Doom 3 is my favorite Doom game, but I also think it is the best game in the series. Yes, really. It is unlike any other Doom game, and yet, in some ways, it feels like the most Doom game out of all the Doom games. The word “Doom” will be featured a lot in this essay. But before I can work through the whys and hows of the claims above, I need to outline how I made my way to Doom 3 and my personal experiences with it outside of actually playing it.
2004 was an interesting year. I was about to finish elementary school, new consoles were right around the corner, and I was beyond excited for the launch of the Nintendo DS in November of 2004. My original Xbox got the job done, but gaming on the go with two screens just blew my mind (and it still does, more on that here). But before November I was mainly playing T-rated action games, shooters, and racing games on my Xbox. My parents let me have one M-rated game—Halo. My friends and I played so much Halo and were gearing up for the release of Halo 2. We scoured every gaming magazine for coverage on it, annoyed Circuit City employees about it, and we’d watch any videos on it that we could find. As we stepped into the world of M-rated shooters in 2004, there was also another game that often shared coverage in every gaming magazine we had. Posters and cardboard cut-outs for it adorned the gaming sections of every store we went to. And we even saw video thumbnails for it on the gaming websites we frequented. Yet, we never clicked on those videos because the thumbnails looked scary. That game was Doom 3. Even though I was young and not tapped into games media all that much, I knew that Doom 3 was going to big and was highly anticipated. I’d played some of the first game on my Nintendo 64—yes, Doom 64 also rules—and it was fun enough. But it never really clicked with me. It didn’t look like Doom 3 would, either. The big demon on the game’s cover and the demons that adorned a lot of the game’s marketing really, really scared me. So, I just looked at it from a reserved distance. It came out in August of 2004, but I didn’t really care. I saw it on store shelves, heard friends’ older siblings talk about it, and that was that. November came around and I had Halo 2. That was the only shooter I needed. And then came my godbrother’s birthday party. It was a big gathering of middle schoolers (and me) at our local Dave & Busters. Games, tokens, pizza, french fries, cake—it was as close to bliss as any 10-year-old could ask for. I did well in some games, and then I won a big prize. For the life of me, I cannot remember the game, but I know that it gave me some sort of voucher and at the end of the party when we all went to redeem our tickets and whatnot for prizes, I handed the person behind the counter my voucher. They looked at my mom and showed them what I’d won. It was a copy of Doom 3 for the original Xbox. She saw the box-art, looked at me, I looked back, and she grabbed the game with a shrug. That was that.
Doom 3 sat on my shelf for months. I was legitimately scared to play it until I went over to a friend’s house one weekend. They had an older brother so I brought it over. We waited until night time and grabbed enough soda and snacks to last us the evening, and then my friend, myself, and his older brother popped the game into their Xbox. We let the older brother play. Both me and my friend were still too scared. I flipped through the manual and even that creeped me out. The pages were adorned with fake notes, bloody fingerprints, and blood spatter. So I closed the manual pretty quickly. Look, I was a scared kid. Horror stuff didn’t really click with me until middle school and before then I used to jump at the sight of my own shadow. So to say that Doom 3 scared me was an understatement. It knocked me off-balance. I watched my friend’s older brother play it and I was very, very scared. But I couldn’t look away. The sound design, the lighting, the weapon effects—this was one of the first times I was actively aware of genuine mood and aesthetics in games, or at the very least, it was the first time I started critically thinking about it. Or doing as much critical thinking as a ten-year-old with a stomachful of Sprite and Cheetos can do. Yes, I knew Doom 3 was scary, but I became more and more compelled with thinking about why it was scary. We hardly slept that night and I didn’t seem Doom 3 again for over a decade. Knowing that the game scared me, I gave it to my friend’s older brother, and then, over time, my friend and I were no longer close. Neither of us knew that the night watching Doom 3 would be the last time we saw one another as friends, but it was and then time moved on alongside the growing distance between us. Friendships drift, it is only natural. But I found my way back to Doom 3.
