Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Secret Lab (#SLAB.WAD)

by "Sphagne"

Community Chest contributor Sphagne uploaded the majority of his works to /idgames in mid-2002 but the levels themselves were purportedly crafted from 1995-1999. There are quite a few holes in the collection. For instance, Simphony of Death is the first of his creations that is available and he notes that it is actually his second. This one, Secret Lab, is the second upload from the collection but it's his fourth creation. Like the rest of his works, it is a Doom II MAP01 replacement. Given when it was created and his admission that he was unaware of online communities, it would appear that #SLAB ought to be vanilla-compatible. It appears, however, to have been tested in Boom and ZDoom prior to upload.

Sphagne's levels have no overarching plot unless you are willing to grant that its protagonist leads one of the most charmed lives in history... After-life, too. On this particular occasion, you are an agent who has been tasked to infiltrate and destroy an enemy base. Rumor has it that this facility also hides a secret lab where no doubt unholy experiments are being performed. There's no guarantee that you'll be able to find it, but if you do then purging the laboratory will be much-appreciated. The location of the Secret Lab is not woven into the normal level progression; it is an optional area that houses something like a third of the monsters. As Sphagne mentions in the .TXT, it is a level unto itself much like the secret annex of Number One Kill: The Next Generation's MAP01 ("Entryway") or Bob Evans's Odessa 11 ("Sojourn").

Having played a single level from an author isn't enough to get a sense of their personal "style" but one can identify some commonalities from two. Sphagne's level design is largely dungeon crawler Doom with a lot of classic sector machinery that either feeds complex secret sequences or the required map progression. Consider an early secret hinted at in the .TXT, a game-changing SSG that is important enough that TimeofDeath specifically mentioned it in his /idgames comment. The button that opens the door out of the SSG annex also momentarily opens a chamber opposite to the secret that you just came from. The way the player threads through the level is generally linear, but as you progress you will find key doors that grant access back to previously-explored portions. The author also appears to be a fan of sprawling, end-of-level ambushes, but the natures of the "get the fuck out" invasion of Simphony and the climax of the technically optional Secret Lab are fairly dissimilar.

Aesthetically, I would place this in the genre of Doom II starbase levels, though some features like the outer yard and the computer tunnels speak more to Knee Deep in the Dead. The level is not without its dark secrets. Coding some of the deeper secret areas as Hellish annexes creates a conceptual motif as the player turns over the base in search of the level's Secret Lab. Both #SLAB and Simphony of Death feature a large number of secret areas. Here, teasing a large portion of the map as a substantial secret to be hunted for encourages players to engage with an aspect of Doom's gameplay that appears to be dear to Sphagne's heart. And, well, it's also likely that he wanted to be sure that people didn't miss a significant portion of something that he was sharing to them.

#SLAB feels a bit closer to a regular Doom II level than Simphony's stop-start pacing. I think that it has a greater miles-per-switch ratio, if you will, than #SYMPHOD's first act, though it's still kind of busy with the computer console that opens the cage and the pedestal elevator switch. Once you get past the opening wing it settles into a more or less normal corridor shooter as you advance through the eastern, peripheral hallways. You don't really get back to Sphagne's finicky / claustrophobic feel until exiting the massive, outdoor yard to the west. This is true for all three possible paths of egress, with an honorable mention for the tower that you just came through due to the blue armor bit / closet.

To draw another comparison, I would not be surprised to find that Sphagne has at least one large, carefully-arranged setpiece fight in each of his releases. Simphony of Death had the Cyberdemon-led orchestra arena. Here, the player is deposited in the center of a platform ringed by a group of Barons who are facing outward with a Cyberdemon on the outside. Make a noise and, well, here comes the pain! The setup is a spin on the original Doom II's "Tricks and Traps" scenario and has the same general feel of the spectacle of #SYMPHOD's instruments of destruction. While the initial action has a more intimate feel due to the scale and immediacy of the threat, it gives way to a more spacious outdoor brawl with its own lurking dangers. 

Otherwise, the room-and-door encounter design is generally straightforward what you see is what you get gunplay. The eastern area has interconnections between both side-cages as well as the marsh-like exit cistern and makes for the most complex incidental combat. The platform with the exit elevator has both a Baron and a mancubus on the high ground so they're from a relatively sneaky position to launch projectile attacks given that the window and height kind of limit your field of view. The Secret Lab itself has a handful of weirdly-planned encounters, no doubt meant to reflect the nature of the experiments being performed. One of these is a standard monster teleporter juke where the creatures are difficult to hit when they're not attacking. The other has a cacodemon terrarium which is backed by a long, thin imp cage which is itself bordered on its outer edge by an arch-vile compartment, no doubt meant to grant imps limited immortality.

As for the entrance to the Secret Lab, well, I found it before I got to the exit but I had no idea what I was looking at when I first saw it. It's accessed going south from the multi-tier teleporter that unites the map's southeastern and southwestern areas. I think that the room is sealed at first but if you manage to get inside and see the letters L-A-B then all you need to do is make a running leap over the little blocking wall. There's another DoomCute bit that I am unsure of - the word STOP appearing in part of the hallway leading to the elevator. It's probably significant to the lab but I cannot be bothered to crack open the map in an editor to figure out just what purpose it would serve, if any.

Secret Lab is a classically-styled mid-'90s Doom II level. As with Simphony of Death, it would probably be better-loved by players who delight in puzzle-box style layouts marked with sector machinery that unfolds as you poke around and explore. It's interesting to see the Community Chest era function as a sort of call to arms for folks who had stowed away relatively older material, whether Sphagne here or Gene Bird's Blind Alley series, not to forget Mike Alfredson's 2004 archival publications. Whatever comes next I can assure myself that it will come as another intriguing time capsule.


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