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Smoke and Silhouettes: Doom's Hugo Martin on Storytelling in Visual Mediums

If you didn't expect to enjoy Doom's take on narrative arcs and character development as you did, much less rave about it as one of the best game stories of 2016, you weren't alone. Creative director Hugo Martin came to the project with a skill set perfectly suited to changing the fan base's perception of what a Doom story could be. Martin, along with executive producer Marty Stratton and writer Adam Gascoine, were largely responsible for shaping the game's story. Martin got his start in games, spent time in Hollywood contributing to blockbusters such as 2013's Pacific Rim, then bounced back to the games business and landed his job at id Software.

I've been interviewing Hugo Martin and executive producer Marty Stratton for a larger feature on Doom. In that context, we got to talking about subjects not far removed from pulling off glory kills and replenishing ammo by carving through demons with chainsaws. This extract from my talks with Martin touches on cinematic experiences in games, the storytelling lessons he picked up from working in Hollywood, and how comic books informed Doom's visuals and narrative.


A lot of producers talk about crafting a "cinematic experience" in a game. You've actually crafted cinematic experiences in cinema. Do you find that "cinematic experiences" so often boil down to watching two characters stand around and talk? I like when games make use of storytelling devices unique to the medium—that is, actually playing the game. I wondered what your take was as someone who's told stories in both formats.

Throughout my career I was bouncing back and forth, and I started in games, plus I'm a huge gamer. I definitely understand the medium... I mean, I like to think I do. [laughs] I find my film background and my passion for films to be very useful. We're going for feelings. That's basically it. In the film medium, you've got different limitations and different things you can do. And obviously in games you have a whole different set of limitations.

It's funny. I agree with you: I like games like Bloodborne so much because it doesn't really stop me. I don't necessarily want to be stopped if I don't have to be. It's got to be a pretty good story in a video game for me to want to sit there and watch people talk. And what's really funny about that is that's not really a good thing. How many times are you going to sit there and watch two people have a conversation? The main character of the film is going to watch people have a conversation? That's pretty rare.

In games, it's just because of the way the medium works. You tend to end up doing that a lot. I think what you see in film, and what we can learn from film, is you take a film like Michael Clayton—that movie uses the same type of efficiency that we tried to use in Doom. It's giving you so much information but does it in such an efficient way. I think the best kind of storytelling is when you don't even really realize you're being told a story. I think we all get pissed off in games and movies when you can feel it: "It's story time! I'm six years old again, and the teacher's got the book out and she's explaining everything to me. Oh my god. I'm so bored."

My favorite kind of storytelling is when I don't even notice it's happening. I think for the most part, that's what we tried to do with Doom. Whether or not we did that successfully, I'll leave that up to the fans. There is a tremendous amount of storytelling going on in Doom, and very little of it has to do with people telling you stuff. The story of Doom is: we want the player to feel like a badass. That's it. That's the story of Doom. It's a combination of progression in the game, the weapons, the few things people say to you, their reaction to you. There's even more stuff in the codecs if you choose to read or listen to it.

All of it has one goal in mind: Doom 2016 is doing its damnedest to make you feel strong. If we had 10 dollars, we'd spend eight of it on combat, a dollar on something else, and one dollar left for the story. All of that money would be spent on making you feel like a badass.

With my film background, you look at films that do well, and you pull out of it what you can and try to apply it to your game. One thing about my film background that I think helps me, and it's kind of an attitude that we have here, is: there's never enough time, there's never enough money, to do the thing you really want to do. There's this "Let's figure out a way to get it done" attitude in film that I love.

Think about all the making-of stories. Like Empire Strikes Back: it's a bunch of kids in a garage, and they're pulling off the best effects the world had ever seen. The matte paintings for the Hoth scenes are made by some kid who never even worked on a film before. They were some of the best Hoth paintings the world had ever seen. That's the kind of attitude that I really wanted the team to have: this roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done. We love to make two dollars look like 20. Just being really smart about it.

Take James Cameron on Aliens. He wants 20 aliens in suits; the studio says, "You have a budget for seven or eight." The way he figures out to make seven or eight aliens look like 20 is, what they actually look like is total shit, but to the audience, they look amazing on film. He gets really clever: "Okay, that doesn't look as good as we want. Let's put some smoke here. Let's turn down the lights. Let's keep action going."

