[Cleaning the Backlog] Wolfenstein 3D

Shareware versions of both Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were pre-installed on my first PC machine back in 1995. When friends came over, we played Doom «Nightmare hotseat»—we sucked, rarely beating E1M1, but it was pure fun. Personally, though, when remaining one-on-one with my best pal Volkov Commander (also pre-installed by patriotic Russian hardware sellers), I better preferred to navigate to the C:\GAMES\WOLF3D\ directory.

Retrospectively, there are three reasons why I preferred Wolfenstein 3D over Doom. The first one is Captain Hans Kloss. Stawka większa niż życie (Stakes Larger Than Life)—Polish TV series immensely popular in the Soviet Union—ran on Russian TV in the mid-90s. The show’s protagonist was a Polish secret agent who had infiltrated Abwehr during World War II and routinely kicked some nazi ass. Captain Hans Kloss was one of my first childhood heroes, and his resemblance with BJ Blazckowitz is quite self-evident.

The second reason was the shooting mechanics. Doom mainly relies on movement and dodging—keeping distance from close-combat foes and evading projectiles—turning the gameplay into a whirling dance of destruction. Wolfenstein 3D, in contrast, emphasizes the player’s reaction time—you avoid taking damage if you shoot first—making the gameplay reminiscent of western shootouts. It’s like 80s action movies vs. 60s spaghetti westerns—spectacle against suspense, very roughly speaking.

Replaying Wolfenstein 3D recently, I noticed how much I enjoy those moments before opening the door to a room I haven’t visited yet, or taking a turn into a new hallway. I stand and breathe, relaxing a heartbeat and focusing my mind, feeling this cinematic close-up on my squinty scowl of a face. Then, on queue, CRACK—HALT—BOOM—BLAM—AAYYEE, and it’s over. Each and every encounter has a small narrative arc with its own set-up, intensification, climax, and cathartic resolution. Perfection.

The third reason was, until recently, an elusive one. It was somehow connected to how the game feels. Along with an emotional sine wave of adrenaline infusions, I felt constant suffocating dread somewhere in the background, like white noise. It was subtle but omnipresent, distant but overpowering. Like swimming above the ocean abyss—you don’t intend to descend, but you know how deep it is, and this knowledge itself makes you lose your mind. This sense of foreboding was by far more frightening (and exciting) than the gory scares of Doom—those were almost comforting in comparison. It’s intoxicating and mesmerizing even now, albeit far less powerful after all these years.

Now I see that the source of this ominous atmosphere is hidden in the level design. In Castle Wolfenstein’s architecture itself, to be precise. There can be no better physical manifestation of murderous totalitarianism than the maniacal mazes and schizophrenic spaces of Wolfenstein 3D. Sheer gigantomania and structural madness of almost every level in this game can infuse with horror if you stop to consider the possibility of inhabiting such places.

Yes, Doom has more intricacy and even madness in its level design. But it operates within ontologically different spaces—martian hi-tech military base and literal hell are not spaces we’re used to finding ourselves in, so we tend to approach them as wild and crazy a priori. It’s not that medieval castles filled with nazis are more common in our lives (I hope), yet they are comparatively more grounded in reality. The concept of what we see during Wolfenstein 3D’s playthrough becomes especially more real when there are hints of human habitability everywhere—restrooms, dining rooms, and kitchens.

Cosmic terrors and bloodthirsty monsters are scary; let’s give them that. But leaving a gigantic empty room with dozens of identical portraits of the mustached loser on the walls through a mazelike, insanely long corridor to find a restroom at its end—this is the true horror. Just think about the everyday life of those nazi-soldiers patrolling these labyrinths daily, eating their meals among these crazy walls, and traversing mad distances to relieve themselves. Hellflames and cacodemons are nothing relative to that!

I keep Doom installed because of its everlasting mod community, and I doubt I’ll ever wish to replay its original levels. It’s an entirely different situation with Wolfenstein 3D—I’ll definitely replay all of its episodes again. More than once.

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