I just saw an interesting YouTube video called: DOOM Eternal, Counterculture, and How We Talk About Labor. The thesis was quite simple, the original Doom was counterculture while Doom 2016 (and by extension modern triple A gaming) are little more then disposable, sanitized corporate products. Rather then being the passion product of a small dedicated team modern games are the soulless husks made by corporate interests forcing workers to slave away. Let’s just ignore the fact that one of these games can be programmed on a calculator and one is a large complex blockbuster that requires a range of diverse skill sets to complete.
While there are many other aspects of the video that I could talk about: like his weird rant on the sheeple gamers for cheering at new Doom trailer or how he complains that Doom Eternal is just Doom 2016 with more stuff; exactly what the original Doom 2 was. I’m more interested in how the central thesis — the original Doom was good because it was a passion project; Doom 2016 was less good as it was corporate product — and how this relates to how we view art under capitalism.
First we need to ask what makes the original Doom more artistic or “punk” the Doom 2016. Both games have the same gory satanic aesthetic, both games are high octane first person shooters (with the kind of game play changes you’d expect from a game over 20 years ago), and both games are unrelentingly hyper violent. The first difference brought up is the reception both games received. The original Doom was a mass phenomena it was one of the best selling (it has basically been released on almost every game console) and most influential games of all time. It was also met with controversy during the height of its popularity due to the ongoing fear of video game violence on the youth; this lead to the game having an edgy, underground vibe Doom 2016 couldn’t generate. However this has nothing to do with the actual content of the games themselves, Doom 2016 was just as if not more violent then the original. I guarantee if Jack Thompson still had cultural influence the game would have been just as controversial as the original. The issue here isn’t the actual content of the game but a changing societal consensus in violence.
The creator also brings up the argument is that in the original Doom you could you feel the creative finger print of all the designers but in Doom 2016 you couldn’t. Which makes sense when you consider having a team as large Doom 2016, as if everyone left their fingerprints on the game it would leave the game feeling aimless and conflicted. Leaving the creative direction in the hands of a few people then seems like the best decision so the game can maintain a cohesive creative vision, but the truth is none of these arguments actually matter.
The real difference between the original Doom and Doom 2016, the one that actually matters to the creator, is that one was produced by a large company while one was made by a small team. If Doom 2016 was the exact same game but made by a smaller studio he would have liked it more, and if Doom 2016 had been made exactly like the original Doom he would have disliked it by virtue of being made by a corporation.
What matters here is not the actual content of the game but who makes it; which is to say what is perceived as authority. Nothing about the original Doom makes it more countercultural then Doom 2016 other then that one was made by “authority”. Some may object and point out that ethos does really matter to an argument. A corporation saying fuck capitalism comes off as kitsch and disingenuous while a group of young revolutionaries saying the same thing comes off as bold and brave, so while authority may be able to dress itself in the image of counter culture it can’t recreate the fundamental feelings of the movement. I again however, point out that this doesn’t fundamentally alter the content of both messages being said. If said corporation wrote a well thought out and well argued critique of capitalism would it truly be worse then some random revolutionary yelling “fuck the system” by the simple vice of lacking authenticity?
The actual discussion of labor and capitalism in this video makes up a very small portion of the video because it doesn’t matter. The focus is primarily on the nostalgia the creator has for the original Doom. Doom then was a controversial, violent, and mysterious phenomenon, but do to years of media desensitization Doom 2016 would lack that same edge. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future someone makes a video on how Doom 2016 was real Counter culture while Doom 2023 is just corporate trash.
What we see is not the attack of corporations on art but the attack of time on nostalgia. Doom 2016 could never live up the original Doom because I doubt anything even could. After years of violent media nothing could match up to the original sense of wonder the original held for many who played it. Capitalism simply serves as a easy explanation because it offers a solution to the problem. All the problems could be solved if got rid of those bad corporations and consumerism then video games could be truly good again like the good old days of the original doom. What matters here is not the structure of capitalism itself, but of any power structure to serve as a convenient scapegoat. If Doom 2016 had been made by the government ministry of video games the complaint would be that socialist bureaucracy was ruing video games.
One last interesting thing about this video comes near the end, where Michael Saba describes that he is less interested in bland blockbuster games while thumbing down the highly praised God of War on Ps4. I actually agree with that sentiment as God of War was a dull, oscarified blockbuster “experience” that is just smart enough to seem deep but isn’t complex or edgy enough to not have mass appeal. The issue here however, isn’t corporations dumbing down art for a wide audience, but the audience wanting to seem smart.
This isn’t as much the lack of depth but the lack of encoded depth. Rather then having complex themes encoded within metaphors and cultural mimetic imagery; themes are laid bare and made to be as consumable as possible. This gives the illusion of depth as the themes are obvious after one or two views rather then requiring lots of thought to truly understand. I call this process “realism” as Lyotard describes in The Postmodern Condition:
The challenge lay essentially in that photographic and cinematographic processes can accomplish better, faster, and with a circulation a hundred thousand times larger than narrative or pictorial realism, the task which academicism had assigned to realism : to preserve various consciousnesses from doubt. Industrial photography and cinema will be superior to painting and the novel whenever the objective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly , and so to arrive easily at the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which he thereby receives from others- since such structures of images and sequences constitute a communication code among all of them. This is the way the effects of reality, or if one prefers, the fantasies of realism, multiply. (Pg.74)
…Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch. When power assumes the name of a party, realism and its neoclassical complement triumph over the experimental avant-garde by slandering and banning it-that is, provided the “correct” images, the “correct” narratives, the “correct’’ forms which the party requests, selects, and propagates can find a public to desire them as the appropriate remedy for the anxiety and depression that public experiences. The demand for reality — that is, for unity, simplicity, communicability, etc.-did not have the same intensity nor the same continuity in German society between the two world wars and in Russian society after the Revolution : this provides a basis for a distinction between Nazi and Stalinist realism. What is clear, however, is that when it is launched by the political apparatus, the attack on artistic experimentation is specifically reactonary : aesthetic judgment would only be required to decide whether such or such work is in conformity with the established rules of the beautiful. (Pg. 75)
So here we see “realism” defined as a desire for clarity, communicability, and familiarity in theme. Rather then corporations dumbing down it is actually the phillistinian pseudo-intellectual desire for “realism” that has caused the stagnation of art in games; something that can be seen in both the the indie and triple a market.
The thing most of these “capitalism kill art” arguments forget is too separate capitalism from the emergence of a mass consumer market. While companies may pander to pop culture there is no guarantee that the fundamental tastes of people would change if consumerism or capitalism were removed. The consumer tastes may very well stay the same, so the socialist ministry of media may just keep giving them what they want. It is not like work will stop and people will always want something to take their minds of the universal struggles humanity faces.