i had a problem with doom and doom eternal and i finally think i can put it into words

apparently I don’t have a lot of Doom screenshots for some reason

Doom is one of my favorite games of this generation. I love it. I have triple dipped on it, even though there’s no real point, since, y’know, I could just replay it on the first platform I bought it. Doom Eternal is not one of my favorite games of this generation, even though it is improved in so many ways, and on paper, is objectively a better game by every single metric. This discussion is, in part, meant to be an explanation for why that is.

But first, a funny story.

I almost died. Okay, maybe not so funny. But… I almost died, and I had to drop out of college and give up my life dream of becoming a pilot because the 2008 economic collapse and my untreated disability meant I wasn’t gonna get to continue flight school. I struggled and slaved and worked and I finally graduated school nearly a decade late, in 2016.

And 2016 fucking sucked, man. Both of my dogs had to be put down. My computer died, and a really, really bad guy tried to take over my video game project. We’ll come back to that game in a bit. It’s relevant.

But the funny story part is, I bought two games: Uncharted 4 and Doom. I started playing Uncharted ’cause I think it came out, like… the week before, maybe? I know I physically had a copy first. I played through the first hour of Uncharted 4 and I stopped, decided to come back to it later…

…and then I got my hands on Doom, tore through it like there was nothing else. After my graduation, it was all I touched until. it. was. done.

What a blast.

But… something bothered me. Something… really bothered me about it. I couldn’t put my finger on it; on paper, everything seemed perfect. Moment to moment, something was missing. What was it? Why was a game that I can confidently call one of my favorite games of the generation… leaving me with a weird feeling?

…and why did Uncharted 4 help me figure out what the problem was, here in 2020?

That Game I Made

In 2007, as my illness was really kicking into overdrive, I ended up finding a copy of the Halo Graphic Novel, which led me to Tsutomu Nihei, a manga artist best known for a story called BLAME! I remember clutching it tightly, scanning the pages, reading through a story about my favorite character, Sergeant Johnson, fighting his way through the Flood, my favorite enemies in Halo, escaping the ring on his own. It was incredible; the way Nihei depicted the pellets coming out of the shotgun (depicted above) as the flood combat form fired it… it was stunning and dynamic. It breathed life into a game that had haunted me ever since I played Halo one early spring day at my buddy Robert’s house.

I fell in love with megastructures because of Halo, and I found Tsutomu Nihei through the Halo Graphic Novel. That’s how I found BLAME!, the story of a cyborg named Killy who travels through a fantastic megastructure. My favorite poet, Eliot, who I also discovered through the ARG (alternate reality game) that revealed Halo (“your poet Eliot had it all wrong”), once adapted another writer’s observation to say:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

This has been widely phrased as “good artists steal,” but there’s a nuance to Eliot’s words. A great artist will build upon what they found before to create something cohesive and interesting.

Well, I hope one day people call me a good poet, and I can tell you that yes, I am absolutely building on what Tsutomu Nihei and Halo both taught me about megastructures, because in 2014, I finally started working on Game One.

G1, as we called it, was a cooperative first person shooter built out of my (and, as I recruited people into the project, our) frustrations with the shooters around us. Our game, which had fully functioning co-op, really cool guns (including an awesome ice grenade that froze enemies and a shotgun with a frag grenade on it that comboed really well), all sorts of mobility options (multi-jumping, air-dashing, and a shotgun with a grapple that we were arguing about before we stopped working on the game), and really fun ways to deal with enemies (like damaging specific parts of their bodies to stun them or deny them specific attacks). It felt fresh, revolutionary, and exciting.

It also looked like uh, well… butt.

I mean, a couple friends drew really cool art for it, like this guy my friend Phil Bastien drew:

But in terms of 3D, I mean… I was a disabled guy who’d just gone back to college and fought my way out. I had a congenital heart defect that wouldn’t be diagnosed for two more years after overwork on a different, award-winning video game I conceived, co-directed, and wrote would leave me hospitalized. I could not afford to hire an actual art team, so we worked out way through it, but without an actual art director present, well… yeah.

