"Book" Breakdown – 'Doom: To Hell and Back' on ShacknewsImage Not Found.
Welcome to another book breakdown, a blog in which I discuss the process of writing a particular draft of one of my books and give an overview of content—except I won't be breaking down a book manuscript today. A feature I wrote for Shacknews, Doom: To Hell and Back, went live today, and it's roughly the size of a book: nearly 40,000 words.
Earlier this year, Shacknews offered me the role of features editor. I was ecstatic. I'd been turning in features here and there, but that was only one of my many duties as a freelance editor assigned to general news coverage. Stepping into the role of features editor enables me to clear my Shacknews plate of (almost) everything except interviews, postmortems, and the other deep dives into videogame culture and design I enjoy writing.
Almost right away, I set my sights on Doom.
I enjoy being a writer for innumerable reasons. One of the top three is that I get the opportunity to play some small part in the media that, and people who have impacted my life. I find talking to game developers endlessly captivating. Framing their words in a narrative-style story is a reason I get up in the morning, so I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to do more of it.
Few brands mean as much to me as Doom. Doom has been a fixture in my life since a friend from Sunday school slipped me shareware diskettes during a sermon one Sunday morning. How appropriate is that, by the way? Battling the legions of hell with rocket launchers and BFGs? Anyone who's ever played Doom (or Diablo!) has done God's work. Amen.
Fast forward 20-odd years to my switch to features editor at Shack. A member of the Shacknews user community messaged me one afternoon and explained that he had worked on Doom and would be happy to help facilitate interviews with the team. That led me to PR folks representing Bethesda and id Software.
It took some time for schedules to align, but I was able to speak with Doom 2016's creative director and game director, Hugo Martin and Marty Stratton, respectively for an hour during this year's Game Developers Conference, which I was able to attend. I wasn't able to get through all of my questions in that short span of time, and the guys had another appointment to hit, so we picked up the conversation on Skype a week or so later.
I do regret that I wasn't able to speak with more developers on the team, especially the Shacker who put me in touch with Bethesda and id. Fortunately the interviews I was able to arrange were excellent, and provided an abundance of material for the article.
I loved Doom 2016—I reviewed it for Shacknews, in fact—so the prospect of writing a making-of piece on the game was exciting. However, I had one problem.
Doom, being one of the most successful properties of all time, has been written about to death. There are countless articles, videos, podcasts, and other media centered on the 2016 reboot, and especially the classic games. That can make it difficult to put a brand-new spin on classics and their designers. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, I broadened the scope of my piece and made it a celebration of the Doom franchise: the reboot, the classics, the mods, and the community. I knew I would likely retrace some footsteps, so I tried to put as fresh a slant on the content.
I went about that in a few different ways. First, I did chronicle the making of Doom 2016 for the first four chapters of the article because I couldn't find a written article that delved into it with the level of detail and narrative perspective I bring to my writing. I loved the game, and I'm fortunate enough to have a career predicated largely on me asking people about the games they make and then writing lengthy articles and books about them, so that's what I did.
Second, rather than regurgitate well-worn stories concerning the original Doom's development, I decided to zoom my microscope in on facets of those games that I thought could be explored in greater detail. MASTERS OF DOOM focuses more on the breakthroughs that developed the "characters" of id Software's co-founders. High-level stuff. I like to mix that more personal respective with nitty-gritty explorations into game design, so I talked to John Romero about level design and weapon balance. Levels and weapons: two of the most important elements of Doom. Again, this content has been touched on in other media, but my goal was to bring as much Doom info as possible under one roof, so to speak.
Third, the combination of id releasing Doom's source code and an enthusiastic community of mod makers pushing that 23-year-old code in new directions is, in my opinion, the central reason Doom remains a household name decades later. I reached out to various Doom modders that I found on Doomworld, along with one of Doomworld's co-founders and "Sergeant Mark IV" of Brutal Doom fame, and interviewed them to draw more attention to their contributions and to highlight the important role the community plays in Doom's enduring popularity.
Last but not least, I happened to go down some tangents during my one-on-one chats with id Software's Hugo Martin and Marty Stratton during our follow-up Skype calls. Rather than steer them back on course, I did what any good interviewer should do, and I went with it. They talked to me about their creative processes, the culture at id, what it was like winding down from Doom's crazy development schedule, the importance of silhouettes in character design—all sorts of stuff. I bottled that information up and fitted it to the end of the Doom feature to round it out.
That info may seem tangential, until you remember that games are made by people, and people bring their personalities and beliefs to everything they make. Not every side topic I chatted with Marty and Hugo about directly related to Doom, and yet it did at the same time.
Fun fact: This article was so large that our CMS (content management system) couldn't publish it. I'd added nine of the 10 chapters, pasted in the 10th, and got an error that said in so many words, "I'm full. I can't eat another bite. Please. Not one more word."
That turned out to be true, in a way. I suspected that the feature's length was the source of the issue, and pasted the final chapter in paragraph by paragraph. Sure enough, I was able to add approximately 2/3 of the article before the same error popped up. I had to email our tech support team and ask them to add another notch to the CMS's belt.
In the interest of transparency, I'll admit that the size of the article daunted me. My wife told me once that my ego is tied to my integrity. That is to say, if I think I can do more, I will do more. Not because I want to preen my feathers, but because I cannot rest if I believe I did even slightly less than what I knew I was capable of.
When the time came to write the first draft of the Select and, over this week, revise it in anticipation of publishing it, I let it consume my life. I wondered several times (a minute) if it would be worthwhile. The Internet becomes increasingly unfriendly toward long-form, written content by the day. Was I wasting my time by writing a novel-length feature? Would anyone care?
I'm glad some people do.
Although narrative-style content is my forte, I decided against writing the entirety of Doom: THaB in that style. For one, I did not have the bandwidth for it. This project kicked into high gear when I was in the middle of meeting a tight deadline to get a manuscript to a publisher, so formatting some chapters as interviews took some of the load off.
For another, I'm a firm believer in switching up styles. Long reads are... well, long. Switching up attributes of the writing such as perspective and structure keeps readers engaged if done properly—don't, for example, reboot a slasher-horror franchise like Friday the 13th and turn it into a Victorian romance—so I considered which sections worked better as interviews and framed them that way.
One of my priorities in writing this feature was to incorporate video content. While coordinating interviews with Hugo and Marty for GDC, I asked our PR facilitators if we could talk in a space suitable for capturing video. Shack's main video editor, Greg, was being pulled in all directions that week, so Asif Khan, Shack's CEO and my boss, was kind enough to get his hands on one of the company's professional-grade cameras and record the interview.
Once we were back home, I went through the raw footage and time-stamped every topic. Then I passed the time stamps on to Greg, and he spliced in gameplay footage to create videos. I'm immensely thankful to Asif and Greg for their help. This was my first time integrating so much multimedia into my written content, and it came out beautifully.
I'm so proud of how Doom: To Hell and Back turned out. I had great conversions with Hugo, Marty, John Romero, and the numerous modders who gave of their time to answer my questions; Asif and Greg's video work makes the feature pop; and Steve Watts, my editor-in-chief, worked with me on revisions that tightened every loose screw. I hope you enjoy the feature/book/book-length feature. It was a pleasure and an honor to write.