The last time I really cared about a video game was when I was in my early teens, The game was Quake and I was gross. Really, I was: I never washed my hair and I recoiled from new clothes like a slug from salt. I had no friends at school — like, actually, literally zero: I would roam the corridors at recess waiting for the bell so I could stop being alone — and when every now and then the other kids would pay me heed, I’d try to be excited about games, because, I thought, couldn’t I at least fit in with the nerds?
Mark Forrester loaned me his copy of Quake. We bonded over this, and over Live and Tool. He hated “Josie” by Blink-182, so I decided I did too. Tumblr, there’s a chance I was terrible.
I was terrified of Quake. I’ve talked before about my disdain for H.P. Lovecraft, but his best realization really is in game form — the level above is named for one of his stories, and Quake, faithfully, humiliatingly, is cast in his mold.
Because in all the crass ways Lovecraft failed, Quake succeeded. It dispensed with plot entirely in favor of realising atmosphere, and that becomes most palpable in the fourth and final “episode”: the level design creates environments a little too claustrophobic, with architecture that bends in unusual ways and crowds the player a little too close. As a thirteen year old — a terrible player — I’d save and restart constantly, but I think the best way to encounter Quake is as a bad player. Only then can the game’s horror — a horror rarely realized to this extent in any medium — be properly experienced. In this nightmarish labyrinth, anything could be around the next corner. Go on or give in. If you’re a good player, you can understand this as a pattern of monsters and obstacles to be solved. If you’re a bad player, it’s Lovecraft come to life: the monstrous taking over.
I don’t play games anymore because I can’t reconcile either of the two outcomes. Either:
- I will die and have to restart, ad nauseum, until I succeed
- I will succeed; in which case: so what?
I wish this weren’t so. Games are a multi-billion dollar industry, and an important part of popular culture. But games require paying, as a start, many hundreds of dollars for a console. I’m not willing to do that for the privilege of spending $90 on a game that I’ll give up on because I’m no good at immediately.
Quake is easily available on the internet now, and I downloaded it recently, and played my way through it — on easy, naturally, because I don’t want to die, even in leisure activities. It’s still great. And I love that it exists as what must surely be the purest expression of Lovecraftian horror. I’ll always be more creeped about by the sound of a Fiend getting ready to attack than anything in the entirety of The Shadow Over Innsmouth.