(that abusive guy I mentioned earlier joined us part way through the project, tried to take it over, accused me of being a horrible game designer as a way to take it over, failed, left, and then told everyone he could that I was faking my disability. fun. we rebooted the project a couple months later, totally fresh, got a lot more done on it, but still… we didn’t have art)

So G1 was never really going to work. It was fun, though. I mean really fun.

In 2020, Doom Eternal introduced quite a few mechanics that were similar to ours. Now, let’s be clear, this is convergent evolution here; I don’t think I know a single person who read my design docs and played our demo and put it in Doom Eternal. I do not think anyone from id is even aware of the existence of G1. My point with telling you this is that, on paper, Doom Eternal is exactly the kind of game I want to play, and it seems, at first glance, like exactly the kind of game I’d design. Me and Hugo Martin should be like two sides of the same coin, right? (yo, Hugo, if you’re reading this, let me come work for you on Quake 5, people love the shit out of games I direct, I can make you a billion dollars).

…right?

Well… what if I told you that Uncharted 4, Doom, and Doom Eternal all have the same problem, and if I’d played Uncharted 4 in 2016, I probably would’ve figured it out right then and there.

BEEP BEEP, DETOUR

I don’t like saying “here’s why this didn’t work,” but I love helping people make their work better. Like, I really hate it when critics are like “here’s why that thing you like is good,” but then I wrote a bunch of articles that, on the surface, appear to be doing the same thing. But the key difference has always been, whether I was writing about STALKER or praising Halo or talking about the original Doom, my goal isn’t to validate you for liking the games you like, it’s to identify problems and offer solutions, or just to say “hey, here’s a lesson that can be learned.”

Remember that bit about poor artists copying and great artists stealing something to make it their own? In my own criticism, my hope is that I’m arming you with the tools to make you a better thief, rather than to give you something to copy. I don’t want to tell you “hey, this game didn’t work,” to make you feel bad, I want to tell you “hey, this game didn’t work” in the hopes you can go “ah, so now, in the future, I know how to avoid this pitfall.” If I’m not being helpful, my writing serves no purpose.

So, I want to take a quick detour and talk about why I didn’t love Doom Eternal.

There are two main reasons. The first is The Marauder. I wrote an article about this for Vice, but a bunch of people ignored it, read the headline, watched a YouTube video that made them feel good about themselves for mindless consumption, and then a shitload of them wrote me to tell me that he’s not actually hard, and you can beat him in 45 seconds (seriously, one guy thought this was a great time), and that I simply needed to be better at games.

If you read the article, of course, you know the issue is that the Marauder doesn’t fit, not that he’s hard. I can kill him in 15 seconds. I am better at games than my detractors who posted far, far slower times. He’s not hard, he’s just… he’s spinach.

Spinach?

Yeah, I fuckin hate spinach, man. But I love it in a good quiche. The Marauder is spinach and he can be great in a great quiche of a game, like, say, Sekiro (if you told me that he’s only in the game because someone at id loved Sekiro and wanted to inject a Sekiro style parry enemy into the game, I’d believe you, but a parry enemy belongs in Sekiro and does not fit within Eternal’s flow; he doesn’t play off any of the enemies or encounters — he doesn’t collaborate with anyone else in ways that change the experience. He is always The Exact Same Every Time. An Archvile makes the game interesting because of who he has the potential to spawn next to), but if your game is fuckin ice cream, he probably tastes like shit. The Marauder is the wrong ingredient in the wrong fuckin dish.

I should be going “oh shit it’s my nemesis, the Marauder, let’s fuckin GOOOO” but instead I’m like “ugh I have to stop doing the thing I like — highly mobile funtimes acrobatic shitstorms — and go do this boring ‘wait for it’ gameplay before I get back to the fun shit.” He’s dull, you just stunlock him and go on about your day.

But there’s like 80% of the game without a Marauder present. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, I hate bloated stories with memes and shit in them. My script for my upcoming game about chestnut trees and dead flight navigators and soda pop and the morality of feeding bodies to pigs, called Adios, is just 4,600 words long, give or take. My script for my disorientating, ‘everything is just slightly off’ horror game was probably about the same. I like my shit lean because I come from a film school background and when you give me a movie, I have one minute per page and I’ve got 90–120 pages to tell a complete story. That’s not a lot of time! A tv show is worse; you’ve got maaaaybe 50 minutes at most.

