The Post Mortem

Starting out

Doom has been something that has been in my life for as long as I can remember. It is something I’ve obsessed about, the tight gameplay loop, level design, the monsters. From the age of 6 it has been something that kick-started my interest in being a game developer.

At 8 I was making my own maps. I eventually I moved on to making mega-wads and variants of the game that drew away from its core principles. The first big mod I made was Doom Tournament, a 32 leveled map pack for the source port Doom Legacy, that added CTF and King of the Hill modes, along with a few Assault styled maps directly inspired by UT99.

Doom Tournament, a Doom Legacy mod

After creating this, the next project, which took several years to create, was Shotgun Frenzy, a multiplayer invasion themed mod for Skulltag (now known as Zandronum) that is still been played today.

Shotgun Frenzy was my first jump into the custom scripting language that most Doom source ports use these days, ACS. Something that would help me in the future when creating Total Chaos.

Shotgun Frenzy was something I did not expect to even get finished. I had such high expectations for the project which did not help its development. It seemed no matter what I did to it, I would never be satisfied. I had trouble tempering my scope and working on what is realistic, but me being a teen at the time, I had all the time in the world to work on this thing.

Shotgun Frenzy, an invasion themed mod for Zandronum

The mod released eventually, but there was no need for it to take as long as it did. Something that would further haunt me when working on the very young (at the time) Total Chaos.

The first failure of many…

“you can’t make a Doom mod scary”. I set out to try and prove this poster wrong.

The earliest version of the mod I can think of dates all the way back to 2004. This was the year Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 were released, two games which would forever change the games industry.

This first version of Total Chaos was known as tcbeta.zip. It was thrown online, although the file has been lost over time (that’s what you get for uploading stuff to Ripway). The demo involved a player walking through what was supposed to be a haunted house looking for keys. Most of the textures were crudely slapped together with MS Paint, and monsters were hacked together from Doom sprites. One monster being a mirrored John Romero head on a stick, but floating instead of being static. All that remains from this build are some horribly compressed thumbnails from ImageShack.

The first version of Total Chaos

Development on this version did not last long, a few weeks if my memory serves me right. The demo was thrown up online with the intentions of being ‘the scariest Doom mod ever’, but it sadly did not turn out that way. People who played the released zip did not think much of it, and rightfully so… although there was one comment from someone that rubbed me the wrong way… “you can’t make a Doom mod scary”. I set out to try and prove this poster wrong.

The story-line was supposed to follow a man stuck in his nightmares, and he has to wake himself up. Pretty piss poor of a story line, but that was the best thing a 14 year old me could think up. I continued working on the mod after its initial beta release, but none of the following ever got released…

The chapters were supposed to begin on a bus, you travel to a hotel where you stay the night. You then wake up to a haunted version of the same hotel you entered and would have to escape. Things were abstract in this nightmarish reality. Rooms would elongate and then fall to crush you. Jump scare monsters would drop from the ceiling blocking your progress. There were Arachnotrons present too, for god knows what reason. This version had about 2 levels in it, but never really progressed beyond that. Eventually the project was dropped completely.

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There were various restarts I tried over the years following this failure. One version used photo assets of BB guns my friend had. You would be in the same apartment room (now with nicer high resolution textures), and would have to fight off armies of spiders with a toy SPAS-12. The project resembled more Duke3D than anything from Doom at this point.

Nothing substantial really came from any of this. It was all going nowhere, and it would have been a perfect time to throw in the towel and try something new, until…

Failing slightly less

“Several pivots to multiplayer were attempted. One version was going to be a monster vs marines, complete with a Counter-Strike styled buy menu. At one stage, it worked quite well…”

God rays! In Doom?

The first time I remember the mod picking up steam was in 2008 when I released this video of a hack technique to create god rays coming through a wall. Something that has no gameplay significance, it was nothing but an attempt to make the game look pretty.

The first screenshots and videos of this gained a bit of attention in the Doom community, and would be the driving force that would get Total Chaos to become something that goes beyond what people would expect from a Doom mod. This, and figuring out how to get 3D models working, was something that drove me away from using sprites, and soon I would realize I would need to up-skill myself to see my ambitions through.

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The next version of the mod still had a similar story-line to the first (trying to escape a nightmare), but the gameplay had to change quite drastically to accommodate the visual style I was going for.

I wanted to make something that would move away from combat, since at the time I was not very good at modeling organic creatures. I was also pretty bad at animation. So I landed on the concept of having the player hold a video camera, and what the player was experiencing was the last hour of some unfortunate souls experience (video camera tapes only holding an hours worth of footage at the time).

