“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie.” John Carmack once said, when id’s Tom Hall was getting too caught up in the deep lore of hit 1995 classic shooter Doom during development. “It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” In 1996 id Software released a game called Quake.
Q: Do you remember? What was Quake’s story?
The manual tells us: “Background: You get the phone call at 4 a.m. By 5:30 you’re in the secret installation. The commander explains tersely, “It’s about the Slipgate device. Once we perfect these, we’ll be able to use them to transport people and cargo from one place to another instantly.””
So this slipgate; hot new scifi tech, for transporting people and places apparently. Quake is Michael Crichton then, isn’t it? The folly of technology run amok, of mad new science taking us into deep dark places. Jurassic Park and all that. The slipgate is a teleporter and we’re pretty clear something has gone wrong. That’s the plot? That’s what this is all about?
Picture 1996. No more Cold War, no more communism. Tom Clancy was doing eco-terrorists, American movies had renegade Russians. Crichton’s Jurassic Park – and the Spielberg movie – showed the threat as our own eggheads, the boffins hooked on tech and the capitalists who exploited them. Eco-terrorists were the dark side of capitalism’s growth, the dawning realisation of our own role in mass-scale environmental destruction; evil Russian generals were the karma of our role in the suicide of the USSR. All the calls came from inside the house in the nineties. And the ‘slipgate’ – emblematic of something. A scifi cliché from the fifties, from the sixties, recycling from Doom too, but while Doom only gives us ‘teleportation experiments’ in the manual Quake has already explained the rationale for the slipgate – transporting people and cargo. It took until 2016 for Doom’s UAC megacorp to gain an anchoring in reality with its Mars facility being reinvented as a means to harvest “hell energy” to sustain a depleted earth, a very 2010s kind of concern. But Quake in just these sentences moors the slipgate in real concerns. It’s about the Slipgate device, the commander explains tersely. A device with a purpose that we can guess was supposed to be good, for all of humanity. Our dinosaurs have gotten loose and our eco-terrorists have engineered a virus to punish us for our sins and the contradiction of our own ambition threatens to swallow us whole.
In Doom the contextless UAC’s space bases have been sabotaged by the emergence of the forces of hell. An ancient evil but a familiar one. We know in Doom that we are always upon the heroic side, because the other side is the oldest villain in any of the books. In Quake? “An enemy, codenamed Quake, is using his own slipgates to insert death squads inside our bases to kill, steal, and kidnap. “The hell of it is we have no idea where he’s from. Our top scientists think Quake’s not from Earth, but another dimension. They say Quake’s preparing to unleash his real army, whatever that is.”You’re our best man. This is Operation Counterstrike and you’re in charge. Find Quake, and stop him … or it … You have full authority to requisition anything you need. If the eggheads are right, all our lives are expendable.”
Doom was lightning in a bottle, a magic formula, hacked together in a haze of mad genius by id’s giants – John Carmack, John Romero and the boys – before they got big, before they were rich, by the skin of their teeth. The goal was simple because the goal of the game was simple, because life before success is always simple. Easier the day before the revolution than the day after. Quake, would-be fantasy RPG cut into the shape of a Doom-esque FPS, had a tortured development, and was the last game where that team of industry legends were all together – it was the uncertainty of post-revolutionary politics, the nightmare of the second album. What do you do after you’ve stormed the capital? Who is the enemy for our military to be pointed at, for our shining city to stand guard against? Who is the bad guy in our thematically-incoherent overhyped 1996 first-person shooter? Quake is the enemy. What is Quake? “We have no idea where he’s from.” Or it…a mystery beckons, a foe that is defined by opposing us, that comes across as formless, shapeless. The slipgate has not been perverted by demons – big goat-headed guys who, well, we know what they’re up to – but by a shadowy presence that is using it to ‘”insert death squads” into “our” bases.
