Quake: A Two-and-a-Half Decade Long Identity Crisis, and the Resolution in Clay

Can Quake craft an identity for itself by embracing the original game’s eldritch-tinged gothic horror?

I’ve been playing Quake. For a game that came out in 1996, it’s held up incredibly well. Nightdive Studios released an enhanced edition of the FPS grandfather back in August 2021 to great acclaim, simply by not touching it. The textures and lighting received a much-needed update – as the concept of a 4k monitor or dynamic lighting in 1996 was along the same lines of lunatic thought that has the far-flung cyberpunk future of Gibson’s Neuromancer featuring murders and black-market trading for “three megabytes of hot RAM” – but that was about it. Keeping their enhancements purely technical was the best decision, despite some of the modern generation of gamers still finding this experimental era of gaming a tad difficult to get to grips with.     

Quake: How it Started and How it’s Going

Quake, as a series, is an odd duck.  The first game dumped the player into a gauntlet of dark, and very brown, gothic-industrial fantasy levels. Long before the 2010s obsession with attempting to sell McHorrors-of-War to late-teenage boys in the form of ‘authentic’ military-themed first-person shooters, Quake had managed to capture a grim brooding tone that few other titles have emulated since.

The first Quake wasn’t even supposed to be an FPS. It was supposed to be an RPG, but nobody at id Software knew how to do that. With the game engine a mess after an extensive period of development, in an era where investors and publishers expected a product development cycle far shorter than those of today, id’s investors were tapping their watches pretty hard. Unable to deliver the action RPG John Romero wanted, id went with what they knew: Doom, but not. The result would, unintentionally, make history.

Romero was effectively booted out of id Software before Quake II. They wanted to make something more sci-fi after he left and so they made another new FPS game. They weren’t going to call it Quake, but ended up using the name anyway.

Quake III departed from the single player story in favour of an arena shooter format. The obvious comparison is Unreal Tournament, but Quake III effectively released in tandem with Unreal Tournament at the end of 1999. There must have been something in the water, because at the very same time, the Turok series also got an arena-shooter release with Rage Wars.  John Carmack seems to have played an outsized role in the decision to make Quake III an arena shooter, but it seems to have been the right decision, given the longevity of the game.

Quake IV took advantage of the id Tech 4 engine and was developed by Raven Software instead of id. It shows. There was a heavy squad dynamic, fitting the war narrative, but the game was basically just an awkward action flick. After the divisiveness of Doom 3, which showcased the capabilities of id Tech 4, this was the power fantasy that many Doom fans had been looking for. Just a shame that id had basically nothing to do with it and it suffered as a result.

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was developed by Splash Damage, the developers behind Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. Effectively this was the 2007 Quake-themed Battlefield 2142, or perhaps had more in common with Unreal Tournament 2004‘s onslaught mode.

Quake Champions seems to be an attempt to recapture the popularity of Quake III and/or capitalise on the hero shooter trend. Time will tell whether it works out for them.

While the Strogg effectively embody the most consistent part of this series’ fractured history, the games themselves have little in common with one another. There seems to be multiple different narratives going on depending on which game you’re playing. Which one is ‘canon’? Who knows. All of them? Does canon matter in Quake? Probably not. As a result, however, even while the games attempted to coagulate around the technological body horror theme, Quake never shook the impression that the series remains firmly entrenched in a permanent identity crisis.

The Other Doom

Doom 3 caused a lot of drama. It remains a divisive title. People chasing an adrenaline-pumping power fantasy led the backlash when the game did not provide that. Fans got a more methodical horror shooter, almost in the vein of F.E.A.R – although slower and with less spectacle. The lighting engine did great things for the cramped narrow environments, however, and helped to hammer home the impression that the character was little more than a marine caught in the middle of something far larger and far scarier than himself.

The game fleshed out its world with optional audio logs that showcased some surprisingly restrained writing. Audio logs may induce eye rolls these days, and for appreciable reasons given the fact that, for a while, everyone and their mother’s bishop seemed to be wandering around with a voice recorder permanently jammed into their faces, chattering inanely to themselves, and then inexplicably losing them all over the place. But if you’re looking for some examples on how to create ambience, Doom 3 is a surprisingly solid marker for tension building. This is relevant because to this day the gaming industry’s best attempts at unnerving an audience are largely juvenile, on-the-nose, and have all the subtlety of a meth addict with an angle grinder outside your local pharmacy.

