SPOILER WARNING: Icon of Sin goes into detail on the making of Sigil, John Romero’s expansion for the original Doom. As such, there are light spoilers on specifics such as elements of level design and boss fights.
IN AN INDUSTRY increasingly dependent on contract work and rocked by all-too-frequent layoffs, many developers are forced to pack up their lives and follow jobs. Romero may be one of gaming's most itinerant designers.
He was born in Colorado, worked at Origin Systems until he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he co-founded id Software; relocated to Texas, now resides in Ireland, and globetrots for speaking engagements and the occasional deathmatch—and that’s an abridged travelogue. Everywhere he goes and has gone, he’s made games, as far back as pedaling his bicycle to a computer lab on a college campus where he asked older kids about programming instructions and routines until he was coding circles around them.
Sigil is almost as much of a globetrotter. Romero broke ground on its development at his home in Ireland, mapped levels on trains across Europe, and took it on trips over five—maybe six; he’s not sure—seas. “It's been all over the place. It's probably the most-traveled WAD ever,” he said. (In fact, he indicated Sigil may appear in the Guinness Book of World Records with just that distinction.)
Romero designs games anywhere and everywhere. For a family cruise on the Mediterranean, he packed his 27-inch monitor and souped-up iMac to work on Sigil. “When you're on a cruise to take a vacation, you can't be working all the time, so I had to work on it at night. That worked out sometimes.”
All summed up, he has invested approximately one month’s time on Sigil since beginning in December 2017. He wants each map to be more than good. Ideally, each map should have some sort of hook, like the maze in E5M6. One of his earliest ideas was to pack two discrete levels into each map: one to be explored in single-player and co-op mode, and another that can only be visited in deathmatch. “You're running the same WAD, but you're in the deathmatch part of it. I hadn't seen that before,” he said. He recalled jotting down the idea on February 18, 2018.
That July, Mockingbird Software beat Romero to the punch when it released REKKR, a total conversion that paints over Ultimate Doom’s hellish caverns and demons with a fantasy world inspired by Nordic and Celtic myths. Not only does it offer players a suite of new levels, weapons, and power-ups, deathmatch-only arenas are tucked into each map.
“When REKKR came out, I was reading reviews on Doom World, and they were like, ‘Wow, so, here's something new.’ And I was like, ‘Goddammit! I came up with that idea, but they came out with it first!’” he recalled, laughing. (An overview of REKKR posted on Doom World in September 2016 indicates the mod’s designers came up with the idea well before the game’s full release in July 2018.)
REKKR pushed Romero to dig even deeper for new ways to design maps. Where REKKR includes hidden deathmatch-exclusive arenas in some of its levels, each of Sigil’s nine maps contains a hidden arena that can only be accessed in deathmatch.
Romero took the concept one step further. Each deathmatch arena has two switches, often located far apart. When two players activate them at the same time, they’re transported into a slice of the map’s single-player area to continue their fight.
“You can take a teleporter into the deathmatch area, going back and forth,” Romero explained. “It's a lot of extra work, but I made sure it worked on every level, and it's really cool. In GZDoom's command-line area, if you add -host1 -deathmatch, when it runs, it'll run in deathmatch mode, and you'll be in the totally different area.”
SIGIL SHOULD BE familiar to anyone who’s spent countless hours in Doom’s four episodes. Eight regular levels, one bonus level, an epic boss fight, and the hardest episode yet. One way Romero’s episode veers off the bloody path is its soundtrack. Doom’s tunes were composed by Bobby Prince, who also lent his talents to Wolfenstein 3D and Doom 2s. Sigil’s soundtrack comes straight from the bucket-topped head of Buckethead.
Brian Patrick Carroll is a multi-talented musician. He’s as versed in blues as he is metal, and has scored blockbuster movies such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Saw II, Mortal Kombat, and Last Action Hero. The performer’s appearance is as captivating as his sounds. While he plays, Carroll dons the plain white mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise—originally a mold of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk character from Star Trek—and a KFC bucket for a hat.
Romero happened to listen to Buckethead playlists while he designed maps. He found Buckethead’s tracks as suitable for writing code as for designing and playing levels. “There are thousands of songs, and they all have a specific vibe, which let me go, ‘I'm into this vibe right now, so I'll load this album because it has that vibe’ while I worked.”
As it happened, Buckethead was as big a fan of Doom as Romero was of the musician. Their mutual appreciation had shades of the meeting between Nine Inch Nails and id’s developers, which led to Trent Reznor’s metal band writing Quake’s ambient tracks.
Romero worked out a royalty deal with Buckethead, licensing specific songs for Sigil’s levels. Each level’s soundtrack is the song Romero listened to as he designed that map, perfectly capturing its ambience and Romero’s state of mind as he designed it. “When you start the first level, it's crazy hectic,” Romero said of E5M1.