We sit up in our chair. Bases? The slipgate, we realise, is a military technology. People and cargo sure does sound like a kind of standard-issue bureaucratic euphemism, used by militaries everywhere to cover up what the truth of the thing is; here we can guess that people and cargo means soldiers and guns. What is happening in Quake’s setting? The sure world of Doom in its black-and-white abstraction has been twisted up…mysterious terrorists, perhaps inhuman ones, are targeting our bases, and the suggestion, as in any of these 1990s narratives, is that the provocation might as well be spiritual, not material…the presence of the slipgate has invited Quake in from afar, because it is obvious that the existence of teleportation technology with military application is a development we must be karmically punished for…the military-industrial complex, in other words, is the direct instigator of the threadbare plot of Quake – witness the vast bases filled with mutilated soldiers (“goons with probes inserted into their pleasure centres;” the manual tells us, “wired up so when they kill someone, they get paroxysms of ecstasy. In essence, customized serial killers”…did Quake do this, or-?) that might one day posses the ability, via slipgate, to send these soldiers elsewhere – slipgate in customized serial killers to China, Latin America, unruly places in Africa, and…let us imagine American soldiers (surely they are) telefragging Marxist rebels worldwide, the slipgate saving IBM from supply chain issues when there’s a civil war in the Congo, Enforcers “in combat armour” with “built-in blasters” storming Saddam Hussein’s palace, after a slipgate arrival in the main hall, to finally give that bastard what for…
But Quake, whatever it is, is here to put paid to these utopian visions. The military is fighting back with “Operation Counterstrike”, and you are in charge, and your job is to stop Quake; to stop the punishment we’re due for our perverse dream of slipgate-led military supremacy. But “the eggheads” are saying Quake is dreaming bigger things than simply stopping the slipgate, and that it is no interdimensional activist group but something more sinister. Quake is not just a villain but the villain of the Pax Americana, the Opponent who wishes to stand before the rumbling blood-machine of American military-economic supremacy – in the era where the revolutionary bourgeois state par excellence is supreme, reduced from plucky outsider to big boss, kingpin, status-quo-maintainer, all activisms in American eyes, whether communist or environmentalist or Islamic or etc. are reduced to Quake – the conviction is, without evidence, that Quake must be up to something worse than what we are, and that the fruits of its actions – its destruction of the US’s prototypical slipgate installations – hide an inner Satan that must have darker plans, that must be stood up against (you don’t want to do appeasement 1938-style on these alien bastards, do you?). The Soviet Union’s stirring rhetoric about workers of the world, unite and so on disguised its secret tyranny and the environmentalists or activists or do-gooders are, surely, motivated by crude personal concerns that undermine their noble words…unlike the Puritans, who on the contrary might do wrong on occasion (Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Hiroshima etc.) but still remain at their core unsullied…Quake, we know, seems to have done nothing but try to stop us from having toys we perhaps should not have. But we know that it must be stopped.
How does that go? we ask.
“While scouting the neighborhood, you hear shots back at the base. Damn, that Quake bastard works fast! He heard about Operation Counterstrike, and hit first. Racing back, you see the place is overrun. You are almost certainly the only survivor. Operation Counterstrike is over.” We began this war by the invention of the slipgate…Quake’s counteroffensive through the slipgates has been met with Operation Counterstrike, deceptively named as is usual for military offensives, a “pre-emptive counterattack” in the Chinese tradition, with the propaganda so thick that you can’t breathe, and Quake, meanwhile has responded in kind. It’s all over for the slipgate project. Quake is not only an activist but it is the ultimate activist, formless and causeless, the universe itself pushing back on our one step too far, and it’s already managed to defeat us. The end of history has ended. In no rational world could we fight back against a foe who-
“Except for you.”
What? you stammer, unprepared. You didn’t sign up for this.
“You know that the heart of the installation holds a slipgate.” he tells you. “Since Quake’s killers came through, it is still set to his dimension. You can use it to get loose in his hometown. Maybe you can get to the asshole personally.”
