One Designer's 15-Year Journey to Ship The 'Doom' Mod He Started as a Teen

At 14 years old, 'Total Chaos' was an experiment. By 2018, Sam Prebble was haunted by an attempt to push, pull, and break John Carmack's engine in ways it was never intended.

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Nov 28 2018, 6:47pm

“You have been infected with a disease that causes lucid nightmares. You have fallen asleep, you must escape!" This was the simple premise behind Total Chaos, an idea conceived by 14-year-old designer Sam Prebble. But that was a long time ago. Today, Sam Prebble is 29 years old, and on Halloween, in 2018, he finally shipped Total Chaos. It only took him 15 years.

“It's been going on a bit longer than I would like,” he laughed, during a recent conversation. “Now that it's done, I just sit around going, ‘What do I do now with my time?’ It's scary.”

Total Chaos is a first-person survival horror adventure set on a remote island, Fort Oasis. You arrive with nothing but the clothes on your back, and it quickly becomes clear that while this place is abandoned, you aren’t alone. There are guns, but also inventory management, crafting, and a host of other features you’d expect in a modern game. It’s also, importantly, a mod for 1994’s seminal Doom 2, a distinction it wears like a badge of honor. But nobody would blame you for thinking otherwise, after watching the trailer that gained Total Chaos such notoriety:

“Holy shit,” was my response to the trailer back in 2014. That’s Doom? What?

Total Chaos has changed dramatically over 15 years, and the 2018 version shares little in common with Prebble’s original ambitions. At one point, it was even open world, but like so many other features he would play with over the years, it got cut. It started as a horror mod influenced by Prebble being unsettled by designer John Romero’s infamous screaming head in Doom 2, inspiring him to add a floating version of the head that screamed while attacking.

“When I started, I had no idea what the fuck I was doing,” he said. “I was just throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks.”

Back then, he didn’t know how to “mod,” and there was no clear path to learn. Game design classes didn’t exist yet, and YouTube was years away. There was online documentation for the various fan-made tools, but they were usually hard to follow and poorly written. In other words, you were on your own. For a 14-year-old with nearly unlimited free time, this was fine.

The logline at the top reflected Prebble’s desire to make what he called the “scariest game ever.” When he floated this idea on a Doom message board he frequented at the time, a poster laughed, and a much younger Prebble took offense. The troll provided motivation.

“I'll spend the next 10 years trying to prove you wrong!” he joked. (The younger version of Prebble may not have been joking, however. The Internet is a serious place as a kid.)

Not much of the early 90s-era versions of Total Chaos still exists. Prebble dug through old hard drives and other backups—remember CD burners?—and didn’t come back with much, outside of blurry image thumbnails from an old website he used to run.

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A few textures from the 90s did survive into the game that ultimately published a few weeks back because he never got around to making new ones.

Calling the Total Chaos a “mod” is an understatement, even if that’s how the game’s designer describes it. (The mod scene for Doom is undeniably unique.) It is an attempt to stretch the aging capabilities of the classic shooter’s engine in ways it was never meant. It uses the Doom engine as a tool of expression. (In old modding terms: a total conversion.)

It’s built on the original Doom engine—sort of. In the years after Doom shipped, fans have used programmer John Carmack’s groundbreaking tech as a foundation to expand on Doom’s capabilities. Total Chaos was built on Doom Legacy for a good decade or so because of its easy scripting, perfect for designing spooky moments. Around 2006, Prebble moved to Zandronum, a multiplayer-focused technical expansion of Doom, that allowed modders to drop in 3D models. (Doom used sprites.) Total Chaos eventually landed on GZDoom, one of the most popular and feature rich, which is still updated to this day. Its last update was in October.

It’s why mods like Total Chaos can be “based” on Doom, but include, say, freelook. (Freelook means it’s possible to completely look around you with a mouse or gamepad. In Doom, it was only possible to look left and right. You didn’t “aim” up insomuch as you fired forward, and the game automatically targeted enemies higher or lower than the player’s position.)

The name Total Chaos, in all its 90s angst, has stuck around. It’s one of Total Chaos’ constants, and it only survived because Prebble was worried the game’s longtime fans, who would sometimes take months or years off in-between checking in on the game’s progress, would get lost.

I was one of those people, actually. In 2014, I profiled Prebble and Total Chaos for a piece on Giant Bomb, after I’d been blown away by a trailer showing off the game’s environment, the same video embedded above.

A sad but true fact: most mods, even ones far less ambitious than Total Chaos, never actually ship. If they’re lucky, there’s enough to cobble together an impressive trailer that garners praise on YouTube and a journalist looking for something to write about. (Whoops.) I didn’t keep tabs on Total Chaos because my cynicism kicked in after hitting publish, as I figured Total Chaos was in limbo, abandoned and incomplete, on a hard drive somewhere.

As it turns out, that was almost true.

Photos courtesy of Sam Prebble
14-year-old Sam Prebble, who conceived Total Chaos, and 29-year-old Sam Prebble, who shipped it.

Around the time I’d written about Total Chaos, after 10 years of on and off development, there wasn’t much to the game. It’d changed a lot—in theme, in art direction, in level design. And yet, it wasn’t much closer to releasing than it’d been in 2003. The trailer Prebble released focused on the game’s environments because that’s all there really was to show.

Combat? Not really. A story? Sort of. Kind of.

