12 minutes of evaluating Quake without mentioning the guns, multiplayer, level design or enemies.
These days Quake is largely considered in the context of the pantheon of id software games made during the 90’s, from Wolfenstein through to Quake 3 – or Doom 3, depending on where you want to stop counting. At the time of its release in 1996, though, the question wasn’t how it related aesthetically or thematically to DOOM, but whether it would be Quake or Duke Nukem 3D that would represent the direction first person shooter games were headed. These days the question seems kind of trite – the shooter genre has grown so broad that we have shooters with RPG elements, platforming shooters, games influenced by shooters with no shooting at all, first person puzzle games influenced by shooters like Half-Life, realistic shooters, arcadey shooters, every kind of shooter you can imagine. So in the present the question feels like the only response could possibly be “Why can’t we have both?”
But you can see where the stark differences stood between the two and how people might think there was an aesthetic choice to be made. Quake was morbid and humorless while Duke Nukem had a strong comedy element. Well, “comedy” mostly being just referencing other properties, but hey, it works for Family Guy. Quake’s levels were abstract constructs designed to facilitate play while Duke Nukem’s levels took place in environments that, while certainly not realistic, felt like real places. A strip club or a space station are identifiable concepts. Random cybergoth corridors? Not so much. Quake had a minimalist approach to mechanics – they removed the “use” key and whittled down all interaction to movement and shooting. In contrast, Duke Nukem 3D highlighted goofy nonsense interactions, from complimenting himself in a mirror to peeing in a toilet. And Duke himself was a character – a bawdy, grossly sexist, self-obsessed womanizer, granted, but that is still technically a character. Quake guy never gets a name and his most memorable line is agonized screams of pain. My point is that Duke Nukem, for all its mysoginistic macho line stealing bullshit, heralded a more relatable, human aesthetic. In contrast Quake feels very alien and mechanical. And while that’s largely the point of Quake and the debate seems childish now, in 1996 the contrast between a cold and indifferent sort of minimalism and a messy and offensive but humanized and relatable world felt somewhat revelatory.
These days, though, I find Doom a more meaningful reference point when talking about Quake. Doom and Quake are thematically and tonally similar, they share a lineage with the same studio, they shared an episodic nature stemming from their shareware distribution model, they’re both more abstract worlds than literal places like games that would follow them, and they’re both largely more about tone and texture than anything else – even as they go for different tones and different textures. So while this episode is ostensibly about Quake, it’s also very much a sequel to the episode on Doom – where the company that made Doom went next and how the two games sort of inform our understanding of one another.
Aesthetically Quake was a much more coherent experience than Doom. Doom felt like a collage of ideas and aesthetics from the 80’s and 90’s; bright colors popped while heavy metal blared and an action hero killed aliens in showers of gore and excess. While Duke Nukem carried that tradition on to… uh… different ends, Quake went in another direction. The vibrant greens, blues, and reds of Doom gave way to gunmetal greys, rusty browns, and exhausted purples. There’s a pervasive dreariness throughout the game, from its muddy waters and clouded skies to its gothic architecture and often claustrophobic level design. Even its soundtrack seethes in techno-angst. The result is a game that uniformly feels cold and indifferent to the player; a game that feels more mechanical and sterile even as it looks ever more grimy. This sort of clinical coldness seeps into its mechanics as well. Where Doom flowed, Quake had beats. Action beats and puzzle beats and platforming beats that each lasted a few seconds or less, but they were sharp and discreet. Doom kept you moving and shooting, Quake felt much more stop and go and stop and go. There was a rhythm to it and it certainly didn’t feel bad to play, but result was more tension and release than constant action.
Some may be tempted to argue the game forecast the distanced and monochrome direction shooter games have taken since then, but it’s really not a product ahead of its time. The washed-out bombast of Michael Bay wouldn’t be influencing film and games for another decade, and even The Matrix’s monochrome fight sequences were a few years off. No, it was decidedly a product of its time, a fusion of 90’s grunge and industrial influences supplanting 80’s excess. It was less Metallica and more KMFDM, less Megadeath and more Nine Inch Nails.
And really I think that’s another thing that makes Doom and Quake very relatable to one another – the clear musical inspirations. I think it’s hard to deny the heavy metal influence Doom carried with it, from its logo to its box art to its soundtrack. And Quake does the same thing, but the musical tastes have shifted. And more than that, id’s position itself had shifted. Where Doom had MIDI interpretations of heavy metal bands by Bobby Prince, Quake managed to get Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor to create an original score for the game. id’s rise to the status of rockstars had given them access to rock stars. And what could have easily been a gimmick actually works here – Reznor’s technoindustrial tone seems to eke its way into everything from the visuals to the play. This gives the game its cohesion; it’s what glues all of the disparate parts of Quake together. Reznor’s music sets the tone and everything else follows along, producing a work that evokes a sort of adolescent anxiety, desperation, melancholy, and frustration. Far more than even DOOM, I find Quake to be a game targeted at disaffected teens; a game (much like Reznor’s music) that identifies with and even idolizes teenage emotions with the goal of letting people indulge in them. Feeling spurned by a hostile reality only to seek refuge in a sort of disconnected depressive state isn’t an uncommon thing for teens, and this game encapsulates what that feeling is like really well. In a way it’s sort of the opposite of Katamari Damacy: where that game aimed to spread joy through music, colorful pastel graphics, and simple mechanics full of positive feedback, Quake is unified in its attempt to spread an almost over the top, self-indulgent gloom with a hint of smouldering anger. It’s Your Grumpy 14 Year Old Son: The Videogame!
