The ongoing discussion as to what Quake is, or what map/mod can be considered “Quake” vs. “too far from Quake” or even “not Quake”, while entertaining, didn’t really see a lot of convincing evidence put forth by anyone involved.
I still think that Spirit’s criteria aren’t convincing, and I feel motivated to do my own write up on what makes something Quake. Because I was somewhat involved with the creation of Remake Quake, this essay might actually have a right to exist.
Before I go off on tangents, I’ll make it clear what is a partial conversion (PC) and a total conversion (TC). With examples.
A partial conversion is a modification of the vanilla Quake game code, assets and / or levels, usually adding new content or gameplay mechanics (weapons, enemies, pushables, rotation, ladders, breakables, grappling hooks, whatever) while still requiring the original game to run and still using original assets. Expansions or mission packs are typically partial conversions, as are 95% of mods and what Spirit calls “map-mods” out there as long as they are not standalone (ultimately a partial conversion requires pop.lmp, at the very least, ie a full registered copy of Quake). “Beyond Belief” or “Zerstörer” are PCs.
A total conversion might change the game’s basic workings (like turning it into a racing game or a flight simulator instead of a shooter), and uses completely new content to replace all of Quake’s maps, models, sounds etc. while still using a Quake-derived engine and QuakeC-derived gamecode (if it didn’t, it would be a new game instead of a conversion). “Malice” is a total conversion (although it is still a shooter, unlike Quake Rally or Air Quake), since you won’t find a vanilla Quake monster or weapon in it. A total conversion can technically be standalone when zero original Quake assets are required.
Everything that is not the original Quake (pak0.pak, pak1.pak, engine releases by id Software) is a mod (modification), although this term has traditionally not been applied to custom levels (.bsp files) as long as they do not require any modified assets or game code (since they are additions rather than modifications). A notable exception has been made for custom levels that require a modified engine, because they break certain limits in stock GLQuake or Winquake (these technically require modifications to stock Quake, but are not usually called mods themselves – another project provides the necessary modifications, if you will).
Custom levels that require their own assets and game code are definitely mods (and partial conversions). So is anything that provides modified gamecode or assets, and comes with demonstration levels (or not). Custom levels that require modified game code and assets without directly providing them (say, Quoth maps) are not mods, but the thing that provides these requirements (e.g. Quoth) is very much a mod (and a partial conversion).
The Quaddicted archive, for example, is full of mods, even if one applies the previously mentioned exceptions.
So much for that. But what exactly is it that makes something Quake?
What is Quake?
First off, Quake is the original game, lock stock and barrel, or engine, game code and assets, by id Software.
Second, Quake has had 15 years of community history and a couple official extensions. id Software obviously wanted this game to be added to and modified by a community, since they released the game code, engine and tools source, level editor, and John Romero released the sorce to the original levels, all under mod-friendly licenses. The community has produced thousands of add-on levels, modified tools and engines, a huge amount of new and modified game code, and landmark partial conversions. This, too, is “Quake”.
Third, “Quake” or “Quakeish” is broadly used to describe an idea, a concept, a basic premise, a certain type of gameplay, and even an atmosphere or a mood. This way of looking at “Quake” is necessarily subjective. Let’s try to work out some common traits, still.
Quake is about blowing shit up.
Quake is a shooter game, since the original game draws heavily from the previously released “Wolfenstein 3D” and “DOOM”. John Romero is on record for saying this was intentional, although he would have liked to make more out of it but for several reasons that wasn’t doable at the time.
What it comes down to is that Quake gameplay is combat-heavy, although it often contains additional elements. You can also shoot objects in Quake, not just enemies; this is sometimes required for progress (usually shootable buttons, today also breakable objects) and sometimes lethal (explosive boxes). Most of the time, you’ll want to shoot monsters though.
Quake uses a set of DOOM – style weapons.
Again, the record is that this was decided on during the development mostly for ease of implementation. What makes weapons DOOM-style? Well, DOOM’s guns have only one mode of operation each (no altfire, scopes, silencers or anything). It has also been said that being projectile based, as opposed to hitscan, is a typical trait of Quake’s weaponry. The rocket launcher is absolutely an icon of Quake and the entire Quake series, although the pump-action shotgun is a staple from DOOM as well as the chainsaw, which in Quake is wielded by monsters instead of the player.
The official mission packs already introduced variations on the standard weapons, however, and these could typically be accessed by pressing the relevant weapon key twice (toggled). Examples include multi-grenades / rockets, proximity grenades, chain lightning gun, axe replacements such as the Mjolnir, lava nails for the nailguns, etc. Mods like the Killer Quake Patch included a ridiculous variety of the basic weapons. Grappling hooks were introduced early and caught on quickly, most noticeably in the 3wave CTF mod. There is a plethora of different weapons in Quake mods – and in “map-mods” (partial conversions where the modified gamecode / assets serve the included levels) as well; Nehahra includes something that’s called the Tsemochian Sprocket, Zerstörer the chainsaw (continuing the DOOM legacy), and toolkits like Quoth also bring new means of destruction to the table.
