Today I would like to talk to you about Quake II. It is a feeling that was revealed to the world and to myself almost ten years ago. It will never, ever be the subject of an editorial opinion column in the New York Times
. The Guardian
will not mark the anniversary of its launch with a special pull-out supplement. No television programme will ever canvass Chrissie Hynde
's opinion on Quake II. In the future it will not become more famous or well-known than it is today, no matter how long the future goes on for.
I hope that the future stops in my lifetime because I do not want to miss the future. If the future is not stopped, the fate that awaits the universe is beyond horror. I would prefer it if the universe was to come to a definite end rather than fading out into an eternity of subdued darkness. But what do I care? On a subjective level the universe will one day come to a definite end, for me, although I will not be aware of it because I will cease to become conscious at the moment of my own death. There will not be a period during which I can contemplate my own death because I will be unable to contemplate anything because I will be dead.
Quake II was a popular game but it is nowadays obscure. There are so many things that keep it from posterity. Computer games are transient art forms, and even in 1997 computer games did not attract the level and quality of criticism and contemplation that is afforded other mediums. Quake II was also the second in a series of games. It was the second instalment in a series of games that was itself the second instalment in a series of games. As a rule, the individual episodes of a long-running series are rarely of cultural significance in their own right. The series itself might become iconic, but individual instalments - no matter how expensive, or successful, or elaborate - have to move mountains in order to carve a name for themselves. This is true of films and books and families and government initiatives and species. It is a fundamental law of the universe. Father and family cast the largest shadow. The son and his sons are just peas in a pod, and must burn their candle at both ends in order for the acorn to become a man.
I would like you to think about Doom, the computer game and cultural phenomenon. I assume for the purpose of this thesis that you are the same age as me and that you are cultured and well-read, just as I am cultured and well-read. As you think of Doom all kinds of images and sounds pop into your head. They crowd out the images and sounds that are already present in your head. In some cases they modify or overwhelm your pre-existing mental map, just as some of Photoshop's advanced mathematical blending modes can cause colours to become more vivid than the real-life colours of real life.
Imagine you are an academic and you are writing a paper about something or other, and you want to pick an example of a popular or violent computer game. You could pick Championship Manager 2002 or Exidy's 1986 arcade game Chiller as respective examples of popular and violent computer games, but you will not choose them because your target audience - other academics and writers - has not heard of those games. Instead, you will pick Doom because everyone has heard of Doom. It is okay to write about Doom, because it has already been written about, by newspapers and professors and ordinary people such as yourself and me. Doom transformed the PC games market and it also transformed Id Software and, if you believe what some people write, it transformed a generation of troubled teenagers into kill-crazy sociopaths. The Columbine killings were blamed on Doom, albeit that the perpetrators had by that time moved on to Quake, at least according to the archived website of Eric Harris. The newspapers did not try to blame Quake for the killings, because the newspapers did not expect the general public to have heard of Quake.
Quack. Sic transit etc.
Quake was what Id Software did after Doom. Doom was released in late 1993 and worked its magic on the PC games market. Quake came out two years later and it is to Doom what George Lucas' Willow was to the Star Wars films; although it was not a direct continuation, it was the company's next foray into a similar world. Doom and its sequel Doom II were powered by a fast, smooth 3D engine that nonetheless had some fundamental constraints. Doom's game world was a three-dimensional projection of a 2D map, stretched upwards. It could not render one object on top of another. It could not render bridges, or multi-storey houses, or anything that allowed the player to go above and below the same point in space, or Jeff Bridges. A further limitation was that the monsters and objects in the game were two-dimensional graphics. They were cardboard cutouts, drawn from a variety of angles and scaled up and down to represent distance. They could face north, and east, and north-east, but no points in between, and the player could not look up or down on them. The engine could choose from a variety of pre-set poses but it could not generate poses automatically.