That's really what working on a game or movie is like when it's at its best. That's the fun. The box is always too small. I think the attitude in film is, learn how to pack as much shit as you can into that box. I think some of the best work that Ridley Scott ever did was, he didn't have enough money to make the sets in Alien look the way he wanted to, so he started turning off lights and filling the room with smoke. He created a visual style that to this day is... I mean, come on. What looks better than Blade Runner or Aliens? And that was born out of him not having enough resources to do what he wanted to do.

The box was too small. Those restrictions that are put on creative people, that's where innovation comes through. Honestly, innovation is why we do this. It's so exciting to work with a team, and there's this camaraderie that comes out of it when you're figuring out a way to put something that's way too big into the box you have—and then you actually figure out a way to do it, and the audience is like, "Holy..." Their perception of the box is way bigger than it is. That's what gets me up in the morning.

That's a film attitude, but certainly they've been doing that in games for [decades]. The truth is, nobody has enough money. Everybody's box is too small. Even Apple's box is too small. I think we look at Apple products and think, Oh my god, they have unlimited resources. Everybody's got a schedule, everybody's got a deadline to meet, and that makes the box smaller than you want, but I think the best teams embrace the box.

I'm not as much of a film buff as you are, but I am interested in learning about how movies are made. I've found that I gravitate toward films that were made with practical effects. Take, as an example, the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequels. Whether someone loves the prequels or hates them, there are stark differences between the creative processes.

I think that James Cameron in Avatar pretty much showed you what he can do when his box is bigger, and it was pretty fucking spectacular. Some of my favorite things in art—art being film, games, fine art, illustrations, whatever—I think the best decisions you make, as a creative person, is the stuff that you leave out of the image.

Those are usually what make the parts that you left in even more powerful, because you're giving the audience an opportunity to participate in the image, or the game, or the story. I'll use Doom as an example. The game itself did not allow for us to expand on the story of the Doom Slayer and some of the lore as much as we... I wouldn't say "wanted to," but "could have." Not only did we have resource limitations, we had time limitations. We also had the fact that the race car wasn't built for that. I don't think that's what people wanted from Doom. [Author's note: Martin and the development team at id Software use a race car/race track analogy for Doom's player-character and levels, respectively.]

So what we did was, we edited, edited, edited. We gave you Part A of the story, and Part C of the story, and we asked you to figure out Part B. In my opinion, that's the best way to go about it. You're basically making me, as an audience member, sit up in my chair and participate and figure it out. That's what I find to be the most engaging approach.

What happens when your box gets really big and you have CG... let's take visuals for example. My biggest problem with the [Star Wars] prequels is I can see everything. It's almost like I want to go in there and say, "Okay, I know we modeled all this shit. I know it was all designed and we spent a lot of money on the Jedi Temple, but for Christ's sake, can somebody turn off some lights and give this room some style?"

And I know why they did that. "That carpet? We paid a lot of money for that carpet. That stuff on the wall? That was really expensive. I want to see this creature fully lit from every angle because we spent two months making this thing in CG." And I'm like, dude, I don't want to see this whole thing. The analogy that I use—it's a concept I taught to my students—is when someone is telling you a story, and they're telling you every single detail. Hey, how was that movie? "Okay, so the credits started. Then it said, 'Directed by...' Jesus Christ, dude. You're killing me.

A really good storyteller edits and only hits the high points, and then you paint a picture in your mind to fill in the rest of the story. That's how you entertain people. That's true, in my opinion, for games, for painting, for film. And a lot of times, as in our case, that was a result of our box being too small to fit stuff in, so we let the audience fill in the blanks. Ultimately, that creates a higher level of audience participation. It's more engaging that way.

When we look back on Alien, for example, a lot of times [Ridley Scott] shut the lights off because stuff didn't look that good. But, my god, tell me you don't fill in the blanks on Blade Runner so much. It's just smoke and silhouettes with hints of detail, but that is the greatest depiction of a futuristic city to this day. Honestly. Maybe Fifth Element, but I'd like somebody to show me a better depiction of a futuristic city than Blade Runner.