Maybe you can, you think resentfully. But it has to be you. The last man alive, in the finest tradition of the myth of the Doomguy which you grew up with, the lone marine stationed on Phobos – you can still act. You don’t know what’s on the other side of the slipgate; you barely know what a slipgate is, or if you do you’re not telling us, the player. You only know that there’s an enemy to be killed. “You pump a round into your shotgun, and get moving.” he repeats, a hint of menace to his tone. You head to the slipgate facility and do your duty. Only following orders, etc. Fuck yeah America, the hero of Quake is no scarred survivor scavenging weapons but a man on a mission, the military-industrial complex given human form, the Ranger as he’s later known…Doomguy defeated the armies of hell with a shotgun but Ranger is marching into a situation, as thinly-sketched as the excuse-notes in the manual make it, that is infinitely more complex, which has brought in elements unknown to the hero/demons equation of Doom and of Phobos in 1993.
The Ranger’s mission is not to survive but to act, to conquer, to destroy activism itself, to end political motion at the conceptual level…Quake in id’s original dreams was the hero of The Fight for Justice, a fantasy warrior with a magic hammer, but now all that remains of that pitch is the name, the earthquake, the endless power of movement…Ranger is going to hunt down whatever this thing is, he’s going to kill the Fight for Justice dead, and it’s the end of history, baby, 1996, and why the hell shouldn’t the US military own slipgates, conquer universes, go beyond the impossible? “We’re an empire now”, Karl Rove reportedly said after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “and when we act, we create our own reality.” And that reality is chk-chk, Ranger reloading his double-barrelled shotgun after pumping a Fiend full of slugs. The roar of Quad Damage as it tears apart a monstrous Shambler.
A Fiend? A Shambler?
Postcard from the Lovecraft dimension: Through the slipgate is not liberation, but damnation. I understand that now. What we did –it was supposed to be for national security. But the things we found on the other side…cannibal creatures dressed in blood wearing aprons of flesh, Ogres…butchers in metal armour wielding gore-stained swords. Whispering things in the shadows. The truth is not what we thought. We thought it was only a tunnel, a place between destinations…but the slipgates don’t lead back to earth. They never did. Once you go through you end up elsewhere, and that elsewhere is a dimension home only to the doomed, a realm of black magic…this netherworld, or elderworld, is not for us. It is not for our kind. Flayed skin and tormented corpses. And the roar of the Ogres. The tapping of the Fiends’ talons on ancient stone as they charge after prey…ancient stone. Palaces, prisons, mausoleums, the edifices of countless unknowable civilisations, drifting through space…and, oh, you. How are you doing, Ranger? (read with barely-veiled sarcasm, a tone filled with malice)
You have slain Chthon, a horrifying creature greater than all the others in this grim world. As the corpse of the monstrous entity Chthon sinks back into the lava whence it rose, you grip the Rune of Earth Magic tightly. Now that you have conquered the Dimension of the Doomed, realm of Earth Magic, you are ready to complete your task. A Rune of magic power lies at the end of each haunted land of Quake. Go forth, seek the totality of the four Runes! You have new orders now, Ranger. Find the four Runes. And the haunted lands of Quake…is that where we are? Is Quake a place, or a thing, or a person? But it is where we are and we have our mission. You have your mission. A Rune of Power…imagine, if you will, the Ranger unleashed via slipgate against the Iranian regime, speeding about through Tehran blasting apart the Revolutionary Guard with his nailgun…the high-speed projectiles ripping not eldritch beasts but human soldiers, who scream in pain as they are perforated. Would the Ranger notice the difference anymore, after so much slaughter? Would he (you) stop, even as the disastrous consequences of his (your) work became apparent? The commander is rubbing his hands with glee, Ranger, at the idea of you, – what you will be able to do when you get back. But there are more Runes, and more slipgates-
Quake waits for us. Operation Counterstrike has been wiped out. The thinly-veiled military bureaucratic veneer of this war has been stripped clean, just as in ‘Nam, as in Korea, as when G.Is sent the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers back to their sweethearts from the Pacific Front in 1944. It’s only you and your arsenal – ghosts of comrades, of the commander, cheer you on. Manifest destiny beckons us to the lands of Quake, to conquer what is ours. “Voted that the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” reported the Connecticut town of Milford in 1640, “voted that the earth is given to the Saints; voted, we are the Saints.” Saint Ranger goes forth on his quest. Hordes of Shamblers, Fiends, Ogres, etc. hurl themselves at him, the unearthly Vore with her spidery legs and the shambling Zombies…echoes of ourselves, mirrors of our fears and terrors, and all fall before him. “The Rune of Black Magic throbs evilly in your hand and whispers dark thoughts into your brain. You learn the inmost lore of the Hell-Mother; Shub-Niggurath! You now know that she is behind all the terrible plotting which has led to so much death and horror. But she is not inviolate! Armed with this Rune, you realize that once all four Runes are combined, the gate to Shub-Niggurath’s Pit will open, and you can face the Witch-Goddess herself in her frightful otherworld cathedral.”