This meant the entire mod had to be made so it could be finished in an hours sitting. Eventually I scrapped that idea, since it wasn’t fun. This was around the same time I felt creatively bankrupt as I forced myself into a very limited criteria on what I could make.

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Several pivots to multiplayer were attempted. One version was going to be a monster vs marines, complete with a Counter-Strike styled buy menu. At one stage, it worked quite well, and the project might have even gone in this direction for good… until I had a hard-drive failure, which killed all momentum for what was to be. Several years passed, but even then, the project refused to die.

The multiplayer version of Total Chaos that never was

Another version of the mod was restarted in 2012. I was inspired by Amnesia, and wanted to make a similar experience. The mod pivoted back to single player, and the intentions were to set the whole mod in a mansion where the goal is to escape. But soon it was apparent that I still lacked the skill to see my high expectations through. The project slept for a little longer…

I can’t quite remember where the origin of setting it on an island came from, but I think it happened after stumbling upon a Wikipedia article one day of Battleship Island. After watching various videos on the place, I knew it was where I wanted to set my mod. The isolation factor was something that I felt could add a lot of horror, so I went with it and, you guessed it, restarted the project for the billionth time.

The overgrowth trailer

“the video that was just going over its 200th thousandth view. It was getting out of hand, and I was starting to worry.”

In 2014 I tried making various prototypes and remakes of the islands layout, but still I felt it was not good enough. I figured hey, what could the harm be in releasing an update video. I don’t really have anything solid here, but maybe some new found interest in the project could be the kick up the ass I needed. I threw together anything I had lying around into what would be the Overgrowth trailer.

The video camera elements were still intact here, but an inventory system was added, after been inspired by what S.T.A.L.K.E.R did.

I also wanted to show off a hack I put together to get motion blur into the engine, something completely useless (but I thought it was cool at the time). It involved rendering 16 stacked planes on top of each other, each with an offsetted CamTexture, and placing the camera on top of it looking down.

I pushed the video out and left it there, I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but oh well…

It wasn’t until reddit user ZeroShift (I believe) posted the trailer on r/games that popularity around the mod started to skyrocket. I had websites all over the world picking it up, mostly amazed by ‘it’s a Doom mod!’. At one point my phone would ping every minute for hours on end, some new email coming in from some part of the globe, or a new comment on the video that was just going over its 200th thousandth view. It was getting out of hand, and I was starting to worry.

I pushed out more information on the mod, and my ambitions were starting to run wild. I claimed it would be an open world mod, something similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R, since it was what I was into at the time. I also said it would be done by the end of the year.

I wanted to make Total Chaos more than just a pretty face. If it was going to be what I was hoping when I started, it had to have a good gameplay loop to back it up. I pulled on my friend Richie to help with creating monsters, and we set out to create the promised open world experience with the last 6 months of the year.

Early concepts for Brute by Richie

Early concepts of the Brute from Richie

The first monster put together by Richie was the Brute. There were several iterations of this, including the first being one in full miner gear. The model came along very quickly and had an immense amount of detail.

Several concepts were put together for the Brute, and a heavy variant was also made, however sadly the model for this was lost and we never got around to getting a final asset made up of it. What Richie was creating was way beyond anything I could imagine for a Doom mod.

Unfinished asset, Heavy Brute by Richie

The heavy Brute

As Richie was putting the monsters together, I pulled on Mark (TheMisterCat) to rewrite a lot of the games script systems like the inventory. I was also attempting to create some kind of open world map. It was going to be similar to Battleship Island. All made of concrete, but with a mountain at one end that would contain the mine, the eventual goal the player must reach.

Open world map, thick black lines were main roads

A map of the island

It was here the story was revamped too. Players would arrive on the island, answering a distress call. We didn’t have a clear idea where it was all going, but felt we would see what happens as we progressed.

I was struggling with getting a solid combat loop together. I decided to add melee weapons in to try and make things a bit more interesting, but it didn’t feel fun.

I was also butting heads with other hacks I had implemented earlier. The motion blur system, while looking cool, was causing hell of a lot of lag. I also had no idea how to incorporate the promised god ray system that wowed people who watched the earlier videos. Richie’s monster models were looking great, but my animation was shit. They would also snap rotations on 8 axis points, just like Doom’s monsters.

