2008/04/15

Unfair demands on games: Continuity

I've always been a fan of structure in most things. It doesn't matter if the structure is hidden, partially or completely, although the more complex (and complicated) the better.
In fiction, this tends to result in my desire for some kind of continuity and canon to be established and never violated (of course, the weaker forms of retcon don't necessarily count as violation here, as they can simply add more baroquely interwoven layers to the existing canon); it also tends to result in my attempt to apply reason and logic to fluff which never tried to include
such concepts.

In particular, as I have previously mentioned, this caused me some disappointment with id Software's Quake series.
Recently (okay, this past weekend), I finally succumbed to the urge to buy the Quake Super Pack on Steam - this consists of Quake, and the two mission packs, Quake II, and the two mission packs, and Quake 3 and its team gameplay expansion. Since I already own Quakes 1 through 3, this was essentially just a way for me to get ahold of the mission packs for the earlier games (although, consolidation of things on Steam is always an important impulse for me).

So, once I'd acquired a suitably modern engine (the DarkPlaces engine for Quake, and ... for Quake II), I took the chance to engage in a little reminiscence.

To get my eye in, I tried Quake II first.
My initial impression wasn't actually that bad - its amazing how much particle effects and improved lighting models do to cover up low-poly models and low-resolution textures - and I was pleased to discover that a decade of playing computer games has resulted in my being significantly more skilled than my teenage self was.
However, the "Unit" system - a way of emulating giant levels by connecting several maps by two-way portals - quickly became annoying; it was very easy to get lost, both within the overly-dark sections of some levels, and also within the wider Unit itself. I frequently found myself taking the wrong two-way portal back to a level I didn't intend to revisit, or becoming unable to locate the final button to open a doorway or lower a lift.
Now, since I didn't have these problems in Half-Life, or its sequel, I shall assume that this stems from bad level design, and not my own stupidity.

The mission packs for Quake II were even worse for getting lost. Indeed, I don't think I got past the first Unit of either of them (although, in the case of Ground Zero, I think, this was because of the really annoyingly short time-limit it gave you to escape the unit before an automatic death occurred).

Essentially, my glowing memories of Quake II were sadly dimmed and crushed by the sad reality.

So, I came to Quake with somewhat lowered expectations. Surprisingly, then, I actually really enjoyed it; the level design, for the most part, was very good, the difficulty seemed reasonably placed, and everything was good. I didn't try to complete more than the first couple of levels, but what I did was very enjoyable.
And hence, onward I went, to the mission packs.
Mission Pack 1: Scourge of Armagon started out quite well, although with some uninspired additions to the array of weapons and monsters, but the end boss, Armagon himself, seemed extraordinarily unchallenging (I ran around him in circles shooting at him, and he rotated, very slowly, failing to ever actually face me enough to shoot at me) and also particularly boring in his design. The only saving grace were the Gremlins - sort of mini-Fiends, with the ability to steal your weapons (but easily distracted by the chance to eat the corpses of their comrades).
Mission Pack 2: Dissolution of Eternity gains additional points for the very silly title and for the statues (statues of knight-type monsters that "awaken" on various triggers); however, I was rather unconvinced by their "tough" monster addition - the Wrath (functionally, a flying Vore which explodes on death), and the majority of the weapon upgrades ("better" nailgun, "better" rockets and cluster grenades). The mid-game boss - a bigger, badder, Wrath - was seriously unfun. Later levels, though, actually showed some interesting features (the Elemental Fury duo of levels was quite interestingly themed, for example), and the Dragon end-boss was fairly interesting (although the model was a little dodgy from a modern perspective).

