Where tech aligns

Demonology in the Digital Era

Humanity monetizes its own damnation in Doom Eternal.

In 1993 and 1994, Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth came out, and the action movie found a competitor for the American boy’s dominant fantasy in the first-person shooter. The game mechanics themselves prepared boys for a new world in which they would feel alone and would need to destroy corruption in their path – strange as it may seem, perfect preparation for the social media culture wars.

The story was simple enough, an anonymous tough guy shooting his way to hell and back: Destroy the demons, save mankind. The context is the Space Age – the first game is set on Mars, the second on earth – somehow, man’s cosmic destiny is at stake. The game follows from the ideas of certain kinds of movies, especially horror – you’re stuck in a nightmare, hell is coming upon you down every corridor, from every opening door, yet you feel compelled to find out why. Here, you can figure it out the old-fashioned American way: with weaponry. The guns go from reassuring military weapons like the pistol and the shotguns to the sci-fi plasma rifle and the BFG, at which point a cleansing light wipes out the demons. But the revelation is quite disturbing, since at the end of the game, the player has to destroy the “Icon of Sin.”

In 2016 and 2020, Doom was rebooted with another pair of Martian and earth stories, this time with blockbuster budgets and ambitions. Things get rehearsed all the time nowadays – decadence has not yet reached any serious limit, and computer games are no exception – so long as there are tens of millions of guys who have heard of Doom, that’s already an opportunity and judging by the enthusiasm, sales, and reviews, the new games are an astonishing success. Indeed,  the studio that makes the Doom series, id Software, is now owned by Microsoft. 

This future is some kind of post-Christian theology and a post-human anthropology. The 2016 Doom tells a Martian story where human hope has been reduced to making deals with the demons without realizing it. The story has moved on from having an all-American guy fight like crazy, which was essentially a fantasy about martial virtue being enough to solve the problem of evil. 

But the story is more sophisticated than that. There’s an entire corporation running all sorts of experiments ultimately intended to get rid of the problem of humanity. Ostensibly seeking to solve earth’s energy crises through Mars, the corporation discovers that hell itself can be tapped as an inexhaustible source of energy. In this version of Doom, damnation is monetized.There’s still a Marine trying to fix the problem of a demonic invasion with his arsenal and his endless appetite for a fight, but now it involves a human death cult organized by people in the corporation who figure that human sacrifices and demon-worship is the thing that guarantees the future. The obvious parallel between human experiments and human sacrifices is at least supposed to raise the question, how do we know our science is good and that we are sane? The apparent alternative to the demons is AI and an intelligent robot who are the boss rather than the servant of our protagonist. It’s no longer obvious that being human can compete with either of these alternatives, and the player’s victory serves only to set up a sequel.

The sequel is called Doom Eternal and you’ll have to guess whether eternity here refers to the indomitable will to live of the protagonist or to the horror he faces. The Doom formula, stopping the demons on Mars only to find out they have already begun their invasion of earth, now turns into a different story from any of the Doom games. Corporations don’t matter anymore and maybe nothing of the old story does. Instead, there’s an incredibly long journey by which the protagonist discovers his own identity through a cosmic war. As you can imagine, he flies around the ruins of forgotten worlds in between the colorful bloody fights against demons, scored to metal music, getting used to horror images until they become in a strange way pleasant.

There is a hint of caricature in the anthropology and theology of Doom Eternal. The first is a story about a medieval race of warriors whose architecture reminds us of the Romans and whose story perhaps recalls even more so the various invading barbarians that became Europeans. They are all about nobility; they eventually form an alliance with another race, a collective intelligence which is a caricature of the medieval Catholic Church, with creatures that look like angels and ships that look like crosses. 

This alliance leads to crusading and something like an idealized version of the Holy Roman Empire. One race has devoted warriors and the other has advanced knowledge; the warriors are promised an afterlife and the intellectuals have someone to do the bloody work. Together they aim to make the whole universe follow one faith. Medieval European history is rehearsed here to give a kind of origin to the protagonist – a warrior who stumbled into this drama of an empire of faith and became a cyborg-crusader, potentially immortal.

But then, because of this business of faith, a mad theology emerges. What Doom predicated on a corporation, using hell’s energy to power the comforts and illusions of techno-liberalism, is now given a cosmic setting, and a combination of Gnosticism and modern Satanism turns out to underpin the narrative 

The race of techno-angels helping the crusaders in fact need a deal with hell because they need to torture souls to power their way of life. The whole cosmos is stretched between a heaven and a hell, technology on the one hand and writhing screaming bodies on the other, mind and matter separated in a hysterical way. Then it turns out the devil created all the worlds in the first place, including the collective intelligence techno-angels of heaven, who rebelled against him. The raging protagonist destroys heaven and hell, including this creator who became evil in pursuit of immortality for his creatures, who takes on the appearance of the protagonist himself. 

Fantasy stories and heavy metal have long gone together, since they appeal to anger and fear and suggest the imagination and the body can be brought together in an all-consuming, possibly all-revealing passion. Computer games can add to that technology similar to the electric guitar and images that can be even more disturbing than fantasy. This tempts storytellers to think that they can replace character with computer game character, that the experience of playing a game can confer an identity. Instead of dumb action games where you have to have nimble fingers and a taste for brutality, it turns out to be a guessing at images of all the important philosophical and moral questions of the day. Without realizing it, everyone who involves himself in these experiences asks himself whether energy doesn’t after all come from hell and all there is to it is to make the demons scream harder than they make you scream. I’ll leave it to you to ask yourself whether this stuff corrupts the soul, but I assure you that the fake suffering on screen is supposed to correspond to some real suffering in the audience.

The images of our computer games are not believable in the obvious sense that people enjoy what they see precisely on the basis that it’s all fake. But the way players feel isn’t fake. That isn’t part of the blockbuster production. Certainly, there is something ambiguous in the phenomenon. Is this training for aspiring demon slayers? Or wannabe demons? But making such games is all about equating those moral differences in the name of a higher power. Images of our past are being brought up and it’s worth knowing why. We might be remembering what we truly believe; but we might be deceived.

We are stuck with decadence and the image of torturing souls to produce the power required to keep things going is not a bad image. Somehow, it leads to nihilism, though, through this combination of hysterical images and the routine that sets in, since we know everything is fake. We are told all the time that we are imaginative and sophisticated, with ever better entertainment to prove it. Possibly, things are the other way around – the way ordinary life now educates us prepares us to look at everything as fake, and to identify boredom with atrocity. This doesn’t help anyone judge what’s good for the soul.