C:\Quake - My Obsession, The Backup
Even before I got my first home PC, I was obsessed with Quake. I saw the shareware demo at a friend's house and I knew there was something special to the true 3D graphics and compelling art design. By late 1996, my interest moved to Quake mods and custom maps downloaded over dial-up internet - with mods the fun never ended and it didn't cost anything extra! It was my Quake-mania that lead me to Shacknews (then called Quakeholio) in the first place.
A few years of deep Quake passion later, and I'd moved on to Quake II and UT and other games. Running out of space on my hard drive sometime in the year 2000, I archived my C:\Quake folder in its entirety onto a single DVD-R which I put onto a spindle of other backup files and then promptly forgot about.
Until two decades later.
I had made it a goal in 2020 to eliminate all my physical storage, and pulled out all my old recordable media and hard drives to restore one last time. Among the old photos and warez and pirated movies was my C:\Quake backup. By a stroke of luck, the DVD was completely undamaged, and I was able to restore all 1.4 gigabytes of treasured 20 year-old memories. As I paged through the files, I realized I now had access to a time capsule of gaming history. The concepts that were explored in that golden era of Quake mods illuminate the gaming landscape we now inhabit.
In each article of the C:\Quake series, I will explore one map or mod. I'll explain what makes it interesting, odd, or foundational and try to give some context that will help place it in history. For the first one, we'll be talking about and single-player map with a delightful twist: The Fly.
The Art of Being First: The Fly
Early Quake SPQ maps fought with many limitations - limited texture sets, poor dev tools, patches from ID that would break scripting and graphics, and limited polygon counts. It's not that the Quake engine couldn't run complex levels, it was that people were running the game on like, Pentium 1 machines with a few megabytes of RAM and no graphics accelerators. Mappers with visions of complex architecture would have to wait until PC specs to improve, and for source ports to break the limits of Quake starting in 1999.
One Quake mapper wasn't going to wait on technology to blow our minds. In September of 1997, Markus Klar released a single player Quake (SPQ) map titled "The Fly". It's a little hard to impress on modern-day readers how jaw-dropping this single level was at the time. Think of it this way: when you listen to early rock-and-roll music you may notice that the recording quality is poor and sometimes the musicians make mistakes and the songs are short and repetitive and even simple. Even so, those old rock-and-roll tunes are foundational and inspiring and make you want to dance anyways. That's The Fly.
It's a short, moody base-style level. There's some interesting architectual brushwork, like angular scattered crates and pipes along the ceiling, some of which have collapsed into the claustrophobic hallways blocking progress. Lighting is dim and throbbing, and occasionally pitch-black which makes for annoying if pulse-pounding fights with unseen enemies. Health is low, weapons and ammo are limited, and a cautious approach is warranted until you're familiar with the layout.
And then there's the reveal - the moment of genius that melted my 13 year-old mind when I saw it for the first time. An elevator takes you up a dark shaft into the light of a wide-open cavern to reveal an impossible vertical walkway. Mere moments later, you find yourself walking on this impossible surface like a fly on the wall, looking down on the elevator shaft at a mind-twisting angle.
The illusion of walking on the wall in The Fly pre-dates the first game I could find with wall-walking - the 2006 Prey - by nine years. Other games I know of that would later implement something like this are Rebellion's AvP (1999) and Dark Legion Development's Tremulous (2006). Playing it again for this Cortex article, I was struck by how much the transition into the illusion felt just like Portal - you'll have to play it to understand what I mean. For the most part all those other games do it better than The Fly, mostly becuase wall-walking is functionally impossible to do in the unmodified Quake engine. But Markus Klar did it first by years, and the implementation was still effective and dizzying.
As a pure gameplay experience, The Fly isn't a great level. Its short, has unexciting combat, isn't particularly beautiful, and depends too much on monster-closet ambushes. Other Quake mappers have mastered the techniques of great SPQ maps, a topic we'll explore in another Cortex article later.
Nevertheless, true art isn't about executing your craft better than any other artist. Art is sometimes about being first - first to imagine something, first to bring to life something genuinely new. The Fly is art.
- Name: The Fly, thefly.bsp
- Author: Markus Klar aka Leveldevil
- Release Date: 01-Sep-1997
- Download: The Fly is freely available and requires only a basic Quake install. https://www.quaddicted.com/reviews/thefly.html
- Trivia: For the author to compile The Fly took over 8 and a half hours, using a Pentium 90 with 32MB of RAM.
- Stream: A complete run-through of the map can be streamed here: https://youtu.be/NCj_HRJjDoY