Doom 3‘s fluff writers knew their craft well enough to know that dramatic irony would do the narrative heavy lifting for them. All they had to do was provide the audience with the dots and let them slowly connect them as they went. That is a basic narrative technique. It is effective. That an ascended boomer shooter is a reference point for people who are dedicated to the horror genre, is an indictment of the people working in the space today.

Instead of amateur dramatic babbling about the horrors of hell from minute one, the logs are almost entirely Mars base personnel making grouchy reports about their jobs, focusing on the mundanities of faults with electrical systems, misfiring code, hours worked, etc. The kind of thing everyone can relate to. What starts out as another day in a frontier colony quickly develops into a pattern. The slow background escalation as machinery goes haywire, experimental accident reports climb, and security personnel suffer debilitating trauma, gives the audience enough dots to get what is going on without ever mentioning demons or hell. That’s far more effective than blowing your load at the first opportunity and then watching the rest of the narrative just trickle out into a miserable puddle while you wait for someone to leave.

Horror is not just flashlights that don’t illuminate anything and an overreliance on startling noises accompanied by the sudden appearance of some idiot in a gimp mask yelling “aboogawooga!

The Other Other Doom

When I think of Quake, I think of roiling clouds. 

Quake’s gameplay is a shrug. Perhaps an odd sentiment in the era of the reinvented boomer shooter and given the fact that it sired the modern FPS genre, but there it is. That gothic horror tone pervading the experience is still somehow unique.

For many, Quake is bunny hopping and rocket jumping. They’re effectively right. But Doom already does that. So why does the same company need to repeatedly recreate the same product with a slightly different aesthetic? Don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of the biomechanical technogothic aesthetics that the Strogg play with. But what is Doom other than a musing on the possibilities of combining the concept of hell with the military industrial complex? From that perspective, why are the Strogg even necessary? What do they bring to the table that the mancubus or the cyberdaemons don’t already embody?

This might have worked in the 90s, but those were different times, the industry was in its infancy and Quake was the first fully 3D FPS. People did not have the experience to diversify. However, perhaps the attempt to move away from the arguably monotone gameplay of Doom and Wolfenstein, is precisely where Quake’s identity crisis comes from. As good as those franchises are, with Wolfenstein undergoing some serious character development across the decades, Quake may have ended up as a sort of gameplay laboratory from which other IPs learn.

But the aesthetic of the first Quake persists. The aesthetic is one of the most frequently commented on and surprisingly divisive parts of Quake. While some soak in the dreary mood, for others the atmosphere is overly oppressive; they come looking for a relaxing shooter that doesn’t take itself too seriously and get Trent Reznor’s eerie noise rock and a perpetually grim atmosphere, and they bounce off. It seems to depend entirely on what you’re after that determines how well you get on with Quake. Did you like the general silliness of Doom? Then play Doom. But if you prefer a more ‘serious’ tone, then you’ll probably appreciate Quake more. Why demand that Quake just be Doom

Naturally, I’m biased, but while John Carmack is famous for stating that narrative in a game is like narrative in a porn film – expected but unimportant – it’s worth considering whether the suggestion that there might be a story lurking in the background, is the very thing that has kept Quake in public consciousness over the years. It’s the same reason Doom 3 has a cult following, and probably a good part of the reason that Doom 2016 and Eternal also stuck with the fans once all the shooting was done.

The writers didn’t need to recreate Turgenev, but in each case gave the audience a narrative with characters acting on motivations and that counts at a fundamental level in the human psyche. Deus Ex, released in 2000, just a few years after Doom, represents a thorough slap down of Carmack’s assertion. And on the subject of porn: story is why your girlfriend is more invested in 50 Shades of Grey than Sasha Grey. Get it?

I’m one of those tedious people who looked at Quakes II and IV and found them slightly disappointing for their lack of muddy castles and disquieting monstrosities. Ogres, fiends, and shamblers have a profoundly different character than marines, iron maidens, and tanks. The former group evokes a primal unknown, while the latter characterises the known turned against us. But we already have id’s take on the tool-turned-traitor in Doom. There’s nothing to be gained by splitting that theme across two separate settings. You just dilute both of them. I know, I know – nobody cares about the artistic merit or whatever. Who is playing Quake for any reason other than the dopamine release of shooting things in the face?

Me. Do one. 

