Listen, forgive me for being a little behind on this one, I've been on holiday, nearly killing people via a combination of beer cans, balcony suites and gravity, while also nearly being killed myself via combination of American muscle cars and gravity. Basically, fuck gravity. Anyway, while I've been away there's been some talk about how the new Doom box art is A Load of Old Shit, which of course it is. Aside from my indifference to Bethesda's efforts, however, it got me thinking: so what?
Box art, as a whole, is bad. Really bad. Great box art is a resplendent unicorn in sea of demented shit-ponies, striding tall and luminous against a backdrop of grey and brown, orange and teal. There are about 100 games out there with great box art, and most of those are Japan-only. It's so difficult to get box art right that Ico's US and JP/UK releases are, respectively, the very worst and (pretty much) the best box art you'll ever see, the tasteless US equivalent being the Wayne Lineker to the rest of the world's Gary. And they're the same fucking game.
That great box art barely exists is testament to not only how creatively safe publishers play it when marketing their wares, in terms of shelf space and visibility and branding and not-weirdness, but also to how similar restrictions apply to the creation of the games themselves. People laugh about all the box shots which feature skinhead man or space bloke, and routinely splice together different images of various military-themed shooter key art to show how similar they all are. Which is all well and good: that sort of thing is funny, if not a little depressing. But when the games are so similar to begin with, the audience so demanding of a certain type of game, is it any surprise that this is the shit you are shoveled?
Well, no. Of course not. There have been crap games with great box art just as surely as there have been great games with crap box art, but mostly people like certain games, and want more of the same. The reason why scowling dude shootman adorns the cover of all your favourite games is the same reason all sports games have scowling, middle distance-looking sportsmen on them: you know what you're getting. Particularly in the west, which isn't big on ambiguity, in any media, and so you can kind of see why the US version of Gamecube Resident Evil features a woman being attacked by a zombie rather than the (much more intriguing) shot of the Spencer Mansion entranceway that adorns the Japanese version. (See also: Resi 4's US cover as opposed to JP; Resi 2 US vs Resi 2 JP – basically the US market has historically been shafted, mainly by Capcom. Sorry.)
Which brings us to Doom, and in particular this Doom. There are other ways to sell the game, but none deemed to work as effectively as this one, sadly. And the marketers are probably right, in the same way that you'll often see direct-to-video films ape the art style of (unrelated) classic films: it sends a little ping of recognition off in the brain, little reminders, tiny sub (and not so sub) conscious signifiers that If You Liked This You'll Like That. Which, when you consider that games are often bought for people rather than by people, many of whom will only have a passing knowledge of the industry, makes perfect sense. Particularly with Doom, pretty much the original space-marine-with-gun game.
Perhaps the reason why some were so upset was that, in the past, Doom has had some fantastic artwork, particularly the original, with its over-friendly demon and second marine in the back reaching for a high five when he probably should be shooting. There's something to be said about Doom II's original art, and so too for Thy Flesh Consumed. Doom is essentially the best Metallica game ever made, so it could probably have had some rad, metal style art. I get that. But then, this is the same series which gave us this:
This cover may be the most 90s thing that has ever happened. If DoomGuy's shirt said Nirvana it wouldn't be more 90s. If you played as Terry Christian it wouldn't be more 90s. If the PSOne-only music (not as good as the PC original, but still great) was replaced with Ace of Base it wouldn't be more 90s. The only way it could have been more 90s was if you played as Des Lynam. And just look at his hair. Or the imp, for that matter. So it's not all bad, Doom fans. In fact it could be a lot, lot worse.