Doom Eternal for worrywarts

Or, how I managed to stress out about a game about shotguns and demons

As someone who spends a great deal of time worrying over whether his writing is sufficiently deep, I came into Doom Eternal with a degree of skepticism. Could I, a refined individual of taste, enjoy a game whose aesthetic could accurately be described as “What if Justin McElroy was constantly doing the Munch Squad Theme while you make Pollock paintings out of demon brains?” Could you put a shotgun in my hand, gently pat me on the butt, and shove me in the direction of Hell?

Despite having played games my whole life, and despite having derived a great deal of joy and connection with others through the hobby, whenever I boot up a new game, I feel the need to justify it to myself. Well, putting aside the zombies, The Last of Us Part II is actually a study in multi-POV writing and mimics the way competing close-third or first-person narratives challenge the reader into a productive discomfort and produce a healthy distrust of hermetic stories of redemption or revenge. And did I mention the zombies? In a very real way, when considering buying a game, my mental calculation has become less about whether it might be fun and more about whether it might be ~~worthwhile~~. My reasoning for this is simple: I meant to finish writing a book in 2019, and here I am in 2021 with my new gray hairs, and so any time not spent in the service of that or my marriage or my job or my dog is time that could be spent on the book. Thus, anxiety has done what anxiety does: making joy into the abdication of personal responsibility and artistic ambition.

Enter Doom Eternal. One main story and the first of two DLCs later, I can safely say I’ve never played anything with less pretense. You play as “Doom Slayer,” a name so cratylic it circles back around to parodic. You start the game with one kind of shotgun and later earn a super shotgun, which, per its name, is like the other shotgun, but more. You have both a machete-like blade that extends from your forearm armor and a chainsaw that materializes when it is time to extract ammunition from the demon equivalent of Putties. The soundtrack accompanying your actions is a mixture between heavy metal and dubstep. The normal difficulty is called “Hurt Me Plenty.” It’s all rad as shit.

I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Doom Eternal. Does it have anything to say about the nature of sin, violence, or the multiplicity of shotguns? No. It’s big and loud and goes boom. Its main emotional export is that dumb grin you get from over-the-top things. Once I finish the final DLC, I probably won’t think about it again. So was it worth it?

Probably the wrong question. In some ways, I find myself revisiting the same questions I had more than a year ago playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Is it possible for me to play games anymore without thinking about the inexorable passage of time? Maybe not. When you’ve vocationalized your art, that same mentality turns back on leisure. When you’ve internalized the idea that work is worth, despite your evangelical efforts to convince friends to take care of themselves and take more breaks, the idea that you might spend a sliver of your life on something that produces nothing but silly glee becomes a reason to stress out even more.

Which is to say, Doom Eternal challenges me. Not intellectually. No. Absolutely not. But leisurely. It’s a very gamey game. You play it and have fun. That’s it. In being nothing but a good time, it asks me to have a good time. A good time with no pretense. A good time that goes boom. A good time with the time I have.

And yet here I am writing about it, making work out of play.