Teleglitch Takes Me Back
I don’t know if there’s a name for that type of question that members of the same generation ask each other — things like “Where were you when JFK was shot?” or “when Sputnik went up?” or “when the Wall came down?” — ones that give folks a feel for each other, that establish they’ve lived through the same tragedies and triumphs, like a person’s rough backstory is encapsulated in the answers. I like those questions. Sometimes it’s good to know we come from the same place.
I came along too early for my question to be about 9/11 and too late for anything with Cold War flavoring. “Where were you when Clinton was re-elected?” doesn’t have much ring to it, though I can answer it (kitchen). I’m having a hard time thinking of anything else I could use. Oh, maybe Clinton’s impeachment. I was in the kitchen for that too.
Anyway. Here’s my question, and you’re going to think it’s a joke but it’s not. I’m completely serious, because for me this moment was like a warehouse light getting switched on, revealing aisle after aisle of potential, and I realized: “Computers. We are going to do stuff with these.”
Where were you when you first played Doom?
That, I can remember. I was in my uncle’s basement. Not that kind of uncle’s basement, you moron. He was a great guy, with a solid family. He was into computers when everyone still thought they were run on an unholy combination of voodoo and university degrees, and you could count on there being a couple in various stages of assembly on the table down there. It was warm and cozy and had that good type of basement smell, like couch cushions and hobby paint and books all mixed together. One day, his youngest daughter, maybe two years younger than me, turned on the main PC, went through some DOS stuff that was unfathomably complicated, and loaded Doom. That music is forever ringing in my ears.
“It looks so real!” I said as we shot the first zombie grunts. This was, incidentally, before I’d ever heard of zombies.
“I know,” she said. She was grinning like she was letting me in on the greatest secret in the world. To us, at our age, maybe she was.
I hesitated to ask my next question, but I got it out anyway. “Do you ever feel guilty playing this?” A zombie had just turned into spatter-and-ribs from standing too close to an exploding barrel. My first exploding barrel. She’d shot it — chances were I wouldn’t have figured it out on my own.
She shrugged. “Nah. But some of the monsters have bad words in their names — I don’t say those. It tells the names in my dad’s strategy guide. One of them is called the Baron of H.”
The damage was done, and weeks later I begged my dad to get me Doom on the Sega Genesis 32X. He went over to my uncle’s to check it out. I remember him asking questions over my uncle’s shoulder while we watched him play.
“So why is Doom rated M?” he asked.
“Because there’s blood and guts lying around everywhere.” My uncle chainsawed an imp, and those glorious howls filled the room. I winced. I was sure my dad wouldn’t let me go to my uncle’s house anymore, let alone buy this sick filth and have me filling our quiet living room with the howls of split demons.
“Can the other monsters hear that?”
“They can hear the music too, and they don’t do anything about that.” My dad laughed.
Santa got it for me next Christmas. My mom didn’t seem to approve much, and I have no idea what conversations might have taken place outside of my earshot about all the gore that was now broadcast on our living room TV. I was too busy pushing up against walls to find secret rooms to care.
Sometimes I’d catch my dad playing it, late at night when I came downstairs for a glass of water. I’d mill around and watch him play until he figured out I was still there and told me to go back to bed. He was better at it than I was — he never made it very far, but only because he played on the second-hardest difficulty, while I was still pussyfooting around on the easier modes. He was clinical about it, counting every bullet and memorizing the position and type of every monster. He mastered strafing long before I ever did.
And you know what? I miss that. I miss catching my dad playing my games. I miss Doom. Or at least a remembered version of it, improved and tinted rosy by time and nostalgia and dozens of other games that didn’t measure up.
