Quaking in my reboots

Doom is an integral part of many people's personal gaming histories, but it only briefly waved at me as it passed me by. I was thrown into the world of shooters with a copy of Quake instead. I recently had a chance to play through MachineGames' additional Quake episode, which they released for the game's 20th birthday. MachineGames already breathed new life into another of id Software's venerable gaming properties with Wolfenstein: The New Order, and so proved that they could combine a solid grasp of the original game with a range of fitting new elements. That design philosophy is also apparent in their new episode for Quake, which demonstrates a keen insight into what makes Quake tick and a willingness to play around with it.

So, Wolfenstein has been successfully pulled into modern gaming and Doom followed suit with its celebrated 2016 reboot, but what of Quake? The next entry in the franchise was announced last year, but it's set to be an arena-based multiplayer shooter named Quake Champions. I was left with a feeling of oh-okay because we wouldn't see a return to Quake's singleplayer, and playing MachineGames' episode got me thinking what that kind of reimagining could look like.

The important thing is that Quake's overarching design was not entirely intentional. This excellent retrospective details how the game was initially meant to be a departure from Doom in the form of an RPG set in a fantastical realm, but time pressure forced id Software to scale it back to an already proven shooter formula. That resulted in the weird mashup of fantasy and sci-fi that I've come to love: running down dismal oubliettes nailgunning assorted monsters in the non-faces. In that light, rebooting Quake's singleplayer campaign means recapturing a happy accident.

Quake's story was little more than a varnish, a brief blurb in the manual about monsters from another dimension invading ours and you being the only survivor of a counterstrike team. Even the Lovecraftian influences peppered throughout were a surface layer added by designer Sandy Petersen, who was a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's writing. An updated story can briefly touch on the sci-fi tropes of slipgates and interdimensional travel, but fully embracing Lovecraft angle would carry a lot more weight. The author's work often described otherworldly creatures as grotesque mockeries of reality that drive their victims to madness through their mere existence. Imagine the gameplay implications of a final boss you can't face directly, a shapeless horror that would corrupt and kill you if you ever looked upon it.

The same corrosive tone can be applied to Quake's levels, which are just as hostile as the monsters that inhabit them. That refers to more than their hidden traps; there is a pervasive anxiety to the haunted cathedrals, cadaverous lairs, and dead cities that you endure. These primordial places carry names like the Crypt of Decay, Satan's Dark Delight, the Palace of Hate, and the Chambers of Torment. There's no logic to them, they don't make any linear sense. This disconnect also allowed Quake to throw you a curveball like the Wind Tunnels and Ziggurat Vertigo (a bonus level that received a wonderful tribute here).

There is a similar lack of cohesion in Quake's roster of enemies. As previously mentioned, this is largely due to the game's development cycle, which saw assets already designed for a fantasy RPG repurposed as a jumbled ecosystem of creatures from various dimensions. Chainsaw-wielding cannibals coexisted with corrupted humans, death knights, and eyeless abominations, all unified as children of an Elder God. The same narrative justification for such a varied range of enemies can still apply when that Lovecraftian angle is upheld.

For me, one of the most integral aspects of Quake's enemies was their propensity for infighting. The manual mentions that "some monsters hate one another almost as much as they hate you, so you can use this to your advantage." I experienced no greater joy than when I tricked one enemy into damaging another, and then hung back as they forgot about me and started duking it out. If a large open chamber was packed with enemies, I would do laps around the edges as they tried to get at me and invariably hurt each other in the scramble. This could be elevated to an entire game mechanic, where at certain points you have no choice but to use the enemies' hatred for each other in order to come out victoriously.

The nature of Quake's enemies greatly impacted its pace, which is slower than Doom. Though your moving speed is just as fast, enemies take more damage (because they could not offer strength in numbers due to memory limitations at the time). Doom almost demands that you plunge headlong into the fray, which was reflected in the 2016 reboot with the decision to stop demons from advancing too brazenly and so encourage players to keep moving forward. Quake, on the other hand, asks that you fall back as enemies relentlessly pursue you down narrow corridors and walkways.

In this and other ways, Quake's design likes to fuck with you. You lose all acquired weapons and start each new episode with only the basic shotgun in hand, so when it's time to face the final boss, the game seems to coddle you by offering the Thunderbolt, the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. Of course, the Thunderbolt is an electrical weapon that will kill you if you discharge it while submerged, and you find it in an underwater cave. Power-ups are activated the instant you pick them up, so you have to make their thirty-second timer count. Of course, when you pick up a Quad Damage and rush forward to dole out four times as much pain, the game punishes your sudden lack of caution with lethal traps or sudden drops in your path. It can even send out a group of weaker enemies that you could have easily cut through without Quad Damage. At one point, you are physically locked in a cage that is slowly pulled through a pit of water, forcing you to nearly drown before it resurfaces.

It is a mean-spirited game. Where Doom is fun and fast, Quake is dark, relentless, oppressive. This interesting analysis even goes so far as to suggest that Quake is a game largely about texture and tone, a mood piece, an "accompaniment to a Nine Inch Nails album." It's true, a lot of Quake's strength lies in its sound design. The distinctive clang of a bouncing grenade, the laboured breathing of a Zombie, and the terrifying roar of a Shambler are just a few of the sound effects that have become especially evocative, but what really sells the atmosphere for me is the soundtrack composed by Trent Reznor. It opens with a distorted guitar riff that evokes Doom's thrash metal score, but the rest of it is a dark ambient soundscape that doesn't draw attention to itself. It's a series of intentionally repetitive drones and muted whispers that get under your skin.

That invasive terror is what should inform a modern reboot of Quake's singleplayer campaign. Paired with the overt body horror of interdimensional beings wanting to kill you, it can offer a harrowing and uncooperative slog that doesn't let up, an inescapable nightmare. It can torment you with a psychological dread. In conclusion, we'll be having NONE of this crap:

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