Back in the mid 90’s id Software had already made a name for themselves with Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, games that gave birth to the first person shooter genre. But they still had another gift for us. And thus, Quake was unleashed upon the world, perfecting the formula and blowing everyone’s expectations.
Quake was a paradigm shifting game. True to its name, it shook the whole video-game industry. It was the first game to use fully textured 3D models for almost all assets, such as characters, weapons, and level geometry — only explosions and a few other effects used sprites. Other technical advances were added in Quake such as pre-rendered lightmaps, extensively used these days in many game engines, but a revolution at the time. The result was a fully 3D rendered and textured world with never before seen lighting effects and fidelity. It was far, far ahead the company’s previous engines, as well as anything done by the competition. Multiplayer code also was an important aspect of Quake’s success, which was further improved in a later update known as QuakeWorld.
Games like Duke Nukem 3D were not intimidated by id’s new creation, but maybe they should have been. As if it were meant to be, Quake arrived right in the advent of 3D accelerated graphics, receiving many patches to make use of different graphic APIs, allowing it to make full use of Rendition, 3Dfx, and most notably open interfaces like OpenGL. With Quake was and remains to be so significant that even today it still receives ports to other APIs like the recently released Vulkan.
Quake also had many platform ports. Originally running on MS-DOS, a slightly more demanding version known as WinQuake was soon released for the then new Windows 95 operative system. Ports to Linux, Mac, and many consoles followed, even though some of those ports had completely different renderers to fit the target hardware, such as is the case of the SEGA Saturn version of the game.
On December 21, 1999 the source code of Quake was released under an open GPL license, allowing everyone with a bit on coding knowledge to make much more enterprising modifications to the game.
It’s also worth noting the open approach id Software took when designing the game, allowing end users modify the files and code to a significant extend, for example using the QuakeC scripting language, which allowed for all kinds of mods, some of them really popular, like the original Team Fortress. These decisions have had ripples in time that can be felt today. When Valve licensed the Quake engine and modified it, giving birth to the GldSrc engine, they also allowed these kind of modifications and even provided tools like map editors. Valve and their games, most notably Half-Life, another game that changed the FPS forever in its own ways, greatly benefited from this. New mods were born and eventually developed into extremely popular and successful franchises, like Counter-Strike, or Team Fortress Classic.
Quake, however, was not an easy game to make, and in fact, earliest game concepts predate even Wolfenstein and DOOM. It was in the Commander Keen files that a game called The Fight for Justice was first teased by id Software:
As our follow-up to the commander keen trilogy, id Software is working on “The Fight for Justice”: A completely new approach to fantasy gaming.
You start not as a weakling with no food — you start as Quake, the strongest, most dangerous person on the continent. You start off with a hammer of thunderbolts, a ring of regeneration, and a trans-dimensional artifact. Here the fun begins. You fight for justice, a secret organization devoted to vanquishing evil from the land!
This is role-playing excitement.
Initially the game was going to be more of a role-playing game where you could navigate the game’s environments in a less linear fashion. You would be able travel, follow your own path, find new areas, and decide whether to explore them or not. The game was not expected to have a soundtrack at all, instead allowing the player to be immersed in the environments and their sounds.
Apparently after a few years this proved to be a far too difficult task to achieve while maintaining id Software’s quality standards, so after releasing Doom, the team started to focus their work on Quake while making some concessions on the original ideas. The initial concept for the game was steered into more confortable territory: Another first person shooter. But the truth is, even after taking this new path, development of the game’s wasn’t going as expected, and looking at the final product one can more or less see that compromises that had to be made. For example, the first of the four episodes in the game ends by making you fight Cthon, a demon of huge proportions that throws fireballs at you from his lava pit. Impervious to damage from your weapons, you are forced to use the environment to defeat the beast. The other episodes on the other hand have no boss fights of their own, and instead just lead to the final boss of the game. Looking at pre-release screenshots and other documents you can also learn that a few other things were removed from the game, such as dragons, which were probably a vestige of the initial game concept.
Luckily, these difficulties in the development didn’t hit the game’s quality in any way.
The game puts you in the boots of Ranger (instead of Quake as early documents suggested). Your hammer of thunderbolts replaced with an arsenal of shutguns, nail guns, rocket and grenade launchers… An electric gun is however also at your disposal, maybe a wink to that gone hammer. As the lone survivor of an unknown enemy invasion, you’re the only one left of the counter attack mission.
When you start playing, Quake greets you with a simple choice: Easy, Normal or Hard? It is, however, the unorthodox yet elegant way that this choice is presented that I enjoy. One of the many little moments when the game can’t contain its personality. The first thing you see is in fact, a great hall with the Quake title and three corridors (pictured near the top of the post), each one more menacing than the last, leading to different portals. Whichever path you take will determine the difficulty setting. Even the Nightmare difficulty itself is harder to get to, as the portal to that difficulty setting is hidden further ahead. Behind these portals another choice, this time the episode you want to play. This introductory level quickly sets the tone, just like with all other id Software titles: Buckle your seat belt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.
Each episode starts on an overrun military facility, still in our world. There, a Slipgate — the teleport technology that has made this mess possible — allows you to travel to strange dimensions filled with enemies. Medieval castles, keeps, crypts, temples, underwater chasms and all sorts of other uninviting venues, the levels of Quake are filled with old stone, corroded metal, rotten wood and deadly pools of lava, accompanied by all sorts of satanic and ritualistic imagery. As the player progreses through the game, the themes of H.P. Lovecraft also become more and more apparent, reaching their peak in The Elder World, the fourth and last episode.
Where DOOM is a Thrash Metal themed dance with the demons — rip & tear as they say — Quake slows the pace down a bit and pits you against smaller but deadlier enemy groups. Don’t be deceived though, when I say slower I only mean compared to the frantic gameplay of DOOM. Quake is still a fast paced game (especially compared to many of the first person shooters it predates) where you need to be always on the move. Crowd control and awareness of your surroundings are the key to success. Enemies are as varied as they are unforgiving especially on the latter half of the game.
Another aspect of Quake’s triumph as a first person shooter classic is its level design, as the game makes good use of the new verticality the engine allows compared to the 2.5D layouts of previous games. Maps are varied, both in design and execution, keeping the experience far from falling into a boring state.
Despite this, the true success of the game was the multiplayer component, a carefully refined yet blissfully chaotic experience compared to previous titles, were pure skill and rocket jumping (another of id’s gifts to the genre) are the only ways to the top. A multiplayer component so loved by gamers that it inspired Quake III Arena (1999) and Quake Live (2010), titles focused entirely on this aspect of the game, ditching the campaign entirely, and bringing online gaming to new competitive heights.
Quake Champions (2017) follows the same steps, and isn’t oblivious to the nostalgia that the original game inspires, with several skins for weapons inspired on their first designs, as well as the return of the mighty Ranger.
Meanwhile I hope, like I have for years, that we will someday see an actual reboot or remake of the single player component that stays true to the original Quake while breathing new life into its gameplay, similar to what DOOM (2016) so perfectly did not so long ago.