There I was, stranded in some sort of twisted corporate facility, completely lost, and entirely unsure of which dark hallway to explore next. I’d found a massive industrial blast door that I suspected needed its power restored, but I couldn’t figure out where the power control terminal was. Worse, I’d transformed my ordinary pistol into a rapid-firing autopistol, which turned out to be a mistake because I’d burnt through all my 9mm rounds in half as many firefights. Now I was left with a shotgun with a handful of shells and a half-empty revolver. I’d eaten all my preserved meat and drained all my medkits, leaving me with nothing but some empty cans, a couple boxes of nails, some microchips, and a motor in my backpack. Oh, and one bomb that I’d taped some nails to.
As bad as things were, they got worse when I opened the next door and two dozen skittering mutants leaped at me. I ran back into the hall, forcing them into the narrow corridor where my shotgun could do its work, but still they came. Nothing left to do, I backed up as far as I could and tossed my nailbomb.
The screen shuddered with color like an old TV’s dying tube and my speakers burst with static. When everything was still again, the dozen remaining mutants were in pieces and I was wounded.
Still, hope. The bomb had split open part of the wall — a secret! Giddy, I ran inside, and found some more potted meat, which I immediately scarfed down, and another explosive. Some 9mm rounds too, not that those would last more than two seconds. Even so, it was a good find. I took one of my empty cans, filled it with the explosive, and tamped it all in with some nails. Now I had a cangun — a single-use all-wrecking handheld tool of mass destruction. I’d be able to survive at least one more encounter.
I found the power switch nearby and went back through the heavy doors with little trouble, but on the other side I was immediately overwhelmed by an ambush from all sides. Tiny zombies scuttled out of pipes in the wall while a larger monster hurled what looked like poo, except it hurt a lot more. No problem — I’ve got a cangun. I ran around and around the room, getting everyone to follow me in a lumbering grunting sweating imitation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, then sprinted back to the entrance. As everyone closed in for the feast, I turned, can in hand, pulled the wire sticking out the back, and
Nothing breathed but me. The room had shaken for an instant, filled with smoke and the blur of heat, and everything was shredded by a hundred nails traveling at a thousand miles an hour.
The exit teleporter is in the next room. Safe.
That’s Teleglitch. And it’s not only like Doom — it’s better.
Oh, there are differences, but they’re the sort that feel just right in the context of a fast-paced survival-horror shooter. The perspective is top-down rather than first-person, though Doom basically existed on a 2D plane anyway, and this way you get to see all the fantastic lighting and line-of-sight mechanics at play. The maps are randomly generated, which can make them a bit wonky and can make the level wildly easier or harder depending on loot and monster placement, but that means you never really lose that sense of displacement, of being an intruder in a foreign and infested place, and every corner or door could have a box of munitions or a shotgun-toting lunatic behind it. Doom didn’t have a crafting system to let you turn your machinegun into a depleted-uranium driver, or illegally modify your grenade launcher to fire five of the sticky bastards, or build a motion detector so you could avoid the pipes where the smallest and most obnoxious mutants live. But it could have, because it fits right in.
The goal of the game’s three designers was to create something akin to those older shooters — its plot even feels like a tribute to Doom’s “teleportation experiment gone wrong” backstory — and they’ve succeeded. Nearly everything feels right. It’s tense and terrifying. The setting is alternately lonely and too-crowded. The plot is completely optional. The gunplay is frantic, and the outcome never certain. The visual and audial distortion that accompany combat or performance-enhancing drugs lends added punch and confusion to the combat. Even the game’s mapping system is pitch-perfect, updated as you explore and filled with nifty details like the names of various research wings and security barracks, and sometimes filled with helpful data from terminals, like the locations of loot lockers or the exit teleporter.
If I had one complaint, it would be with myself. It’s possible to skip to later levels (templates, really, since they’re randomly created with each play), but only once you’ve completed the level after it — so beating level 4 will let you start on level 3 in later plays. This means that I’ve replayed the early scenes over and over again, and because I’m no longer the same kid, with the same blinding reflexes and unwavering dedication, I suspect I’ll never get to enjoy what the later templates have to offer.
Even so, I’ve been having a hell of a time with Teleglitch. It does a great job of capturing what made those old shooters such a joy to play, and even improves on them in some ways. Try it. Be a kid again.