August 4, 2015

These Halls I Walked: An Homage to Doom and Quake

Over the past few weeks I’ve been going through various computer archives and backing up old decaying data onto a shiney new 2TB drive. Along the way I’ve unearthed various troves of lost treasure, scattered like leaves amidst small piles of portable drives and burned CDs. Among these were files for Doom and Quake, two legendary games from id Software, and which were among the first to crawl out of the primordial ooze of the person shooter (FPS) genre. Indeed, one might argue, they helped make the ooze in the first place.

I looked up the dates for when these games were first released: Doom (1993), Doom II (1994), Quake (1996), Quake 2 (1997), Quake 3: Arena (1999). I was shocked, and I’m going to spill my age here, but I was 12 when Doom was released. I didn’t start playing the Doom games until after Doom II was released, so in actually I was fourteen-ish when these games panned into my field of view. I was sixteen when the Quake launched, and I still remember an all-night LAN party my friends and I had after graduating high-school in 1999, the year Quake 3 was released.

It is remarkable to see transformation in game technology between Doom and Quake 3. In less than 6 years we went from the above image to this:

Quake 3 Custom DM map Lunaran

But more important than the technological progress, id Software’s creations were a defining part of my early life.  I remember playing Doom deathmatches over dial-up internet, as we juggled multiple phone-lines and waved our arms, evoking various incantations that would make the technology work our way.  Once everything was connected, I recall crawling through the dark depths of Doom’s single player levels as my friends and I stalked one another, boomstick in hand.  Later on, we would sneak off to the nearby college campus computer labs to play Doom (and later  Quake) over the university T1 networks.  Multiplayer was where it was at, man!

It was a glorious and transformational time in gaming, unshackled and limitless feeling.  It was a golden age before the heavy hand of corporate suits started stirring the pot; a time where the vanguards of id Software were our underground heroes. Now in my mid-thirties, it’s shocking to look back and see how slowly time seemed to progress then.  I swear that I was playing Quake for half-a-decade at least before Quake 2 was released.  But in reality it wasn’t much more than a year; a fleeting moment.  How could that possibly be?!

Better Chemistry Through Modding

Doom and Quake were, from my standpoint, the birth of the PC game mod (modification) community.  It’s incredible to see how so many of the big giants of the industry today connect directly back to modding.  Team Fortress 2, Valve’s giant money-printing machine, was originally a Quake mod that introduced class-based capture the flag to the world.  There was also Threewave’s Capture the Flag mod, which gave players an off-hand grappling hook they could use to zip around the level.  Don’t even get me started on the Head Hunters mod or Future vs. Fantasy!  Even earlier, I remember playing a Total Conversion (TC) mod for Doom based on Aliens - and it scared the crap out of me.  

Mr. Shambler at your service!

There were so many wild and inventive ideas floating around.  Take the mod Painkeep for example, which among other crazy weapons featured a black hole “Gravity Well” generator that you could throw down and which would slowly suck everything nearby into its gaping maw, gibbing it to pieces.  Nowadays, someone would complain about how imbalanced it was, or that casual gamers would be turned off by it monstrousness. Fools! I remember the Super Heroes mod for Quake 2 that let you customize your own hero by combining different powers, resulting in completely ludicrous gameplay.  The only way to reign in someone's killer combination was to come up with one even more powerful yourself.  That’s the way to handle balance!   Quite honestly, nothing has captured these gaming moments.  Everything is markedly more refined and tempered these days, designed for the masses and not for unfettered enthusiasm.

Half-Life was released in 1998; and while not an id Software game it was right in the middle of this milieu of gaming.  Half-Life was an excellent game on its own of course, and even the deathmatch multiplayer had a enough silly flair to be inventive and enjoyable.  But Half-Life really propelled the modding scene.  It ushered in the release of the Counter-Strike mod, which is one of the major competitive FPS games (recently re-implemented as CS: Global Offensive) and in all likelihood spawned the modern shooter genre. A lesser known fact is that one of Counter-Strike’s original authors, Minh “Gooseman” Le, created the mod Navy Seals for Quake as well as the more well-known Quake 2 mod Action Quake.  I couldn’t even begin to the count the number of hours I’ve spent jumping over the rooftops of Action Quake levels.

