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Gang, it’s been 20 years. Two decades. A long time. Since what? Since both Duke Nukem 3D and Quake came out and single(dual)-handedly pushed the first-person shooter genre forward in ways we’d never seen before.
It’s hard to really quantify just how much impact each of these strikingly different entries had on the past nineteen-plus-one years, but it’s impossible to imagine where we’d be today without them.
I remember vividly the trip to a local gaming emporium to pick up a copy of Duke; here in the UK we’re hit with legally-binding age ratings, meaning that 18 emblazoned on the front of the game’s box said my 13-year-old friend and I weren’t allowed a copy. But we tried, at my insistence. I didn’t even have a PC; the purchase would be for the friend’s computer.
I’d read so much about the brave new world of Duke Nukem 3D: it was a game that allowed you to play pool, use a jetpack, go to the toilet. Honestly, things like that were at the forefront of my mind; the opportunities for play it would afford, the manner in which it opened up a player’s ability to interact with the world beyond just opening doors and shooting explosive barrels.
Of course, there was some motivation offered by the fact I was a teenage boy and had fully read up on the game’s sexualised elements, including strippers you could pay to bare their pixellated, tasselled breasts and short, looping GIFs masquerading as skin flicks in the game world. So I egged my friend on—Ben, let’s call him, because that was his name—told him Duke was the game to get, that the threat of being turned away by the barely-over-18-year-old at the counter was worth the risk. Duke would be the game. Duke would make our lives better. And yes, Duke had semi-naked ladies.
We did not get Duke Nukem 3D that day. The guy at the counter asked for ID, and our flawless plan fell apart before our very eyes. But all wasn’t lost: instead, we travelled to another nearby store and picked up a 15-rated copy of Quake, my second choice, Ben’s first choice.
Almost as if he’d planned it that way…
THE NATURE OF PLAY
I share this anecdote to try and get across to you, dear reader, just how important these games were even back in the day. We had a mission that day, and it was to get one or both of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. No other games came into the picture. Neither is a game of delayed appreciation, bearing fruit over time as we realised its true greatness in the context offered over the years following release. They were great from day one. They still are great today, if a bit creaky.
Duke did indeed bring us the world I’d hoped it would on that ill-fated shopping trip. When I eventually did get to play it for the first time, on its PSone release in 1997, I was not let down. It seems that, over the years, Duke Nukem 3D has become the game people want to overlook. It was silly, it was sexist, it had a bad sense of humor. That’s fair—those elements aren’t even of their time: they were outdated in the mid ’90s, just as they are today.
But what raises Duke above such criticisms is the stone-cold classic nature of the core game. Duke 3D presented a real, living world like we’d not seen before in the land of the shooter game. So many switches to fiddle with, so much random interaction to have, so much dicking about to do—it understood the nature of play so much more than many shooters since 1996 have.
And that all fed into the sense of exploration—something which wasn’t only something you’d organically do, as you looked here and there for buttons to push and cracks in the wall to destroy. It was something the game rewarded you for. I’m pretty sure I’m still discovering new secrets and new areas to explore even now, two decades down the line.
This unfettered creativity coloured shooters for a couple of years—honestly, play any shooter from 1996 to 1998 and it will likely be a Duke Nukem 3D clone. That’s all before, of course, Half-Life came out and changed everything again—but Valve’s game is a mere 18 years old, so that’s getting ignored for now.
On the other side of the fence we had Quake—from the creators of Doom, it had been hyped so hard and for so long expectations could no longer be measured with a traditional Expectation-O-Meter. They were high—very, very high. There was a risk of over-promising—any gaming historian knows one of Quake’s creators became known for that in later years:
…and as development dragged on, hope and desire became nascent fear and pre-emptive loathing as we tried to curb our own anticipation and brace for disappointment. It was all a bunch of collective idiocy, of course—Quake turned out to be a technological tour de force, the shockwaves of which are still making my windows rattle to this day.
3D had been done elsewhere—Duke even claimed it in the title of his game—but it was Quake that made 3D a thing. The levels, the weapons, the characters—everything was a step up from the sprites/playable cartoons from everywhere else. You have no idea how amazed I was that firing a rocket down a corridor would light up the walls around it. This was next level shit back then.
Then there was the less obvious stuff—the embrace by Quake’s main creator, John Carmack, of user modifications, allowing players to make the game into whatever we wanted it to be. Sure, this was around in id Software’s previous Doom games, but this time around it was more than just a side attraction.
It was so much of A Thing, in fact, that user mods led both to Team Fortress—a series that has changed hands and is now one of Valve’s biggest money-makers—and the birth of modern machinima (i.e. films made from games), like the far-too-long the Seal of Nehahra:
Yep, that’s a four hour film made by a fan, using Quake as its set.
Oh, plus the small fact that Half-Life, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and a few Star Wars games were all made possible—directly or indirectly—thanks to Quake’s game engine thundering away under the hood.
Then, of course, there’s multiplayer. I could reference TCP/IP networking models and all that lovely stuff, but I can guess most eyes glaze over at such a techie subject. So I’ll put it this way: network multiplayer existed before Quake, but without Quake online gaming wouldn’t be what it is today. It standardised a manner in which to connect with other players, it didn’t require additional software, it handled things for you—it made it easy to digitally shoot someone from another country in the face.
Quake didn’t just move the technical side of things forward—it slapped all assumptions in the face before riding off into the sunset on a wave of previously unimaginable-quality graphics. I can’t say for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other game developers of the time simply didn’t believe what Quake was doing was possible.
Quake and Duke Nukem 3D were competitors back in the day, but in the now-historical sense, it’s safe to say both games sit together as bar-raisers for the genre. They were unafraid of taking steps forward, each in their own way, to fundamentally alter what we believed was possible in video games.
And so it is we should celebrate this 20th anniversary, not fear it even if it does remind us all of the ever-encroaching bastardry of age. Pick up the games—they’re both available at all good online retailers, working on modern computers—play them, and remind yourself that—dear god you don’t have the reflexes for this kind of thing any more.
Ian Dransfield is a mercenary writer-for-hire who focuses mainly on gaming. His credits include the Guardian, Kotaku, PC Gamer and many more, while his achievements include getting a Platinum trophy on Bloodborne. Admittedly his parents aren’t so proud of that one.
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