Friday, April 1, 2022

new Quake map: The Close And Holy Darkness

This post spoils what happens in my Quake map. If you care about that, play it first.

I made another Quake map -- this one was for a map jam called Retro Jam 7, where we all spent 2 weeks making level design homages to the greatest hits. 

The theme here was "Koohoo" or "The Castle of Koohoo" (2001) by Vondur. The theming felt very fresh for Quake at the time, taking notes (and maybe a few textures) from Unreal. The novel use of greens and blues, as well as the outdoor hub layout, contrasted a lot with the browns and reds of Quake 3 Arena inspired aesthetics popular at the time.

Of course, I figured everyone else in the jam was going to lean on those dark greens and blues, so instead I opted for a rosy morning brown type of mood.

I feel the Koohoo textures have similar weaknesses to the retro cr8 set I used in my previous map: the textures are very dark, and would likely fail the midtones histogram test that forms the basis of modern approaches to diffuse textures today. I had to compensate with powerful lights to get the sunny light bouncing effect I wanted and it was a bit annoying. Why are these textures like this?!

The texture theme is also a bit of an in-joke within the mapping community. Back in 1996, id Software designer American McGee notoriously rejected an Aztec-like visual theme for his Quake maps. There was gossip about whether McGee was being inflexible, or whether these Aztec textures really were so bad. So if you make a mod that does manage to make this theme work within the confines of Quake, you can easily interpret it as a commentary -- don't be such a baby, McGee! The textures are fine! Go map!

Within broader game design culture, the theme also invokes an awkward aspect of cultural appropriation and reduction. Many games with lost temples in the jungle end up carelessly mixing Aztec / Mayan / Incan cultures together -- at worst, these games lazily recast indigenous people as mindless monsters to defeat so you can rightfully steal their treasures. It echoes colonizer arguments about "savages" who "need" to be conquered. For some reason, Amazon even thought their colonialism-themed MMO "The New World" could portray colonialism apolitically.

On the other hand, why shouldn't our fantasy settings involve Mesoamerican and Andean influences? How do we do this right? If I were making a big project with funding, I'd seek out experts and collaborators to do these cultures justice... Unfortunately this isn't a big project with funding. Instead I'm making a small level for a 25 year old game that no one plays. 

So, at least, I can set some cultural design constraints to reduce harm:

  • no zombies; the Spanish introduced smallpox to the Aztecs, killing millions and conquering the survivors; zombies in a Mesoamerican temple would serve as a clear allusion to this, and without context, would justify colonialist beliefs about Aztecs somehow deserving the disease because of God or whatever
    • somehow I doubt that Quake has the design tools to unpack this deep trauma
    • I don't even like how Quake zombies work anyway
  • show the temple being invaded and settled by an outside force 
    • (sci-fi army enemies have settled the main courtyard)
  • a non-triumphant ending because the player is also basically a colonizer 
    • (you're sealed in the temple and die there)
I also set some formal design constraints for myself, to try to grow as a Quake level designer:
  • do more exploration bits
  • use more shadowy darkness
  • set more ambushes (I've been playing Elden Ring)
  • let players ambush enemies (I've been playing Elden Ring)
"Forgotten Temple" by Jonas Ellermann

To start, I skipped blockout and instead built a big stepped courtyard with three facades, which acts as a sort of hub that you criss-cross as you progress. The massing was inspired by this "Forgotten Temple" concept art by Jonas Ellermann (above). I liked the angular arches, overhangs, and sculpted heads, and you can see those features prominently in my version too.

Combat-wise, I wanted to experiment with height-based cover; battles where you pop your head out over the trench, then dive back down. This is most explicit in the design of the silver key battle, where the only cover is in the form of these crater-like stairwell pits.

I tried to constrain my enemy palette appropriately for this map. To sell the invader theme, I use grunts and enforcers only in the introductory section of the map. Then to try something new, I rely a lot on dogs -- low HP fast-moving melee enemies that work best in groups, but often get neglected in favor of knights. Here I omit knights in favor of just hell knights, versatile rushers with fan-like projectiles that force heavier strafing and/or height changes. Lastly there's an occasional ogre, a few scrags on hard difficulty, and a traditional shambler + vore battle at the end because I got tired and bored.

I improvised the main chunk of exploration here with very little planning. It's a bunch of dark twisty rooms and corridors that feed into a multi-level sunny side atrium with stairwell. 

There's one room with a spiral pattern. The idea is that you go into the spiral a bit paranoid, conscious that you'll have to backpedal rapidly when you aggro whatever's in the middle... except here I've secretly raised the middle up with a ramp, so when you backpedal, you end up pulling one of the hell knights up the ramp and so he gets a clear shot at you. 

It doesn't quite work to my satisfaction yet, but I'm going to try more spiral patterns in the future because I think there's something there.

The unmodded vanilla Quake "retro" constraint inconvenienced some of my fellow jammers. If you want to do anything more technically advanced than static monster placement in vanilla Quake, you basically have two options: (1) build a "monster closet" and open the door to start a fight, (2) build an inaccessible room filled with inactive teleporters, and trigger the teleporters to spawn-in monsters.

The monster closet approach is less work, Though in the late 1990s, gamers started deriding Doom's monster closets as unrealistic and "un-immersive", reaching a fever pitch when Doom 3 had the audacity to pair monster closets with cutscenes.

But I think monster closet theory has evolved a bit since Doom 1 / Doom 3. When you think about it, a sharp corner or critical path gate can also function as a closet door. Any layout device that can break line of sight to stagger waves / structure a fight can function effectively as a closet. If you build carefully, you might not even need any special monster closets at all.

Or at least, that's how I justify my laziness with encounter scripting. After the complex scripting nightmare of my wave-based map Tell Me It's Raining, I don't even like configuring doors anymore.

Anyway, I think the map turned out OK, and hopefully it's "retro" enough!

My map is just one of 10 levels in this fantastic map pack. Download and play Retro Jam 7 today! Thanks to Danz for organizing.