Now does Saint Ranger’s plunder find purpose…Shub-Niggurath! So it is that in the depths of their bloody slaughter all imperial evils discover, behind the sofa at the last minute, a kind of moral purpose…this she-bitch, this sad sack Saddam, is going down…a Gulf of Tonkin was not enough, and now we have found a Holocaust. The Rune feels funny, doesn’t it, Ranger? How do you know the “inmost lore of the Hell-Mother”? Or is it only your brain whispering to you of what you have already decided? This sham Dungeons and Dragons backstory…we are mutilating ourselves psychically as we go and yet we cannot not go for going is all we know how to do. Our humanity is in doubt but was it ever not? This speeding forth, unquestioning, is hardcoded into us. We can’t talk to the monsters.
“Despite the awful might of the Elder World, you have achieved the Rune of Elder Magic, capstone of all types of arcane wisdom. Beyond good and evil, beyond life and death, the Rune pulsates, heavy with import. Patient and potent, the Elder Being Shub-Niggurath weaves her dire plans to clear off all life from the Earth, and bring her own foul offspring to our world! For all the dwellers in these nightmare dimensions are her descendants! Once all Runes of magic power are united, the energy behind them will blast open the Gateway to Shub-Niggurath, and you can travel there to foil the Hell-Mother’s plots in person.” The Hell-Mother, the Witch-Goddess – Shub-Niggurath in a cartoon, leafing through a book entitled Pearl Harbour, goofy cartoon eyes, she sez “Boy I wish I’d known how this ended before!” – racist caricatures of Shub-Niggurath and Shamblers, they all look the same, these eldritch beasts…can you tell a Death Knight from an Ogre just by their silhouette? Jane’s All The World’s Monsters hits the shelves, becomes a hit with young kids who dream of slaying the eternal enemy. Ranger has been lost in time and space for many years, unaged by the power of the Rune, and the US has since become a cult of Shub-Niggurath hatred, a frothing pot of loathing for the enemy of all that is good and righteous…her foul offspring, her descendants, are stopped at the borders. Ranger is evolving meanwhile…he is increasingly messianic, the only one who can stop this evil…he is on a breakfast cereal and a Superbowl commercial and an AI made from his voice manages to endorse a Republican for president. HUP, America cries as one glorious shotgun-wielding superhero.
Now, you have all four Runes. You sense tremendous invisible forces moving to unseal ancient barriers. Shub-Niggurath had hoped to use the Runes herself to clear off the Earth, but now instead, you will use them to enter her home and confront her as an avatar of avenging Earth-life. If you defeat her, you will be remembered forever as the saviour of the planet. If she conquers, it will be as if you had never been born.
(Interviewer: Your son…the Ranger…was there ever anything about him that indicated, in his youth, the hero he would become?
Mrs. Ranger: Well, he was always such a kind boy. Always selfless.
Mr. Ranger: I never raised my son to be a pushover. By God, when those aliens picked a fight with us, they picked a fight with the wrong goddamn man.)
