Back to where we began in Quake

The original Quake’s one of the games I played most in my early teens. Originally with much trepidation in single player mode, in which I probably didn't get very far without god mode.* * I'll have to write some­thing about the whole con­cept of god mode as well at some point.With god mode, I probably saw all the levels at one point. I've definitely seen most if not all of them in multiplayer capture-the-flag matches, transforming them from hazardous arcane structures to spatially diverse playgrounds for a team sport.

Moving up a level, however, there's something about the overall world design of the game that sticks with me now, as it did then. First of all, the game spatialises a choice that games until that point hid in the menu: difficulty. There is no prelude in Quake, we are dropped in a level, and we choose a difficulty setting by going through our choice of three portals: a theme that ties all the disparate space of the game together.

By choosing that difficulty, we're zapped to a central hall with four corridors, each corresponding to an "episode" of levels, another kind of game convention made concrete in Quake. We can explore each of them, and they all take us to a portal that leads to the initial level of each episode. All levels in each episode have to be traversed, closed paths culminating in the gathering of a rune, pulsating with arcane magics.


Chthon. What a charmer. [source]

Somewhat surprisingly, only the first episode ends in what could be called a boss fight, with the hulking Chthon. The other episodes simply end in huge gateways. All of them, however, lead back to the starting area, and in effect, each episode is a loop that originates in and returns to that area.

Once you collect all four runes, and have in effect played through most of the game, something new is revealed in the original starting area. The slightly ominous but not all that remarkable black stain in the centre of the hall is in fact a cover for a descent into Shub-Niggurath's pit, she being the arch-nemesis of the whole game.


Mom, Hi! So… nice to see you. Have you done something to your tentacles? You kinda look like the Quake logo. [source]

Shub-Niggurath is something of a weird end boss for a game. Originating in Lovecraft's disturbed mind, I get the sense that she is something of a mystical and obscure mother goddess; she "with a thousand young".* * Inci­dental­ly, there's also a weird French jazzy prog band going under that name. Check out their ex­cel­lent debut album here. That is how she is presented in Quake, too. The evil creatures that are the game's enemies are S-N's spawn, the brood with which she wants to populate earth after its indigenous life has been wiped away.

The weirdish thing about her is that she is not violent herself, possessing no weaponry or directly destructive powers. Instead, she summons her children to do her bidding. Similarly, Shub-Niggurath is practically invulnerable. Unlike her children, she is impervious to all the weapons the player has. Instead, the only way to defeat her is to make use of a final portal near the end of her lair. The teleporter whisks the player to a spiked floating cube the slowly traverses the level, sometimes passing through Shub-Niggurath herself. If you time it right, and teleport as the cube is passing through her, you end up inside her, and she explodes. Victory!


As the text shows, S-N is presented as something of an evil mother–usurper, one who supplants legitimate children with changelings. At the same time, I think there are some weird psychological things going on here.

As the awfully concrete spatiality of game choices in the beginning illustrates, Quake makes no real attempt at portraying a world that should be interpreted as real or verisimilar in any sense — not that shooters often did at the time. What we get are strange realms and dimensions beyond our own, opened up through an unexplained portal technology, developed by humans themselves.

The opening of these gateways has unleashed a hidden horror, and it is up to the game's protagonist (i.e. 'you', the floating gun) to set things right again. Through exploration and triumph over adversaries, we gather symbolic knowledge (the runes), which we need to crack open the secret that is at the heart of Quake’s strange world. Significantly, this journey of discovery never truly leads outward or to some kind of faraway destination.

No: we just keep coming back to where we began. The introductory starting area, concretely the birth of our presence in the game, is situated right over mom's den, which was right under our noses the whole time.

Once we've figured that out, there's nowhere to go but down. All four episodic loops are closed, and we pass through wet, slimy pits and membranes for a final time before ending up in the lair of the demonic mother. We destroy her by merging with her physically, absorbing the dark energies that caused the whole world to be splintered into a hostile maze in the first place.

At the moment, I'm unsure whether I can take this whole rather Freudian interpretation any deeper — I'd love to hear what you think — but there's definitely something going on here.

Stepping back from the dimension of mommy issues, the spatial structure of the Quake world is interesting in itself. Very roughly, I would visualise its structure as follows:


Again, a highly stylised conceptual space that has more symbolism to it than verisimilitude. Now, most game worlds are at least more akin to theme parks or gardens than actual landscapes,**More on that from me soon. but some games tend heavily towards the symbolist side. I'll give just one example because it's close to mind right now, but I'm sure there are more and perhaps stronger parallels.

So, as a final thought, consider the world of Dark Souls: after the initial steps of working your way through the Undead Asylum, it's safe to say that Firelink Shrine serves somewhat as the central area for a large part of the game. The first space that connects to all other spaces. It also happens to be the part you need to return to to get to the final area of the game: the Kiln of the First Flame.* * Yes, tech­ni­cal­ly you can also get there through the Abyss, but as lo­cales go, it's pret­ty close to Fire­link Shrine. There you face down Gwyn, a peculiarly human and somehow oddly fatherly figure that is the root cause of, again, the stuff that's wrong with the game world.

My feeling is that there's a spiritual motif here, echoed in these games: the struggle to return to one's bodily and spiritual origins. It can be symbolised as a Oedipal-ish horror shooter or as a moody RPG, and likely in other ways as well, but the thrust is roughly the same: a compulsive journey to 'repair' a broken world, by repeatedly journeying back to where we began: a series of loops in order to be able to finally break those loops.

This post was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.