A few weeks ago there was a thread about the acts which defined each of the preceding decades. During the course of that thread, as is the way of the Afterword, the mighty Nirvana were once more traduced as being not all that great. Obviously, I – and, I’m sure, all right thinking others – harrumphed righteously at the very notion, and then promptly disappeared down a months-long rabbithole of Nirvana listening which has lead me to emerge more convinced than ever before that they’re fanfuckingtastic and shit all over your favourite band, so there.
However, in what is a sure sign that I’ve now spent too much time with all the misty-eyed, retrowanking nostalgics who patrol these halls, I did more than just listen to Nirvana. I also went on a major early-90s culture jag: maybe it’s the dual-effect of the Cerebus thread, but suddenly I experienced a burning desire to go back and re-tread much of the music, film and literature I was discovering at aged 14, circa 1993.
If I may go full-Hepworth, for a moment, the exercise served to clarify for me that 1993 was a wonderful year for music if you were young and vibrant and still had ears for the listening. Bjork released Debut. Fugazi gave us In On The Kill Taker. PJ Harvey emerged with Rid of Me. Snoop Dogg brought Doggystyle (and an attendant tabloid controversy) to our shores. No matter what your genre of preference, there was a scene bubbling away merrily: alternative rock had eaten the planet, hip hop was looming dangerously on the edge of mainstream consciousness, and the club scene was absolutely booming. The year saw no less than three legit contenders for album of the decade released in a glorious four month spell:
27 July 1993 – Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. The Marquee Moon of the 90s, ram-packed with riffage, thunderous drumming and – in the quiet bits – angels sighing. A towering meisterwork with something for everyone.
21 September 1993 – In Utero by Nirvana. When else have the biggest band on the planet been this weird and difficult? I’ve been heavy rotating this record for months now, and it’s so much better than I remembered it; from the opening swagger of Serve the Servants to the shrugged shoulders of All Apologies. I remember at the time of release being disappointed it wasn’t a little more melodic, but now I find it’s the heavier stuff that I really appreciate – the buzz-saw riffage of Tourette’s, the almighty chug of Radio Friendly Unit Shifter and, most of all, the magnificent Scentless Apprentice. On that latter tune; has any band ever penned a lyric so magnificently self-mocking/self-defining as “You can’t fire me, cos I quit”?
9 November 1993 – Enter the 36 Chambers by the Wu Tang Clan. I don’t think any more need be written re: this album. It’s the Afterword’s official favourite record of all time, after all.
However, my most stunning discovery came not from the world of music.
Because there was a video game released in 1993 which, quite frankly, has proved more revolutionary, influential and era-defining than all of Heppo’s vinyl hoard put together. A game developed by a team of no more than half a dozen people, which was its own punk rock revolution. A game which, I recently discovered, has been converted to Flash and can be played in your browser at ten seconds notice. I’m talking, of course, about id Software’s Doom.
Released on 10 December 1993 after months of speculation, Doom was the original first person shooter. It was produced entirely by six friends in their early 20s, lead by Spockish tech genius John Carmack and head-banging delinquent John Romero. Here’s the gang, circa Doom release – looking for all the world like some sort of demented new wave act. Carmack is in glasses on the left. Romero is pulling faces, centre.
Working out of an apartment in Texas, the gang figured out how to produce a 3D world. Then they figured out how to let you move around in it. Then they figured out how to let you kill shit in it. Then they released the software for free (later levels sold for £40 a throw) over the nascent Internet.
In what is always a win for Bingo Little, the game’s name came from a Tom Cruise movie; the Color of Money. Pool hustler Cruise is sat in a bar holding a long black cue case, chortling at the poor performance of those at the tables. Eventually one of them loses patience and rounds on him, demanding to know what’s in the case. “In here?” smirks Cruise, pausing for effect “….Doom”.
I’m going to try to put into words what it was like playing Doom as a teenager, back in 93/94. No one had seen a game like it before: it was fast as hell, it was utterly transporting in a way that previous games had not been, and it was METAL as all get-out, from the pentagrams to the giant goat-demons. Playing it felt a little bit like mainlining Motorhead directly into your neural receptors, and it fairly set your blood on fire. There was little or no story – you were on some sort of moonbase, it was filling up with monsters and you needed to blast them all back to hell with a variety of weapons (from fists to shotguns to chainsaws to the famous Big Fucking Gun). The level design was genius, the action was fast and furious and you opened each new door with a sense of legit trepidation, worried as to what might be on the other side.