Quake was different. Its world was fully 3D as we understand it today, and the monsters were 3D objects as well. Their movements were encoded mathematically, rather than as a series of graphics, and mathematical operations could be used to pose its actors. Quake was a technical feat, running quickly on contemporary PCs, and it was the hit of 1996. It was very popular as a multi-player game, although many people were disappointed with its single-player levels. There was strong competition from a competing product called Duke Nukem 3D, which was technically more primitive, but was much more colourful and entertaining. I shall not explore the influence that Doom and Quake had upon the burgeoning Internet, although it is fair to say that without Quake and pornography you would not have a broadband Internet connection in your home today. After much anticipation Quake II emerged in 1997, bursting out of John Hurt's chest just like the bit in Alien where the alien bursts out of John Hurt's chest, and Ian Holm looks worried. Ian Holm always looks worried. He has good reason to be worried, for there is much to worry about.
I shall briefly discuss Quake II as a computer game. As a sequel, it is a mutant. It is officially the sequel to Quake, but apart from being an arcade game with a first-person perspective it has almost nothing in common with its predecessor. The main character does not fight medieval, fantasy-inspired monsters. The visual style is much more colourful, and the music is brasher and more aggressive. There is a plot, cutscenes, an introduction. The weapons and enemies are mostly technological and the game is clearly inspired by science fiction rather than the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Although Quake II does not share the universe of Doom, there are nonetheless elements of the Doom games - one of the weapons is very similar, and a later expansion pack added Doom's famous chainsaw.
It was a very influential game, but it did not enjoy the same level playing field as its predecessor. There were other 3D titles on the market, and some of them were technically even more impressive. Nonetheless, Quake II's engine was used by other developers in order to create entirely new 3D games. Given that the engine could model large and complex 3D environments, it was simply a matter of hard work and artistic talent to create the new textures, new sounds and new levels that were required for an original 3D title. For a time it seemed as if engine development was superfluous, and that the future belonged to level designers. Ironically, one of the first major blows to this viewpoint was dealt by a game based in part on Quake I. Valve Software's Half-Life was one of the most popular computer games of the late 1990s and was even more influential than Quake and Doom before it. Modern-day 3D action games have more detailed graphics and larger environments, but on a fundamental level Half-Life was a kind of fin de siècle, a Lost World plateau.
Quake II was a commercial success. But nowadays I have to concentrate very hard to keep it slipping from my mind. It is like the aura of a migraine headache, in that my memory cannot gaze directly upon it. The computer gaming word has moved on and very few people today have cause to contemplate Quake II. Many computer gamesplayers are not old enough to remember it. It has a dismal Internet presence, and it has never impinged upon the collective cultural consciousness of the wider world at all.
Quake II is a surprisingly pleasant experience, when played in 2006. It lacks many of the innovations of Half-Life, and clearly belongs to a bygone era. The gameplay involves little more than flicking switches and shooting things, there is no substantial storyline, and the physics of Quake II's universe resemble a Chuck Jones cartoon. Nonetheless its gesamtkunst is sufficiently stylised as to transcend the limitations of 1997 technology, and it was programmed with an unusual emphasis on future expansion, whilst also running smoothly on the average machine of the day. For this reason the game was used as a means of testing the speed of computer hardware for a couple of years after its release. Ten years after release, Quake II runs smoothly on modern hardware, and can be set up so as to exploit the higher resolutions of today's graphics cards. Its major limitation is that of the relatively low-resolution textures which "skin" its world and its monsters, although they are abstract enough to seem deliberately cartoonish. Quake II was released at a time of great change in the PC market, with Windows 95, DirectX and 3D ]graphics cards] emerging side-by-side, and it is a tribute to the game's programmers that Quake II can still be enjoyed today.
I would like to apologise for using the word gesamtkunst. I was going to use the word aesthetic, but I am not sure if that word is precisely what I mean to say. The computer game is a total art work - it combines visual, aural, mental and physical stimulation. I do not want to single out the graphics of Quake II, or the ambient sonic environment of its world. The Doom and Quake games were famous for their sense of motion, for the slickness of their controls, their response to input. And their 3D geometry was a kind of sculpture, albeit one that I cannot touch, although I can form an impression in my mind. To talk of a computer game's graphics or sounds as individual components of a whole is wrong. A computer game is a chicken, it is like the contents of a well-fed and well-digested stomach - and it is the stomach as well, and it is the man.
