Return to Quake 1…

Return to Quake 1 after the break…

Return to Quake 1…

As has been written before on this blog, there was a time when first person shooters had to be… Very creative to work around it’s early limitations. Enemies and other objects were sprites (sprites, for those who don’t know, are sort of like flat cardboard cutouts) & you couldn’t walk under an object that you could also walk on top of (the infamous “room-over-room” limitation).

The Holy Grail achievement of these early first-person shooters was the “room-over-room” limitation. Game levels had to be flat because there was no polygon architecture. Level designers worked various tricks into their levels (and the underlying source code) to create a sort of pseudo-“room-over-room” effect which never quite satisfied the limitation – Some levels were “split” into sub-levels but one could not shoot from one sub-level to another even if the enemy was in plain sight; Other workarounds created primitive polygons to create roofs and other surfaces that you could “walk under” but not walk on top of; Other workarounds were simply sleight-of-hand tricks meant to fool the player into thinking that “room-over-room” had been achieved but it was just a clever level change instead.

“Quake 1” (then simply known as “Quake”), introduced in 1996, is often considered as the first game to offer true “room-over-room” game play of it’s kind. With enemies, weapons, and architecture all polygon-based, the result was both breath-taking and mind-blowing at the same time. The resulting game play difference was as though one had stepped into a new third dimension of possibilities.

The plot to “Quake” was secondary – You are the lone hero, fighting an endless horde of monsters. There were no non-player characters (NPCs) to talk to, no items to interact with except for trashcan lid-sized square buttons to shoot or push, no complex objectives except to get a key to unlock a door so that you may run from “point A” to “point B.”

It seems almost a lifetime away from the year 1996 and yet, still a few years removed from it’s 20th anniversary, it is hard to fathom how the gaming world has changed as a result in such a short time. Admittedly, there have been few awe-inspiring innovations in first-person shooters since then to rival such an accomplishment: “Half-Life” finally merged a compelling story to a first-person game; “Halo” and “Goldeneye” finally gave video game console players a first-person game comparable to that of a computer; “Portal” gave us the retail game play mechanic of “portals” that the long-delayed “Prey” had perfected in private for so long; “Half-Life 2” gave us the “Gravity Gun” in-game while “Doom 3” gave it to us through a console command out of it; “Descent” gave us the in-game ability to literally fly in the 6 degrees of freedom that polygon-based architecture allowed while “Jedi Knight 2” rotated the game world around us, even if briefly, a feature more prominently used in “Prey.”

Yet all modern innovation in the first-person shooter genre seemingly originates back to the introduction of polygon-based architecture and objects in “Quake.” No one yet has been able to duplicate such a ground-breaking innovation since and it may not happen for quite some time still. It is easy to play the visionary when looking back on history but can anyone predict what could be the next huge “game changer” today? Could it be the long-ignored voxels and their ability to carve up architecture where polygons have difficulty (the reason why rocket launchers often can’t break down wooden doors)? Could it be procedurally-generated levels, giving players a potentially infinite number of levels to play without the need for other users to create them (already attempted in earlier games but never perfected)? Or is “room-over-room” such a large achievement that all future achievements will always pale in comparison? If one honestly knew the answer to these questions, they would likely discover themselves very wealthy very quickly.

As I replayed Quake 1 recently, I discovered just how little and just how far first-person gaming had gone in the less then two decades since. Having the source code released to the public has made the game last far longer then it normally would (Are you listening, EA? The Thief fans are waiting…) in a gaming world of “What have you released for me lately?” and operating systems that constantly challenge even properly-made older games to work correctly under their newer rules.

I found the blocky architecture of Quake 1 mildly refreshing, the simple lighting almost inviting compared to the nearly-realistic environments of today’s first person games. Quake 1, though, is too simplistic in other areas – The linear level designs having been superseded by the “play as you want” sandbox designs that dominate today’s games. Where once we were distracted simply by walking over a bridge that we could now walk under, now we wanted NPCs to talk to and complex goals to achieve. No one wants to eat the same dinner night after night and so too, gamers have no desire for an endless hunt for keys and buttons that only grant more access to a level for the sole purpose of exiting it.

“Quake 1” holds up remarkably well after all these years; Better textures and models update this classic even further. While we may have outgrown some of the earlier cliches of first-person shooters, that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate them when they weren’t fresh. No one complains that the classic “King Kong” is in black and white or doesn’t have CGI. Yes, later incarnations of that classic had larger budgets and greater capabilities. Yet can anyone claim to marvel “Quake 2” with the same reverence as the original, or for that matter, “Quake 3” and “Quake 4”? Could anyone claim that the sequels expanded the first-person shooting genre more then the original?

It’s a little disappointing that the sequels never followed through on the merge of science fiction and Lovecraftian that the original was able to achieve. Perhaps “Quake” hewed too close to an earlier creation by iD Software, “Doom,” with it’s merge of science fiction and religion (specifically, that part of religion where you don’t go to the pearly white gates). Of course, one could argue that “Quake” itself should never have deviated from it’s own original medieval setting but that’s probably a discussion best left for others with more intimate knowledge.

In the end, Quake 1 has aged surprisingly well given the growth of it’s genre. It makes one wonder why modern-day FPSes need gigabytes to achieve the same amount of thrills that required megabytes only a decade earlier.


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