But while the whole of the game’s artistic direction may have been more cohesive than Doom a lot of the smaller stuff was… not. I mean, first of all there was the story. Doom and Wolfenstein worked because they were so straightforward – you are the last good guy in an area overrun with Nazis or space demons. Kill as many as you can while getting away! Done. That’s about as much lore as you needed.
But Quake somehow suffers from trying to set up a little bit too much plot and yet not enough to justify the things you’re seeing and doing. A lot of this probably stems from its troubled development. Quake started life as an D&D character made by John Carmack who had a powerful hammer imbued with magic and – and I’m not making this up – a cube that floated around his head called the Hellgate Cube. Sort of a Thor meets Team Fortress unusual hat that can help you out in combat thing. It’s not super clear what the original design for this version of Quake was. Even Masters of Doom’s references to it are mostly John Romero’s hyperbole and not a concrete design doc. But apparently a year into development it became clear that the project’s timeline was slipping with little to show for it.
So in an attempt to get a game out in a reasonable timeframe the team at id went back to what they knew – space marines shooting demons. So Quake the fantasy superhero became the Quake… the land? Or the nickname for Shub Niggurath? The game’s not really sure what Quake is, but whether it’s the Lovecraftian monster or the worlds her broods inhabit, Quake was definitely not a fantasy RPG character with a hammer. But the switch happened after they had a tremendous bit of art done for a fantasy adventure, and instead of starting over they just sort of smashed it all together with the scifi DOOM inspired stuff. The result is a game that’s part Lovecraftian gods and vile chapels from beyond human knowledge, part medieval fantasy horror full of bloody knights and dark castles, and part SciFi adventure of shooting space enforcers with hyperblaster lasers. It was a… mixed experience, and none of these genre fiction archetypes really gelled in the way that Doom did.
There are boss fights that occur exactly twice in a game with four episodes and feel really out of place. There’s plenty of first person platforming, years before we realized it was a terrible idea if you’re not dedicated to doing it right. There are traps that will spring without warning and make you want to move very slowly through levels… which make no sense in a fast paced id style first person shooter. There are even occasional, very very light puzzle elements. The result is that the game is more focused than, say, Assassin’s Creed, but is way way less focused than DOOM or Quake 3.
The game also starts seeing the introduction of quote unquote realism in really weird ways. For example, the lightning gun when fired underwater will instantly kill the player. It’s a cute ludic joke, but there are enough levels where you have the lightning gun and swim in water that killing yourself is easier than you may think. Fall damage is also introduced for the first time, resulting in several sections that actually require you to take damage to progress. This is a terrible id design staple that would come back up in Quake 3 in an even worse fashion as simply moving around the maps causes damage in a competitive multiplayer environment.
And none of this is helped by the poor weapon selection. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s still an id game, and the weapons that are there are as satisfying in your hands as you’d expect. But the game made the mistake of duplicating too many of its weapons – there’s the shotgun and then the super shotgun. There’s the nailgun, and then the super nailgun, and then the lightning gun which is functionally a super super nailgun mechanically. So while the game purports eight weapons it’s really closer to five. There’s arguably less strategy than DOOM; knowing when to pop a BFG blast required some foresight and planning. Here most of the guns are interchangeable safe for raw damage counts.
Now, all of this sounds very negative, like I’m ragging on the game, but my point isn’t that the game is bad. My point is that the game is, in a lot of ways, regressive. The parts that work best here worked even better in DOOM, and the new things – the boss fights, the first person platforming, the light puzzles – either didn’t get enough focus or clashed with the game’s fast paced shooter mechanics. Coming back now almost two decades later I think there’s a reason DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D continue to be ported to consoles and phones and Quake does not. By being so abstract and nonsensical the only way I can meaningfully judge Quake is by its mechanics, which are weaker and more scattershot than its predecessor or its follow-up. It feels like a product of necessity and not desire or inspiration, and while it’s an extremely important game for its engine and influence it’s also a game that lacks a spark. An idea to call its own. A drive. Really, it’s a game that works best as a videogame accompaniment to a Nine Inch Nails album.
And you know? Maybe that’s all it needs to be. It’s a mood piece; a game about texture and tone and only texture and tone. And that’s a valid approach, right? I mean, games like The Polynomial or Rockband are all largely textural games, and I love them! And even The Last of Us, for all of its narrative focus, uses gameplay in a largely textural way. And Quake, for whatever its other faults, does that job really well. And that, I think, is what makes Quake a worthwhile experience despite its mishmash approach. If DOOM gives us vision into the minds and interests of the people who made it, I think Quake gives us vision into the time period that made it. A time period where 3D technology was nascent, shareware was slowly dying as a business model, and music genres like grunge and industrial were at their peak. And ultimately a period where these abstract, mechanics driven shooters were dying off. These days abstract worlds like those featured in Quake can only be found in indie circles – your Kairos or your Antichambers. The days when a mainstream, wildly successful shooter could be a mood piece and only a mood piece died with Quake.
As time goes on I think we’re finding that Quake matters less and less for the game itself and more for its overall historical importance. And I think its flaws as a game account for a lot of that. But taken on its own merits, devoid of historical context, the game still stands strong as a piece that asks you to be tense and anxious as you stand alone against unyeilding and unknowable forces in a hostile and indifferent world. It taps into a sort of universal teenage angst and while it’s not as immediately relatable as Duke Nukem’s city streets and movie theaters, it’s got all the emotional core it needs to be relevant today. And I think that’s worth something.