What counts is that Quake is a game where you shoot enemies with an arsenal of simplistic weapons – and the more creative, ridiculous and unrealistic the carnage, the better. Quake inherited this from DOOM (the game with the BFG, which is short for “Big Fucking Gun”, ask no further).
Quake includes a set of fantastic enemies (monsters).
The official Quake, QTest release, and the mission packs have the player encountering fantastic or mythical things such as dragons, knights, ogres, zombies, mind-controlled former humans (again in the vein of DOOM), and various creatures that seem to stem from either juvenile humour (vomitus), booze infested D&D roleplaying sessions, or an affection towards H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic stories.
Quake is not about headshotting terrorists with your sniper rifle, you see. In fact there are no headshots (locational damage) in the original Quake and the idea never really caught on with mod makers, either. There are also no mercenaries or terrorists or Special Forces soldiers in Quake. The player character is only hypothetically a “space marine”; in reality the player is the player, never talks, and he/she is isolated in a hostile world with a gazillion monsters coming out of teleporters (slipgates) or generally lurking in the dark.
Quake is also not about stealth; it is the furthest thing from a stealth game. Quake is about running into a zombie infested room with a rocket launcher (and encountering something even more horrible and fantastic in the process).
Seeing as some of the monsters in Quake (but not all) draw either their name (Shalrath, Shambler, Shub-Niggurath) or their appearance (shoggoth-like, tentacled, three- legged) from the fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft, some people have chosen to approach their modifications from that angle and add more Lovecraft to Quake. This usually goes with the claim that most of Quake (“atmosphere”) is somehow Lovecraftian, but looking at the entirety of it that’s really not the case. It is a collection of fantastic stuff, but it is not H.P. Lovecraft’s long lost opus. Tropes like huge claws, zombies, and needle teeth are horror staples. Chainsaws are icons of certain ’80s splatter movies more than anything. Knights, dragons, mummies and undead magicians are more reminescent of Dungeons & Dragons than the Cthulhu myth.
At the end of the day, if it is fantastic or horrific or both, it works in Quake.
Quake takes place in fantastic environments.
All of the original Quake’s gameplay takes place in fantastic, often claustrophobic indoor environments. The sky is often visible, and you’ll see places such as courtyards or castle entrances that are open to the sky, but the general rule is that the player is confined to indoor environments. Examples include sci-fi military bases overrun by monsters, research labs where teleporter experiments went out of hand (as in DOOM), fantastic castles and dungeons, netherworld temples and chapels containing “unholy altars”, caves and mines with deadly lava pools, toxic waste dumps, sewers, otherworldly cities and finally places that feel unreal enough to be from entirely different dimensions.
Teleporters (slipgates) and low gravity are considered normal and established in Quake levels. Its environments usually serve no other purpose than to exist (or kill and be killed in), although sometimes they may appear more functional (as in the case of obscure machines, instruments of torture, an entire collection of spiked crushers and other traps, things that are reminescent of prison cells, mining equipment, crates and computers, medieval or fantasy furniture, lifts, light fittings and cables, assorted “tech”, pipes and pumps and so forth). The style of Quake’s (and DOOM’s) environments has been described as “tech dungeon”.
The environment usually conveys a feeling of intimidation and isolation to the player, as if he/she didn’t belong in the place or wasn’t supposed to be seeing it. There is a general atmosphere of decay, age and hostility (Romero on the appearance of DOOM: “We wanted it to look used“).
The more otherworldly, inexplicable, threatening and possibly lethal an environment is, the better.
Quake mixes traps and platforming aspects into combat.
The original Quake, and the mission packs even more so, are full of lethal mechanisms, deadly hazards and moving parts: wall mounted nail or laser shooters, a variety of crushers and squishers (spiked, pointy or otherwise), explosive boxes of nukage, rolling boulders, swinging axes, buzz saws, lightning traps, guillotines, lava, toxic slime, annoying moving floors dropping the player into hazards, moving walls revealing monsters (aka monster closets), floating explosive spikemines and so forth. This ties into the idea of a hostile environment. It is a great shame that many custom maps don’t make full use of traps; they are ubiquitous and well established in the original game and the mission packs. A lot of this was inherited from DOOM; although people tend to remember DOOM for its insane amount of monsters, that game is full of crushers (since you can do that with a simple door), explosive barrels and toxic waste pools.
In short, Quake is full of environmental hazards.