Some of the worst movies I’ve ever watched are like… well, the latest Star Wars movie, right? That movie was so full of “fanservice” to the point of naming its protagonist “Rey Skywalker” that basically everybody seemed to hate it. It’s because the fanservice didn’t actually mean anything to most of the audience; it only mattered to a bunch of people on a level that is purely “I understood this reference.”

On an emotional of “why do I give a shit about the thing I am doing,” I’m not sure some big bullshit backstory about how there’s a real reason Doomguy is Too Angry To Die or that he had a bunny named Daisy or whatever matters to the vast majority of human beings who buy video games. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if sales of Doom Reboot Game 3 are markedly cooler than Doom Eternal.

(There’s a thing no one seems to get in game sales: Game 2 in a series will always sell better if Game 1 was good because all the people who loved Game 1 and got it used at Gamestop are now willing to part with their cash on Day 1, so even if Game 2 sucks, it might have extremely high sales, and then Game 3 will sell terribly because Game 2 was bad)

There’s also a process where someone makes a singular, amazing work, and it does really well, so a sequel is greenlit, and that sequel… doesn’t really blow people’s socks off — think Pirates of the Caribbean 2 — because people go “oh, fans loved The Lore,” so instead of the lean, fantastic story of Pirates of The Caribbean, we’re suddenly overburdened with all the lore of Dead Man’s Chest.

That’s where we are now, actually.

Doom was great because the game tries to tell us lore and we get to punch a computer monitor and say “fuck the lore I got gunz” and run around shooting shit until the game ended.

Doom Eternal is not great (yeah, I know, the metacritic is higher and the sales might be too, though I’d love to see the tails on both games, and I don’t believe we’ll really know how it did until Doom Reboot 3), because it has the exact same problems as Dead Man’s Chest. It’s got all this lore and shit, except it’s trying to lampshade it by going “lol you don’t REALLY care about this, right? You’re coming in midway through the story haha isn’t that funny?”

What it ends up doing is… making me not care. Where Doom made me care about the game because it dispensed with the bullshit, Doom Eternal wants to be a Saturday Morning Cartoon so fuckin hard that it just… gives us so much Obviously Pointless Shit And Doesn’t Bother To Try Making It Exciting that it ends up in a land where, well, the shit is still uninteresting except for people whose lives are spent entirely on Fandom, formerly known as Wikia. It actively creates a sense of not caring, except now the sense is negative, where “no bullshit” got us to buy in and fall in love.

Valve had the same problem with Left 4 Dead 2 — nobody likes 2’s characters as much as the first’s because the first’s were blank slates and the seconds tried to Define The Personalities to sort of… copy the memes, and then people couldn’t project, and when they couldn’t project, they were like “you know, I don’t really like these meme-created characters all that much!”

Never make something for your fans. Your fans came to you because they loved you for who you are. When you try to give them what they want, you’ll create a character who everyone hates because her catchphrase is “son of a bee sting!”

So yeah. It’s got an enemy who might be good but doesn’t really belong in the combat sandbox as it is, who doesn’t throw a wrench into the combat so much as turn it into a different game that I wasn’t in the mood for, and it’s trying so hard to Be A Cartoon (to the point of even having literal Mario style hazards in levels) that it kind of lost the vibes of “this is me, this place is real, and I’m here to fuck shit up.” You have a big weird romp where your emotional connection is tenuous at best and it… kinda creates an emotional disconnect?

Either let the player say “I don’t care, I just want to shoot things” like Doom 2016, or get the player to say “holy shit, I really care a lot,” like John Wick, but if you dumped somebody into the middle of a John Wick and movie and they had to deal with all the rituals and lore of the Assassin Religion Shit without the all-important “let’s make the player care” shit that drives John Wick (his dog being killed, his wife, the weight of his decision, the relationship with his best friend who ends up dying, the scene where his former boss understands what he’s doing but tries to kill him anyways) on an emotional level, you just kind of confuse and irritate the player. Never thrust the player into bullshit without explaining why the player should give a fuck.

I still don’t know why the Doomslayer needs to kill the random dudes to fight some weird lady or what her deal is, I just know it’s not interesting at all. The game doesn’t make me want to care so I then do the opposite of care. I don’t care… aggressively. Which isn’t where you want me to be, narratively.

