For many years, gamers and game critics have been looking for a game they could uphold as an example that would validate video games as an art medium. Often, they have looked to Citizen Kane for guidance. Citizen Kane, for the uninitiated, is a film regarded as one of the most important and influential of all time. But before a “Citizen Kane of video games” can be identified, it is necessary to understand why Citizen Kane is so important to the medium. Cutting edge cinematography produced visual effects that were previously impossible. Miniatures and other special effects enabled shots that would normally have been very expensive to produce. Makeup dramatically transformed the appearance of actors. The film pioneered techniques in leveraging soundtrack to produce smooth cuts and transitions, and it featured unorthodox, nonlinear storytelling and multiple narrators.
In short, Citizen Kane was a technical marvel for its time, and it changed the rules of how films are made. But while many are waiting for a video game to be produced that can match this achievement, one has already long since secured its legacy by doing exactly that. Its name is Quake.
A Technological Shift
Quake was a first-person shooter by id Software, originally for MS DOS PCs, and one of the earliest games to allow the player to explore a fully 3D environment with real-time graphics rather than static sprites and/or pre-rendered backgrounds. Parts of Quake’s code are still used in every 3D game today. Innovative tricks and optimizations allowed environments to be built much bigger than hardware at the time could normally have handled, by making sure that assets were not loaded until they were needed and not drawn unless they were sure to be seen. But Quake’s legacy in the world of 3D graphics goes beyond new ideas in occlusion culling, or level designs that hid sections of the map around corners to save memory (a feature of the now-maligned “corridor shooter”).
The earliest version of Quake was software rendered. That means the graphics were drawn entirely by the CPU. At the time, hardware-accelerated graphics were still a very new thing. Most PCs didn’t have graphics cards. That is, until GLQuake. After the creation of the Quake engine, John Carmack’s experiments with the Open Graphics Library, or OpenGL, drove the adoption of these devices by PC gaming enthusiasts. This eventually inspired Microsoft to create Direct3D, more commonly recognized under the umbrella term DirectX (which includes more than just graphics), to draw in programmers looking to leverage this technology. If your preferred gaming platform is an Xbox, it is built on DirectX technology (origially called DirectX box), and you owe its existence to the foundations laid by GLQuake.
Another major innovation that Quake brought to the table was TCP/IP networking that enabled multiplayer games over the Internet. Built on a client-server model, it allowed one player to host a game, to which others would connect via an IP address. This solved synchronization problems by ensuring that all player movements were tracked by a single player’s computer. The later addition of client-side prediction allowed the game to provide players with immediate feedback before the server responded to their input, a necessity for high-latency dialup connections common at the time. This revolutionized multiplayer games, and fully popularized terms like “deathmatch” and “frag” first coined in id Software’s earlier title, DOOM.
The Mod Scene
Continuing DOOM’s legacy in another way, Quake allowed player-made modifications, or mods, in which game assets were replaced or expanded, and game behavior itself was changed through scripting via an interpreted programming language called QuakeC. This led to the creation of new game modes, such as Capture the Flag, and even total conversions, which were effectively entirely new games built by replacing most of the original game and leaving the engine as a foundation. Many game developers got their start by building mods before moving on to independent projects. Members of Splash Damage, creators of Brink, started their careers by working on mods before cooperating with id directly on Enemy Territory games. To this day, mods remain a common entry point to the industry.
One popular Quake mod with a familiar ring for modern gamers is Team Fortress. Yes, Team Fortress 2, though a standalone game from Valve built on the Source engine, is the sequel to a Quake mod. In fact, the Source engine itself originates from a very heavily modified Quake engine. One of the most popular shooter franchises, and altogether one of the most popular games today, is built on Quake’s foundation; the original Call of Duty used a modified version of id Tech 3, also known as the Quake III engine. In light of recent news regarding CoD: Ghosts, it may interest gamers to know that not only Quake III, but also Quake II and the original Quake allowed custom player models (as early as 1996) — and player-created ones, at that. In other words, the technology for that has been there for a long time, and technological limitations cannot be used as an excuse for failing to include it.
Some modifications went in another direction. Machinima, the practice of making animated movies entirely within real-time 3D graphics programs like game engines, began with a Quake mod project called Diary of a Camper. This proof of concept, while crude, further solidified the utility of video games as narrative tools.
An Enduring Legacy
Quake and its dedicated, passionate community pioneered many of the technologies and features that gamers expect from every game today. From 3D rendering to network play and cinematic storytelling, Quake has left its mark on every facet of the video game industry. The search for a “Citizen Kane of video games” to uplift the art has been in vain, because from the moment that phrase was first uttered, it has always been there.