Eventually, I had to make another hack system to resolve this. In Total Chaos, when a monster spawns in, it is invisible. Completely un-rendered. The invisible monster would then spawn a dummy on top of it which would render the 3D model and sync up the current state of the ‘real’ monster actor. The dummy actor would then be told through ACS scripting to interpolate its position and rotation to the real actor. A system so stupid, yet it still found it’s way into the final version.

It was getting close to the end of the year, and the project was no where near complete. The momentum from the original Overgrowth trailer was depleted.

A change of direction

“Everything that is in the alpha is all I have. I haven’t a damn clue on where it was going to go beyond there. Nothing was worked out.”

In 2015 I started working at the newly founded A44 Games (Aurora44 back in the day), which would go on to make the RPG Ashen, so my time was split between a full time job and my mod.

Working with the team at A44 introduced me to a taste of games I never considered playing. We were working out of a house in the country, and after our shifts we would all play video games. It usually ended up being League of Legends, but one day, it was something I had never heard of, something a die hard shooter fan would never even consider playing.

I was introduced to the torment that is Dark Souls. The combat loop, the level design. Everything in it drew me in. I poured hours into that game, and found the answer to my main problem with Total Chaos. How do I make this gameplay loop fun.

I tried to do something similar to how Dark Souls handled combat. I knew I could not replicate it with what I had to work with, but I would use it as a starting point. I made a dash system, a heavy/light attacks. I reanimated all the weapons and all the monsters to have wind up frames. I worked on this for about 6 months and figured, what the hell, why not release an alpha?

Early shots from the first alpha

I posted a date about a month in advance, and told myself to stick to it. When the day came, I uploaded what I had, and braced for the worst. I was sure people were going to hate it. Even if they did like it, everything that is in the alpha is all I have. I haven’t a damn clue on where it was going to go beyond there. Nothing was worked out.

The alpha went out and reception was actually pretty good. My concerns were gone when I watched several let’s plays of the mod. I enjoyed watching people get scared, which gave me inspiration to move the project in a more horror-like direction.

Getting somewhere

“I felt I wasted all this time for nothing.”

The direction of where the mod was going was more clear at this stage. All I had to do was make more of the same. I made more levels without any direction, I just made what I thought was fun. More weapons and monsters were slapped together, and eventually the mod was getting close to complete.

A new story-line was put together for the mod. This one would involve mind control, and the player would be manipulated into activating a device on the island that would ‘end all of humanity’.

A build of this mod did reach completion at some stage. But ultimately after playing this build, I was not happy with what it ended up being. This was something I had worked on for over a decade. I had so many ideas that came and went. I felt like I had more to offer. If I were to release this, I told myself, it would flop.

city

After reaching this realization, I got horribly depressed. I took a year off from working on it. I felt I wasted all this time for nothing. Sure, I learnt a lot of valuable skills, so it wasn’t all bad.

A few attempts to restart things came and went. One version had all the levels connected together to resemble more of an open world (like Prey, something I was into at the time). Another version was going to have a completely rehashed story-line to try and be a fan Doom 2 prequel. The monsters you were fighting on the island came from a portal, eventually the player would travel through said portal and be transported to hell and would have to fight a cyber-demon.

Screenshot_Doom_20180304_164531
Yes, Total Chaos almost ended up being a Doom 2 fan prequel

At one point, I told myself I had to temper my expectations, and I felt if I can’t make a good story-line, why try and bother at all. So I scrapped the mind control story-line and moved towards making a typical ‘portal opens, monsters come out, destroy the portal’. Several more months of work went into this and eventually the mod was done. I was still not happy with it, but figured at this point I never would be.

This would have been the version that would release. It was April of 2018. I had just left my role at A44 Games to pursue other careers, and had a trip coming up to France for 6 weeks. If it weren’t for this trip to France, I would have released it, but decided to hold off until I got back (in case shit hit the fan).

The Last Stretch

“This is it?” I was thinking… “After all those years?”

I spent 6 weeks in Europe. Most of it was cycling across France with my father. It gave me a lot of time to think and put a lot of it into perspective. Sure, my mind went wild and a lot of new ideas were formulating, but I knew I had to temper my expectations or I would not be getting anywhere.

When I got home, I started putting my ideas to work. I expanded several areas already made, and tried my best to improve what was a weak middle act at the time. The story-line did not change from what it was before I left, but that did not concern me.

It was September of 2018, and I decided to set a release date of Halloween. 2 months to go. It wasn’t until I watched several let’s plays of Cry of Fear that I figured announcing a release date would a big mistake.

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Cry of Fear is a Half-Life mod that inspired several aspects of Total Chaos, but I did not expect the story-line to be one of them until the very last minute of the projects development.

