The Exigent Duality
Quake Retrospective - 13:21 CDT, 6/01/21 (Sniper)
I've been picking my way through Linneman and Audi's "Quake" video, and am finding it to be unsatisfying-- not because the material isn't exceptional, but rather for the reason that more than any other game in my life, "Quake" holds a special place for me: at the risk of sounding cheesy, I have my own "story" with it, and no video made by someone else can come close to representing my view of that title.


Childhood

My dad and I assembled an IBM PC Clone kit in 1989-- a 386SX with 4 meg. of RAM-- and I played a ton of EGA DOS games on that system. We didn't have a sound card or even a mouse: it was strictly a DOS PC. In 1991 we bought a Gravis Gamepad-- which was the standard PC controller all the way until the late 90s-- and it came bundled with this game called "Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons", which introduced me to a new company called "id Software". Up until something like 1997, my friends and I all pronounced it "Eye-dee", not knowing any better.

I recall being home sick from elementary school one day, playing my way through that first "Commander Keen" episode. I really liked the minimalistic, evocative artwork, and that the character was thematically reminiscent of "Calvin" from "Calvin & Hobbes"-- a comic strip I was obsessed with at the time.

I was ten in 1992 when "Wolfenstein 3D" came out, and my best friend at the time and I played it non-stop: we both had the official hint guide with all of the maps in it-- it was one of the first video games I truly fell in love with, and I still play it all of the time.


Doom

Via a screenshot in a printed mail order catalog of what I later found out was an "imp" throwing a fireball, I realized that the guys who made "Wolf3D" had made a new game, apparently called "Doom". A few days later, my dad walked into the house with a floppy of the shareware version. I played it for maybe a half an hour, shrugged-- "Meh"-- and went back to the aforementioned Nazi killing predecessor: in that first impression, I much preferred the more colorful style of "Wolf3D", the human enemies with actual voice acting, the flat levels, and so forth.

But, I gave this latest id release a second chance, then a third, and it grew on me to the point where it eventually became one of my favorite games. I even bought a thick hint guide with all of the maps in it, and made some levels of my own which my best friend and I would play via modem-to-modem. Of course, our parents would mess up our "deathmatches" by picking up the phone half the time, but that was part of the charm and novelty of that era: what we were doing shouldn't have been possible in the first place!

Incidentally, it's hard to overstate how scary "Doom" was at the time, especially for a kid my age. I remember standing outside the door where you encounter the first "pinky demon", hearing that snarling sound effect, and just not wanting to open the door: some of these enemies were as big as the player, and almost as fast!

The map editors in those days-- I think the one I used was called "Deep"-- required you to draw the "sectors" in a counter-clockwise manner, otherwise they wouldn't render correctly in the game. "Doom" level editing in those early days was very time consuming, as just making two hallways with a door between was cumbersome, especially if you wanted to change a sector later-- have fun re-drawing half the map.

One time I made a level with a one-way invisible wall, adjoining a hallway filled with barrels, with the "hidden" part accessible only via a secret door. I played my friend and kept pot-shotting him with the pistol, or damaging him by blowing up barrels: he had no idea how he was even taking damage! "Who is shooting me??" I could see him, but he couldn't see me! Finally, he caught me going into the secret door, and the gig was up.


Quake

About this time, John Romero was writing a lot on his .plan file about this new game they were working on, where you could move all of your limbs separately-- the game was set in this big open world, you could meet with rival factions, one of your team hiding up in a tree to snipe their leader in a sort of Yakuza-like betrayal...

As I found out decades later when I read "Masters of Doom" a few years ago, "Quake" was a project from hell: there was a huge rift in the team, where Romero-- just like during "Wolf3D" development-- wanted to do something really ambitious, while the rest of the team desired to keep it simple. Meanwhile, Carmack just could not get the culling working correctly in his new engine-- practically having a mental breakdown in the process, forcing him to bring in help in the form of Abrash-- causing the rest of the team to re-do levels five or even six times, or even to just sit idle waiting.

The first screenshots leaked-- by now, the game had a name in "Quake"-- and I was mesmerized. I had two dreams in those days: the first was playing a game like "Doom" but in full 3D like "Virtua Racing" in the arcades-- which was another title I loved-- with floors-above-floors and all of that; the second dream was doing "POV-RAY" so fast that it could be done in real-time-- a dream which was realized for me when I bought my RTX 2080 in 2018, right when Nvidia's "Turing" launched.

But back to "Quake", I breathlessly read the id team's .plan files religiously every day, amd absorbed every small information morsel.