Look, man, I wrote a game where basically every single streamer hit all the emotional beats I wanted them to, especially when I gave them the dialog option to say “<lie> No, I do not like giant balls of twine,” so it’s pretty clear I’m an expert (please laugh).

If I was working on Doom Reboot 3, I’d trim off all the fat, I’d focus on all of our objectives being a logical/emotional series of beats of clear cause and effect, and even if that gets absolutely batshit insane by the end, I’d want to push the game towards letting the player feel like they really fuckin earned shotgunning Satan in the mouth by the end. Also I’d make the Marauder fit the flow of the game while still being a parry enemy because I think there are ways to make him feel amazing, and I think he can be maybe 3–4x harder than he is and way more fun.

I try to source all my game screenshots myself, but this is the only Uncharted 4 picture I had in my 800 gigabyte game screenshot folder

Back On Topic, Sorta

Fun fact, I don’t like Naughty Dog’s games. Not telling you this to be a contrarian; I went into Uncharted 2 fully expecting it to be exactly what I loved in video games, and… well, it turned out that it wasn’t. I wrote a bit about this after I finished The Last of Us last year, and I actually am writing this piece to take a break from the piece I’m writing right now. People thought that piece came off as too aggressive, so I tried to clarify in a followup.

Then a bunch of people went “well, Doc, you’re gonna love the crap out of Uncharted 4 because the combat sandboxes are wide open,” and “oh, Doc, you’ll love The Last of Us 2 because the levels get wide.” And… I mean, I was willing to get them a chance. I actually played through the Uncharted games in part to reevaluate them last year, and I gave The Last of Us a shot for the same reason. I came away feeling my initial judgement was correct. This year, I needed to get my car fixed, and people know I don’t like the games, so I said “make me suffer through The Last of Us 2 by giving me the cash to fix my car and I’ll write about both games,” so I did.

But… I actually did give The Last of Us 2 and Uncharted 4 a chance. Both games, to their credit, do open up, and their gameplay is more systemic than earlier Naughty Dog games… up to a point.

But something was… off.

The encounters should have been awesome.

Like, check out this level design:

At about 12 minutes into the video, we have this big, open level space where Nathan has a large central structure. He’s capable of running, sneaking, jumping, and climbing around. Every single mechanic is on display at all times. If you can think it, you can do it.

As I was streaming Uncharted 4 the past few weeks, I realized that… every one of these encounters falls flat for a variety of reasons. I’m going to explain one of those reasons that has nothing to do with Doom here, I just think it’s interesting. The quote is me doing a sidebar.

One of those reasons being that the game’s health system is based around taking cover, but the game’s level design supports enemy flanking, and the AI really drives its enemies to flank and shoot. Naughty Dog AI is really kind of dumb and non-varied in its behaviors and runs into the problem we see in games like Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway or most other games that try to do cover shooting. The enemy flanks and that’s basically all they have. Gears of War works like Mario — it is literally described by the team as horizontal platforming; the design of those games is to help the player understand where the targets are, take time to make ‘jumps’ between cover (the ‘platforms’ in the horizontal platforming), and the enemy composition make up the distinct and interesting challenges that make that levels fun.

Most cover shooters go “take cover” and then make enemies flank in a way that is lethal instead of threatening, so instead of pushing players to move, it kills players. Games that don’t understand good cover design tend to be a two-dimensional encounter in the sense that it’s flank or be flanked, where Gears will be like “here’s a level where your cover only lasts as long as mortar fire is raining down on you,” or “here’s a level where your cover moves because it’s a big concrete worm that likes berries you can drop from the ceiling to make it move.”

Uncharted is one of those series; flank or be flanked and that’s all there is to it. There are no dynamics to the fights, and the health system doesn’t support stopping to take cover and consider jumping between platforms. It wants you to move all the time or die, and enemies seem to have perfect aim so it ends up being “a frantic search for cover and tracking lots of highly mobile enemies who are literally trying to remain hidden from you to flank you” which just kills the flow of the combat sequences. If they want to achieve the emotional effect of “feeling like indiana jones, they need to keep the player moving and encourage a lot of acrobatic, movement-driven play. Doom is actually really good about this by its breadcrumb-style combat, where moving into enemies is the best way to gain health.