Quake II was not a cultural phenomenon. Most of the advances I have detailed - the shared engine, the support for 3D graphics hardware, the scalable technology - were either refinements of existing technologies, or only of interest to computer gamesplayers and industry watchers. Quake II came and went. It has been and gone. Nowadays the Quake series itself arouses little commentary in the computer gaming world, and none at all in the mainstream press. Quake III was released in 1999 but it was a different kettle of fish, a multiplayer title with support for single-player action against computer opponents. A proper sequel, Quake IV, was released to surprisingly little fanfare in 2005, but its time had passed. It was overshadowed by an official continuation of the Doom games, Doom III, which had been released in 2004, almost ten years after the previous Doom game. But nowadays journalists and writers are more likely to talk about Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, or the Sims. Doom is as dated and old-fashioned as the heavy metal rock music that formed its soundtrack.
I shall give you an example of the kind of point I am trying to make, and that I have probably already made but would like to make so hard that its pips explode outwards at great speed. The James Bond films are a cultural phenomenon. But none of the individual James Bond films are, themselves, culturally significant. There are moments and flashes and sequences and some of the characters have become iconic - either because they were memorably villainous, or because they looked fantastic in a bikini. But when critics discuss the James Bond phenomenon, they talk about the series as a whole. A writer might single out a particular James Bond film as a way of illustrating some facet of James Bond's personality, and there is a natural tendency to discuss the most recent James Bond film because it will be freshest in readers' minds. But the individual James Bond films are rarely discussed as cultural phenomena in their own right, because none of them have had as much an impact as the whole. No writer would dare to single out a particular James Bond film for comment, because this would reveal too great a level of knowledge on the part of the writer.
No writer wants to be seen as a specialist. Plenty of writers work for supposedly specialist magazines such as Rolling Stone, Cahiers du Cinéma and New Scientist. But it is the ambition of all writers to be experts in all fields, consulted in all fields, and respected as writers rather than as databases of facts about Gram Parsons or the film art of James Coburn or insert scientific topic here. It has taken over a hundred years for science fiction writers and science fiction critics to fail to penetrate the mainstream of cultural criticism, and given that there is such an overlap between the worlds of science fiction and computer games, the next century will see many valiant and failed attempts by computer game critics to similarly carve out their own immortality. On a certain level I detest writers, because so much of their job is based on what they do and how they act when they are not writing. And I detest them because I do not have their spark. My own writing is so turgid that I have to drape it with mixed metaphors and deliberately exaggerated arguments so that it appears to be a big parody and thus immune to criticism.
Take for example Apollo 15. It was the fourth successful moon landing, the first to use the Lunar Rover, the first to spend more than a day on the moon's surface. If I was a proper writer I would quality this paragraph by stating that I am not interested in spaceflight and that I have just seen this on a television documentary rather than simply remembering it. If I was a proper writer I would pretend that I am currently sitting in front of the television, eating something that I cooked in a stir-fry pan, and that I was idly picking things from the cultural ether rather than remembering them from my brain. Apollo 15 was a great feat of exploration. I believe that the percentage of human beings alive on this Earth today who can name all three of Apollo 15's crewmembers is immeasurably small. I doubt that there are many people alive today who could say with absolute certainty that there even was an Apollo 15. I imagine that some of the people reading this paragraph are wondering if I have actually invented Apollo 15 as a round-about way of proving some kind of point. The few writers and critics and journalists who discuss the Apollo programme discuss the programme and Apollo 11 and that is what they discuss. They do not discuss Apollo 15, you do not discuss Apollo 15. It is no longer a part of living history, if ever it was. It is off-site storage. It has been transferred to the world's backup tape and stored in a vault.
Apollo 15 will not become more famous in the future. It will become less famous. Do the people of the developing world care about Apollo 15? They are the future. One day they will have their own space programme and America's space programme will be as relevant to them as the comedy of Max Wall, in that it will have existed but will mean nothing. And one day their world will pass and the world after that.
In the words of The Beatles, when I get to the bottom I go back to the top... and as I do so I add paragraph marks, and then I go down again and add links and proof-read.