I took a look at Fort Oasis and asked myself, what if the island a metaphor for isolation and loneliness, something I have been suffering from for the last few years.

My ideas went wild from there. I started modifying the previously ambiguous monster designs to aspects of what I had been suffering. Brute’s would resemble anger and self hatred, the mouth-body-monsters (Splinters) would resemble an overwhelming jealously of others. Glares which attach players just by looking into their eyes would be Social Anxiety. Suddenly a lot of Total Chaos started to make sense. This all happened in the last month and a half of the mods development.

I knew at some stage the mod would need a voice to push the player across the course of the mod. I pulled on some more help from Mark Smith, who had previously helped with coding many of the mods systems including the inventory, to do voice acting for the mod.

All the dialogue only went through 1 draft in writing before being recorded, but this was only because of the time restriction. At the time the voices were being recorded, the mod was less than 2 weeks out from being released. It literally felt like laying out the train tracks in front of a moving train.

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Surprisingly the mod reached completion a week before its release. Even then, I still felt like I could do more. I played through the mod and still felt the middle act was weak, so with a few days left I put together a whole new chapter (Surface), which I felt was the best in the mod.

The mod was complete and uploaded. All I could do was wait for release. “This is it?” I was thinking… “After all those years?”.

Judgement Day

All I was hoping from release, was that people would not hate it. For me, I felt I met my expectations for the mod. I did all I could do.

I had a lot of people messaging me if there was a way to run the mod without having a copy of Doom 2, which was when I realized I should have released a standalone version. I spent most of the release day trying to get the Freedoom IWAD to work with Total Chaos (which was surprisingly easy), and putting a launcher together to make everything easy to run out of the box.

The mod was now out, and there was no going back. And the reception was… great! They didn’t hate it!

I spent the following weeks watching all the let’s plays I could. Watching everyone getting scared at all the right places, and to my surprise, people managed to understand the story-line! Players even managed to stumble upon the alternative ending.

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At the time of writing, Total Chaos received Cacoaward’s for Mordeth and The Spaceship of Theseus, got the ModDB MOTY #10 and Editors Award for Totality, and reached #1 in popularity on the week of release on ModDB. It had surpassed all my expectations. I could not have asked for more.

Ultimately there were two things that made me stick it out for the 15 or so years. First and foremost was the fan base. There are so many people who have stuck with the project for all this time (even through the extended silences), who have given me valuable feedback. And secondly, me overcoming my over ambitious ideas, and getting over never being able to finish projects that I start.

The skills I have learnt with my time on the project have been extremely valuable to me. I do not feel now that the last 15 years have been a waste.

Where to from now?

From Here

I do not plan to stop making games. I feel I still have more to offer. I recently released a Retro version of Total Chaos and am now working on a Directors Cut of Total Chaos, with this I hope to bring back a lot of the content that got cut over the last 15 years, along with adding more content I originally thought to be too ambitious.

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Will I make more Doom mods? Most likely not. I feel I have done all I want to with the engine and now feel I need to move on. I will still play Doom mods in the future. The community is thriving and I feel it is one that can never die. I eagerly look forward to what they come up with in the near future.

4 thoughts on “The Post Mortem

  1. Just finished the game yesterday.

    Needless to say, a damn fine job you did here. Story had a Silent Hill-esque flow and feel to it (with the monsters and the island symbolising all the suffering of Tyler Scott).

    And the mixture of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Dark Souls in the gameplay worked REALLY well.

    I’ve just recently set up a Youtube gaming channel. And I’ve been uploading playthroughs of the game in there.
    Do check it out if you have the time.
    Just search for _SkaN_ .

    10/10 my friend.
    A true horror experience.

    P/S: Still can’t believe that the game /mod is based on the Doom 2 engine. Looks frickin great!

  2. It has been an amazing adventure watching this mod’s development. Thank you and everyone involved for this fantastic gem!

  3. This is an amazing Doom mod, but goes further in to being an amazing game in it’s own right! The scares and horror elements are of a high quality and the story and gameplay are very engaging! Reading this article has given me some inspiration as I’ve been struggaling to finish my own Doom mods for almost 2 decades! I look forward to seeing what other cool games you can create, keep creating!

  4. Sir, you made an amazing work. Making something from all-time classics into something even more bigger and and scarier. Wish You luck and success in all Your projects and ideas. That just one amazing work that trully a masterpiece and should be put in some sort of Time Capsule for future genertaions

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