Ranger is no pushover now. An avatar of avenging Earth-life – not good for the brain, though, is it, Ranger? His quest has taken him all over the universe, to ancient fortresses, to hellish landscapes, to the depths of mysterious non-Euclidian burial grounds….does he remember himself, or has been totally subsumed? Or was he ever himself (we remember rumours, a long time ago, of certain customized serial killers being discovered in Latin America by reporters who later mysteriously died, soldiers who were said to be cybernetic madmen, murderers with implants that taught them the pleasure of killing), or is he, perhaps, now only himself? The manifold monsters of Quake cannot stop him. No one can stop him. He is AWOL, without orders, the commander all along only a severed head or the phantom of one, a Kurtz in space and time…in him is America, the dream, a soldier turned barbarian who, perhaps, was a barbarian all along, who likes it out here, this dead place filled with demons. Doomguy, hero. Ranger, conquistador. The natives of the Quake dimension wail and chant their heathen war cries and all fall before him, the pinnacle of American can-do military firepower. They give him a medal of honour posthumously, although he may or may not be dead, or something other than alive or dead.
And universes away, in the depths of the depths of nowhere, Ranger finally confronts Shub-Niggurath…and she is pitiful. The Hell-Mother, the Witch-Goddess, is a fat crippled blob of tentacles and malformed flesh, defended only by her desperate children. Why did she attack the slipgates? She does not, cannot, speak. She might have done it out of anger – she might really have wanted to conquer the universe. Or she might have been defending herself from what was to come when she sensed the human race’s newfound potential to intrude upon her – what it was that you would come to do. But you (Ranger) cannot be deterred. You will not be thwarted. You have smashed the tribes of Quake and slaughtered them all, left them for God to sort out, and in a final cruel display of the terrible justice of the human race you murder the defenceless Shub-Niggurath with a teleporter, from the inside…the slipgate was what she tried in her hubris to take from mankind and you, avatar of avenging Earth-life, have slain her with it. You realise at that last moment that you never even stopped to think if they had a language, these creatures, if they had culture or art or even goddamn families, and…
Congratulations and well done! the game says. You have beaten the hideous Shub-Niggurath, and her hundreds of ugly changelings and monsters. There are already slipgates being worked on that will allow for a mostly bloodless change of regime in China, Russia, etc. The slipgates will pacify the whole of the earth for American business interests. They’re putting the surviving Shamblers in zoos for the enjoyment of America’s youth, making drinks out of Fiend blood, marketing hot new Ogre chic for the Fall 2075 season. Quake (whatever the hell that was) has been destroyed, bettered, slain. Ranger is lost, confused. In a last moment of lucidity, before madness claims him, doomed to wander these barren halls of nowhere searching for the ghosts of those he has destroyed, earth’s final champion wants to know…what was Quake? A voice answers him. You have proven that your skill and your cunning are greater than all the powers of Quake.
“What was Quake?” you demand from your unseen overlord, one final gesture of futile despair. “What the hell was it? What did I do?”
You are the master now. the voice answers after a moment. id Software salutes you. And Ranger is alone.
That, more or less, was Quake’s story.
“Privately held id Software doesn’t release financials, but from what I can flush out about the company’s profit margin, it makes Microsoft look like a second-rate cement company…what happens to this kind of business when the data superhighway arrives?…No sales force, no inventory costs, no royalties to Nintendo or Sega, no marketing costs, no advertising costs, no executive parking spaces…this is a new and exciting business model, not just for games, not just for software, but for a host of products and services that can be sold or delivered via an electronic underground.” – Profits from the Underground, Forbes Magazine
Postcard from a century later: the conquest of Shub-Niggurath and her children, Ranger’s heroic legacy, is dust now; it was fun for a while, and the statues remain where they were erected, playthings for bored graffiti artists, but these days mankind has a new enemy. The Stroggs are an alien race bent on conquest, harvesters of flesh, who build machine-man abominations out of human parts and who invade earth hellbent on assimilation. Quake 2, the human-Strogg war, begins. What motivates them, these monsters from far-away? Why are they attacking earth? If we wanted to – if we cared to attempt communication – we would find out in fact that they are motivated by the example of a legendary entity across dimensions which it is said slew Shub-Niggurath and genocided her offspring, a creature or race or place or species that stormed heaven and slaughtered its children, that the Strogg know only by one name, which in their alien tongue translates roughly to a single word: “Quake”. The Strogg, we may theorize, are trying to become Quake.
