PC Article

Retrospective: Quake

Brown, brown, deeper and brown

Which games do you remember? Okay, obviously, you probably remember a lot of games. But I mean really remember. I mean the sort of games that imprint themselves on your mind right down to the most infinitesimal of details, to the point where you vividly recall every enemy, every weapon, every nuance of each wonderful level.

For me, Quake is one of those games. No, scratch that: for me, Quake is the only one of those games.

It's a 14-year-old shooter, yet I remember it as if it were just last week. I remember the pre-release buzz. Here was id Software's follow-up to Doom, a spiritual successor that rendered the entire world and all its contents in an astonishing three dimensions. I remember the demo, a stunning three-hour chunk of the game that no modern publisher would consider giving away for free. I remember the rumours of what would follow in the full product. Was there really a level that took place almost entirely underwater? Would there honestly be a lightning gun that electrocuted you if you fired it in liquid? Was it true that those collectible runes unlocked a secret fifth segment, accessible from the episode selection room? Did the full game really devour an unprecedented 64 megabytes of hard drive space?

It all seemed beyond the limits of possibility at the start of that long, hot summer of 1996. Yet when the game arrived in June, the sweltering heat became a mere thing of legend. I spent the majority of those months indoors, eyes glued to the monitor, hand stitched to the mouse, body periodically jumping a few feet above the chair. The release coincided perfectly with England's departure from the European Championships, and I'd found a new vice for the year. Because all that speculation, all of those rumours, they were all true. Every last one of them. Quake was everything I'd dared to dream it would be.

I was far too young to be playing it. Still in primary school. Later, I'd learn that my parents had a raging argument about my dad's decision to introduce me to the game. We played through it together. My mum's stipulation was that my dad wasn't allowed to let me use the cheat codes. If we were going to spend three months revelling in glorious, digitised, bloody mayhem, we had to make an honest job of it.

And we did! Which, for a child and a non-game-playing adult, was quite the achievement. Even on Normal (we refused to play on Easy, as the manual recommended it for "little kids and grandmas"), Quake became bloody tough. There were more difficult games before, and have been since, but the fact remains that Quake was of an era in which understanding the controls meant reading the manual, and having any chance of beating the game meant buying a strategy guide. But slowly, together, we did it. We ran away from Fiends - prowling, ultra-fast beasts that pinned you back and ripped at your flesh. We dodged the lightning attacks of hulking white Shamblers, and spent hours working out a way of avoiding the Vores' heat-seeking death-balls. Each enemy was so creative, so gloriously designed, that the complete lack of any cohesion had little detrimental effect.

Quake didn't flow. At all. It didn't even seem to try to. It was split across four main episodes, none of which had much of an identifiable theme beyond a varying mix of medieval architecture and futuristic bleepy-bloopy machinery. The disconnected levels were linked by slipgates, allowing you access to a whole host of different dimensions. But it was also bravely multi-linear in its approach. BioWare's technique of allowing you to play their games' different story strands in any order might seem novel, but it's worth remembering that id Software were doing much the same thing back in the mid-90s. It certainly made a lot more sense to tackle Quake's episodes in order, since each increased in difficulty, but nothing prevented you from heading straight for the final sections on the Nightmare setting if you so desired.

And despite its bouncing around all over the place, with little effort to link areas in a sensible manner, the intricacy of Quake's construction is still remarkable. Each self-contained level became a sprawling masterpiece of layered design, with action and puzzles blending near-seamlessly together, and enormous rooms filled with gangways and bridges and all manner of vertical architecture. Quake's engine was a first for the FPS genre, in that it allowed areas to be constructed over the top of one another. There was even mouse-look! For the first time, the Z-axis mattered. Studios such as Valve, who so effectively command the player's upward gaze, must surely owe a lot to the innovations of Quake.

What else? Oh, so, so much. The boss fights, for one. Quake knew not to have its bosses just hammer you for five minutes in a sort of horrendous, fist-eating difficulty spike. No, Quake had you use your wits. When the fiery Chthon arose in E1M7, launching rockets into his molten chest did nothing. Solving an electricity-based puzzle on the walkways above was your road to success. And what about Shub-Niggurath? A big, dopey, seemingly docile tentacle beast in the middle of a pool of lava, she initially seemed like a rather uninspiring way to end the game. Except, how did you kill her? Bullets, again, did nothing. But what was that floating spike ball that occasionally passed through her belly? And what happened if you jumped in that teleporter at exactly the right moment?

And Wind Tunnels. Oh, man, Wind Tunnels. A sprawling, epic level of interconnecting areas, with enormous tubes that sucked you up and hurled you majestically into the next room. And what about the secret low-gravity mission? And all the other secret bits, for that matter. There's just so much. So many glorious memories.

As is always the case, despite a set of exemplary reviews, certain critics moaned. "There are never as many enemies on-screen as there were in Doom!" they cried. "Its innovations are all technical!" they foolishly wailed. "It's too brown!" people... well, accurately described. But it's all nonsense. Give me a game consisting entirely of one ugly shade, and if it's as effortlessly magical as Quake was, you'll never hear me make a single complaint.

And this is only considering the single-player component. But Quake also had the most exceptional multiplayer modes, which paved the way for the modern online shooter. Deathmatch, team deathmatch and co-op were all there. The simplicity of the free-for-all mode was particularly beautiful. Strafing and bunny-hopping and rocket-jumping through the air has rarely provided such intense excitement since. Not even in its much-acclaimed second sequel.

Ah yes, the sequels. I remember those, just about. Quake 2 had a more identifiable structure, and some neat puzzles along the way. Quake 3: Arena was marvellous in its joyous hyper-speed, and I certainly recall having plenty of fun with that. Quake 4 was a solid shooter. I remember, um, that it was a solid shooter. But that's about it.

And that's the thing. I remember that I played those games. I remember that I enjoyed them, to varying extents. I even remember a couple of key moments when I thought, yes, this is a great game. But the one I really remember, the one for which I could cite a hundred glowing sections of sheer brilliance, is Quake: the original, the best, the brownest. It's the title that made me realise just how marvellous games could be. I definitely won't forget that in a hurry.