But here’s the thing that Uncharted 4, Doom, and Doom Eternal all have in problem: they have very little sense of great encounter design.

lmao this is the only screenshot i have. how is it that i have ten trillion destiny screenshots and no screenshots of these games??

What Is Good Encounter Design?

Resident Evil 4 would be literally perfect if it had the ability to let you strafe. I’ll compromise here — I don’t need you to strafe while aiming, I just wish that Leon would step to the side when I push sideways on the stick when I’m moving, rather than having him turn right, walk forward, and then turn left again to face the direction I’m facing. Nobody moves like that! It’s weird! It feels jank as heck. I don’t mind if he stops moving to aim, I just need him to step to the side like a normal human or even a crab would do when he is moving.

But like… the other 99.99% of Resident Evil 4 is perfection. It is relentlessly creative, it builds this really organic sense of pace on a macro, plot level, and on a micro, moment to moment level. There are ebbs and flows in the plot, but the actual game overall is building up to this grand scale with high stakes that just feels, mmf, heck yeah, pump my fist in the air, let’s go.

Even now, I can think of so many encounters in that game. So, so, so many. There’s one where you’re in a room and there’s like some pools — you’ve just come across it from one way, walked into a basement with shotgun ammo, and come back out and there’s like 30 dudes, some with shields, some with the red outfits, and… that’s it. It’s actually really restrained? They achieve so much in that encounter entirely through the geometry of the level design and the behavior of three different enemies.

Some of the encounters are entirely bespoke — the giant statue or creature in the lake, for instance — but the best ones, whether it’s someone rolling explosives down at you that you have to take cover from or navigating a hedge maze with sneaky dogs, or that time you first meet the regenerators and don’t have the x-ray camera yet — all make the game just feel special.

Each time, the encounter works because of three core components:

  1. Interesting Geography — you are engaging with the game in a way you have not, like the level with the two pools is a big, entirely flat room where the threats are the enemies you’re basically juggling, while the hedge maze is all about obscuring enemies and surprising you. The Thing That You’re Thinking About And The Way The Space Makes You Feel is what’s at play here.
  2. Tools and Complications—like a level that encouraged me to snipe enemies with my sniper rifle (tool) because Ashley and I were separated (complication) so I just kinda had to hope she’d get through while I had limited space to move myself.
  3. Limitations — and this is the really important one. One way to think about limitations is “only this kind of enemy spawns in this encounter.” Like, you know the first time you deal with the regenerator? It’s just you and the regenerator. It’s not you and fifty other dudes and also the regenerator… it’s just… you and him. And then you and him and an x-ray. If they wanted, they could’ve done a fight with you, several ganados (a mix of shield and non-shield), and a single regenerator. If you mix things up right… you can create a whole lot of completely distinct encounters.

…and that’s at the root of it all — distinctiveness. In 2016, as I worked on G1, I was thinking a lot about how to make its enemies extremely readable in combat, and I ended up writing this. At its core, I found myself frustrated with how many games I’d been playing, like, say, the Far Cry or Naughty Dog games, that had a variation of enemies which was always a riff on something like this:

First there’s the dude with a melee attack, the dude with the assault rifle, the medium sized dude with the shotgun, the dude with the cape or cloak and a sniper rifle (sometimes these are ladies), and then the big dude with the minigun or something (these are never ladies).

It’s not my best writing ever, but I wrote 18 articles that weekend while helping my little brother move. I had less than an hour to get this out the door. So, hey, it is what it is, and the point’s salient if not perfectly made.

Halo: Combat Evolved wrings so much variety out of elites, jackals, grunts, and hunters — just four enemy types! — in its first half than most shooters get in their entire gameplay because the enemy mix is always extremely varied. The beach assault in the beginning of The Silent Cartographer is wildly different than the time you’re sneaking along through the canyons in Truth and Reconciliation.

It doesn’t have to be this huge, scripted sequence where a building topples over or a car drags you along that takes the developers an entire year to get working perfectly, sometimes it’s simply the strategic, restricted deployment of enemies.

