Quake, one of my favourite games pretty much ever, turns 25 today. I owe Quake a lot – my career, for one, which seems important – and I can’t help but play it every year or so. It’s marvellous. Doesn’t get old. Here are some words I wrote about it not so long ago.
‘Its heat scorches your hand, and its terrible secrets blight your mind…’
Quake wants to maim you. It’s a game that gleefully forces you into a small container to travel through an underwater passage, keeping you submerged long enough to run out of air and sustain damage.
It’ll dangle the level exit in front of you, only to unleash a torrent of powerful enemies and sadistically refuse to open the exit gate until you trigger a set of switches in obscure places.
That, too, is Quake.
You’ll be crossing a bridge to acquire the rune at its centre, and the moment you pick it up the game will spawn enemies in front and behind your precarious position, strong-arming you into making a costly choice: face the enemies and see your HP take a beating, or drop from the bridge and be required to trudge through the better half of the level again?
It’s tough, it’s brutal, and it’s unforgiving. But it’s also a total blast. Quake has so much fun being Quake it’s impossible not to enjoy every minute of the experience. This is a Gothic, sub-Lovecraftian D&D fever dream, made with an ‘all in’ approach to the fantastical batshittery of its world.
I revisit the game every few years, and even if each successive playthrough takes me further from that sublime first trip, I’m never not in awe of the game’s frenetic mix of FPS action and macabre horror.
Although met with critical acclaim on release, there was a sense that id Software were doing with Quake what they’d done before with Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Indeed, here was yet another 3D FPS taking place in an adolescent fantasy world smeared in blood and gore and perforated with crass machismo. I believe that’s the general opinion of John Romero as well, for whom Quake was his last title at id. But whilst I think there’s plenty of merit to that view, I don’t think it tells the whole story.
Quake is full of invention, audacious design choices, and represents a culmination of everything id had learned from their time in the FPS trenches. Sure, it was id doing id, but did it really matter when they were doing it this damn well?
It’s a simple setup, which is to be expected when one of its creators infamously said that “[story] in a game is like story in a porn movie” (a quote I still think about a whole lot): the dimension of Quake is invading Earth and it’s up to you, the Ranger (Trent Reznor!), to stop it. Of course it is. There are four realms, each containing a rune you must acquire to put an end to the invasion – namely by slaying the monstrous source of the assault (Half-Life cribbed this to great effect two years later).
Each realm starts with a trip to a research facility, where you must fight your way through undead legions to reach a portal that’ll zap you over to Quake. These opening levels are fundamentally the blueprint for what would become Quake II, which is curious given they’re the least interesting aspect of this game (id declined to carry the first game’s world and plot into the sequel, rebooting it entirely).
In this incarnation, Quake itself is conceived as a dimension of unrelenting evil. The skies are coated in a filmy purple webbing that passes for cloud and baroque castles of nightmare rise from a darkened land. The levels are built to entrap you, to bamboozle – there’s not a stone slab or shard of metal that wants you to succeed, instead serving only to hasten your destruction. And by levels, I mean The Ogre Citadel, The Dismal Oubliette, The Vaults of Zin…yeah, I’m pretty sure designer Sandy Petersen’s influence is all over these fantabulous titles, even if he didn’t design them directly.
What are these torture chambers without a fitting ensemble of malevolence, though? Not a whole lot! Fortunately the game’s baddies are as memorable as everything else it offers up. Quake’s minions are many and varied – ghoulish knights with blood-specked armour, spider-like fiends that fire homing energy projectiles, and shambling leviathans are just a few of the horrors that stand between you and your goal. Their entire existence is bent towards mischief and evil, making them the perfect enemies for a game solely constituted by player, gun, and Things to Shoot.
Quake doesn’t just want to maim you. It will maim you – it will maim, it will tear, and it will bite. And it’s that gleeful desire that makes it one of the best games ever made.