The Navy Seals mod for Quake - I didn’t know shell casings came in square (Map: Bovine)

Quake and Half-Life spawned so many other mods as well.  It’s incredible to think that between those two games a lifetime’s worth of gaming was at your fingertips.  Other notable Half-Life mods include Day of Defeat (a WW2 team-based mod), Firearms, Front Line Force, and Natural Selection.  Waves of nostalgia hit me just typing out these names.

The Ancient Art of Mapping

Doom and Quake also saw the birth and evolution of the custom mapping community.  While I was playing all manner of game mods as a player, when it came to mapping I was far more involved in contributing to the community. As an aside, do you want to see what the internet looked like back then?  Take a look at this archived version of the Mr. Doom website - one of the biggest websites around (then) for Doom .wads (file format for Doom levels).  Whoa!  I spent hours scouring around that webpage as a kid, hunting for new Doom levels to play over our temperamental dial-up connections.

Sadly I was NOT actually playing a deathmatch against John Carmack.  It was a bot named John Carmack.  Pure coincidence!  (Map: RF by Pingu)

In any case, as I was digging through my digital file archives, I came across an “HTML” folder with some old file dates.  Inside I found about six different iterations of a Quake map review and news website I ran, having taught myself HTML when I was 15 or so.  The site was hosted on the now defunct Planetquake (curse you IGN!), but the final iteration, Prominence, is still on the internet archive (minus the background image).  It was here I found my “digital home” in the embrace of a great community of custom map authors, primarily for Quake Deathmatch (DM).  A common thread running throughout my time in the quake world was following this group of quake mappers, like some sort of digital groupie, and running the website from about 1997 to 2002.  Not a bad run.

At the time, I was interested (as I still am) in how map design was an artform all on its own.  One of my final posts, which I remember typing in a university computer lab, was Quake as an Art.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Quake is more than a game; it is an abstraction of combat. It is does not strive to be realistic, and so emerges as an original convention. As an abstraction, it is also a form of art; as a simulation, interactive.

The art form for interactive combat is the map.

The mapmakers are the artists. They do not create with paint and canvas, but with design and texture. Quake mapping has a history, a present, and a future. The conventions of mapping have evolved of their own accord. And so will it continue.

This site archives the evolution of mapping, Through both the art and the artists, Presenting the great works for all to revere.

The crudeness and limitations of the quake engine force mapmakers to be innovative. If we all had unlimited resources, we could each conceive of innumerable landscapes on our own, and the beauty and nature of the art would be lost. If painters could paint with utmost realism upon an infinite and three-dimensional canvas, why not simply look at the real world? The very existence of limitation allows astounding works to be recognized for what they are, masterpieces in their own domain.

~ Peekaboom (aka Mezmorki)

A tad esoteric, and I was probably a bit full of it too, but I felt I could address something hard to grasp: that these map makers worked in a growing and evolving ecosystem of design and aesthetics.  Rather than reviewing maps on their own, I organized them by author.  And for many of the authors I spent considerable time trying to track down their map making heritage and inspirations, how one mappers design would spawn a little sub-branch of map styles.  Another editorial post presented the history of DM map making.  It’s interesting to reflect back on the various eras of design trends, similar to what exists in other art forms.  And to consider the name of friends and designers of the time, Headshot, Peej, Mr. Fribbles, Pingu.  The names roll on, and many can still be found on the Func_Msgboard.

EFDM8: Cryptosporidium by Mr. Fribbles.  One of my all time favorite maps from one of my all time favorite map designers.  

