Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Gateway Experiments Episode 1: Space Station Omega (GE1-SSO.WAD)


by Ethan "Gooberman" Watson

The vast majority of Doom levels available are mostly iterations on a tried and true gameplay model. Marine starts level, marine gets gun, marine kills demons. The introduction of ZDoom offered some powerful scripting paths that allows authors to add in gameplay that is distinctly un-Doom. At least, Doom as it was released in 1993. Today, we are seeing crazy stuff like original Shoot-Em-Ups and tactical combat games and complete recreations of popular games of past like Mortal Kombat and Donkey Kong Country. Doom is still, uh, Doom, unsurprisingly. The early ZDoom forays like Assault on Tei Tenga tried to add story and speaking characters and Hell Factory developed the hub system to better mimic Quake II's execution. Space Station Omega, a single level from Ethan Watson, aka Gooberman, pushes things in a very different direction, one that's rarely seen.

Space Station Omega has a developed backstory, naming the Doom marine Russell Cartwright. Following the events of Doom II, he continued to serve with the marines for a year, during which he developed a romantic relationship with Elaine Skyler, one of the soldiers that fought alongside him during Hell on Earth. When the year was up, he quit the marines and started up a transport company, suckin' astro dust and relaying colonists to less sullied locales, like Mars. While pressed on several occasions, Russell never rejoined the marines. As the story begins, he and Elaine are about to be drawn into another conflict...

Watson has shown a lot of verve, adding cutscenes, dialogue, and other elements not typically seen in Doom. He's done them more skillfully than I've seen in other works. One thing you'll need to do is load the .CFG file along with the WAD so that you can use the radio / dialogue menu. You can't leave the ship until you grab a radio and then use it to call Elaine. Watson actually lets you make some decisions; Russell can play along with the station's requests or fight the plot, kicking and screaming. You'll still end up in a wreck on Floor 4, but there are two different routes that you can use to return to the ship. each one with its own particular final encounter. While some of the dialogue overlaps, Watson is canny enough to flavor it based on the decisions you made leading up to the main event. In my sightseeing, I'm not entirely convinced that I've seen every detail that the author included, but I think I have a pretty good appreciation at what story he could work into the ZDoom engine given enough time and inspiration.

The combat itself isn't much to write home about. Space Station Omega is a utilitarian construction, with hallways of cramped but ornate construction that lead to overwhelmingly rectangular rooms. The first computer room you initially climb into isn't much to look at but the second with the sliding doors, the observation deck, and locker room / bathrooms inject some much needed flavor. Through these semi-realistic pathways you will fight zombies, sergeants, imps, demons, and specters. The only weapons you'll have are the shotgun and combat shotgun. Depending on your choices, you might not even get to start with the first. All of the challenge comes from monsters attempting to pile into the more open areas through teleport ambushes, and even that is just sheer attrition at not killing zombies fast enough. My second complete playthrough ended at the airlock, and if you don't have enough ammo going in, you are going to wind up a dead ass. It's potentially frustrating, but Watson was kind enough to add some auto saves, so reload, marine!

I don't really care for the stock Doom marine sprites that serve as Watson's talking heads. I don't think they work very well in a cinematic sense, myself preferring Strife's portraiture or - better yet - some kind of comic book-style action stills, but making unique sprites would take a lot of work, and the other stuff even more. I will admit that the swapping camera angles are the best way I've seen this done yet, and it's done pretty fucking good. Heck, there's even some Resident Evil-style fixed cameras in the airlock segment. The showdown in the weapons hold is done in fantastic fashion and playing the Doom II text screen music on your victory is a cute touch.

Watson does a good job at introducing the radio mechanic. You'll have to use it like three times to even get on Omega. When shit hits the fan, you can radio Elaine up for a chat, and she'll even point you toward a tangential story element that unfortunately doesn't really pay off during the context of this episode... at least, I didn't find any point where it did. Perhaps it was planned to be revealed in Episode 2? I expect the conscious author will reveal the secret in Prime Directive, which is Episode 5, released twelve years after the first. In any case, it'll be interesting to see where Ethan takes her character and utility.

I'm not leery of narrative in Doom; it's just hard to find examples of it being done particularly well outside of something that is just heavily implied, and the knee-jerk reaction of many players is to decry it as straying from the core conceits of Doom's gameplay. As a proof of concept, Space Station Omega is solid. It may not have the sort of action that we've come to except after twenty years of digital distillation, but I think it checks out okay. Here's looking forward to... Episode 5.



  1. There's an updated version of this map/mission embedded in ge5-pd.pk3. This file is actually obsolete.

    1. that may be true, but i find it very convenient to use this to present it within the context of 2003 before looking at it in the context of 2015 when collected with prime directive

  2. Aye, it's obsolete, but it is a slice of what was considered relevant and cutting edge in 2003. And it's still linked in Doomworld's 10 years feature. It will likely be the first (and maybe only) contact people have with the series.