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Doom and Rage

October 3, 2014

Rage Against the Machine

Here is something I’ve been promising to write since the summer, about two creative works from the early 1990s that share a peculiar rightness: they are id Software’s Doom, and Rage Against The Machine’s first, self-titled album.

The path that led to writing this was finally reading Masters Of Doom a little earlier this year. It’s a solid, in-depth account of the making of Doom and – more strikingly – the wider state of games development in the early 1990s, a time of smaller teams and quicker turnarounds, when an idea sharp and fast enough could reach escape velocity and become something.

I liked the book particularly because, as evidenced by the tortuously introspective tone of my recent posts, I’m enjoying the perspective that comes with distance and age – or more specifically the disorienting, expansive feeling that comes with context being given to something I experienced pre-internet. I feel like this is a bigger subject, actually, and a weirdness experienced particularly sharply by my generation, who entered adulthood just as the web became ubiquitous and information became the air around us. The sense of it is grasped perfectly by Jenn Fran (though she was writing specifically about how a gaming community was revealed by the emergence of the internet):

The concept of gamers as a unified community was new to me – to all of us. It felt like when someone suddenly turns up the lights in a darkened bar and you realise there are a lot of people in the same room

This quote stuck with me because I first played Doom – a lot of Doom – in the pre-lights up era, alone and adolescent, sealed off from the continual flow of context and consensus to which all our experiences are now subject. And it also struck me because reading Masters Of Doom, supplementing my singular take on Doom with an external history, felt like turning the lights on. The story it told connected with the things I remember – the layout of specific levels, Star Wars WADs on illicit discs passed round at school, the agony and payoff of networking PCs – and made it possible to pin myself on the map of the Doom cultural sweep.

I’ve taken the long way round to saying that I replayed Doom after I finished the book, and still found it extraordinary. This is what I mean by peculiar rightness – there’s a self-contained perfection to Doom, an integrity of theme and execution, a flow to the twitch and glide, to the violence and the technology. It stands as undiminished in a way that Wolfenstein and Quake – the before and after for id Software – simply don’t. I just took a break to play Doom again and I am totally right about all these things.

Replaying Doom led me naturally to something else. Doom came out in 1993 – I probably got hold of it at the end of that year, when my family’s first PC arrived, or in 1994 – just a few months after the release of Rage Against The Machine’s first album, at the end of 1992. As best as I can remember (I’ve not read a contextualising history of MTV or Our Price yet) things hung around then a little more than they do now – the albums that defined the imported American alternative scene stood on the racks of the high street and in rotation on radio and TV for longer than they might now. Whatever – the point is that for a kid on the spiral arm of the cultural galaxy, living in a crap tiny town actually called Cuxton, Doom and Rage Against The Machine were for all intents and purposes simultaneous.

And then they were actually simultaneous, as Rage became the soundtrack for Doom, and the two meshed and intersected. Most obviously, the anger of the music, it’s percussive bursts and explosions, was an idiot fit for the shotgun release of Doom. But this was just happy theming – there was no fury in the way I played the game, more like focused relaxation, strafing through familiar waves and patterns. So – and here’s where I step away from anything I can really stand up – there’s something else that links the two, aside from being compressed and fossilized together in my memory. It’s something to do with America, with dissatisfaction, with the certainty and purpose of gifted youth, and the creative agility of small, tight groups.

The other thing about distance and age is that some things fall away and some things remain. I am not planning to write anything soon about Terrorvision’s How To Make Friends And Influence People, or Rise Of The Triad. At some point it becomes clear that some of the things you liked, that fit and made sense of something, have a quality that is lasting and significant. And that’s the claim I’m really making for Doom and Rage Against The Machine, and their peculiar rightness.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Anton permalink
    October 3, 2014 12:55 pm

    Yes. Yes indeed. My Doom soundtrack was Pretty Hate Machine, Broken & The Downward Spiral. I will never forget the time my mother came out to the garage converted into a living room to get my attention for some reason. (The phone maybe?) I’d been playing in the dark, hammering away with the headphones on and she tapped me on the shoulder. Before I knew what I was doing I was out of the chair with the keyboard raised up like a weapon. I didn’t actually hit her, thank god, but she was annoyed with me.

    What a strange time and place that was, 1994.

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