Up until a few years ago (like 6 or 7) and before my friends and I started having kids and greater adult responsibilities, we would still have the occasional LAN party.  Invariably, a build of Quake would get passed around the network amidst the Mountain Dew and Dorito dust, and we’d take a trip back down memory lane.  We’d play some good ol’ balls-to-the-walls free for all deathmatch, jumping through the library of Quake maps I had accumulated.  It’s shocking how many of these maps and digital spaces are etched in my memory.  I was discussing a map the other month with a friend, a map that we used to play a decade ago.  I was having trouble describing it, and couldn’t remember the name, so I drew the layout on a napkin.  My friend said, “Oh yeah, you mean de_inferno the Counter-Strike map”.  Crazy, I hadn’t played it in 10 years but drew it nearly perfectly from memory; and he recognized it too.

My Creative Hand

I was also a dabbler in the modding and map design realm.  I suppose that was inevitable given my proclivity towards design and tinkering with games.  My first efforts were with a Doom 2 .wad (level) that I created when I was fourteen.  It was called, appropriately,  “Blood Remix.”  Cool name eh?  I came across the single-player map in my rummages through the archive, so of course I had to find a modern Doom engine that could play.  I accomplished that feat, and for a moment, went back in time.  Everything was just as I left it.  Except that my skills are a bit unpracticed at the moment I got my rear handed to me.

The result of my own timid foray into the world of mapping: Use Me, Abuse Me.  Inspired by the central arena DM map UltraViolence.

I made a number of maps for Quake and Half-Life (Counter-Strike maps).  I really enjoyed it, and probably should have stuck with it more aggressively.  It could have been an inlet into the game design industry, as it was for many of the early mappers in those days.  I made an appropriately named Quake DM map called “Use Me, Abuse Me,” which was great fun but didn’t hold a candle to the kinds of maps produced by the authors I covered through my website.  Still, it was a fun endeavor and I got at least one thing out of it:  learning AutoCad, which I need to use in my professional work, was a sinch!

As I look back on this period of time, one could criticize it for being an incredible waste of time.  But beyond the sheer entertainment value from playing and modding these games, I learned how to teach myself things.  I learned HTML, I learned how to use vector design tools, I learned a little programming, I learned to build computers, I learned photoshop, I learned how to write a little better, I learned how to communicate and be constructive within a community.  All of these things have had a positive impact on the rest of my life.

Graveyards and Bright Lights

The most sombre aspect of this trip down memory lane is that so much of what once was, has been lost.  A week ago, was still running, which had active archives for all of the old PlanetQuake hosted sites.  This included my site but more importantly dozens and dozens of sites made by all the mappers and modders that built the community. And quite frankly had an hand in building the entire FPS genre.  Other old Quake websites seem to be going down with increased frequency, which is a shame.  But many are still up and active it seems, such as InsideQC and QuakeOne. With Quake’s source code having been released at some point during my hiatus, a revival of sorts seems to be afoot, particularly in the single-player mapping world.

As I’ve been uncovering my archives, I’ve been pulling a bunch of it into the active duty roster.  I got a modern Doom engine up and running. I’ll need to play this again. I reassembled a Quake package, replete with 307 custom maps (just my personal favorites) and tried out half-a-dozen new Quake-engines that have been released over the intervening years.  I then loaded up a bot mod (computer DM opponents) and spent a late-night evening blasting away through some of my favorite levels from the past.  I rocket jumped, I grabbed the quad, I strafed, and I gibbed.  It was as it should be.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll host a dedicated server and see if I can rouse my friends, all scattered across the region, for a night of classic fragging.

Nothing like a cold one and a little deathmatch on the tiny map Spank1.

References & Further Reading:


  1. Small correction: Half-Life was released in 1998.

  2. Wonderfully written, I've always felt a calling to Quake as I spent from the age of 10 to 12 playing it non stop on a hand-me-down Windows95 in my bedroom. And vividly remember the day my father bought it for my brother (he was 9 at the time) despite it being rated 15 or so.
    I still create games with the passion and in-depth nature gaming had back in the 90s. :)

    1. Thanks for the memories as well - these were the salad days eh?