QTest

In very late 1995 or very early 1996, my dad and I had built a Pentium 133 system with 16 meg. of RAM, a SoundBlaster Pro, and a nice video card. We also jumped from CompuServe to an internet-proper service, which we used in our dual-booting DOS/Windows 3.11 and OS/2 Warp setup. I was rapidly introduced to new concepts such as Gopher, FTP, IRC, Usenet, and the Mosaic web browser. I taught myself HTML and started making my first-ever web sites.

This was also right in the middle of the 3DO era for me, and one evening I was at my friend's house participating in a real-time chat-- what young kids these days call an "AMA"-- with Trip Hawkins via AOL. When it was our turn, we asked him if any 3D fighters were coming out on the system, to which he replied "We have a lot of exciting software, yada yada yada, one coming out is called 'Ballz', look for that."

We all know how "Ballz" turned out: it was a far cry from "Virtua Fighter" or "Tekken", to put it mildly, and wasn't even "3D".

In any event, right in the middle of this chat session, we checked the AOL game news section in a separate window, and: QTest had just been uploaded to id's FTP server! Being only 14 and not having driver's licenses, we called my dad and asked him to bring us to my house-- simultaneously, I had another one of my friends have his mom drop him off too.

We got a bunch of candy and soda from the convenience store near my home at the time, and waited for QTest to download. It was getting late, maybe 21:00 or 22:00, but I'd gotten permission from my mom to essentially have an all-nighter with my friends.

The download finished, we installed it, ran the .exe file, and... how the heck do you play this thing? We were stuck at what looked like a DOS prompt within the game! We dialed up to the internet and checked Carmack's .plan file-- "open dm1", and "connect [ip addr]" to join a server. We wrote those commands down on a napkin, dutifully restarted the game, typed "open dm1", and I proceeded to have one of the three most incredible video game experiences of my life (in chronological order: "Road Rash" on 3DO, "Quake" on DOS, and "Mario 64" on the Nintendo 64).


3D

QTest was so startling that we initially just stood in place, gasping at the gothic architecture. We hit the arrow keys, and slowly started traversing this 3D space, which was by a mile the most immersive thing we'd ever experienced. We spent almost a full ten minutes strafing around an ammo crate: "you can see it differently from all directions!" Then we walked under a bridge, then over the same bridge, using the "PGDN" key to look over the edge.

At one point we fell into the water, and clipped through the bottom of the map, or so we'd thought: "haha, funny bug!" But then we realized: this isn't like the water in "Doom", where you just walk on top of it-- in QTest, you can go in the water! We hadn't clipped through the level: we were swimming! While you could "swim" in Duke3D, it looked nothing like this, where you could look and swim in all directions, in true 3D, with an incredible wavering graphical effect.

My imagination immediately went into overdrive: in "Quake", you could make underwater 3D mazes! Just think of the possibilities!

Finally, we decided to connect to a server: a list of IP addresses were floating around-- we plugged one in, spawned into DM3, and immediately got fragged by a rocket. The guy who killed us typed, "We move fast here." Our jaws were on the floor: we were playing deathmatch with random, anonymous people over the internet, and several of them at once! We sat up all night playing, and got so good at the multi-second delay between pressing keys and having it manifest on-screen that we could strafe around corners-- again, with the keyboard mind you-- and peg people who were running at us post-turn.

Recall that this was mere hours after QTest hit the FTP server. My friends and I were three of the first maybe thousand people to ever play a deathmatch game and land a frag over the internet, in the entire history of the medium, where perhaps hundreds of millions of "frags" are earned every day across hundreds of titles: it's a badge of honor, of sorts.

At some point, someone figured out how to spawn beta versions of the enemies into the QTest maps, and even released "hacked" versions with enemies pre-placed in logical spots. Seeing a fully 3D "Shambler" for the first-time was astonishing: you could even land and stand on his head, because he was polygonal!


Shareware and Mouse Look

The "/" key toggled free look, and people quickly found out that if you hit that key, you could move your mouse around and aim that way-- even up and down!-- instead of with the keyboard. I was one of the first people to adopt "mouse look"-- my dad and I had this trackball, and a competitive breach developed between keyboard players, who you could always identify because they were shooting the stairs beneath you instead of you, and mouse players.

It might sound strange by today's standards to play a game like "Quake" with a trackball, but recall that this was the birth of a whole new genre: there were no rules, no standards, "WASD" wouldn't be "a thing" until the 2000s, and people played with whatever they had. One of my arch-rivals used a flight stick, and he was a top-drawer player.

I was playing three or four hours per day at this point, and after a few months the full-on shareware version came out. I wasn't big on some of the changed sound effects-- especially the removal of the incredible and gruesome QTest player fall sound-- and I thought the single player was kind of boring: it was like Doom, but with all of the personality removed.

But the deathmatch was better than ever, and that was all that mattered to me. On top of it, some guy figured out how to hack the BSP file format, and released screenshots of the first-ever custom "Quake" map: a single cube room. Very soon after he made a level editor, and in a matter of weeks a "modding" community was born.

