Friday, July 4, 2014

Squonklands: A Doom II Virtual Landscape by Steve "Squonkamatic" Nyland

So, this tale begins in the winter of 1995 soon after obtaining my first home computer, a then elite Macintosh Performa 6200 CD with 32mb of RAM and a blistering 126mhz processor speed (if that's even the right term, been so long ...). It's stated purpose was for word & image processing contingent to my needs as an MFA candidate at SUNY Albany. But for the first few months I had the thing it served as an electronic lava lamp to decorate one corner with it's AfterDark screensaver suite. Eventually I figured out how to connect to the school's Pine server to email my girlfriend in Chicago and typed a few papers for classes, but mostly it sat waiting for me to figure out something "practical" to do with it.

Turning point came while working at the Rhino Records outlet in Albany where we did used trade-in business as much as selling new product. And one day a chap who worked at the nearby Border's brought in some promo software releases that the store had no use for, one of which was the then brand new full retail release of id Software's Doom II for the Macintosh. The manager sold it to me for the ripe sum of $4 -- one more than the store had paid for it -- and that four bucks changed or effected my life to this very day.

The game shipped on seven 1.5mb floppy discs, remember those? and to say that I was not prepared for what it delivered is an understatement. I'd been brought up in a household without computers or video games, had been banished from many a gaming arcade (you literally had to be 18 years old to play video games in Syracuse during the 1980s) and had completely missed out on the shareware social phenomenon that was Doom upon its original release in 1993. 

Needless to say I made up for lost time quickly, happily abandoning the happy Power Pete game which came pre-installed with the Mac software for the genuine carnage which comprised Doom 2's gameplay. It took a while to learn how to operate the keyboard-only controls for the player but seriously, by the time I was on the 3rd "level" or "map" of the built-in game I was absolutely hopelessly and utterly addicted.

I'd been a frustrated video game junkie during adolescence, with Atari's "BattleZone" tank combat game being my favorite. Which is essentially the same basic concept of Doom, namely a first person shooter experience where the player navigates through a virtual 3D environment from the perspective of the combatant and engage in all manner of fascinating adventures as programmed into the game's structure.

Doom and Doom II upped the ante on BattleZone by decorating it's wire-frame rendering of the virtual space with graphic files called "textures" which more closely simulated real-world situations. And added a more interesting array of foes to engage, including everything from zombie human soldiers to fire-spewing giant cyborg death boss critters who exist with one thought programmed into their rudimentary AI's, which is to destroy the player. Along with it's dynamic lighting effects, stereophonic sound effects shifting with the player's position and a seemingly endless labyrinth of game board levels to explore, the game captured my imagination in a way which went beyond the satisfaction of it's goals of finding keys, opening doors and triggering an exit switch to the next level.

What it did was suggest possible new worlds to explore, and for the next three years or so I explored as many of them as I could, extending the game's life beyond it's inbuilt set of levels by seeking out user-written creations posted to places like AOL Games. Which, as it turned out, sort of required me to learn how to use the computer to keep building onto the gaming experience including connection to and navigation of the internet, which in 1995/1996 was still a very novel thing. One had to learn the art of file resources management, directory path hierarchies and system configuration. Playing Doom 2 taught me how to use my computer, and as that use progressed other applications presented their use as well, including digital painting, video editing, page layout design and use as a communication tool.

I also got to be a pretty good player, and here's some satisfying results from a recent engagement over the winter while recovering from bronchitus. Still have the touch, arrr. And my gaming went beyond Doom, moving into a NYC loft in the summer of 1997 with an artist/musician who was already hooked on id Software's followup game Quake, which sported a genuine 3D environment and upped the ante on the horror movie aspects of the game's environment. And while Quake was actually the first game I did any level editing design for, it was its sequel Quake II in 1998 which really set me on fire.

But all the while I kept playing the Doom games because they had a more endearing, almost cartoonish nature to them which did not involve as much time commitment by the player. Which itself led to the rise of online play against other opponents in levels designed specifically for somewhat concentrated play which one could engage in for ten or fifteen minutes as a diversion. It took me a while to warm to that because I was more interested in the depiction of these imaginary worlds, something difficult to appreciate while three other players are lobbing rockets at you. And that likely led to my decision to try and make my own possible worlds with these game engines, to see if I could create something as convincing as some of the virtual environments I'd encountered via gameplay. Eventually I wanted to make my own.

An example of the level design from the game.

The hallowed Dead Simple, early vision of the "arena" style levels which would define the deathmatch era of game level design.

Doom's mix of science fiction and horror imagery combined with the violence of the game made it a natural diversion.

CRATE MAP! The key indication of a level designer who is fresh out of ideas: rooms filled with packing crate forms.

<3 cyborg death spiders.

One curious attribute of the game's rudimentary AI is that given nothing else to do the monsters will fight each other, and here we watch two of the "Boss" monsters duking it out.

Teleport chamber to the exit.

Smoked by my own level! Out of sighteous.