The platforming aspect of Quake is even more overlooked, but it is there. It was pointed out to me that certain areas of Quake’s E3M4, Satan’s Dark Delight, are rather classic platforming gameplay (moving trains section). If you look closely, you can find platforming elements in many of the original maps, such as balancing / jumping over lava or even just hopping from platform to platform across a monster infested canyon (E2M2). This kind of thing can become as simple or complex as desired, but it is well established in Quake.
Quake’s game flow is simple.
Quake’s gameplay consists mainly of two things: a) movement and b) dealing with obstacles.
Movement includes general movement, minor platforming, and exploration. Quake’s movement is very intricate and sometimes challenging; things like air control and bunnyhopping come to mind. The player may exploit this just for fun, or the environment may require it. Good movement requires skill and gives the player an advantage. Grappling hooks and new moves like walljumps etc. belong here. Crazy movement is absolutely in line with the original Quake.
Platforming and “jumping puzzles” obviously get easier with advanced movement skills. There usually isn’t too much of it in Quake levels anyway, though it may be required in some spots (and has often been in custom levels).
Exploration can mean that levels might be slightly nonlinear (although all original Quake levels are ultimately pretty linear); it also means looking for secrets. This is actually worth mentioning, since secrets act as a motivation for exploring and add replay value (number of secrets found is displayed at the end of a level, as well as the number of monsters killed).
While the player moves through a map, they will also constantly pick up items (much like in Pac-Man, actually).
Obstacles come in the form of monsters, doors, hazards and puzzles. Killing monsters is usually straightforward, unless the game throws a lot of them at you or their behaviour has been modified. This is one area where modern Quake levels differ from the original game a lot; the monster count is often much higher (and sometimes humungous), probably in an attempt to raise the difficulty to a level that is still challenging for veteran players, and not much regard is given to skill settings (although original Quake has well defined skill settings). AI in Quake is typically stupid; monsters will simply shoot or charge at the player. Not much has been done to improve this, since it’s usually seen as trademark behaviour (“arcade like”). It remains to be seen how much AI would be acceptable in Quake without changing the core formula too much. It should be noted that improving monster AI is a possible way to raise difficulty without requiring higher monster counts, though.
It should be noted that Quake’s combat is typically speedy and movement (circle strafing, “shambler dancing”, etc) plays a big part; the relation of monster hitpoints (health) to player weapon damage is generally weighted towards the player, although not as strongly as in DOOM (a single shotgun blast is enough to kill the most common DOOM monsters, this is not the case in vanilla Quake). Monster hitpoints (and player weapon damage) directly affect the tempo of combat; where monsters die faster (in fewer hits) the game will feel more speedy. And while you can use ducking behind cover in Quake to avoid damage between shots (“corner wanking”), Quake isn’t really that kind of game. It is (in true DOOM fashion) meant to be a run-and-gun shooter.
Skill settings in Quake mostly add more monsters on Normal and Hard skill. On Nightmare, monsters will simply attack recklessly and not go into pain animations (which they do constantly on lower skill settings, giving the player time to attack). Skill settings in Quake do not affect monster health or damage by default, unlike many modern games. Unlike DOOM, Quake does not have a skill setting where dead enemies respawn (DOOM Nightmare skill).
Doors (and lifts, bridges, forcefields, laser barriers etc.) often require pressing/shooting switches to (de)activate, alternatively the player must collect keys. Original Quake only has two keys, but mods have added more. How the keys look is irrelevant anyway as far as gameplay is concerned. Switches/keys and locked doors are used as an excuse to force the player to explore, pretty much, and as a result encounter more monsters etc.
Hazards usually take the form of traps, lava etc. as explained above. Their function is to break up the combat-heavy gameplay and add variation so the game doesn’t totally degrade into a clickfest. Traps should require a minimum amount of thinking or timing (getting the player to “think on their feet”). Traps can be seen as the added spice. Let it be noted that traps are a difficulty modifier as well.
The absence of traps/hazards from a game or level can be interpreted to mean that it’s less varied, less challenging and less encouraging the player to think at all, instead relying exclusively on combat (which requires reflexes, not thinking).
Puzzles can serve the same function as hazards, and act as a break from shooting stuff (I’m not talking about “jumping puzzles” here, those are platforming and hence movement related rather than real puzzles). Puzzles typically require the player to stop and think, as opposed to “thinking on their feet”. Original Quake doesn’t have a lot of puzzling, which is understandable due to the focus on movement and shooting the place up. There is however one puzzle element that was introduced in the mission packs: pushable blocks. These pushables have been used in landmark mods like Nehahra as well, but this is still a less-explored element of Quake. Puzzles are clearly obstacles and related to switches; they’re like a more complex form of switch, for example pushing a block might be required to access a secret area. Obviously, the more complex a puzzle is, the more it starts to counteract the prime directive of run-and-gun gameplay so this is a matter of balance. Puzzles introduce additional difficulty; more complex puzzles should probably be optional challenges that give special rewards to the player.
