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‘Doom’ and the Uncanny Valley of Art (Commentary)

The latest revival of one of the oldest video game franchises looks like art and sounds like art — but what is it really?

In tech and gaming we talk a lot about the concept of the “uncanny valley,” which is the idea that the closer a fake human comes to looking like a real human the more uncomfortable it will be to look at — until it’s indistinguishable from the real thing, at which point everything is OK again.

In the world of entertainment, the uncanny valley is nearly always brought up in reference to the way a computer-generated character looks — for example the de-aged Jeff Bridges in “Tron: Legacy or every character in the 2007 “Beowulf” movie. They look real, but not real enough, and so their appearance falls into that uncanny valley.

This is generally seen as a technical matter, but I think the principle can be applied more abstractly. Right now I’m going to use it to explain why I don’t like the 2016 edition of the “Doom” video game franchise. This new “Doom” is more than capable as a fun, challenging, technically flawless video game experience, but I can’t spend more than a few minutes with it without generally feeling irritated by it.

In the greater pop culture, “Doom” as a brand means little more than “old video game,” but that brand is a bigger deal within the incessantly backward-facing video game culture. Yes, “Doom” is an important piece of video game history as the game that pioneered the first-person shooter genre. It’s still fun to play, just as “Galaga” and “Pac-Man” are still fun to play, but “Doom” is a primitive specimen.

And we forgive things in “Doom” because it’s a relic. It came out in 1993, when action games didn’t have much of a story, so the fact that it was little more, in terms of substance, than a glorified new take on “Galaga” was fine. You don’t expect much from a game that looks like 1993’s “Doom.” When you see a game that looks like 2016’s “Doom,” however, you do expect more.

The new “Doom” is something Id Software has spent a decade making. They wanted to make sure not only that everything was just right, but also that it would be at the forefront of gaming tech. In the time they were working on it, they built not one, but two new game engines. They built some of the greatest lighting you’ve ever seen in a game. And for what?

I don’t know know what. I do know that “Doom” in 2016 aspires to be little more than a high-definition upgrade to the fundamental experience of playing “Doom” in 1993. It’s a game covered in satanic imagery and demons you have to fight, and features an actual trip to hell, but it’s not horror. It doesn’t really have a story because, as the game‘s creative director Hugo Martin put it, “[Story is] not what people come to Doom for; they come to kill demons and blow s*** up in amazing ways.”

And so “Doom” in 2016, with all its bells and whistles, is still just a new version of “Galaga.” And that’s where the uncanny valley effect comes into play for me. I see all this stuff — the highly detailed art, the lighting, the effects, the copious horror stylings — and reflexively assume they all have some purpose because I’ve spent a lifetime watching movies in which all those things had a purpose.

But there’s nothing more here, no purpose. It’s full of elements that scream, “THERE IS A STORY HERE AND YOU ARE PLAYING A CHARACTER,” but it’s never actually true. The revulsion that comes along with the uncanny valley can be the result of mixed signals, like if a character looks exactly human but moves like a robot. That’s where “Doom” (2016) is — looks like a person, moves like a robot. Acts like you’re a dummy for thinking it looked like the real thing. “We’re just here to kill demons and blow s*** up, idiot.” It’s the uncanny valley of art.

That, on its face, is baffling too. If that’s all 2016’s “Doom” is, then why would it cost $60 to buy and require 10 years and hundreds of people to make? Nineteen ninety-three’s “Doom” certainly didn’t need all those years and all that money. Other modern substanceless first-person shooters don’t either — the 2013 version of “Rise of the Triad,” as close a modern analog for the new “Doom” as I can think of, was made by a small team and sold for $15. And games like “Geometry Wars” — a modern title that wouldn’t look out of place in an ’80s arcade next to “Galaga” — definitely do not require that kind of investment from anyone. But “Doom” did and does.

It’s enough to make me wonder what the point of these decades of technological advancement in gaming was. I sort of always assumed, from when I was a kid, that those advances in graphics tech would inherently bring art form improvements. Like, if you kept making “Doom” games forever, eventually the tech would enable one of them to tell an interesting and human story. Apparently not.

Maybe there wasn’t any point to those advancements, which wouldn’t surprise me, since the tech sector is so often concerned with improvements for the sake of improvements, rather than having some other ultimate goal beyond “blowing s*** up” in ever-more-amazing ways. I’m sure somebody out there would probably give me a line about “immersion” or something, but there’s no realistic immersion in a game for which every location is constructed solely as a cool arena for gun battles with demons.

I’m not saying I’m “disappointed” with this new “Doom,” because I didn’t really think it would be good to begin with. Its bizarre insistence on not even trying to be something more than the world’s best looking “Galaga” clone was kind of a surprise, though. I need a drink.

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