What I really was struck by, though, was my reaction to the changes to the canon of the original game. I'm probably unusual in actually believing that id software cares about canon in any of their games (and, indeed, indications suggest that id only really started to consider that plot had any actual significance around the point that Doom 3 was developed), but that's by the by.
Unlike Doom, where the invading Evil Forces were implied to be from Hell itself (an issue with theological implications that weren't properly explored within the game itself, or its sequels*) and, indeed, seemed to be partly motivated by the desire to acquire technology to augment their primarily magical society, the antagonists in Quake appeared to be less explicitly Evil and less motivated by technological gain.
Indeed, we can contrast the Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind from Doom - the two most obviously technologically enhanced enemies in Doom, and also the most potent foes - with the Ogre in Quake - the only cybernetically enhanced enemy, and one faced in the first couple of levels. Clearly technology is not an interest of "Quake"'s followers - they already have technology, of a crude, pseudo-steampunk (or even clockpunk) nature most significantly demonstrated by their use of clunky "nailguns" as ranged weaponry, and this seems to be as much as they care about. Indeed, all the significant enemies use magical ranged attacks, rather than this clunky technology thing.
The explicit inclusion of Shub-Niggurath as the end "boss" (although, of course, she doesn't attack the player herself) seems to be attempting to place Quake within the domain of Lovecraftian Horror; and hence, "Quake"'s motivation might be assumed to be ultimately unknowable.
Unfortunately, the mission packs both damage this perception to some degree.
Mission Pack 1 is the worst offender - while the Gremlins fit perfectly into the setting, the Centroids (a tough, Scorpion-with-attached-nailguns) seem jarringly out-of-place and Armagon himself seems disappointingly knowable (and rather Cyberdemon-like) - he's even described as one of "Quake's Generals", which seems disappointingly prosaic.
(Okay, so part of the problem here is that I'm trying to load too much subtlety into a genre which didn't, at the time, support it - still, Nyarlathotep or one of the other remaining Lovecraftian entities would have been better than Armagon's uninspired design.**)
Mission Pack 2 at least tries to reference some less-SF ideas - while I'm not sure that it works, the attempt at suggesting that various time periods have worshipped "Quake" as a deity was interesting; and the Elemental Fury levels (with Fire, Water, Earth and Air themed areas) and the associated iconography clearly references August Derleth's attempt at systemizing Lovecraft's setting (unfortunately, like Derleth's own attempt, it perhaps weakens the precursor somewhat). The "temporal energy converter" at the end, however, is Horribly out-of-place, being far too technical looking.

...I suspect I may be taking matters a bit too seriously.


*Note to the reading impaired: yes, this is sarcasm.
I know that Splash Damage were probably just trying to make a nod to the original Quake, but the inclusion of the Nailgun in Quake 4 was one reason why I didn't buy it. The Nailgun is part of the Quake setting, not the Quake 2 / Quake 4 setting, and its existence in Quake 4 rankles with me. It's even worse that it even appears in Enemy Territory : Quake Wars as this is a prequel to Quake 2! One wonders why the Strogg stopped using nailgun technology (which, actually, doesn't even fit their technology level - while their medical processes seem crude, and their industrial processes needlessly destructive, this appears to be a matter of not caring, rather than lack of ability - their weapons are consistently more sophisticated than human weapons, and tend towards the SF energy-beam, rather than the steampunk "nail") after their failed invasion of Earth, just to bring it back after the (first) Makron was destroyed...
**Which doesn't stop part of me wishing that Quake 3 had been a complex multi-factioned RPG/FPS hybrid featuring the settings of Doom, Quake and Quake 2, possibly with a plot tree and multiple possible endings... Although that's also partly because I always thought the Arachnotrons from Doom were cute (and, hence, a storyline which allowed you to play as any of the four factions would be a good idea, clearly ;) )

9 comments:

silveradept said...

That does seem a bit unfair to impose that kind of continuity wish on a series of games that really appears to have had two distinct factions - the Quake Odds and the Quake Evens. Still, it's nice to see someone taking a shot at trying, and tying it into Doom and/or Castle Wolfenstein would be a rather neat trick.

aoanla said...