Appropriately, the song kicks in right as players rip and tear into swarms of demons. “The first song you hear is Buckethead's custom song, called ‘Romero One Mind Any Weapon,’” he continued.
E5M8’s soundtrack consists of three Buckethead songs that Romero wove together. “The whole album is one long song with six breaks, so I took the last three and put them together, and he approved it. That's what you hear on level 8, that one song. The album is called Poseidon, and the songs are Poseidon 4, 5, and 6,” he said.
It’s also Sigil’s fastest track, and the one Romero chose to accompany the announcement trailer when he rolled it out in December 2018.
Buckethead asked Romero if he could create more custom music for Sigil. “I said, ‘Hell yeah. I'm not gonna argue with that,’” recalled Romero. “What I hope is that people will hear Buckethead music and go, ‘Wow, I had no idea that this is what he sounded like.’ The word Buckethead, to me, is like Slipknot, [insinuating] loud, thrashy sound. Instead it's some of the greatest guitar music.”
Sigil’s soundtrack will be available as a WAD of MP3 files that will need to be loaded through the player’s Doom source port of choice, such as GZDoom or Chocolate Doom. Ensuring compatibility across as many source ports as possible has been Romero’s focus for months. “A whole bunch of things have to get replaced to do this right: lots of graphics, and little pieces of data all over the place,” he said.
Several members of Doom’s community have been play-testing Sigil and offering feedback on design and technical details. These are Doom fans who arguably know the game engine and its capabilities as well—if not better—than Romero, and he always listens to their advice. “One of my guys is running Sigil through a bunch of [ports]. He gives me comments on different flavors of the engine, and what I shouldn't do because of any specific thing in a source port that people like. I take all his advice, and it only takes a minute or two to fix things. I want it to be as compatible as possible.”
In some ways, putting Sigil through its paces is reminiscent of the days before programming interfaces such as Microsoft’s DirectX, which took the chore of making sure a PC game played nicely with hundreds of hardware configurations out of the development team’s hands. Some source ports rigidly adhere to the original, or “vanilla” Doom’s limits and functionality, while others go beyond them.
Romero is working to ensure compatibility by prepping multiple versions of Sigil. “It's kind of like I'm making three WAD [packs],” he explained. “The Sigil WAD, the music WAD, and another called sigil_compat, for compatibility. That one will, instead of introducing a fifth episode, it'll replace the third episode. Older source ports don't understand anything beyond Episode 3 or 4. I can't add one, I have to replace one, so I figured I'd replace 3 since Episode 4 is really cool.”
JOHN ROMERO ANNOUNCED Sigil in December 2018, the month Doom turned 25. His delivery of the game, like his compatibility testing, is two-pronged. The maps and Buckethead’s soundtrack will be available as free downloads. For collectors, Romero partnered with Limited Run Games, purveyors of special editions and other merch, to produce two collectible packages featuring a box adorned with Christopher Lovell’s Baphomet art, and other goodies such as a USB drive in the form of a floppy disk.
The crème de le crème of Sigil’s collectibles is a mold of Romero’s severed head impaled on a stake, a replica of the sprite that was hidden behind Doom 2’s final boss, the Icon of Sin. “Nothing that I'm selling has anything to do with their trademarks or copyrights,” Romero said of id Software, which, of course, owns Doom. “Sigil is free, so you're not even buying the WAD. What you're buying in the box is CDs of Buckethead's music, cool books we've made, my head on a stake, that kind of stuff. It's all things I made.”
Romero and Limited Run Games have given every piece of swag the love and care Doom fans expect. Sigil’s box, for example, conforms to the same measurements as the id Software anthology, so it’ll sit nicely on a shelf right next to the rest of a collector’s id games.
“That was a big plus for me: I wasn't doing anything that anyone could be upset about,” he continued. “I wasn't going, ‘I have new levels, and I was just teasing you with E1M8b because you have to buy these!’ No, I'm giving that stuff away, but I have some cool premium content that you might want to pay for—not only Doom collectors, but people who like Buckethead's stuff.”
The boxed editions of Sigils sold out quickly, but its bits and pieces are still in production as of this writing. “There are a lot of pieces going into the box, and a couple of those items hit production snags,” explained Romero. “When you have that many pieces with so many dependencies on third-party suppliers, if one thing goes wrong, you can't release the box without one of those components.”
Romero pushed the release of Sigil from February to April, then delayed it again until May. That, too, was a decision that hearkened back to id’s early days, when id Software released a game when it was done and not a moment sooner. “You only launch once, so I want to make sure that when I do it, that's done right. I don't want to have any regrets, so it's worth delaying so I can get it right, just like a commercial game.”
Once all the pieces fall into place, Romero will release Sigil. He hopes Doom fans will enjoy the maps as much as he’s enjoyed returning to his favorite game. “If the community wasn't still alive, I probably wouldn't have done it, because no one would have cared. But it's so active. It's been really fun.”