The game was super heavy. When enemies died, their bodies remained on the floor. Blood was everywhere, and tortured remains were regularly deployed as decoration. The enemies looked like something from a Maiden album cover. A chainsaw was included among the weaponry.
Best of all, because it was originally released free, the game was traded on the playground between those in the know. You didn’t learn about it from the press, or from a billboard. You learned about it from a friend’s switched on older brother, who would turn up on Monday morning with a couple of hastily labelled discs secreted in his inside coat pocket. Totally under the parent/teacher radar, as all the best teenage experiences should be.
Even better, Doom was quickly optimised to allow for competitive play; for the very first time, participants could be placed in the same arena and attempt to gun one another down. This innovation spawned a culture which persists to this day; competitive gaming, LAN parties, deathmatching. Doom wrote the future and the future duly unfurled as prophesied. Better still, ID kindly opened up the game’s code to allow users to tinker with it and create their own levels.
Thousands of people chipped in their own efforts – in fact, a healthy community still exists online to trade new player-designed levels of the original game, and Romero tweeted a link to a new level he’d designed earlier this year. Doom took the power back and handed it to the kids – it engaged the fans and got them up onstage to play along. This was partly a reflection of how the game was made: Cormack designed the “engine” which powered Doom, while Romero oversaw the look and feel. That separation of engine and assets was highly unusual in game design at that stage, and made the game ripe for fan modding, a million budding Romeros taking to their keyboards to show what they could do with the tools Cormack had built and shared.
So much of what made Doom special is, of course, now cliché. Its innovations have been absorbed into the mainstream, and stores shelves groan under the weight of a thousand triple A FPS games, virtually all of which ape Doom. id wrote the blueprint, and others have copied (and diluted) mercilessly. Interestingly, a few hours spent on browser Doom (link here, highly recommended: http://www.silvergames.com/doom) confirm that the game has aged surprisingly well. Technically, it’s many rounds of Moore’s law behind its modern descendants, and yet the gameplay holds up beautifully, the player suspended in constant tension between fight and flight, the weapons pleasingly weighty, the level design expertly tailored to keep you moving relentlessly forward.
Most of all, it just has that feeling of “rightness”, that only the truly genius games have – that gorgeous endorphin rush that makes playing it feel as natural as breathing. The other day I snuck in a quick 20 mins in a lunch hour and my office lights automatically switched off because I’d basically stopped moving.
Despite being available for free as shareware, the game made instant millionaires of its creators. They raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars per month from players desperate for extra levels, and went on to produce an equally classic sequel, before following tradition by breaking up the band and heading off to pursue less successful solo projects. John Romero went on to live the life of a rock star – adoring convention appearances, dating Playboy bunnies and so on. Carmack maintained his usual monkish reserve, continuing to innovate off somewhere in a dark room, and designing rockets in his spare time. He has been cited by Bill Gates as one of the ten smartest people on the planet.
Doom has spawned a board game, a terrible movie, and a couple more direct sequels, the most recent of which was released last month. To a generation who came of age in the 90s, it remains a byword for pulse-pounding excitement and the feeling of being round at your mate’s house and discovering something so devastatingly, life-alteringly exciting it fairly made your head spin. It is the comprehensive essence of 1993 – it’s loud and brash and shameless, and it fucking rocks. The Nirvana of games.
Playing Doom again made me reflect on what I love in music, in games and beyond. There is nothing more exciting (beyond maybe space travel) than a small group of talented oddball kids gathering off somewhere private and creating their own little universe. Whether that’s Dave Sim and Gerhard bringing the world of Cerebus to life, the nascent Sex Pistols thrashing out Pretty Vacant off in a basement somewhere, or Romero and Cormack masterminding Doom amidst a mountain of discarded pizza boxes. Just a bunch of people steadily mastering their talent, playing for kicks, trying to impress one another and then sitting back in wonder as the world collapses at their feet. Fuck yeah.