I pleaded with my parents to let me pre-order the full version. They eventually relented, and I vividly, like it was yesterday, remember the whole phone conversation I had with the lady at id who took my order. I could tell that she could tell from my voice how young and nervous I was, so she was super friendly and patient with me as she took down the card info, and placed my order.

It felt like years that I had to wait: every day over summer vacation when I saw the mail truck, I'd sprint to the mailbox to see if it was there. Otherwise, I was playing five or six hours per day at that point, becoming very prolific at running the maps systematically, scooping up the rocket launcher and various armors the instant they'd re-spawn, then using my advantage to rack up massive frag leads at chokepoints.

Every week or two Carmack would release a new version, which you'd "pkunzip" over the top of the directory. I remember being really excited to see what had been changed, both in single player and deathmatch.


The Assassins

Finally, the day came: I opened the mailbox, and there it was-- this sexy, almost leathery-feeling cardboard flip envelope containing the game disc and manual-- I still have it in a box somewhere. I installed it and did an all-nighter, playing through all four episodes. In the ensuing weeks and months, my skills continued to grow, and I became one of the most prolific players on the internet: I could join essentially any server at any time, and win matches by sometimes twenty or thirty frags.

I even remember seeing some "celebrity" names appear in matches I was playing. For example, there was a guy named "Lord Soth" who ran probably the most popular shareware pages on the very young web, and I went up against-- and handily beat-- him on a few occasions.

There was a secret way to get colored text and special characters into your name, and I made a script which would auto-run on every game startup, to configure my "Sniper" player name, set my player "skin" colors of aquamarine top with beige bottom, and set up my custom control scheme: left alt for back, Z and X for strafe left and right respectively, and right mouse button to go forward. I even set up a toggleable mode which would take a screenshot every time I got a frag!

In those days, The Quake Stomping Grounds, Redwood's News, and Blue's News were my main sites-- the first one being based right out of Murderapolis, where I lived! They would run competitions where you'd record an in-game demo trying to accomplish some arbitrary task they'd made up, as quickly as possible-- then you'd "pkzip" the demo file, and upload it to their FTP server. They also maintained one of the best IP address server lists.

Windows 95 had come out by then, but my dad was such an OS/2 Warp fan, and didn't like Microsoft, so deep in 1996 I was still playing from DOS, using a command line-based TCP/IP TSR to dial up and hold the internet connection. In one of the patches, Carmack must have altered the network code, and my chat messages would take in order of five minutes to get to the other players. That became moot when, very late in 1996, my father finally broke down and bought Win95.

In "Quake", people would append their clan tag to the end of their name, ensconced in brackets. You always knew the hardcore players by which ones were in a clan. One day I kicked the butts of these guys with "[ASN]" suffixes, and I exchanged email addresses with their leader, a dude named "Raistlin".

Turns out the clan was called "The Assassins", and he invited me to a tryout on their own server! Unfortunately, I wound up being late, because I didn't know how to resolve a server name to an IP address: everyone kept telling me to type "ping", but it took me a while to figure out about what they were talking.

I finally connected, and they watched to see if I knew how to do things like circle strafing, rocket jumping, and how well I'd memorized the maps: I showed them how in a given map "A", if I heard water followed by an elevator followed by an ammo crate sound, I knew exactly where the player was and which way they were going. In fact, I could deliberately do things out of order, to fool other advanced players, so I could sneak up behind them!

Needless to say, I got into the clan, and immediately became the top player for them.


Bossman

One day, Raistlin made an announcement: due to other commitments he had to "retire" from the game, and he was handing over full control to Sniper-- me!

I immediately created a new web site for the clan, themed black and camouflaged forest green, complete with framesets and cool animated buttons which would "light up" yellow when you'd hover over them. I embedded a MIDI file of "To Make the End of Battle", as I'd made it the official clan theme song. I found out decades later that the song was written by Yuzo Koshiro, who was my favorite video composer at the time based on his work in "The Revenge of Shinobi" and the "Streets of Rage" games-- mind blown!

But back on topic: I grew the clan from twenty members to over fifty, broke them into sub-squads based on skill level, and managed all of the match and practice scheduling. The clan was almost exclusively college guys in their twenties: one of them once asked me, "Sniper, how old are you?", and he was astonished when I replied with "fourteen". "Our boss is just a kid, holy crap!"

I remember being disappointed with myself, because I would "choke" in matches against other big clans: I'd still be the top player between both teams, but not by as wide of a margin as I should have, and sometimes we'd add up the scores afterwards and wind up having lost by literally two frags-- if only I'd played better! But, over time I got better at harnessing the nervousness in order to focus, versus letting it control me-- something which continues to serve me well in competitive settings to this day.