It took some time but Doom 3 sauntered back into my life in 2018. The BFG edition was on sale on Xbox Live so I figured that I might as well give it a proper go. I’m older now and far more inclined to enjoy horror media, and so I installed it. Upon booting it up, I was struck with the realization that the flashlight mechanic has changed (who cares) and that the DLC was now included with the base game (very cool). So, I waited until it was dark out and turned all of the lights off in my little apartment. I scooted close to my monitor, put on my surround sound headphones, and set myself to play through what once filled me with absolute dread. 8-or-so hours later and I was done. All in one go, I just couldn’t put it down (yes, I ran through it on easy during my first playthrough but have since bumped up the difficulty because I like the tension it adds), and it is fair to say that Doom 3 absorbed me. Why did a game that so many people dislike really click with me? Well, I think that a lot more people like this game than the general online discourse might lead one to believe. It is unlike any other Doom game and it is all the better for it. Doom 3 is of the Half-Life era of first-person single-player shooters. This game starts out slow and a lot of time goes by before a gun finds itself in the hands of the player. Thick with tone, the opening act of Doom 3 places the player firmly in a future where capitalism and industrialization and Big Tech has made its way to the stars. Mars has been colonialized and its natural resources are now being drained both in the name of research and because Earth is always in need of more power, more fuel. It was in these slower opening minutes that I knew I was in for something truly special. And then Hell opened up and the Mars science station was turned into a charnel house.
Once the demons come out and the guns start shooting is when Doom 3 properly introduces itself as what the Doom series can (and should) be. Everything about it is heavier, slower, and noticeably weaker than any Doom game before or after it. You aren’t an unkillable god. You are just a man: health will run low, ammo will run dry, and your flashlight’s battery will drain before you have time to even think about it. The odds are stacked against you. Doom 3 is constantly pushing back against the player, and that is partly why I hold it in such high regard. For a series that is known for fast-paced action and for being a gory power trip, Doom 3 eschews that for something else entirely. Hell is real and there is no hyper-powerful Doom Marine to save us. On top of that, the player character is not the only human being to be found in this game. Doom 3 lets the player run into other human characters whose fear is often palpable. Some waver against the odds and others showcase their bravery, despite the fact that NPCs are often killed regardless of their bravery. There is a certain cruelty to Doom 3 that feels like it was meant to be comical, but to me, it feels earnest and deeply scary. What makes Doom 3 scary today is not only the monsters, lighting, and sound design, but the fact that it is a big-budget shooter that shows how futile life can be. Take the lantern-wielding scientist for example. He helps us through a pitch-black corridor and lights the way through dark tunnels and enemies alike. A normal human helping the Doom Marine, how novel, how brave. But once the end of the dark corridor reveals itself, the scientist is killed anyway. That just happens, and it will happen again.
The weapons in Doom 3 (and the flashlight) get a lot of hate, but I love them. Yes, the shotgun could be a little shotgunnier, but every weapon has a heavy, industrial feel. The personality has been stripped from them and they feel like assembly-line-generated tools of death. They are routine. They get the job done, but somehow they are still memorable. Doom 3 has the best plasma cannon of any Doom game before or after it. The way these weapons impact on enemies is also rewarding as the gore in Doom 3 finds the perfect line between over the top and just right. It is palatably revolting. And the sound design is brilliant, both for the weapons and the rest of the game itself. The machine gun echoes through the close corridors of Doom 3 with concussive force. The various science labs and hallways and industrial sites all creak and moan in their own metallic ways, and the way screams echo through the halls is genuinely unnerving. Demons can be heard scattering about, sometimes their moans and whispers and grunts can be heard through walls. Or maybe the sound of a child crying, Doom 3 uses sound to highlight that the player character’s mental state may be unraveling. He hears things, sees demonic visions, and, like, who can blame him? Things are not going well for the people of Mars in Doom 3.
