August 30th, 2008
There is a very particular and special reason why I happen to like Quake.
Let's admit for a moment that Quake is a messily designed game. I've said that the structure of the team that produces a game is often evident in the structure of the game itself, and Quake is pretty telling of the internal dissent that nearly kept it from shipping. It's a three-way tug of war of a game, because it represents three different sources of direction and inspiration that were never reconciled before four episodes worth of mostly good maps were produced in a panic and the game shipped to amazing reception anyway. Part Doom, part Lovecraft, and part dark fantasy, Quake as a setting does absolutely nothing to reconcile why these disparate things are all present in the same world, and makes no explanation of or apology for it. This, you see, is what it does right.
The key to making any story believable is in the telling - any movie or tall tale has to take itself just the right kind of seriously. There's always a certain amount of apology that creators unintentionally weave into what they're creating, and usually things perceived as "worse" have a lot more of it. Holes that need to be filled, ideas that need to be explained, actions that need motivations, motivations that need reasons, all introduced in the name of helping bridge the gap between author and audience. Stories and worlds perceived as "best" tend to have a kind of confidence about them, doing their thing without caring about the audience, which is of course what the audience really likes: to be taken somewhere, not have it brought to them. This is partly why an artist can paint a canvas white and get away with it - because he meant to do that.
When Quake was released, few knew about what went on behind id's doors. Quake just showed up, with an atmosphere more brutal than Doom, with a little text blurb at the end of each episode just like Doom, that encouraged you to find all the runes and explore the dimensions of Quake and didn't cover anything else at all as if ogres with chainsaws was the way it was supposed to be. Between that and the then-amazing 3D realism*, Quake gave players no reason to think there was reason to disbelieve it.
And if you take it all at face value, as something that someone meant to do ... it's actually pretty damned cool.
This is where the really important bit comes in, the thing that I think is most responsible for why games seem not to have become any more enticing for me as they've grown more attractive and more tightly designed.
The thing that engages the audience when the author is no longer apologizing for the gaps in his creation is their own imagination. Suspense works this way - Hitchcock knew better than any director that to scare an audience, all a director needs to do is imply an impending threat, and let their imagination do the torturing. Spielberg unwittingly channeled it when he avoided giving screen time to his malfunctioning mechanical shark. Everything is more intense when the audience internalizes it. The brief exposition supporting Quake's thin story alludes to horror-filled other dimensions and runes of unspeakable power in a way that makes the player feel as if what he's actually seen so far in Quake is only the tip of the iceberg. Once he's accepted Quake's bizarre eldritch zoo of knights and creatures haunting the castles and dungeons of purple-skyed worlds, his imagination fills in the gaps in ways more vivid to him than explicit explanation by any other author or designer.
Another game that gains immensely from this effect is Half-Life. Take a look at its monster menu for a second: it's a complete menagerie. Facehuggeresque headcrabs that turn scientists into zombies, barnacles that snag you from above, alien slaves with shock collars, three-legged yellow dogs with compound eyes, the floating hypercephalic swami things, armored gorillas that shoot bees, and the two end bosses are a cloven-hoofed galloping nutsack and a huge fetus that shoots teleporters. If I pitched a typewritten page of concepts as mismatched as that to a project lead he'd think I was insane. But.
The reason Black Mesa exists is because the developers wanted and needed a context to explain aliens coming to our world, so we could shoot them. Black Mesa could have been the apology, the explanation of why we put aliens in our game, but instead it's almost a character of its own. The infamous and bar-raising opening tram ride does such a good job of putting the player in Freeman's shoes, acclimating him to the world of Black Mesa by showing him endless details of his living surroundings that the context becomes real before it ever explains anything. Thus, when things change after the disaster, it carries real dramatic weight, and when the player begins encountering the strange bullsquids and houndeyes, he doesn't think "Man, look at all this weird stuff - what a stupid game," but rather, "Man, look at all this weird stuff - from what alien place could it have originated?"
It all works in a very "you can't make this stuff up" kind of way - you can, in fact, make it up. You just have to act like you're telling the truth.
Appendix: I think as game graphics grow stronger, they only hinder this internalized imaginative strengthening by straying closer to, and deeper into, the vaunted uncanny valley, as if visual fidelity in and of itself is a form of apology from developer to player. The relatively chunky and low resolution appearance of games from the 90's, in a weird way, encourages believability by encouraging suspension of disbelief, while striving for photorealism only encourages criticism and judgment. Far too many games these days are trying to get by on apology.