be: with a darker, more ambient soundtrack and a much creepier atmosphere. It’s a far cry from the heavy metal direction of the original Doom and Doom II, and yet it never feels unnatural. It’s a different take on Doom, but an incredibly memorable one that has just as much power as the original. Just like people will always remember the layout of E1M1, people who have played Doom 64 will always remember how it felt to traverse its dark, oppressive halls.
Doom 3, a horror-focused Doom developed by id itself, deserves its own article — whether I’ll ever write it is another story — but I’d be remiss not to mention it. While PS1 Doom and Doom 64 reimagined the original game in darker and scarier tones, Doom 3 served as a quasi-reboot for the franchise that carried the exact same horror-focused direction. It draws on the scarier elements of the original games, such as the satanic imagery and sudden appearance of enemies in “monster closets” as a jumpscare, and combines it (unintentionally or not) with the darker look of Midway’s Doom console outings.
Doom 3 has a polarizing reception — people either love the horror or want to push it out of the way. The greatest sticking point is one of game’s core conceits, which is its use of darkness to spice up exploration and combat. The player has a flashlight that has to be selected and held separately in lieu of a gun, offering visibility at the cost of a window of vulnerability. This mechanic was born out of a technical issue (the light from the flashlight would lag when combined with particle effects from the guns), but it ultimately became one of the game’s most memorable ideas. Doom 3’s quality as a shooter can be debated, but its use of light certainly makes it venerable horror game.
I’m not going to talk about this game’s music much, because it’s a perfectly serviceable soundtrack and not much else. What’s funny is that Trent Reznor was originally tapped for Doom 3’s sound design, owing to his incredible work on Quake. Unfortunately, this deal fell through, leaving Doom 3 with a fine, albeit generic, action-horror soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the flashlight was less well-received among players. A mod for Doom 3 aptly titled “Duct Tape” was released a mere three days after the game’s launch, attaching the flashlight to several of the guns and allowing them to be used in tandem. This mod was apparently downloaded 80,000 times over the first 24 hours after releasing, effectively meaning that a bunch of Doom 3 players spent their first week with it modding out most of the fear.
From here, the game’s fate was sealed. When it was remastered under the BFG Edition label, the dummied out flashlight introduced by the Duct Tape mod was rolled into the game, with no option to play with the original mechanic. Since this is the most readily available version of the game (especially on consoles), and also the one that functions the best without a sourceport, the vast majority of Doom 3 players today don’t realize the mechanic even existed, much less that the game was originally designed to be much tenser.
As someone who genuinely likes the original Doom 3, flashlight and all, I find this story a little irritating — how often does a remaster patch out a game’s main mechanic without giving you a toggle to turn it back on? While the original flashlight was born out of technical constraints, that doesn’t automatically make it something to be fixed. Think of how many great creative decisions in a piece of media you enjoy were made out of compromise. Regardless of the flashlight’s origin, the game was still clearly designed for it, and removing it makes some sections of the game (like one where you escort a scientist holding a lamp) outright pointless.
The consequences of all this result in a game that’s frequently played in its least interesting state, and most relevantly, signify an end for the scarier elements of the Doom franchise. Doom 3 retrospectives often label the game as totally unlike the Doom games that came before it (due to the larger obscurity of Doom’s console outings) and a black sheep in an otherwise action-focused franchise. When the next entry in the Doom series released over a decade later in 2016, horror wasn’t just absent, but entirely reversed; one of the game’s core motifs is that the only thing the demons fear is you.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, I adore 2016’s Doom! It’s one of my favourite shooters ever made, and it’s as much of a modern realization of the original game’s ideas as Doom 3. But they occupy different halves: Doom could be a hard metal gorefest, but it could also be tense and uneasy and dark. In the aftermath of the original Doom’s launch, Midway and later id themselves explored the latter half, separate from the former. But somewhere along the way, this interpretation of Doom was largely rejected. Now the reverse is happening, with 2016’s Doom and Doom Eternal almost exclusively focusing on having loud guns and even louder soundtracks. These games have become much more popular than Doom PS1, Doom 64, or Doom 3 ever were, forever cementing the game’s modern reputation as the farthest possible thing from a horror game, or even just a game with horror elements.
It’s important to remember that Doom, originally conceived as a scarier game with a moodier soundtrack, was molded into what it became through a variety of happy accidents. In 1993, Doom’s metal songs were only composed to demonstrate how poorly the composer thought they’d convey the tone of the game, only for them to end up shipping and becoming iconic. While Doom’s horror-focused entries never gained the same level of acclaim as modern Doom titles, they were still great at what they did — you only have to listen to Aubrey Hodges’ music to remind yourself of that.
In 2020, to coincide with the release of Doom Eternal, Nightdive released a full remaster of Doom 64, complete with new levels done in the same moody style as the original game. It was a great reminder that, however dissonant horror interpretations of the franchise can seem next to their most recent and fast-paced brethren, they can easily coexist, serving as alternate and forking interpretations of the same game.
Modern Doom is sublime, but it doesn’t have to erase what came before it. Doom has no black sheeps, just bloodstained corridors where you scare the demons and bloodstained corridors where the demons scare you. Whatever form Doom takes next, it’ll have plenty of bloodstained corridors, and there’ll be more than enough room for both.
Massive thanks to Gmad, whose encouragement, support, and help with research brought this article to completion!