Doom 3 also plays its cards close to its chest, especially for a Doom game. New monsters are introduced slowly over time, and this is effective in the sense that it makes each new threat feel unique and horrific in its own way. Every monster is a puzzle and just when we think that we’ve solved it, a new monster is introduced to disrupt the relative (horrific) status quo. The fact that Doom 3 is a quieter experience by Doom’s standards also means that once the story heads to Hell itself, it almost feels like a dream. It can’t be real. It should not be real, and yet it is. Navigate through it or die.
To me, how Doom 3 looks might just be what makes it my favorite Doom game. It looks like a game from 2004 and it looks ahead of its time all the same. This is very personal because I am partial to how video games looked on the Playstation 2 and original Xbox, unfinished and muddy. Blank spots in the world and design were left to our imaginations. Not everything was described or shown to us. By the limitations of the time, we were left to fill in these worlds and experiences ourselves. And for Doom 3, that makes it all the more unnerving because a sense of personalized horror gets introduced to the world because the limitations suggest to us what might lurk beyond the graphical threshold, and so we fill in what that might be. On top of the looks, the lighting and level design are also absolutely brilliant. Dark in Doom 3 is truly dark. The senses are important and they become as much a weapon as the shotgun or pistol. The flashlight will save our lives again and again because the darkness is always there, always encroaching, and always expanding. And the levels themselves, they are great! Every industrial corridor turns in on itself until they all feel the same. This is not repetitive, this is deliberate. Industrialization is not hip or personal. It is functional and every part of the structures and labs in Doom 3 feel functional. Introducing undefinable horror to these drab, mundane structures makes the carnage itself all the more stark and bone-chilling. But the world of Doom 3 is also alive. These levels and corridors and science labs, even Hell itself, were once inhabited. And in some ways, they currently are. In Doom 3 we don’t play through the aftermath of a disaster. We trudge through it in real-time. What surprises the world and shifts the balance of things also surprises us. Doom 3 is an unfinished sentence and we are there along the way as each new word is added. What makes the world feel alive is how it is personalized. While each lab and office might look the same, small touches hint at humanity every now and again. A picture. A poster. A calendar. All of these things show how these spaces were once lived in—it is very barebones environmental storytelling but it is earnest and it works. PDAs and videos can also be found throughout the world. The videos build out the game world and lore itself while the PDAs deliver personal (often audio) anecdotes about Mars itself. Some are funny while others are terrifying, but the best ones are the mundane ones. One PDA has someone complaining about their new employees, and in this audio log, this person states that, due to their employees’ ineptitude, they’ve changed all the gear locker combinations to “1–2–3”, and while rudimentary, this marriage between useful player information and fluff that builds out the world just works so damn well. The world of Doom 3 is alive and the fact that it is going to Hell is not an afterthought. It is all happening in real-time, and like the scientists trapped on Mars, the player has to negotiate themselves through the escalating horrors as the reach between Hell and Mars close in on one another.
Doom 3 is a game that I have played over and over again after being scared of it for so long. In a weird way, I feel closer to it than I do other games even though my relationship with it was antagonistic until two years ago. It has been the monster in the closet for years and I finally shined a flashlight upon it and blew it apart with a plasma rifle. Through beating it once, again, and again after that, I have come to the comfortable conclusion that it is easily my favorite Doom game. But it is also the best Doom game because it takes the potential that has always been there with this series and applies it in ways that actively push back at player expectations. Doom 3 redefined what a Doom game can be, and for that, it is unique and brave (or as brave as a AAA game can be). While it might not be as fast and smooth and as “hell yeah!!!” as other Doom games, that does not matter because it never tries to be. Actively comparing it to other titles in the series defeats the purpose of it. Doom 3 is the future of what Doom can and should be, and it is a shame that we didn’t listen to it when it declared itself as such.