The Early Days
Quake was released to the general public in North America on June 22nd, 1996. Spurred on by the success of user-made maps and utilities for Doom and Doom 2, Quake fans were eager to explore their creativity in the new game. Luckily for level designers, the editor WorldCraft was released less than two months later, on September 20th, 1996. The floodgates opened, and mappers were let loose.
(Thanks to Shacker shotgun1 for these antique website badges from the late '90s)
The early months and years of Quake were spent grappling with the structures and limitations of the Quake engine. Websites like Quakelab (archived here) explored the basic tenets of level design in 3D as well as the technical know-how to get your levels lighted, compiled, and released. Early released levels required close attention be paid to performance, because too many polygons would drop performance to it's knees on any computer then available. Even with these caveats and restrictions, level designers managed to create fascinating experiments and experiences.
Today's level is called The Downward Spiral, released on December 27th, 1996 or about six months from Quake's release date. It was created by Stan C., and is considered one of the best third-party single-player Quake maps of 1996. The art direction is what I'd consider the High Fantasy Castle type, with a number of ambitious outdoor sections. In a clear attempt to keep polygon counts down and framerates up, Stan C. uses high detail and well-executed lighting on the foreground elements the player interacts with while using basic and blocky backgrounds. It manages to feel more expansive than most other SPQ maps of the era, and to my mind easily surpasses some of id Software's maps.
Where the map really excels in the pacing and visual interest. There are numerous cool things to look at - a rope bridge with slat missing, staid Roman-style temple architecture, interactive cave environments, and not one but two literal downward spirals! The gameplay is brisk and does not let up. The map is as linear as a roller coaster, and just as fun. Each room has a new trick, trap, puzzle, or pulse-pounding gunfight. The constant creativity on display really makes the level feel like a swashbuckling adventure story in the Indiana Jones vein. Unlike many larger and more-complex maps that followed, The Downward Spiral drops you right into the action and keeps up the intensity to the finish.
Readers who have played a good number of SPQ levels will know that The Downward Spiral doesn't come close to the best. It is a product of its time - The Early Quake Era - but a superlative example therof. Even the map featured in the first article in the C:\QUAKE series, The Fly, is a clearly superior experience. Nevertheless, The Downward Spiral is worth playing to experience the particular aesthetic of this moment in time in Quake modding. Replaying it for this article was an absolute joy for the less than ten minutes it took me to breeze through this mini adventure.
And the whole time, I had a grin on my face.
- Name: The Downward Spiral, dspirl11.bsp
- Author: Stan C.
- Release Date: 27 December 1996
- Download: A link to download this map, with review and comments can be found at QuadAddicted: https://www.quaddicted.com/reviews/dspirl11.html
- Stream: I made a run-through of The Downward Spiral using the modern vQuake renderer. Check it out embedded above or linked here: https://youtu.be/lb3Y5iE9pAk
- Trivia: The level editor used to create The Downward Spiral was called Worldcraft. The creator of Worldcraft, Ben Morris, was hired by Valve Software and eventually sold the Worldcraft rights to Valve. Worldcraft is still in development under the name Hammer, and is the in-house editor for Valve. It has been most-recently used to create the maps in Half-Life: Alyx, best friggin' game of the decade.
- More Trivia: Did you know there was a level editor created for Quake before Quake was even released? THRED was used by it's creator Johnathon Mavor to make the first-ever third-party maps for the Quake pre-release demo, Qtest, sometime after February 1996. I initially learned how to make maps for Quake using THRED, which used a particularly tricky technique for level building called Subtractive Solid Geometry.