Quakeworld

One day Carmack made a big announcement on his .plan file; paraphrasing: "I invented this cool thing called 'client side prediction'-- instead of having to wait for your player to move, the player will move instantly on your side, and sync up with everyone else in the background. It'll sometimes make your player jerk around a little, but it'll be way better than what we have now."

This updated network code was included in a brand new "Quake" client, which id named "Quakeworld": it had a refreshed menu, the ability to have custom player skins (I quickly got used to playing against skeletons), a built-in server browser (!), and even a global ranking system.

Incidentally, the ranking system was putting so much pressure on people that Carmack yanked it just a few patches due to complaints. Meanwhile, the server browser was quickly superseded by a neat external application called "Quakespy", which eventually got renamed to "Gamespy" after "Half-Life" came out. All the same, those were neat, novel features, even if they didn't wind up catching on at the time, in the form they were in.

But I digress: the clan and I did extra practice sessions to adapt to this bizarre sensation of instant feedback, which almost felt like single player!


GL Quake

At some point I saw screenshots of "GL Quake", with transparent water, and knew I had to experience it. By this point I'd finally built my own PC, a Pentium 166 MMX system. I bought my first 3D accelerator, the cheapest thing I could find in the form of a "Matrox m3d" and dropped it in. I still have that card, in a box behind me as I type this.

You would pre-bake the transparent water by feeding your map pack files into a "vis BSP" DOS command. As early as "Quake 2" that "m3d" card had this weird issue with "tiled" lighting, where the game world would look like a giant checkerboard-- but in the original "GL Quake", which was all I wanted it for, the card worked great-- and I think it only cost $60 or something ridiculous like that.


Other Anecdotes and Aftermath

Over time, The Assassins started to peter out as players-- even myself-- moved on to other things. On my account, John Romero had made the shocking announcement that he was leaving id: I couldn't believe it! Then the "Quake 2" shareware hit, and I just couldn't get into its sci-fi atmosphere like I did the Lovecraftian stuff from the first title.

Nonetheless and by now well into high school, my friend Cake-O-Demon and I still played a lot of this new sequel: we'd sit up all night at his house on his father's Pentium II 300 in their unfinished basement drinking soda, alternating matches, and taking breaks to play on his dad's foosball table (I became a very good foosball player during high school and college), using their wonderful ISDN line (meaning I was an LPB'er on those nights). I recall one incident involving this major trash talker-- Cake randomly fired a rocket upwards from beneath the opaque water, and nailed the guy as the dude was running across a bridge-- we only knew so from the terminal message along the top of the screen. What were the odds of that happening! But I never loved "Quake 2", and never got particularly good at it.

As the 3DO was dead, I'd also bought myself a PSX in early 1997, and games like "Crash Bandicoot", "Battle Arena Toshinden", and "Tekken 2" were consuming a lot of my time, on top of a myriad of other DOS and Win95-based PC games. Eventually I folded the clan, and essentially said goodbye to all of the friends I'd made.

On top of that, in 1998 my favorite game company (id was second), Epic Megagames, released their own first-person shooter in the form of "Unreal". I could write an equally long blog post about that game, and you can even find some of my old, crappy ".unr" map files on the web if you search for them. "Unreal" finally and definitively ended any desire I had to play "Quake" ever again. Just a year after that, "Shogo" hit, and added story telling to the genre in a way I found positively mesmerizing, further removing me from "Quake".

To drive the point home for good, observe how "Quake" doesn't even show up on my top games of all-time list: as huge a part of my life as it was when it was bleeding edge, I viewed and view it as completely superseded by newer games, such as "Unreal Tournament" (from 1999): the single player in "Quake" wasn't ever very good anyway, and in general it's simply not one of those titles I revisit like I do "Wolfenstein 3D" and "Doom", which have better stood the test of time.

But back to the main thread: looking back on it, to think that all of the above happened in probably only eighteen months is startling, considering how later in life I went from ages 30 to 40-- ten whole years!-- in the blink of an eye. To this day, I almost get misty-eyed when I think back on "Quake", and everything it brought to me in eighth and ninth grades.

I'll leave with two final anecdotes: being a huge Bobby Prince fan, I entered into a raffle on his website at bpmusic.com to win one of only four autographed "Doom Music CDs", where he remixed Doom music on fancy Roland hardware, and set up the track order to "make sense" while playing "Quake". Lo and behold, I won one of those, and still have it!

The other tidbit is that as I entered high school, I was hard at work writing a deathmatch guide in a notebook. I recall one segment being, "if someone is shooting rockets at you, close the gap as quickly as possible-- that way even if they hit you, they'll take themselves out as well from the splash damage."