Quake is never too complex, nor too boring.
The overall complexity of the game is determined by a combination of factors; size of environment, movement requirements or inhibitions, amount of monsters, their AI, number of locked doors etc. with their corresponding means of opening and physical distance between doors and keys etc., amount and complexity of hazards, and amount and complexity of puzzles. A map that relies exclusively on combat is not very complex, even if the monster count is humungous. Original Quake maps are pretty varied and generally of a medium complexity, in spite of comparatively low monster count.
Note that a bigger map will not only require more monsters, but also more locked doors/switches/keys/hazards in order to maintain the same level of complexity. This is often overlooked.
Complexity is not the same as difficulty.
The means of progress in vanilla Quake are limited to simple running, swimming (which is really running under water), jumping and a couple staircases at most; lifts and moving platforms are the most complex means of progressing through the original maps. Starting in the mission packs already, things like ladders are introduced, thus adding climbing. There is no ducking/crouching in Quake, and consequently there are no dedicated crawl spaces. None of the official releases have vehicles (or jet packs), although partial/total conversions added those relatively early (Malice comes to mind). A special kind of progression in Quake is the use of so-called “wind tunnels” which suck the player through a tube or pipe into a different area. Another is the use of explosives to propel oneself through the air (“rocket jumping” etc). Both of these are only occasionally required/provided by level design, but they are a good way to add variation. The grappling hook hasn’t traditionally been used in singleplayer, but if it is, it adds another (skill-driven, so the grapple is a difficulty modifier as well) movement type to the game and increases complexity.
Storyline and direction
Put simply, original Quake has the same story as DOOM, which is to say, you’re a lone space marine who must save the world because monsters are invading through teleporters. This is never actually told to you during the game though. Thus, the game has no story other than what actually happens (kill monsters, find exit). Consequently, there are no cutscenes or non-player characters (NPCs). The ingame storytelling is limited to a text screen after you beat each of the four episodes and the boss map, similar to DOOM. These blurbs are full of obscure remarks about evil-looking “runes” with netherworldly powers. What these things actually do is act as keys, nothing more.
And that’s also the entire amount of how direction and guidance is given to the player. Not at all, except for stereotypical centerprints such as “You need the X key to open this door”, “Opens from the other side” or “Something opened”. Otherwise the player is tossed in an environment full of monsters and given a shotgun – that’s pretty self explaining indeed. The entire rest of it is about opening doors; the player never sees any friendly NPCs, there is no communication with any outside, and the communication between player and level designer is kept to an absolute minimum – “You, get X key.”
Quake does have a chasecam feature, which is rarely exploited or required though. It also has a camera entity that’s only used to show static scenes from a level during intermissions (after beating the level, ie it shows scenes the player already knows – practically the past).
Partial conversions started to make use of cameras and cutscenes (both first and third person) pretty quickly though, usually to tell a story. Examples are “Zerstörer” and “Nehahra”. The latter made massive use of NPCs as well, both in and outside of cutscenes.
Storytelling and atmosphere enhancement (injured marines would be a typical use of NPCs) have been the main applications of those tools; however, there are different uses that haven’t been explored much. A cutscene might just as well be used to guide the player through a level (player pushes a switch, camera shows a door opening); motivate the player to explore or keep on playing (camera shows a secret area, camera reveals an area the player might visit later); teach certain gameplay mechanics to the player (tutorial) and possibly more. NPCs are commonly used in escort or defense missions in recent games, as well as fire support for the player (in the process creating the impression of squad warfare or a scenario where the player arrives in the middle of a fight). Friendly and hostile NPCs can engage in a fight by themselves, making the environment seem like a battleground. NPCs can also get items or info to the player, often used as a means for the level designer to guide the player.
As long as cutscenes and NPCs don’t get in the way of the run-and-gun prime directive, they will work in Quake.
So what is Quake, then?
Quake is a game where a lone protagonist shoots fantastic monsters (or other players) with simple, effective weapons in fantastic, otherworldly environments, running and jumping, collecting keys and pressing buttons, using platforms and overcoming various obstacles that provide variation. There isn’t much in the way of a story, but what’s there is about messing up and having to
save the world escape unharmed. The game is never too complex but does usually provide some variation besides the shooting. Gameplay is relatively fast and straightforward. This basic formula can be changed or expanded as long as it’s still about blowing shit up. It is something like a brown version of DOOM with tentacles and real 3D.
If something matches the aforementioned scientific observations, it is most likely Quake.