Sunday, February 4, 2024

new Quake map: "Taught By Thirst" for Remix Jam

Taught By Thirst is a new Mesoamerican themed single player Quake map that I made for Remix Jam, a 3 week community level design event where we all adapted multiplayer maps from other games for Quake. 

The definition of "remix" was kept loose on purpose, and anyway some of the fun is in figuring out where the map came from... although that's not the case with mine: I clearly adapted de_aztec by Chris "narby" Auty from Counter-Strike.

In this post I will talk about my inspiration and intent. I also explain what happens in the level. If you want, play it before reading this post. This is your last SPOILER WARNING.


de_aztec has a long history. It was added to the map cycle early on in CS Beta 6.5 (June 8, 2000) and began as a grayer de_dust with a central underpass, double doors, nice big ramps -- but with even more vulnerability and polarizing chokepoints, especially its iconic flimsy bridge suspended over a wide sniper alley river. Competitive players generally see it as CT-sided, which it probably is, but it has remained a fan favorite on CS 1.6 pub servers ever since.

Later the 2004 official remake for Counter-Strike Source had some great visual ideas. The temples break up the silhouette and skyline, adding much needed depth to the flat geometry. However the dark lighting and texturing transform much of the play area into an unpleasant mid-brown mess, and its reliance on Source displacements leaves it feeling a bit blobby and melty. Like a lot of Counter-Strike Source, it often feels more like a game engine tech demo rather than something for humans to play. And anyway it made minimal layout changes, so if you didn't like playing Aztec already, you definitely wouldn't have been converted here.

In 2012, the last official remake of Aztec for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was much brighter and more readable with some very sensible layout changes (which I'll discuss later in this post)... but sadly that wasn't enough to rescue its tainted reputation. In 2017, Valve quietly removed Aztec from the current CS:GO / CS2 mapcycle, and it has since been permanently replaced by its more balanced modern successor Ancient

So... Aztec is a flawed cult-classic ghost map that only lives in millennial gamer memory now... a perfect subject to rebuild and rethink for a boomer shooter.

Now, this is my 11th Quake map overall, but my 3rd multiplayer adaptation. My previous map Tell Me It's Raining adapts fy_iceworld from Counter-Strike, while Daughter Drink This Water adapts Hang 'Em High from Halo.

Since this isn't my first remake rodeo, this time I decided to try a different design strategy from my previous levels: this is a very "straight" adaptation. I painstakingly rebuilt the map from decompiled scraps to ensure an uncanny feel when walking around, and I preserved most of the existing combat cover, double doors, and other core flow. 

Visually, my rendition is much brighter and warmer, but I did keep the same sunlight angle and even the exact wood planks on the famous bridge. And although I couldn't resist adding some colorful salmon-red rocks, I still textured most of the level in a similar mossy gray stone to mimic the original feel, with ample vines and swamp ambiance. (Thanks to Makkon's excellent textures, as always.)

Since the level design hews so close to Counter-Strike, my initial idea was to experiment with implementing some round-based gameplay in Quake. 

You would've played on the same map across a series of rounds, each with different enemy placement. Your goal would've been to defuse a bomb, randomly hidden at one of the bombsites. It would've been an unholy Counter-Strike / Quake hybrid.

However, I realized I barely had the patience to test and tune one round of encounter design, let alone 3-5 rounds of different enemy compositions. The technical aspects of wrangling the entity scripting also would've consumed a lot of time that I just didn't have.

So instead this is still a somewhat traditional Quake map, with a start and an end and a bunch of monsters in between.

Crafting traditional Quake gameplay required some divergence from the original layout, but even so, I tried to keep my changes in dialogue with the original's ideas.

Like I start you in a sewer near the CT spawn, which the original map cordoned-off strictly as scenery -- the space was always there, I've just made it playable.

The bombsites don't function as bombsites anymore, but I still mark them with special floor dressing, vital weapons, and explosive stuff. They are still key areas for gameplay with major fights.

Or take the big wide river that snakes through the map -- on Normal / Hard mode I've filled it with poisonous slime, so it still functions as a dangerous no man's land that slows down your movement.

My encounter design also plays off common Counter-Strike player tactics. Monsters often camp atop the climbable stacks of crates, or wait in ambush behind the iconic double doors. (I had to widen the door gaps a lot to accommodate Quake's pinball pathfinding AI.)

But my favorite part of Aztec's combat flow is the bridge. I like it so much I block off other paths to try to make you use it. It's a thin flimsy looking thing that looks super unsafe, evoking its function as a dangerous chokepoint that leaves you very vulnerable and exposed to from nearly every angle.

Here I amp the bridge anxiety another step, filling the swamp river below with Spawns, terrifying fast exploding jumpers that every Quake player hates. The spawns can't actually reach you high up on the bridge, but hopefully the sight and sound of 5-10 of these scary jumping things is enough to melt some brains. (For reference, usually just 1 Spawn is enough to make players panic and hate the level designer.)

There's no easy way to neutralize so many Spawns, but you need the gold key they're guarding. 

