Playing at Death's Door

By Chris McMullen on at

I've learned two important lessons about video games. The first is that if anyone addresses you as "the Chosen One" and tries to rope you into helping them out, you should smack the scroll out of their hands and flee in the opposite direction. The second and perhaps more practical learning is that there's not a monster alive that can't be defeated by repeatedly slamming its head in the nearest door. It doesn't matter if you haven't got the Slaying Sword of Kantor, as prophesied in the Sacred Book of Xzykkx; drop a gate on their ass and the world is saved.

Unorthodox as this approach to combat may be, it is also ludicrously satisfying. It's the ultimate slap in the face, has a long history in gaming, and frankly resets the cosmic balance between players and monologue-loving digital villains. "Fool! You face Xebicus, slayer of thousands, whose horns have pierced the flesh of.... Wait, no, don't dare touch that button! Face me you..."

A minute or two later Billy Onions, Level 1 Bard, is picking through Xebicus's gore-splattered belongings.

This tactic was commonplace in the tile-based dungeon-crawlers of the 80s and 90s, games such as Captive or Dungeon Master. Because the levels were laid out in a grid, it was impossible for you and a foe to occupy the same space. And while it couldn’t have been employed in every such game, all you had to do was stand in front of a doorway, let an enemy shamble up to you, then slam the door shut, again and again and again. Sometimes, a game was obliging enough to handle the whole process for you, bringing the gate down on the obstruction until the foe was nothing but a small smear on the floor.

Your foes might have got in a few hits, and you could help the process along by poking them with whatever weapon you had handy, but there were few occasions when you'd lose. Provided you didn’t die from laughing at their wonderfully undignified demise, of course. Monsters that were otherwise carefully crafted to terrify the living daylights out of you ended up flailing ineffectually as they met a slow and squidgy end.

This led to the incomparable joy of finding such a setup just when all hope seemed lost. Fail to exercise enough caution when stepping into a level in this kind of game, and chances are you'd acquire a conga line of drooling hellbeasts. The situation often seemed utterly hopeless until you espied... yes! An arch of annihilation. Fear would turn to gleeful malevolence as you got into position on one side of the door and smiled at the approaching horde of teeth and claws. Five minutes and one tired finger later you were up to your waist in treasure, machine parts and alien spleen. It's not quite clear how the elevator doors were able to scythe through the armour of the small tank that trundled into the entrance, but hey who's complaining.

Most satisfying with this tactic is the notion that you're bending the rules, but not breaking them: using the game's own mechanics in a subversive way. It didn’t matter whether your character was level 1 or level 100, there's no Door Murder skill tree, and no-one could call it cheating (though the dungeon's caretaker probably didn't appreciate having to clean Shoggoth ooze out of the doorframe with a toothbrush.)

In gaming's modern era, sadly, there are fewer and fewer games that allow this sort of entirely legitimate behaviour. Yakuza Kiwami does feature a wonderful (if non-interactive) moment of door-based violence, and Hotline Miami lets you humiliate your enemies by dispatching them with doors, which feels like more of a nod to the ridiculous action movies of the 80s than dungeon crawlers. Dark Souls features a portcullis that can be dropped on enemies, though it requires either great timing or a lot of trial and error. Indie platformers Gunpoint and Dead Cells let you slam doors into enemies on the other side, which is nice, but a knockout just isn't the same as squishing a baddie into paste.

Environmental hazards are still commonplace in games, though given that these fixtures are actually designed to kill they don't quite have the same appeal as a weaponised door. Yes, you can knock enemies into a spike pit, but it's not as satisfying as dropping a giant bit of metal on their head. Tile-based games are now largely outside of the industry mainstream, and when you're dealing with full 360° movement it's far harder to manoeuvre an opponent into an appropriate position. Besides which, and it really pains me to say this: many developers don't account for just such an occurrence. Too often in recent times have I timed the door drop perfectly, watched the contact happen, and... the opponent phases through utterly unscathed, a shocking lack of foresight. Is it really too much to ask to be able to slaughter Slenderman with a revolving door?

A further barrier to killing enemies with barriers is the notion of cheapness, a sentiment often encountered when sharing knowledge of door death tricks: some players think the 'correct' way to beat a game is to patiently level up till you're capable of taking enemies on face-to-face. But why? Honour and fair play mean nothing if you've been skewered by the same enemy a dozen times. I'm not gonna take that when there's a perfectly good door waiting to turn them into mush. Which would you rather do: dutifully flail away at a monster with a sword, or chuckle as they're pinned to the floor by seven feet of physics-enabled oak?

I'm sad that killing things with doors never really became much of a multiplayer thing. Get rid of the guns and give me a battle royale where the scores are on the doors, a game that requires real skill and precision timing. Portal Kombat, anyone?

As games become ever-more complex in their assets and use of physics, it feels like the humble door is due a bit of a comeback. Aren't you getting a bit sick of all those colour-coded weapons and +7 Axes of Downloadable Content? These weedy vessels offer nothing to compare to the feeling of watching Agnor the Mighty’s blood seep through the hinges of gaming’s most under-rated weapon. Their natural status in a video game is as lethal and hilarious instruments of death, the ultimate leveller for players who prize brains over brawn. Why git gud, my friends, when you can get wood.