This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Quake.
"Yahtzee, please come out of the fridge." Has a big release come out? "No." Did you bring me more lager? "No." Well, then piss off!
Christ, I hate summer. All no games and nice weather and and reasons to go outside. "What about Abzû, Yahtzee?" Oh yeah, Abzû! What do you want me to say? If you thought Journey and Flower didn't have quite enough marine biology for your taste, then here's the game for you, as long as you're badly misinformed as to what the word "game" means. "Yahtzee, we both know you'd only get off the gaming couch if more than half of it was declared a nuclear disaster exclusion zone, you must have been playing something this week." Well, I did play a lot of Quake I. "There you go, tell us about that... from over there, where we can't smell you." You're on like the two Johns!
A few weeks back, the developers of the excellent Wolfenstein: New Order marked the 20th anniversary of Quake I by releasing a free new level pack for the original game. Which cemented my respect for that company, because this is a gesture rooted in actual passion for gaming. "Passion?" muses the AAA games industry, collectively. "What's fruit got to do with anything? Oh, hang on, 'passion'. I remember that, that's that thing I pretend to have during E3 and while I'm inside my wife's dry, joyless cunt."
Anyway, after playing it, I felt the need to play all of Quake I again, perhaps in the aftermath of Deum relighting the spark that two decades of console shooters has done its best to smother with its big fat chest-high-wall-cuddling arse. In truth, I'd never liked Quake as much as other retro shooters, because if you want to find the evolutionary ancestor of brown and miserable modern shooters, then Quake makes for a pretty good starting point, since it lacks all the joy and humor of its stablemates Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, and is persistently the color of a wet weekend at the Siberian logging camp. But for all that, it is still a retro shooter of its time, high-octane shooting where you move faster than a hairless Filipino boy through a crowded bathhouse, and the story never gets in the way of the action. About the only story you'll get is a paragraph at the end of each episode that reads like John Romero is reciting it at you from across his Dungeons & Dragons table.
Quake was the last collaboration between id Software's two Johns, Romero and Carmack, before Romero went off to make Daikatana out of mousetraps and semen, and Carmack proceeded to to craft Quake II out of stale Weetabix and paste. Quake I finds the happy medium, and illustrates why they kinda needed each other. That lighting gun that murders you if you use it in water definitely smells of Romero, but at least there's some imagination on display. The colour scheme and repetitive levels were probably scraped up from the Carmack tarmac, but the gameplay is characteristically solid!
I like that every monster is clearly distinct- from each other, I mean, if not from the background, since everything looks like it just dropped out of a sewage worker's nose- and all have a different role in life. The Knight harasses you in tight spaces, and the Fiend harasses you in the open. There's the floating Scrag, whose job is to molest you in those troublesome hard-to-reach places, and then there's the Ogre, whose job is to GET FUCKED! You think you're so great, sitting up there spamming grenades with impossible-to-predict bounce trajectories. Let's see who has the last laugh after I've quicksaved another seven or eight hundred times! And that blob monster in the last episode can get double-fucked on a bed of crispy lettuce, the way it hops about like a marble on a honeymoon mattress and hitting it is like trying to swat a fly with your jizz.
The weapons are also distinct and functional, for the most part. I'm not entirely clear on why we needed a nailgun and a super nailgun. What's the standard nailgun for once you have one that fires the exact same nails, but slightly harder? Serving drinks and mixed finger food? And the other glaring issue with Quake is the usual one that happened with shareware games. If you don't remember shareware, because you're an overstimulated millennial blinking stupidly at this video as you attempt to parse my words through a haze of ADHD medication and energy drinks, it was kinda like a demo, but freely distributed and anything up to an entire third of the finished game, to coax a payment for the rest of it. But the usual strategy was to load it up with all the game's good ideas.
The first episode of Quake is the only one with a boss fight, and even that is mostly spent running around someone's poolhouse, flicking light switches like a fussy dad with an increased electricity bill. The other episodes just kinda meekly stop the instant they run out of brown castles. Hope you like brown castles, 'cause Quake has every imaginable iteration of such! It's got brown castles, it's got ochre fortresses, it's got sepia strongholds, the works. It's like a school field trip to continental Europe during a major cholera outbreak. But you know what, there's still quite a strong atmosphere to it.
The actual plot of Quake, reading between the posterior paragraphs of purple prose, is that you are Man With Gun, Esquire, traveling to Evil Otherworld to defeat the resident demonic forces. We hasten to add that it's not Hell. Oh dear me, no, wouldn't want anyone to think we hadn't moved on from Doom. It's some other evil netherworld with hostile demons who put a load of pentagrams and Satanic imagery all over the place- not because they're actually in Hell, you understand, they're just really big fans. It's more Lovecraftian in theme, really, in that Shub-Niggurath shows up at the end, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, here re-imagined as a sort of upside-down bar stool experiencing a very heavy menstrual cycle.
But as repetitive as Quake can get with its umber palaces and chocolate chateaus, the world still feels a hell of a lot- sorry, hostile-extradimensional-territory-mildly-reminiscent-of-Hell of a lot better realized than the world of Quake II, which actually did have cinematics and story objectives, but was, in practical terms, a string of identical grey-brown military bases full of hybrid human-and-forklift monsters. Maybe it's just the fantasy setting that gives Quake I the edge, as it adds the intimidating sense that our big-chinned hero is somewhere he doesn't belong. Or maybe it's the rather lovely sound design that heaps on the bleak, otherworldly atmosphere and gives each monster a unique, identifiable voice. Although one does wonder why all the knights make noises like an aging Marlon Brando having an orgasm.
As one of the first fully-3D FPSs, it's fun to look at Quake as part of gaming's collective learning process. "Mouselook?! Why on earth would you want that on all the time? How often will people want to look away from the horizon? I mean, honestly." But Quake I was a pioneer in more than just the technical field. It's probably one of the first retro shooters to be entirely consistent in tone. A slightly laughable tone- I mean, this is a game that gives all of its levels names like "The Tower of Despair" and the map list reads like the first album from a high school goth metal band. But compare that to Duke Nukem 3D, where pop-culture references and monsters going to the toilet are right alongside the captured, violated women begging for death. Quake represents PC gaming's maturing out of the in-jokey fucking about and into awkward, angsty pubescence, for better or worse. Later, it would go off to college in Half-Life, join the military for Call of Duty, and get all its arms and legs blown off in time for Gears of War.
- A Quake at the gates of Hell: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And those bloody homing rockets the spider things throw out can get triple bacon fucked with extra relish
- When you think about it id Software's games sort of resemble the 7 Ages of Man