So! When you go into Yet Another Fight Where All The Enemies Exist And You Have To Use All The Mechanics To Survive… well… the game loses its luster. You can only do that so many times. Doom, Doom Eternal, and Uncharted 4 all have this problem: so many encounters add in most, if not all the main enemy types. Sure, you don’t always have a pain elemental or an archvile, but once the game introduces them, they’re almost always present. The encounters start to bleed into each other; every fight requires you to use every tool at your disposal.

Running out of ammo? Remember your ABC’s: Always Be Chainsawing (Doom never suffered from Eternal’s ammo scarcity because Eternal wants you to use every mechanic in every fight, and Doom was content to let you change things up. Eternal’s fights get samey; Doom takes far, far longer to start feeling samey).

Need armor? Use that flamethrower! Always!!!

Doom Eternal on its intended difficulty is only hard if you aren’t using every single thing in your sandbox at all times.

But… to be honest… it’d probably be a lot more fun if one encounter really pushed shotguns, having enemies who were weak against shotguns and with plenty of shotgun shells laying around the level, and the next encounter was all about rockets, pushing players to stay at range and focus on planning their shots and splash damage with a different enemy composition and level design.

Doom, Eternal, and Uncharted 4 all follow the arc of a linear game that goes through numerous settings to create a sense of visual variety, but the actual encounter variety is woefully lacking because… how do I put this… I think the game is actually trying to do a good thing?

See, I don’t like restriction. I don’t like when I play an ultra-linear game and it’s like “press these buttons in this way and do this thing” because it turns into a game of Bop It.

Does anyone really want to bop it? Nah, people love to experiment and try new things. The problem is, when you throw in the mechanical equivalent of the kitchen sink… well, it can be a bit too easy to drown. Sometimes, you need to offer some restraint to create a sense of distinctiveness; otherwise, everything runs together and the game experience gets unpleasantly mushy.

What you hold back, what you make different, how you draw attention… if you aren’t giving players variety, you’re going to lose them emotionally. Uncharted 4 succeeds because it’s expensive as hell, the game’s gorgeous as fuck, and because in the moment, the emotions are enough to carry us along and the gameplay is never offensively bad. It’s like a Michael Bay movie — impressive in the moment, capable of making two billion dollars, probably won’t last as long as Moby Dick outside of the corporation attempting to leverage the property as long as it can make money off of it.

Doom had a great sense of moment-to-moment motivation, clear player wants and needs, and variety that worked really well for the first half but caused it to start dragging about 60% of the way into the game. It’s why a lot of my friends went “yeah I loved it, but it’s a bit long, isn’t it?” That’s a surefire sign the game isn’t varied enough to keep players interested.

Doom Eternal has all the mechanics I like, but it wants me to use them aggressively in every single fight. It’s “everything happens so much,” the game.

When the entire fuckin game is this constant fuckin onslaught of All The Mechanics All The Guys All The Things All The Time… it loses its power.

There are two kinds of boss fight in a game: the ones that fucking suck because they break the rules previously established and kinda fuck around and do their own thing, and the ones that fuckin rule because they’re a final exam for all the cool shit they learn. They push you to your limit.

I love the slayer gates because they’re all final exam fights. The problem is… so is basically every other fight in the game, with the intensity turned down to like an 8. You can’t be at 10 all the time, but you also can’t just have All The Mechanics All The Time.

Doom goes on too long because it runs out of variety, and Eternal goes on too long because it wants everything from you all the time. You don’t get to breathe, you don’t get to differentiate.

It’s weird because I think a few years ago… I would’ve made this mistake myself? But somewhere along the line, I realized two things. First, final exams are great when they’re the final exam, but we often confuse requiring the player to use every mechanic with giving the player a framework to experiment. I can use almost all the mechanics in STALKER at any given time, but it’s a game that drives variety through the dynamic nature of its simulation and slow pace. It encourages experimentation. There are good counters for things but rarely pure hard and soft counters that require you having to use every tool in every fight. Having a shotgun to take out bandits means you’re acting very differently than if you brought an SMG, and the limitation caused by ammo scarcity, geography, and what you can afford to carry in your inventory, as well as complications arising if your gunfire attracts mutants or a blowout occurs mid-fight, can result in a lot of potential variety.

