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An Interview with Shambler: (June 2008)

Questions asked by Tronyn

In June of 2008, Legendary map reviewer Shambler had a talk with equally legendary Map Author Tronyn, this was the result:

Tronyn: You ran review sites covering custom content for several games aside from Quake. What do you think has contributed to Quake's longevity?

Shambler: Without a trace of modesty I can say that the review site I ran for Quake was an important factor ;). I do believe that is true - I was there at the right time and put a hell of a lot of effort in (not just reviewing, but finding news, chasing mappers, doing LOTW at PlanetQuake) and I think that was a good start. Following that, the people and sites who have kept promoting Quake and provided a base for the community: UWF at his review site, Spirit and Quaddicted, and Metl at Func Msgboard. Internet communities need somewhere to live and to share and promote their work and we've all been a part of that. But, the main thing I think is that Quake is just so bloody good and so bloody good to map for!! Just this week I've been playing the new releases - single maps people are throwing out, speedmaps and stuff. And they are simply GOOD. Even in some of the basic maps there's cool moments - a surprise Spawn here, a cool altar there, a funny ambush, whatever.

What it boils down to is two things: Firstly, Quake feel and gameplay is basic and good. It's a simple formula: easy, quick movement, direct control, powerful straightforward weapons, fast brutal and varied monsters. So you get that in the right environment with the right balance and it's almost bound to be fun. Secondly, Quake is very open-ended for themes and styles and what you can do with it. It's not set to one genre like most other games. If you want to create an atmospheric haunted castle, you can, and it will work. If you want to create a frantic infested military base, it will work. If you want to create a surreal industrial city segment, it will work. Most flights of fantasy, you can create in Quake, and add to that reliably good gameplay and you can see why people still like mapping for it. And all credit to them - there are a lot of good mappers, old and new, still releasing good maps :).

Tronyn: How do you think Quake level design has changed or evolved since its original era (which ended, say, around 2000 or so)?

Shambler: It's got consistently a lot better, at both ends of the spectrum. The high-power "super-releases" are even more spectacular, but mostly notably people don't release crap any more. Even new mappers come into the scene and release one "okay but flawed" map, and then the next one they release is definitely good, and that's it. It's almost all wheat and no chaff. As far as the changes, those are fairly obvious: Bigger maps that take advantage of custom engines. They're definitely more prominent - but the bog standard maps are still good.

Tronyn: How do you think the Games Industry itself has changed since then, relating to both the FPS genre and the direction of PC Gaming more generally?

Shambler: Hmmm. I don't follow the industry that closely. Well, I half do, I read Blues and stuff, but I don't really know what's going on. I'm often several games behind the latest ones, even though I really enjoy new games. What I have noticed is that FPS (and I included 3PS games in this because they're essentially the same thing) games have evolved and progressed, but it's a double-edged sword. On the plus side, graphics have got a lot better and generally look amazing, games have stronger stories and themes, maps are generally a lot better, and some deeper aspects like team-mates and RPG elements are included. On the minus side, the core gameplay often hasn't improved that much, and sometimes got worse (a few games have done good stuff, but often it lacks the pacy, down-to-earth feel of early generation games), most games are on rails i.e. less room for exploration and playing in your own way, and the stories and themes can be a bit too rigid and have less options for future creativity.

Basically games these days are more spectacular and gripping as one off experiences, but the fundamentals of running around exploring and shooting and surviving haven't really improved much. There are some exceptions to this, e.g. Far Cry, which had a lot of freedom in how you progressed through maps, and Dark Messiah, which had a lot of varied basic gameplay options.

Tronyn: Quake, despite its limited color palette, has been host to an incredible diversity of environmental themes. What do you consider the most effective or appropriate themes that have been added to the game by third parties?

Shambler: Anything that looks good in the Quake engine, suits the Quake vibe, and expands on that vibe without doing something incongruous. For example, Quake has medieval themes, so new themes that are based in medieval but enhance it, are good. Quake itself is pretty diverse originally so there's a lot of places people can take the themes using the original vibe as a basis. Ones I think are particularly good are: Rogue's "temple / Egyptian / Roman" theme, because it's very consistent and well done; Kell's "library" theme, because it combines a medieval flavor with something quite warped and effective; and Stecki's and Metl's base themes (I forget the names), again because they're consistent and suit the base stuff well (they're gritty, not to chic). Importantly, all of these look really good in the engine - not all new themes do.

Tronyn: Plenty of mappers have taken inspiration from outside sources - Lovecraft, Poe, even Nine Inch Nails. What do you think of this, and are there any external sources of inspiration you'd like to see make it into Quake?

Shambler: It's good. Most good mappers take inspiration from influences that work well in Quake. Given Quake's broad selection of themes (fantasy / medieval / gothic / industrial / horror / sci-fi), there's a lot of outside sources that can work with that and extend those themes well. Only when it's something incongruous with Quake's vibe (which does happen, particularly in the past), is it detrimental to the map. I can't think of any external inspirations I'd particularly like to see. I'd like to see people to keep doing a good job of what influences they use.

Tronyn: What are your favorite classic and modern Q1SP releases?

Shambler: Errrr....crikey. I really can't remember. There's been so many. That's not an exaggeration, it's very hard to pick and very hard to draw a boundary between favorites and non-favorites. But I'll try... I remember in the early days really liking the Mexx levels. And Zestorer of course. The later Sadlark ones were very chic. DaMaul's levels amazed me. Hell In A Can, well scary. Tale Of Abbot's Rune, very cool. A3, lovely design. CZG's stuff, for a grumpy old cnut he's done a lot.

