It is a dark night. I’m sat in my parents room with a chat window open, one eye on the fast paced dialogue of thirty or so strangers and another on the download progress. We’d buckled and restarted several times, the servers were being hammered. The IRC channel abuzz with hype. Counter Strike 1.6 was here, only, it wasn’t. My download stalls for a moment, my heart racing, praying to see the kilobytes resume their slow crawl. The Europeans in the room started their installs, the UK contingent spluttering their frustrations at the apparent unfairness of faster internet connections. The speed beings to increase again. The download software that allowed me to resume my downloads was, thankfully working. Only 45 minutes left. The night was young.
This was my youth, or at least a large portion of it. My school friends and I spent our free time on MSN talking all sorts of rubbish whilst connecting to Counter Strike and Team Fortress Classic servers. Each patch was huge news, we poured over the release notes and rapidly mashed F5 on FilePlanet when the launch days came around. We joined clans, hung out on IRC rooms and ultimately bonded over our 56k speed evening antics. We shared issues of PC Zone, loading up custom maps and mods where we could.
I jumped into this online world deeper than most of my school friends. We played the games together sure, we relished in the joy of an empty server, where we could descend en masse and run riot. We booked time in the local LAN, hidden off the Cheltenham high street, where we could enjoy a lag free experience for a limited time (the shop quickly closed, with rumours of fraud, broken friendships and drama. It was more likely that we seemed to be thier only clients).
But beyond the games I found more. I found online communities, and I found none more welcoming and endlessly fascinating than the Quake and Half Life scenes.
It started with a CDr from a neighbour. The black and gold disc with a handwritten note that simply said “Quake II”. It wasn’t until several years ago when I finally bought the game itself from Steam. I’d missed out on the original Quake. I knew it was well beyond the reach of the family’s 486dx computer. It was so advanced. It needed something called a graphics card. With 3D acceleration. I’d seen screenshots, of brown and yellow gore soaked castles, a centrally placed cannon spewing triangular death at lumpy, three dimensional beasts. But a few years down the line, we had a new computer, it had a new Intel processor, a bigger hard drive, 32MB of RAM, and my neighbour, who worked with my dad, handed me a disc nodding, saying “check this out”.
Prior to Quake 2 my main outline of first person violence had been relegated to the original Dark Forces, the Star War themed Doom-clone that I spent hours lost in. Literally lost, I rarely got past the third level before booting up the cheat codes and giving myself all the unfair advantages I required to make progress. I’d also had brief moments of the multiplayer joy of Goldeneye, sat in front of blurry polygons with friends, wrestling the N64’s bizarre controller into some kind of submission.
Nothing had prepared me for Quake 2.
Quake 2 is a grim game. Its rust and dirt. The colours are dirty, explosions chunky, gibs of filthy flesh followed by trails of murky crimson pixels. The rough edged Strogg who make up the resistance to your one man army grunt and yell in metallic tones, occasionally you can pick out a word, reminding of their brutal backstory of human flesh torn and restructured. Not unlike the tragic headcrab zombies of the Half Life universe, or more recently the tattered beasts of Dead Space’s necromorphs, the Strogg were skin and bone corrupted, and needed to be destroyed to put their souls to rest. Among your hail of rockets, bullets and rails, your radio insisted you press F1 to discover where your unseen superiors commanded you to next, to save the day, to stop the Strogg, to lead humanity to victory over the intergalactic AI.
The loose story that ties the single player game together quickly grew stale. It was challenging, the levels barely hung together as you slowly made your way from brown and grey facility to a grey and brown train station through a muddy green warehouse full of muted orange containers. What tied me to the game was the possibilities that lay beyond the game.
Every day after school I booted the PC, dialed in to the internet, waited for the digital chimes to end and the connection to be made then point the AOL browser to PlanetQuake. Every day there would be something new. I first began with levels. I never played online, but I had figured out how to boot into multiplayer levels and just wander around these new 3D worlds. Devoid of violence they became curiosities to explore. Some anonymous individuals had made block representations of their street, their schools. Others had made their homes, or let their imaginations run wild, building insane structures that made little sense.
These explorations into levels then led to player models. A tiny screen in the options menu let you change your character, and I delighted in installing new characters, regardless that the game was entirely first person and you never caught sight of your own body. I found countless characters, from Eldar aspect warriors to ladies of the night.