When you design a game like everyone’s got specific good counters and everyone’s in every fight and you are best off using the ice grenade and regular grenade and flamethrower and air dodge and grapple shotgun and and and and… you get the idea, right? It all runs into itself; don’t make the mistake of confusing “letting players experiment and find what suits them” with “so all the encounters require everything and run into each other.” Instead, let players experiment but gently guide them into variety through enemy composition, the ammo you make available, and whatever else.

And second?

idk here’s an uncharted 3 pic i had lying around

Encounter Design Is Storytelling

Okay imagine this. Luke Skywalker starts the movie off by going “man, my dad sucks, he’s darth vader.” Then he goes and meets Obi Wan, and the guy’s like “by the way, you know darth vader? he used to be a good dude. he was my best friend. he had a rat tail.” and then later on we’re in the death star and we go “hey man, darth, old buddy, its pretty fucked up you blew up that planet bro,” and darth vader was like “raaaaaaargh im EVIL now” and then like we get into the next movie and luke’s on dagobah and he’s like “oh no I’m seeing a vision of my father, Darth Vader, who sucks…” which leads up to the “what up, luke, I’m your dad.”

See how that would lose impact?

“I am your father” works because Luke is a lonely kid on a planet who wishes he was great, finds out his father was amazing from Obi-wan, watches Darth Vader kill his father, swears revenge, struggles to control that, realizes on Dagobah that he’s at risk of becoming like the one who killed his mentor… and then, and only the, does the illusion of “your father was a hero that you should aspire to be,” and “your father is the man you will become if you don’t choose to be good” come into play. That moment of pain from Luke feels earned. It feels real, not because it’s a twist, but because we just spent one and a half full movies setting up Luke’s hopes, dreams, desires, and the threats to everything he wants. The journey is organic, and we have this moment where it appears that Darth Vader is expositing, but the actual emotional power comes not from discovery, but from this emotional buildup and release.

It’s like a joke, right? No one simply shouts “to get to the other side!” and people laugh; you have to set up the joke. Emotional tension and release, not exposition.

The moment would be lost if we knew the fact and had it hammered over our head time and time again, but even if it was simply providing us information we didn’t have, we wouldn’t care. Star Wars is an exercise in showing us why we should give a shit, because that’s what storytelling is: the art of making people give a shit.

When you make a linear game with great encounter design, you succeed or fail based on the way each one of these scenes builds upon what came before it. I guarantee you that every great linear game you’ve played and loved works on this simple principle, whether or not the people making it knew they were doing it. Encounters are memorable, they have a naturalistic sense of flow; you’re going from one scenario to the next, and you aren’t just repeating the same bit of information over and over again but in a different setting.

There’s context, there’s stakes, and it’s always shifting.

You’d never tell a story with every single scene conveying the same stakes with the same characters, would you? Think about how your favorite movie never puts every single character in every single scene and keeps the exact same emotion throughout. Even great comedies still have moments that aren’t all jokes all the time; monotony is tiring. Variety is not.

One big sign of a beginning storyteller is their insistence upon emotional monotony. My horror games work because I have jokes in them. If they were constant terror all the time, the audience would get tired, and worse, they might get bored. They’re stimulating because you’ve got a spectrum of emotion.

So ask yourself — if you wouldn’t tell a story where the emotions are the same and the information and stakes never change… why would you design a game that way?

Remember Gears of War?

Y’know how I said that I was gonna do a sidebar to talk about a problem with cover shooters and how a lot of them are just “enemy will flank you” and that’s about it? And how I pointed out how Gears of War (and I’ll say it now, I mostly mean Gears of War 3, the best one) does so much by actually being about platforming? In a sense, the enemies are hazards in a navigation puzzle — that’s the actual appeal of a cover shooter.

Obviously, Doom is not a cover shooter. I get that. I’m not saying it should be… but Doom Eternal still has Mario bits. Like, you know those things that spin in the air to mess with your jumps? Yeah, it’s got that. Doom Eternal is made for a different audience than Doom; while Doom was made for people who love metal and shooting things and dispensing with demons, Doom Eternal seems made for a much smaller audience of people who wanted goofy arcade fun that looks like the Family Friendly Doom Theme Park With Memorable Catch Phrases! It’s all ‘hey, remember this?’ but some of the things you are supposed to remember are like… super obvious Mario Arcade Things that kind of take you out of the vibe of being A Man Too Angry To Die.

