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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.