Finally I learnt about bots. Adding AI opponents into multiplayer games let me play the games multiplayer for the first time. Those empty levels burst into life and death, and those character models leapt across my screen spitting pixels of blood and misery. Aliens fought Homer Simpson fought robots fought knights. My own personal hodgepodge of violence. Quake 2 became and infinte playset. A true reflection of a toybox where mutant turtles shared the same floor as a discount store solider who could only yell “Hit the dirt” and a sea of Lego mini figures, long before they learnt new expressions other than smiles. I could assemble teams, create stories, play out “who would win between Agent Smith and The Mask?” competitions and just lose myself in a space where I could express my own will beyond the games original bounds.
Only it wasn’t ‘mine’. I could change things, but only according to someone else’s rules. I could find a forum and make a request for something I wanted to see, but no-one was beholden to one teenager behind a user name behind a forum of black and green text behind a screen. Someone else out there, in the world was making these worlds, characters, modifications. I wanted to make my own impact.
It began with a PAK explorer. I’d always enjoyed ordering my parents computers, put the files in a folder, label it, put that folder somewhere else, label it. This trend carried on in my later years as I reveled every weekend placing CDs, DVDs and games into alphabetical order at a now defunct entertainment chain store. The PAK explorer let me unpack the games files, see how things were laid out. Eventually I learnt to unpack characters, their textures or ‘skin’ as I learnt. Next I found a program to paint onto those textures. I could paint the 3D models like I could paint my own Space Marine chapter (read: badly), but I was having my own impact. Quake 2 had change from a grim, brown shooter to a place of creation. The skins I painted were rudimentary, and long lost. Next I found a 3D model maker, I slowly worked out I could lay down vertices, then polygons, one by one and save them. I was reaching my limit as I figured out how to override character models with my own models. I had ideas, I wanted to replace every enemy in the game with one of my own creation.
I got about halfway, I had static models down, but hand animating them was beyond me. I had made rudimentary 3d characters, barely flattened the meshes into skins and totally misunderstood how the hitboxes worked in the game. But it was now more than it ever was. The game was mine. My experience of Quake 2 was far beyond a simple game. It was a world, my world. It wasn’t multiplayer, but it had the influence of hundreds of creators, yet I alone forged my own path…
Time moved on and things changed. 1999 rolled around and my attentions was soon grabbed by the hype for the stunning Quake 3 Arena. I joined my friends in a mutual love of Valves Half Life and its mods, Counter Strike, Team Fortress Classic. Slowly my Quake 2 world became lost as hard drives corrupted, files disappeared from the web and mode teams ground to a halt.
Once I caught the whiff of nostalgia earlier this year I wanted to go back to some of those maps, see those characters, fight those bots. As I scratched my brain for the names of the mods, creators, anything, I took a wild ride through a maze of dead links, and websites not updated since 2001. To my dismay Fileplanet, once a pit of endless interest and creation, has a large red banner proclaiming it to merely be an archive, somehow owned by IGN.
There is always the assumption that the internet is a permanent place. Where once released, our content is destined to stay fixed, unaffected by time. This isn’t true. While there are a few places that proudly stand firm, with animated gifs and neon text, the mods have been washed away. The bones of the web laid out. Black text on white reading 404.
An emptiness filled me. Mods, total conversions, player levels, custom characters. These things were the backbone of the Quake scene for many years, yet there will be a time when the hundreds of hours of passionate work from a world of coders and artists is lost. I know that there is no single trace of anything I ever made for the game. One single screenshot of a 2007 art project can be found on a now defunct blog from a time when ‘games as art’ was risque and forward thinking.
Quake 2 is not the game it once was. It can no longer be more than that brown and grey murky shooter. Its Steam edition is available, and a few engines are there to bring the graphics up to ‘modern’ standards. I couldn’t find online games, the fan made HD textures added little. I cannot recreate my own little world of my youth, the same way I can’t buy back my nu-metal CD collection.
Games have taken on the prospect of user generated content. I was thrilled by the potential and some of the creations I found in LittleBigPlanet, something stirs in me when I’m allowed the honor of making my own character in Rock Band, Tony Hawk or Bioware RPG. But I’m left wondering where all of those levels will eventually go when Media Molecule shuts down its servers and the Playstation 3 is discussed in the same breath as the NES, Jaguar and Spectrum.
Mods themselves haven’t gone away but they often leave their legacy behind. Team Fortress became Team Fortress Classic became Team Fortress 2. Game devs jump from mod projects to the ‘real deal’ making Left 4 Dead, Portal and the entire MOBA genre. Other things begin as mods, Thirty Flights of Loving, Dear Ester and DayZ, and become standalone games in their own right. That anarchic spirit of the playbox remains with Skyrim’s insane Thomas the Tank engine dragons and other modifications, but this to me feels expected. I expect any PC game to become a playground for creators, because of that groundwork laid down by ID Software.
I know I’ll always have my Quake 2, it’ll be there in my memory, as part of my youth.