When it copies the Mario mechanics directly, it’s trying to make you go “yeah I remember that,” but because it’s not actually structured like a Mario game, it ends up feeling inauthentic; the ingredients are there, but the dish isn’t cooked.

Where Gears was great because it was structured like a Mario game in the sense that it introduces mechanics and changes things up on the macro level (think about the worlds in various Mario games and how visually distinctive they are), it’s also doing this on the micro level. Both Mario and Gears design their encounters like a story, with escalation, rising and falling motions, and complications that make the entire experience emotionally stimulating.

This is a really cool video that talks a bit about how Mario’s 4-step level design follows the structure in Japanese storytelling known as kishōtenketsu.

Doom Eternal and Uncharted 4 are more like the games on the right of this image:

“Hold on, Doc, Doom Eternal has these really big loops! It’s not just forward momentum!” and like, yeah, you’d be right; both Uncharted and Doom have a mixture of arenas and traversal sequences. In Uncharted 4, you stumble ashore during a shipwreck, do a bunch of climbing, and eventually happen upon an arena with a bunch of enemies, which is wider and allows for more options. It throws in the kitchen sink — all the major enemy types are here and all the basic gameplay verbs are doable. When you’re done, it’s back to platforming.

Even The Last of Us 2 does it with the added aspect of the weenie — I think no less than 9 times do you find yourself looking at a landmark, doing a non-combat space on your way towards it, entering a building, doing some combat, then exiting the building and talking more, realizing you’re closer, then doing more combat, traversal, entering a building, exiting, being closer, and so on.

It gets back to that whole repeated storytelling bit, right? Emotionally, not a lot is changing and there’s no real variety. When you blend that with the combat encounters all being kitchen sink encounters, you get a game that feels immensely monotonous, even if every single component is one I myself have designed in a completely different game and am totally on board with in isolation.

Storytelling — and encounter design — is the art of making people give a shit, and when you design encounters, you aren’t just thinking about the encounter design in isolation, you’re thinking about how it builds upon and relates to every other encounter around it.

You want to make people give a shit so they want to keep moving forward; if someone says “the game is too long,” then you know you’ve failed to compel them enough.

On paper, all of these games are great. Every single one. The tools and the enemies at my disposal are all absolutely wonderful… but in each one of these games, they don’t seem to be assembled with care. They don’t gel, and they don’t work together to make the audience give a shit. The Marauder is fine on paper, but he doesn’t fit with the experience. The slayer gates are amazing, but every encounter can’t be a slayer gate.

At every point in a linear game’s encounter design, you need to be thinking about how the scene is distinct and how it flows from one scene and into the next. Does this matter? Does it strengthen the player’s excitement, fear, anger, love, passion? Why does the player want to move forward?

Why do they give a shit?

anyways I’m rambling because I stayed up all night writing this bc i feel like shit and can’t sleep bc I need to see a doctor but ain’t got the cash, because the economy sucks and i’m finishing up a weird indie game about pigs, so tl;dr

  • kitchen sink encounter design loses its luster fast and wears people out
  • don’t confuse “give the players freedom to do what they want” (players will always optimize the fun out of any system they’re in fwiw) with “final exam” design. both are distinct and have their place and you want both in a great game.
  • variety is good but it also needs to flow between scenes so things are building
  • encounter design is type of storytelling, and inter-encounter design matters as much as intra-encounter design
  • doom eternal has some other problems too that relate to how every second movie in a trilogy that wasn’t initially planned as a trilogy kind of sucks because of fanservice
  • if you can’t explain how each encounter makes your player give a shit and want to get to the next scene then it fails on a functional level and needs to be rethought
  • the marauder sucks because he doesn’t fit a game that’s built around highly aggressive mobility, not because of whether or not he’s difficult
  • my quake v would look like a john martin painting but with shamblers and the shotgun would fucking rule. i get insulin and dental insurance, you get a trillion dollar shooter that melts people’s brains off. win-win!
  • i wrote this in one draft sorry

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.