Spencer's Closet

Alright, as I'm playing through dtwid:le I had to stop and take time to write about one map in particular. "The Mourning Halls" by General Rainbow Bacon, Marnetmar, Alfonzo, and Xaser. I was not expecting anything like this, while rifling through the mapset. If you are unfamiliar, the "twid" project's aim was to analyze an id designer's work, and then create something original that "could have" been made by them in ~1994. There were so many submissions, which led to the inevitable rejections, and Xaser feeling passionate about the quality of rejected material took it upon himself to compile them into their own set. As such, I was expecting a mixed bag of good and bad maps in a 1994 sort of style, and that's what it has been so far (and even with a few gems). But Mourning Halls is an outlier that stands apart from the maps in dtwid, dtwid:le, and dare I say the entire 20+ years lexicon of custom doom content.

What we have here is a massive map, which takes the slot of John Romero's "Against Thee Wickedly" and indeed also takes its visual style and some of its gameplay elements. Romero's e4m6 represents his final map in the timeline of id development, and as such it is highly refined and almost doesn't feel like doom anymore, making the other id maps look like goofy experiments. Well, "Mourning Halls" does the same thing, making "Against Thee Wickedly" look like a goofy experiment. It even feels more gothic and sinister and quake-like than a quake map.

I don't want to talk about the visuals though, to summarize: they're great. I'll leave that for pictures to tell or your own playthrough. The real meat is in how it plays. First and foremost, it's a map about exploration and not restricting the player. You'll find plenty of different ways to navigate, obscure ledges to platform across, vistas to behold, and secrets to discover. And it doesn't always reward you for exploring, there are various mysterious dead-end nooks with seemingly no purpose, or even perils that put you at a disadvantage. This is a good thing though, exploration should not always have a cookie at the end, lest it become predictable and boring. And I mentioned vistas, it seems like the map is just vistas that interconnect with other vistas, and not a single dreaded fucking hallway to be had (oh the irony). I clipped around in chocorenderlimits, and indeed the map seems to be well within vanilla engine limits, which with all the elaborate vistas and portals is incredible. Certainly this is NOT something that Romero "could have" done in 1994.

The map is dangerous too. There is a lot of shotgunner/imp fodder at your level and perched in sniping positions, and while you are distracted by them Cacos are swooping in from various directions and other rooms (by virtue of how well connected the areas are). Then you have spectres sneaking up on you at the most random times, and with the color theme and moody lighting they are tough to see. Oh and the map repopulates enemies behind you at various points without clear triggers, something I like to do in my own maps (a nod to Hexen), so yeah there's a lot of heart-attack scares from behind. In short: this map hates you and wants to kill you. But it gives you the tools to survive. I think there was a glut of health and ammo, and the weapons are given liberally and at various points, so that you are not locked in to the one "correct" route. The way and when it gives you stuff, while keeping the map dangerous, is just masterfully done.

So, what's going on here? How did this colossus find its way into a project characterized by id's tendency for minimalist designs, and why so many authors with their efforts invested into it? I am not one to follow the development of projects, I tend to only be interested in the released product, so I probed Alfonzo for some answers. According to him, it was originally a submission to twid titled "Rending Halls" by General Rainbow Bacon. While rejected, something about it planted a spark in Marnetmar's mind. Alfonzo explains,

"The bulk of it is Marnetmar's doing. The guts of it - everything you see from the start and north right down to where the main "castle" terminates near the bottom - was pieced together over what must have been 18 months. He would occasionally upload screenshots of the layout and select areas, and then tinker around for days, sometimes deleting things as readily as he'd add them on. You could probably cobble together a few maps from all that binned material! But whatever resemblance it [GRB's original map] had early on in its development is gone, along with the name."

