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Classic Levels Deconstructed: The beautiful brutality of Doom’s Lazarus Labs

The story behind its design and how the shooter finds its perfect pace

As we approach the brutally fast-paced shooter’s first anniversary, creative director Hugo Martin and game director Marty Stratton talk the creation of one of its best levels.

At first glance, Lazarus Labs looks like a fairly simple level. A journey across an underground facility to locate an ancient artefact in the hope it will show how to shut down the gateway the demons are using to invade Mars.

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In practice, you’re infiltrating the darkest secret of the UAC, a corporation which has been capturing demons and experimenting on them, hoping to turn them into weapons. Lazarus Labs are at the heart of those operations. Securely locked down, you’ll be gaining access through vents and by force, and at its end face the Cyberdemon, a towering slab of demon muscle with rocket launchers for arms.

The setting of Lazarus Labs

This is the level in which Doom really gets into its stride. Reached two-thirds of the way through the campaign, you’ve got most of the toys, including the BFG-9000. You’re practised with your double jump and have been to Hell and back, and you’ve faced hordes of revenants, cacodemons and pinkies. You’re getting good, synched into Doom’s blistering rhythm of aggression and agility.

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So was id Software when it was making it. “We’d hit a period when we really felt like we knew what a combat arena should feel like and the story was really coming together,” says game director Marty Stratton.

Lazarus Labs is about speed

“It was definitely the level that as it came together I played the most,” says creative director Hugo Martin, who played it many, many times during late development of the game when the team was fine-tuning the positioning of checkpoints. We’d take turns playing the game and want to play really fast to get to each checkpoint, and I was able to blast through it; it’s a level you can play super-fast, which is super satisfying.”

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Part of that speed is down to the tightness of the spaces you’re running through. “If you’re flying an aircraft at mach speed in the air it doesn’t matter, but when you get close to the ground it matters a whole lot,” says its lead level designer, Jerry Keehan. “You realise how fast you’re going when you start to shrink the space.”

How the combat arenas were designed

“You made the crate room,” says Hugo to Jerry, referring to the closed combat arenas that are found throughout the game. “That was one of my favourites. Every level designer brings their own personal touch, but the crate room is just a great space. It’s got everything, the line of sight breaks, the ins and outs, all that stuff.” It’s a tense and dynamic chamber, its crates giving as much opportunity for cover and escape as unwittingly coming face to face with a hell knight.

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Of Lazarus’ three arenas, the medical lab is the most visually striking, with a mancubus corpse abandoned in mid-operation at its centre. But it had issues during development, because the combat flow through the main room and the two hallways running off it wasn’t feeling good. Many games would have to entirely rebuild the level to fix it, but Hugo had the idea to stick portals connecting the dead ends of the two hallways together to provide a new loop. It immediately worked, despite not making a whole lot of narrative sense – outside of Doom’s insane fiction, at least. “We design first and then we figure out how to have it make enough sense to not be ridiculous,” says Marty, laughing.

Id Software’s original concept blockout for Lazarus Labs’ archive, Olivia’s office and the demon cult church above shows off how the level was originally designed.

The inspiration for the pinkie fight

You probably also remember the pinkie fight, just before you get to the Helix Stone. Set in a long room with stone tablets on the walls, it’s all about timing and movement so you can shotgun their soft behinds. “It was inspired by a scene in Blade where they fight in a museum where the scriptures from the vampire bible are in glass cases,” says Hugo. “We thought it was interesting how a brutal fight would take place in a place like that. ‘A bull in a china shop’, that was the theme. He’s such a funny character, this giant rhinoceros.”

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For all its action, Lazarus Labs is also where a lot of Doom’s story comes together. You see how antagonist Olivia Pierce has established a demonic church in the bowels of her laboratory, and you also get some insight into your own role in all of this. “The Doom Marine is a prized possession; everyone wants him because he’s the nuke,” says Hugo. “It’s part of the whole idea that we want the player to feel special constantly, the idea that they would study them, as if they were this exotic, rare item.”

Secrets you may have missed

While all of this sounds rather serious, that’s not what Doom is at all. Even Olivia isn’t entirely serious, as her personal lab suggests. In the corner, her computer is running Demon Destruction, a playable match-three game that uses the original 1993 Doom’s sprites. “That’s a funny story,” says Marty. “We have a young programmer, Mark Diaz, and in his spare time he had coded up this little game that he showed around the office. We looked at it and were like, ‘You know what, if you can get it done, we can find a place for it.’ And he did it.”

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Inside this Easter egg are even more secrets, coded into its leaderboard and recognisable to people who know id’s history. “It was one of those things; cool, fun ideas can come from anywhere, and Doom is all about fun,” says Marty.

“We love our secrets,” Jerry adds.

Read more in the Classic Levels Deconstructed series:

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