There was a single monster. The point of the game was to...run from them? Solve puzzles? Prebble hadn’t worked out what Total Chaos was, and it was paralyzing. Part of the problem was his own development isolation; Prebble was, with rare exceptions, the only person working on Total Chaos. Because this was a hobbyist experiment in his spare time, there weren’t any real external pressures forcing him to press on. There was always a reason to punt a few months down the road, or totally rework something he’d become unhappy with.

Total Chaos’ legacy wasn't helping matters. The idea of building an ambitious 3D shooter on the bones of a 1994 video game attracted fans because of its audacity. But Prebble constantly had ideas outstripping what was possible in the engine. Bumping into this limitations was the point, but it means days, months, and years toiling away at big ideas—like the old version of Total Chaos in a sprawling open world—that eventually proved untenable.

Prebble did build versions of the game in Unreal Engine and Unity, technologies that would have allowed him to realize his vision much faster, but eventually, he went back to Doom 2.

“I didn't want to let the fans down,” he said. “There have been people that have been following this for years. I check back on the blog every now and then, and it's always the same person posting comments. They've been sticking around for years. A lot of people think Total Chaos is special is trying to push such an old engine to do all this new stuff. I think it loses a bit of that magic if I were to move.”

Achieving that magic forced to use some hacks that are—well, they’re a lot. Take combat.

“The A.I. [artificial intelligence] is probably one of the biggest ones [laughs],” he said. “The AI still uses whatever A.I. Doom has. You see them move in the same eight directional patterns. Nothing's been rewritten there, it's still whatever was in Doom back in the day. The problem with that is, when you load 3D models in, they just snap in the direction they're walking.”

Here’s the snapping effect he’s talking about. Watch as the enemies change positions:

(Credit to World of Longplays for the clip.)

Prebble wanted the 3D models to smoothly rotate, which we take for granted in games now. There was no way to easily pull this off, so Prebble resorted to an impressive improvisation.

“There's this hack in Total Chaos where it'll spawn an invisible AI and another model in,” he explained, “but it'll have this model track to the AI, and it rotate smoothly to what direction the AI is pointing. Technically, you're [the player] fighting these monsters in Total Chaos, but you're fighting invisible monsters. The actual visible [part] is lagging behind where the monster's actually standing.”

All these hacks didn’t add up to a finished game, though.

In November 2015, after sharing a game jam experiment, Prebble’s blog went dark until the following summer, when Prebble eventually imposed an arbitrary deadline for an alpha, something playable he could share with the community who’d been following him. While the alpha might have been pitched at fans, it was really about giving himself a guiding marker.

The deadline: the second half of 2016. Then, it was September. Delay. October. Delay. November—bingo. On November 8, 2016, Total Chaos became, in some form, a reality. There wasn’t much to the alpha, but it was everything he’d built so far, even if it wasn’t much.

The release was a form of catharsis, but Prebble kept returning to the same problem that’d plagued Total Chaos since the beginning: he could never truly settle on what it should be.

“The direction I took with Total Chaos was mostly driven by what people preferred and what they saw in it,” he said.

This became part of Total Chaos’ larger problem. Was it being made for Sam Prebble, or the fans who’d come to believe in it? Even if it was for Prebble, was it for the 14-year-old who kicked off this journey, or the 29-year-old who was failing to finish it? Was there a difference?

“It's been going on a big longer than I would like. Now that it's done, I just sit around going, ‘What do I do now with my time?’ It's scary.”

Prebble spent the better part of a year promising a fleshed out beta, part of the final sprint. In April 2017, he promised that “this time next week, Total Chaos will be complete.” Delay after delay after delay pushed back its release date, fueled by Prebble having a dark realization.

“I just played it,” he said, “and went ‘Yeah, this is fucking shit. This sucks.’”

This was the closest he came to walking away. It’d been 15 years, but who’s counting?

The game sat, largely untouched, for more than a year, before the itch finally returned, and he decided, on a whim, a final release date for Total Chaos: Halloween. He still hated large chunks of the game, especially the story, but he was determined to see it through, even if meant (once again) scrapping work he’d spent large chunks of his life building and refining to this point.

The old story was thrown out. A new one, involving a man coming to an abandoned island, slotted in. The entire last level was tossed in the garbage bin, replaced entirely. One of the main areas was made only three days before Halloween. The speed at which Prebble was cutting and crafting meant there was no time to fall into his traditional trap of overthinking.

“If I sit around and look at it and procrastinate and get too critical [it won’t get done],” he said, “so I kind of felt, fuck it, just race it out the door as quickly as you can and not think about it.”

It worked. On Halloween, Sam Prebble’s teenage pet project, a horror idea he’d been playing around with for 15 years, was uploaded to the Internet. Total Chaos was done.

“I’m so happy to have watched the development of this work of art, these past few years!” said one longtime fan. “Thank you so much for committing to this and seeing it through.”

“Most of the relief comes from mostly that people don't hate it [laughs]” said Prebble. “It's weird not having it there, and I'm probably still in denial about it because I'm still here working on patches and expansion content. There's going to be a point where I'm going to have to put it down and just leave it. I need to move on.”

The first major patch came out in November, with promises of mod support to come. Mod support for a mod? Modception? And naturally, Prebble’s having ideas for a possible sequel, albeit one that finally leaves Doom behind and lets him work on an engine made for 2018.

Mostly, though, he’s trying to work through his emotions. Over the course of making Total Chaos, he’s changed as a person. Most 29-year-olds aren’t much like their 14-year-old self.

“I feel like it was well spent,” he said. “[pause] Well spent, but at the same time, I wish I hadn't taken so long.”

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