To honor the map's nonlinear multiplayer heritage, I try to support multiple nonlinear solutions since you can improvise different routes / tackle fights in different orders:

  • Snipe the Spawns from the bridge, maybe with Lightning or Grenades (expensive) or with all your shotgun ammo.
  • Grab a biosuit, jump down to get a nailgun, start spraying. (correct)
  • Find the invulnerability powerup and run in with guns blazing (secret canonical)

I'm particularly proud of the secret solution, since I usually neglect secret design in my maps. But this one has enough to unpack...

When Valve remade de_aztec for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, they made several changes. I include most of these tweaks (except the big pillar that ruins the purity of the underpass) but I want to focus on two big changes to the T side: (1) reverse the narrow T-ramp leading out from T spawn, (2) delete the hallway from T spawn to T-water (not pictured above... because it was deleted.)

These changes make a lot of sense. It was always kind of a silly fake choice anyway -- go to this fun important junction full of tactical possibilities, or trudge down this random boring isolated hallway to the sewer river?

So I ported these changes to my version as well, but with one big wink: the "deleted hallway" is actually still there, unused and filled with cobwebs, accessible by a secret door. Savvy players familiar with the original version of Aztec will certainly probe for the missing hallway, but I also heavily hint at the secret for those who don't play CS, with a glaring texture misalignment and peculiar item placement. (I err on the side of too-obvious because I want all players to find it, it's kind of a fake-secret.)

Once you grab the Gold Key guarded by the Spawns down in the poison river, you can unlock the central corridor and take the teleporter.

I rarely use teleports in my maps. They feel like ladders -- inelegant band aids to smooth over abrupt flow. If you want verticality, you should plan stairs for it, and give enough space to develop the flow there. Don't make spatial promises you can't keep!

But when faced with whether to make a major layout change, or to preserve the layout intact faithfully without a big new stairwell, let it be known that I chose faith. Adding some stairs up to the roof would've felt a little too heretical -- so a teleporter it is.

Teleportation strengthens the surprise and impact of this moment anyway. You may not be sure where it leads, or may wonder whether it's the level exit. So you step inside... and boom, a whole new level to explore, right on top of the level you just played.

Obviously in the original Counter-Strike version, you can't run around on the roof. In fact, each room had its own sealed-off sky, so you couldn't even lob grenades over walls. 

My version unifies it all into one big continuous space. Adding this fully-explorable roof layer emphasizes this continuity -- which is only possible 25+ years later when framerate and map optimization is much less of a concern. On modern computers today, rendering this entire level incurs approximately the same processing cost as Nathan Drake's chest hair.

Yet some things never change, like Quake's terrible slope handling. I've learned my lesson from my previous map Breakfast Under The Balloons, where organic angles and slopes destabilized player physics as well as monster physics. Most of the slopes here are very clear 22.5 or 45 degrees slants, rising squarely along the grid, and crucial climbables have zero slope for maximum stability. In the end you have to map for the game physics you have, not the physics you wish you had.

To finally finish the level, you must fight your way up a giant Mayan-inspired step pyramid seemingly made of gold, resembling the famous Temple of Kukulcán at Chichén Itzá

As a FromSoftian gesture, a shambler awaits you at the top with its back turned. There's very little cover around the pyramid and you would be at the mercy of the shambler's lightning hitscan attack, so placing the shambler like this is a level design signal -- make sure you're prepared.

To prepare, you can explore the rest of the rooftop area and stock up on supplies. There's a sneaky little side climbing route that takes you past the map start at CT spawn, as well as a large arena in the middle, and another big fight atop the T spawn. These fights don't have any shamblers, but there are plenty of melee and ranged monsters to dodge and clear, providing access to Super Nailguns and lots of Lightning Gun ammo good for shredding a shambler... and that's the end!

The map's title, as usual, comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land — by the Oceans passed.
Transport — by throe —
Peace — by its battles told —
Love, by Memorial Mold —
Birds, by the Snow.

Poetry-wise, it's a little blah. Yeah yeah Emily, absence makes the heart grow fonder! Tell us something we don't know! But even at her not-best, she's still doing cool language stuff: Dickinson sets up a pattern in the first line ("... is taught by...") that culminates in a haiku-like last image ("Birds, by the snow"). You know from context to read it as "Birds [are taught] by the snow", but that key phrase is itself absent, you have to remember it, which is what the poem is about! Presence through memory. Like teaching. Like some sort of impossible snow bird.

While it's a shame that no one taught Dickinson about penguins, it's an even bigger shame that no one taught her single player Quake level design. With her masterful use of patterns and implication, I think Emily Dickinson would've been an excellent level designer with strong insights about competitive map balance.


Thanks to playtesters JoyModulo and Spootnik for playtesting and feedback, and thanks to Fairweather for organizing and additional QA.

You can download this map and 29 other amazing remix maps (Rainbow Road! Blood Gulch! de_dust! Chiron! KGalleon! Facing Worlds! etc) at the Remix Jam on Slipseer.

If it's been a While since you last played Quake, you may need some help with setting up Quake and installing mods via the "New to Quake? Start Here" guide on Slipseer.

For a quick primer to Quake level design culture, also see part 3 of my Quake Renaissance series for Rock Paper Shotgun. Be advised that the install guide is a little outdated though -- most of the community's Quake engine of choice is now Ironwail.