Naturally, slaving over one map for 18 months leads to burnout. Alfonzo convinced Marnetmar to yield control, so as to reign in a beast that could possibly have grown forever and never see release. Alfonzo took on the role of curator, getting rid of unnecessary details and tweaking geometry to get it within vanilla limits, and completely reworking Thing placement (i.e. flow and balance) and unravelling the legendary mess of tags (i.e. event triggers). Further,

"I took liberty with the relaxed rules for authenticity - long disregarded for LE anyway - and added in some details of my own along with the new gameplay. Those corner-hugging MARBLE1 support structures are my handiwork... it's probably where I learned to love splitting textures to allow for more freestyle geometry."

So that explains the mystery of why its such an outlier, having been officially rejected they no longer adhered to the twid rules, and continued development to unknown lengths. Alfonzo's likely being modest about his contribution too, probably we'll never know exactly what structures and sequences are the product of whose minds. But perhaps it doesn't matter, because each subsequent author relies on the work and inspirations of the prior author, without one you don't get the other.

"Xaser being Xaser then swooped in an added a couple of extra structures to finally put away those pesky peripheral overflows; I knew better than to do it myself. He'd worked on BTSX, so what better qualification was there?"

Again probably being modest. If you've ever tried to wrangle a map that violates vanilla limits back into compatability, well trust me it's the stuff of nightmares. Also, I would characterize Xaser as ... unconventional. Most of his works are FILLED with elements that initially confuse or disgust you, but within a second or two it clicks in your mind and you see how perfectly it works. I suspect "Xaser being Xaser" implies that those "Weird, WTF is this... OH YAHWEH I'VE SEEN THE LIGHT" moments within this map can be attributed to his hand.

Ok but if I stop being a fanboy for a moment, there are some negatives to talk about. While I categorize exploration maps as probably the most fun, this one goes on... and on. In my youtube playthrough I avoid exploring because I don't want burn that much bandwidth uploading an hour long video, and my final time still exceeds 20 minutes. For me that is an uncomfortable amount of time to spend on one map that wants to kill you as much as this one does.

Another major gripe for me was the cyberdemon. "Against Thee Wickedly" was all about the buildup to a bitch of a cyberdemon, and we see that influence in "Mourning Halls" as well. But the encounter removes the cyb's mobility, turning him into a stationary central turret in a room you must circumnavigate. The effect for me was to slow the gameplay down to a halt, while I cheesed from behind a pillar for a while getting in those potshots. The rest of the encounter has excellent multi-tiered multi-angled placement of threats, so I feel like this final battle was not fully realized. I'd actually like to see an arch-vile here instead of a cyberdemon, the lesser threat would allow the player to navigate a bit more freely and allow for more variation on how the encounter is tackled. Actually the whole map with some of the doom2 bestiary sprinkled in would be amazing, but a map this big is bound to have endless "could have beens", and you have to stop somewhere.

Some minor issues I had were the opening, and lost souls. The start of the map is essentially disconnected from the flow of the rest of the map. You never return as far as I know, and nothing really notable happens there, aside from perhaps the imps teleporting behind you, so as to say, "you are going to need to look over your shoulder in this place". If it was up to me I'd just throw the player start in the middle of that first big room by the megasphere, and snip the "intro". And yeah the lost souls were a bit confusing, since the rest of the map tends towards the utilization of enemy mobility as a threat, and no enemy is more mobile than the lost soul. However they are only used in tight areas, right in front of the player in plain view, so effectively just get quickly popped like balloons at the carnival. Oh and a very minor gripe was the overuse of intentionally misaligned textures. It's true that Romero and the other guys at id could be sloppy with alignment, but I think here it was a little too much, since it kept me thinking the misalignments were hints for secrets.

It's too bad that doomworld's "Cacowards" format will probably gloss over this map and mapset. The format over there is to feature wads, and this is just one map within a wad. And let's be honest, there have been some trash maps in dtwid:le that I would even qualify as troll maps. So while dtwid:le might be featured, or honorably mentioned, I doubt this individual map will be placed on any sort of pedestal, though it deserves to. For me it's on a very short list of the best maps ever made, so I wanted to isolate it here with this article as my own way of giving it a pedestal. Thanks for the map, lads!