Quake II

q2e1433652If you sacrifice a baby, everyone will call you a satanist, regardless of what god you actually did it for.

Remember the Columbine school shootings? They were blamed on the 1993 videogame Doom. It was theorised that Eric “RebDoomer” Harris had played the game for so long that his CRT monitor had become reality (or reality had become his CRT monitor) and that he was as shocked as anyone that his victims in Jefferson County didn’t bleed red pixels.

But in reality, Eric Harris no longer played Doom – he had moved on to Quake. But nobody accused him of being inspired by Quake, because Quake was far less of a cultural sensation than Doom and fewer people had heard of it. Just as every random smart-sounding quote gets attributed to Einstein, truth was sacrificed here for maximal memetic transmission. The Quake-Columbine connection was never made, simply because fewer people had heard of Quake. There’s no outrage to be generated from a game nobody in Middle America has heard of.

Quake 2 was even less of a cultural phenomenon than Quake. Nobody has ever attributed any act of violence to it at all. I wonder if John Carmack feels any regret that this is the case, and if I ever plan a spree shooting, I intend to give Quake 2 a shout-out in my shaky-cam Youtube manifesto. You’re welcome, John. Please pay it forward.

Truthfully, Quake 2 deserves a bit more fame, because it’s actually a better game than Quake. It’s not a brilliant shooter. It just takes the strong points of Quake, sticks bandaids over the weak points of Quake, and hopes you don’t notice. Often, you don’t.

The story’s a paragraph in the manual, as usual. Aliens have invaded, ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT, et cetera. But effort has been made to make the gameworld feel like a real place. Spaceships swoop overhead like steel-winged birds. You explore areas with a recognisable purpose (a factory, a mine, a waste processing facility). Environments are somewhat responsive to your actions (you can blow holes in walls and smash panes of glass). Little touches like how enemies duck your shots and switch weapons on the fly are nice. 3D graphics are useless if you still feel like a rat in a maze, and Quake 2 goes a long way towards immersing the player in a believable world.

The weapons and enemies are fun (although there’s nothing as visually striking as the Shambler or the Cyberdemon), and the graphics aren’t that far behind Unreal’s. The game flows well, eschewing obvious “level breaks” for a more unified feel (instead of finishing a level, you walk to a door, experience a brief load screen, and then pick up where you left off.) The soundtrack is excellent. Apparently Sonic Mayhem had no idea how to write metal while he was recording it, and this strangely works. He avoids most of metal’s cliches, just because he’s not aware of them.

The only bad thing you can say about Quake 2 is that it’s a koala bear.

Evolution proceeds stage by stage. If you want C, you first must have B, and if you want B, you first must have A. This approach means there’s not much scope for a wildly novel trait to emerge. You cannot go from A all the way to Z in a single step. If a mutant koala was born with wings, it would be maladapted. Its body shape is not designed for flying. It’s not energetic enough for the rigors of powered flight. Maybe in a few million years a nearly unrecognisable descendant of the koala bear would have wings, but nearly every single one of the animal’s traits would have to change before wings, as a design, makes sense. Which gets bad, considering that the world doesn’t always give you a few million years. Right now, we’re razing the bush. The koala bear’s habitat is disappearing. It’s in a place where it needs an A-Z change, it needs wings, and it needs to modify very quickly or else it will die. But it won’t, because it can’t. Such is the way of evolution. Every strata level of the fossil record is littered with the calcified bones of the ones who died.

Games don’t exactly “evolve” in the way animals do. It is, in principle, possible for a new game with wildly novel traits to emerge. But the majority of games made are basically designed along the principle of “something that sold last season – with a few small tweaks.” Quake 2 fits this description. No drastic steps or changes, just gentle refinement of ideas presented in Quake. And just like real life, sometimes this takes you to an evolutionary dead end. The videogame industry (famously) crashed in 1983, as gamers wearied of generic, low-quality, nearly identical games. They were getting wise to the fact that Ms Pacman was just Pacman with a ribbon and lipstick. Incremental changes don’t work if the entire phenotype can no longer survive.

Quake 2 did not crash the industry. But it’s now very dated, and represents a style of FPS gaming that is no longer in fashion. The commercially viable FPS games are big, cinematic experiences, with Hans Zimmer scores and 3 hours of cutscenes. Quake has a tiny amount of that, but it baby-steps where Half-Life and Deus Ex pole vault.

I’ve played Quake 2’s single player mode a few times, along with some custom levels (the game never inspired the same level of interest in the modding community that the original did, either). It has yielded up most of its secrets. It’s a good game. It’s also a time capsule, and a look into a fossilized past.

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