But Quake 2 after all was not Quake. Quake 2 was the first id Software game made after John Romero’s departure from the company; a competent, well-made and exciting FPS that nobody remembers. Quake 2 is the most generic FPS you can play. It is the first id game that feels like a game made by a company and is remembered, to paraphrase a YouTube comment, “more for its coloured lighting than anything else”; the first Quake was remastered, with new levels and content, in 2021, but Quake 2 remains tied to a broken Steam release, stuffed into that long category of id games from it to Doom 3 to Quake 4 to Rage 1 and 2 that are only defined as ‘alright’, products manufactured by a well-oiled machine, a company machine, that made a series of games that are technical marvels but lack a certain something.
Ranger never found out what Quake was for himself. But we learned eventually, looking in the mirror one day; that vague terror, that ominous future threat encroaching on our world, was not the Lovecraftian monsters of Xen but us. We destroyed Shub-Niggurath and the Strogg and then, in Quake 3, finding no other foes left we devoured our own in endless deathmatches; from the amateur world of 1993 Doom deathmatch came the ordered world of industrial-scale digital slaughter, the Gaming Industry at large; when id tried to relaunch Quake with Quake Champions in 2017 with all the features of modern factory-farm gaming, free-to-play business model and hero-shooter abilities and a girl with a nice ass for Blender enthusiasts, and failed because, don’t you see, there’s no need for it anymore; we are all Quake now, every single man woman and child who’s farming gold, hunting monsters, killing demons. That something that Quake had that its sequel lacked was a certain gene, a sequence of combined elements that when put in the correct order formed the last dying bleat of the human id Software before they were Stroggified, because their optimistic dreams of an information superhighway, a new way to do capitalism, a path forward blazed by gamers, became only another part of a vast machine.
Became? Quake was always us; Ranger has defied space and time, and will always set forth after Operation Counterstrike to engage in mass slaughter because Shub-Niggurath has always tried to stop him by attacking the slipgate first. There’s no timeline where Oblivion horse armour DLC doesn’t happen. You in your chair growing up on these fantasies of not just violence but liberation? That nineteen-nineties paradise you imagine, when PC games came in big boxes and people had ‘LAN parties’ (some kind of primitive religious ceremony, future archaeologists believe)? You were always going to end up here, in your office chair, doing your job, wishing you could go back and hating what you think is stopping you; it’s a small, miserable place, and you’re stuck in it just like Ranger’s stuck in the maps of Quake episodes one to four, wandering about in polygonal places with nobody else for company. He can’t get out; and neither can you.
The Two Johns, Romero and Carmack, made Quake as a warning, an explosion of energy too great for the universe to contain. A game that endures despite its incoherence, its bizarre tone, its strange atmosphere; in fact because of it, because it is the last gasp of a new era, a history-ending epoch, that was already trundling towards Iraq and 2008 even then. Now John Romero, kindly grandad of video games happy enough making Doom .wads, is the patron saint of nostalgia-present, the death of the cultural civilisation that steeped in blood created Moby-Dick and went to the moon and even, yes, released Doom in 1993, the Netflix Original Series era in which the only games Yoshimi (me here) still plays are so-called ‘boomer shooters’ imitating various aspects of Doom or Quake – John Carmack represents the other half, the wandering fool unable to find the utopian future his smart-ass libertarian brain thinks exists in geniuses blazing a trail through tech. The information superhighway goes nowhere special. Facebook enables genocide and Apple needs good old-fashioned wage labour, good old-fashioned strongman politics, to enable its high-tech conveniences. There is no new way to do business, no way to accelerate out of the dead end these well-meaning people helped drive us into. Elon Musk is a fucking idiot who’s never going to Mars. The American dream leads to the death of the stars and the realisation, too late, that it was us who were the monsters all along. The only thing left now is all there ever was, all Shub-Niggurath and the Strogg trained us for: deathmatch. Telefragging the whole fucking world with our love. You are the master now, the voice says, a message from a long-dead past floating there on the screen. id Software salutes you.
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