More recently, errr, god I'll be even worse at this. I've played them all and enjoyed them all, and can't remember any names. Red777 by Kell, I seem to remember that. Kinn's stuff, quite astonishing. Tronyn's engine-raping terracotta thing. Something Vondur did something recently that I really enjoyed the gameplay of. More recently, Biff's base map - the effect of the first secret in that was one of the best Quake moments ever. One thing I have noticed in recent years, there have been so many great and inspiring designs, that I'm finding good gameplay stands out more and more. A few releases have really stood out for me (like the ones above I can't remember!) because the gameplay has been great - good balance, fast paced action, original monster usage, fair challenge, good usage of underused monsters / features. It's quite interesting getting into a new map and thinking "Well I've played X-thousand maps and shot X-hundred-thousand monsters with these same damn weapons, but this is still done in an entertaining and fresh way".

Tronyn: Which is the better mission pack, Rogue or Hipnotic? And have any custom mission packs surpassed either?

Shambler: Hipnotic, by a long way. Rogue had some good moments and some good themes, but seemed to feature too many annoying traps and too many cheap re-skinned monsters. Hipnotic really felt like a Quake enhancement - it took the Quake style and ramped it up a notch. They'd obviously put some thought into a smart collection of new monsters and features, and some very good maps too - the new base stuff (like the Mines level) was exceptional. With custom mission packs it's hard to tell as there's rarely a direct comparison, especially with engine enhancements these days. Plus things have moved on in general. Probably Nehahra has. And there's been a lot of "mini-packs" that surpass in quality but not in scale. Oh wait, I forgot Zerstorer. Kinda a mini-pack but a real classic one. That really pushed the boundaries - amazing atmosphere.

Tronyn: What level(s) that shipped with the original Quake do you consider best/most effective?

Shambler: A lot of them :). It's where it all comes from, after all. But a firm favorite has to be the entirety of Episode 1. The way the vibe of the rest of the game is set out in the evolving themes of the levels, there's good exploration and secrets too. And the levels have great features - the dungeons in E1M3, the underwater buildings in E1M4, the great frontispiece in E1M5, for example. I think a lot of good level making has such distinctive features at heart.

Tronyn: What's your view on custom engines and their evolution, and the new features and expanded limits they allow?

Shambler: I have mixed views on it. Fixing bugs and removing engine limits is fine, I use AGLQuake to play most maps because of that, and its still good honest Quake. Graphical enhancements are a different kettle of fish. Obviously there's a lot of utter shite out there as can be seen in the pictures people keep posting from deathmatch forums. That can be easily ignored. For proper graphical enhancements, some of them can be good, but some of them can detract from the Quake aesthetic. The main two questions that need to be asked are: Is this graphical feature an important addition to improve the Quake aesthetic (rather than a feature for the sake of it)?? And, does this feature fit in with the other graphic features and with whatever is left of Quake's normal graphics (rather than being a very fancy feature that's out of place in a crude environment)?? I've yet to be convinced that people are adding stuff to improve the Quakiness of Quake, rather than for the sake of it or to show off what they can do (this applies to all new features too). Although I trust people like Metl and Aguire more ;).

Tronyn: In the last few years, there seems to have been a trend towards larger, more epic Q1SP maps. Is this trend good or bad?

Shambler: As a style of mapping it's great - one can't deny that, a lot of these maps are superb and very impressive. As a trend, it's less desirable, because if people follow trends, then the diversity is lost. Quake has a lot of different mapping possibilities from strongly themed episodes to wildly creative huge maps to tiny intense experiences to good standard Quake game replicas. I'd like to see mappers exploring all aspects of Quake mapping potential.

Tronyn: If you could dictate (with whatever power/resources were required) that something be made for Q1SP, roughly what would you choose?

Shambler: Simple one: I'd like to see a full map-for-map remake of the original Quake, following on from the remix maps released so far. E1M1RMX was awesome and showed the potential for a perfect blend of Quake nostalgia with modern mapping quality. Similar layouts, similar atmosphere, modern design/detail quality and modern hardcore gameplay. It would be great to revisit the classic journey through Quake but with all the spectacle modern mappers can offer - just think of all the scenes, themes, designs, ambushes and gameplay moments that could be enhanced.

Tronyn: What would you like to see in a modern sequel (technical or spiritual) to Quake?

Shambler: New engine, new graphics, new options + old themes, old monsters, old feel and old action. I really believe that it would be possible to make a sequel, or remake, of Quake in a modern engine. There are hints to that possibility, for example: Quake4 was a pretty cool remake of Quake2, despite being totally on rails and looking rather Doom3-esque, but they had the Quake2 vibe and some of the monsters done pretty well.

Painkiller could have been a Quake successor but the horde combat got old quick. It certainly had some appropriate maps and gameplay speed though. Old skool gameplay is compatible with modern engines and features. What I'd like to see is it being done right: A clear, unwavering ideology to remaking Quake as a modern Quake. I.e. keep what is great about Quake, and enhance it rather than overwriting it. There are a lot of details that could be nitpicked and debated over though...Whether anyone could be trusted to do it, God only knows. I'd probably only choose the Func_lot with me directing ;).

UWF: Thanks to both Shambler and Tronyn for this excellent interview!