Individuation Through Fear

Even if you don’t know the story of Quake I‘s development, it’s very clear that there wasn’t a cohesive narrative idea behind the game. That much is clear from the whiplash aesthetic shifts from level to level. The level select is a gothic stone hallway, the first level is an unkempt sci-fi military base with wiring panels and metal walkways. From there you’re launched back into gothic hallways and dingy castles. Then you fight Satan with an overgrown science fare project on conductivity. After that, at the start of chapter 2, you’re spat out into another futuristic military base full space marines with laser guns, only this one seems polished and further into the future than the first level’s sci-fi aesthetics. The levels immediately after this are back to gothic castles full of timber and stone, populated by ogres and knights.

Ironically, it is precisely the suggestive grimness of Quake‘s ambience that nailed itself into gamers’ brain meat.

Did Quake ever know what it was? No. Given the dartboard design choices behind the series’ progression, it’s not clear that Quake gained a coherent identity over the subsequent decades. And yet the underlying atmospheric density of the first game is what seems to define it. Bunny hopping and rocket jumping at a hundred miles an hour became a standard mechanic for mid-90s shooters and even if Quake set the template, the mechanics didn’t define the personality. The sheer weight of the game’s tone was enough to provide the impression that there could be something going on behind the rusting iron, grey-brown stonework, and hackneyed post-chapter dungeon mastering. 

The brooding horror atmosphere is possibly the game’s biggest strength. The bizarre unintentional narrative space that Quake‘s levels create is left otherwise blank and the audience is left to fill the void. As games like Dwarf Fortress and Rim World demonstrate, humans are fantastic at generating a startling amount of narrative with very little to work with. Look at the SoulsBorneRing lore community – suggestion is power. There is a good reason why the thing that gets remembered about Quake is the game’s aesthetic. While unintentional, there is a suggestive quality to it counterintuitively due to the void in which the game’s relative tonal consistency sits. It would, therefore, seem like an obvious choice to lean into that tone. However, given the reality of Quake‘s haphazard origins it’s not all that clear how Quake could capitalise on the unintentional identity of the first game.

It might help to significantly tone down the sci-fi aspects. They were broadly out of place in the first game, seeming to pepper pot the levels without any clear link or meaning. Perhaps the technological limitations of the era only helped to create the stark thematic divide instead of encouraging an integration between them. Whatever the case, Quake is often a game of two halves – one of firefights with space marines in spaceships, and others of frantic battles with eldritch creatures. In the end, the gothic horror so outweighed the grungy sci-fi that the latter seems out of place, and it seems that people remember more of the castles than the spaceships.

It might, then, be worth leaning into the rusting girders and chipped mouldering stonework over laser fights in steel-panelled corridors. A Victorian-industrial-inspired aesthetic might work. It would also tie in with the Lovecraftian undertones and the more industrial feel of the weaponry. If you wanted to lean even further into the past, you’ve got the legends like Elizabeth Bathory in the 16th century to take inspiration from; being far enough into the past to justify all the castles, grim enough for Quake’s signature moodiness, but, at a stretch, not so far into the past to make guns feel completely out of place.    

Personality Submerged

Quake 1, despite being the black sheep of the franchise, has remained in the gaming psyche because of the gothic horror personality. Doom 3 showed us that id Software know how to do horror and do it with surprising competence. But Doom isn’t the place for horror. So maybe Quake could be.

Id has its staple franchises – Doom, Wolfenstein, and Quake. It knows what to do with Wolfenstein and Doom – quite obviously. But even with the release of Quake Champions, there’s the sense that the Quake IP is still trying to figure out who it is decades after its birth. Largely, it’s contented itself just trying to emulate Doom. Ironically, it was where Doom diverged from itself that Quake could find its niche, and id a development strategy for that series of game. If you want fast-paced biomechanical sci-fi power fantasy, you play Doom. If you want a vulnerable methodical horror shooter, you play Quake.

As previously noted, there’s a dividing line for Quake players – people who appreciate the atmosphere, and people who bounce off it. If Doom 3 demonstrated anything, it’s that the horror ambience can do something memorable when the players aren’t automatically running on main character syndrome the way they expect to in Doom. Forcing the player to slow down, making them more of an everyman, makes horror hit harder. It’s totally possible to still do action in that space; in fact, if anything, the ability to defend yourself and still be at significant risk, works better than the obnoxious artifice of today’s inexplicable ‘no self-defence’ survival horror cliches. But you can’t have both horror and power fantasy at once. If Quake wants an identity other than ‘Doom with borderline personality’, then embracing the more serious gothic horror tone of the original game is a serious means to that end. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s