I've taken screen shots of every inch of that film to do film study, lighting—to really understand it. When you take a screen shot [of Blade Runner], it's amazing how little information is really on-screen. It's all implied. It's all silhouettes, and your mind is filling in the blanks. The story that you create in your head is always going to be better than the one I write down for you. No one's a better director than you, that's for sure.

If you allow your audience to participate in your game's story and your game's visual, it's going to be more compelling because what they fill in the blanks with is always going to be the coolest thing for them. Honestly, that was a bit of a debate for us on Doom 2016. The difference is in games, you have to see your objective. The reason why I came to games is because I love games, and I find making games to be extremely compelling. You just heard me rant about movies and art for 10 minutes, but I'm never going to put that stuff above gameplay. Gameplay rules the roost around here.

I might run the kitchen, and Marty runs the restaurant, but fun is the boss. Fun runs the show around here. [Doom] is a video game, so gameplay first. But when it came to visuals, I very much wanted to use that Ridley Scott approach of smoke and silhouettes when possible. Now, that became a challenge. On a film set—I worked at Blur for many years—some environment artist is going to model every detail of an environment, and it's very difficult to turn around and say to him, "Yeah, we're going to shut lights off and put a bunch of smoke in there, and they won't really see it." He's going to be like, "Then why am I here?"

That tends to be a bit of a struggle, so whenever possible we try to use that Ridley Scott approach to make [Doom] more suggestive. It's a bit of a balance in video games. I want to see my objectives. Gameplay first, art second. We're always going back and forth on that, but it's all about audience participation for me.

My favorite moment in video game storytelling over the last three years—and I won't talk about our game because that would be obnoxious—in Bloodborne, there's a woman in a white dress in one of the levels. I think it's in the last level before the last boss. She's standing there staring up at the boss arena you're going to enter, and she doesn't say anything, and she's bloody. The story I have in my head of who that girl is—I have a whole thing built up in my head that that's the wife of the boss you fight at the end, and the boss is all disfigured, and... It's a great story! I want to write it down. [laughs] But I love the fact that it's my story. Bloodborne, very similarly to Doom, is kind of like, don't tell me the whole story; let me figure it out.

Bloodborne is a good example. I love all of the SoulsBorne games, and what I like about their approach to lore is when you find a sword on a corpse, that sword wasn't placed arbitrarily. That corpse wasn't there by chance. But you don't have to care about that. You can read the weapon's description, or you can just equip it and go back to killing bad guys. Doom was like that. I read all the monuments about the Doom Slayer, but a friend didn't, and he never missed a beat.

And they felt like a badass. I think that's a story that you both got, but you have a little more context as to exactly what kind of badass you are. That's what I like. We said, "Let's give them the option." Personally, as a fanboy, I very much enjoy digging into that stuff. I want to read about every aspect of the stuff I'm into. We leave that open for the player. If you want more context, you can find it.

I gave a talk at a game lab conference in Barcelona about this. When it comes to audience participation, if you look at some of the great pieces of art in history and you think about those images, they're doing the same thing. Comic books are the obvious ones. How many comic books use heavy blacks? A lot of stuff falls into shadow, and you're just catching a little bit of information and [a glimpse] of characters standing there. Pretty much every cool Batman poster ever is like that.

I was actually thinking of Batman.

Completely, right? Some of the best Frank Miller images are like that, and some of the best Batman images are like that. My mind fills in the rest. I think that's why those images are so cool. I think it's a really powerful concept. I like experiencing art in that way, and I like making art like that.

My favorite depiction of Batman is from The Animated Series where he's just a shadow with glowing white eyes.

Totally! Or the Ninja Turtles when they do that. It's the coolest thing. I actually like the [Star Wars] prequels. I realize I'm in the minority, and I totally agree with people's issues with them. What I like about the prequels compared to the originals—obviously I like both—but I think George [Lucas] swung for the fences. There's a lot of really cool stuff. In a half-hour's worth of any of the prequels, there are new ships, new characters, new ideas that I really like.

With Force Awakens, and I think that's a great film, but there aren't as many new ideas being introduced. But one thing is that when I close my eyes and think about the pros and cons of the prequels, it's too fucking bright. There's just too much information. I can see too much stuff. They don't leave enough to the imagination.


Related Articles:
- Why Doom won the Shacknews 2016 Game of the Year award.
- Shack's review of Doom

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