Well, of course, Doom is already tied into things, if you accept that Quake III defines the overarching continuity of the games - the strong implication is that Earth suffered successive invasions by Hell, "Quake" and the Strogg, in roughly that order. (Certainly, Doom comes before Quake II, since the model number of the BFG increases ;) )
This is not particularly satisfying, however; one of the problems of Quake III is that, by hinting at a complex back-plot, the simplistic "deathmatch vs bots" plot is even more disappointing.

silveradept said...

Fair enough. Doom and Crash do make it into the Quake game, and the BFG does go up.

I haven't got around to Quake 4, but from what little I understood of it, it was either the counterstrike of Earthforce against the Strogg or the fallout from that counterstrike. am I missing something?

Could it all be tied back to something done at Wolfenstein to summon up Hell, and then that attracts others?

aoanla said...

Indeed - the continuity for the "Quake 2" games is, in order:

The Strogg invade Earth (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars).

Humanity counterattacks the Strogg homeworld (Quake II).

After the death of the Strogg military leader, the Makron, humanity pushes its attack further, attempting to completely destroy the Strogg threat (Quake 4).

The main niggles being that ET:QW is clearly a prequel to Quake 4, but Quake II doesn't quite fit either of the later games, due to those games trying to be slightly more sophisticated in their (yes!) storytelling...

silveradept said...

Well, retconning is a delicate art. If after many years, comic and graphic novel creators can't do it smoothly, computer game writers are going to have a little trouble with it. Maybe when Quake 5 comes out, they'll have managed to smooth out all the inconsistencies.

Michael Martin said...

It seems kind of unsporting to point it out, but the real reason they use nailguns is because Trent Reznor of NIN did the soundtrack.

aoanla said...

Yes, I know that. Hence the NIN on the nailgun ammo boxes.

However, when discussing continuity, normally one doesn't consider out-of-universe reasons for things, I feel. Plus, nailguns do fit the feel of the Quake setting better than generic machine guns would have - there's a dark, slightly-not-quite-steampunky feel about a lot of the technology in the game.

Ian said...

Oioi Sam - pretentious, you? ;)

Seriously, you can't apply such stringent analysis to Quake and Doom. Half Life maybe, but Quake and Doom were games developed by fans of movies and books to be just blast-em-ups with no real plot, and certainly no continuity.

Really, the main reason for that is the state of the industry back then - now we have huge games houses who can actually invest in writers and actors. Back then there was no-where near that level of professionalism.

One thing might be interesting: to step back and take a look at how continuity has changed across the industry. My feeling is that we'd find that more action-orientated games have only recently (5-10 years) had proper conntinuity), whereas strategy games have more often had it built in?

aoanla said...

Well, that's sort of true. Remember, though, that there was originally a more complex plot for Doom (it was ditched because almost all of the rest of the id software team wanted to make a shooter, and the engine probably couldn't cope with what the script wanted anyway), and that System Shock and Marathon both have relatively complex plots (at least, for the genre) and were written in 1994 - before Quake.
Of course, that Marathon and System Shock were lauded as being awesomely plotted (at least, before Half-Life and, more importantly, Deus Ex came along) does say something for the paucity of plot and characterisation in the genre as a whole.
However, the System Shock games do have perfect continuity between them (SS2 is a sequel to the original in narrative terms), and Marathon has both continuity with both its sequels and (sort-of) with Bungie's original attempt at FPS-type-games - Pathways Into Darkness.
In id's case, the lack of complex plotting and continuity seems to have been partly due to their disorganisation - Quake was supposed to be a 3d close-combat game, originally, and most of that had to be dropped for lack of time and engine capability. Quake II wasn't originally supposed to be called "Quake II" - id hadn't checked the availability of any of the other names they wanted, and found out, too late, that others owned them, and so on. That, however, doesn't mean we can't try to shoehorn them into a proper consistent setting: isn't that the whole raison-d'etre of fandom? ...