Things were not looking good for id software in the spring of 1996. The development of a new 3D engine and online server had pushed their new title years past its anticipated deadline. Awash with the success of selling Doom and numerous other games whose interest it had inspired, id’s publishers were eagerly trying to buy the company out. Tensions were running high between founders John Carmack and John Romero.
Each of the three level designers—Romero, American McGee, and Sandy Peterson—had made dramatically different levels for the game they had in mind with no overarching creative direction. Burnt out and years behind schedule, id settled for a quick and painless way to help stitch the myriad levels and design themes together: they wrote an introductory paragraph in the game manual about hellish “Slipgate” devices that were transporting demonic creatures between different dimensions. You, as the player, had to travel through these Slipgates and kill the enemy before he could “unleash his real army, whatever that is.”
Why We Need id
Several months later, Quake was finally released. And, despite some brief experiences I do not entirely recall (with the noted exception of Whacky Wheels) it was the first video game I ever really played. I remember sitting in the quiet of my father’s office, anxiously flipping through pictures of the game in a magazine while my brother and I waited for him to finish installing it. My dad, for his part, was excited to support a game that ran on Linux. Years later, Quake is impossible to forget—the dark ambience of each level’s gothic or cyberpunk architecture, combined with the incredible speed and ferocity of its Lovecraftian monsters left me with daydreams and nightmares whenever I couldn’t immediately get my hands on the game. The game was big, fearsome, and, when I look back at it, probably very dumb.
But that was what captivated me and so many other players of Quake, the realization that id came to when making Doom and its protégés that maybe not all gamers wanted to experience Myst every time they fired up their computer. Instead, they suggested, there was something invigorating about the pure energy of this gameplay. And rather then making gamers scratch their heads, perhaps shooters could be designed for an athletic sense of finesse and exploration. As the blunt monikers Doom and Quake showed their players, these games offered a raw emotional experience unfettered with the complexity of puzzles and lore. While other games like Half Life,System Shock, and Deus Ex tried to develop more self-consciously aware first person shooters, id’s games had always remained defiantly pared-down, wonderfully simple games.
Rage and id’s Library
From its title alone, Rage seems to fit into the id library. But from its introduction, I began to wonder how all its pieces fit together. The post-apocalyptic story sounded too similar to Borderlands and id’s publisher Bethesda’s Fallout franchise for its own good. And the small, customizable weapons stepped away from the gargantuan totems of gun-fetishism that Doom and Quake embodied with the now legendary BFG 9000, the gun that did for video games what the revolver did for Westerns, the Big Fucking Gun. As I began to read about Rage in the weeks and months preceding its release, I was both scared and excited at the prospect of id trying something so different
Rage opens with your unnamed protagonist awaking in his Ark, a spherical metal contraption that was used by the government to save the country’s best and brightest by burying them deep underneath the ground before a gigantic asteroid hit the planet, blighting the earth and setting back the course of civilization several thousand years. As you get your bearings, a pre-recorded message from the President warns you that nobody can tell you what to expect of the world outside. You step into blinding sunlight, which fades slowly into a spectacular view of a world gone awry.
Almost instantly, a Gollum-like creature pounces on you. Before you have time to register the panic of not having any weapons, much less a full knowledge of the game’s controls, a man shoots him from afar and screams for you to get into his car. “I know you’ve got lots of questions,” he says as you step into the buggy, “but we’ve got to get moving.”
You never get to ask these questions. In fact, you never get to say anything in the entirety of Rage’S suspiciously short single player campaign. As you drive along, the man mentions several other figures that will become integral to the storyline—the authority, bandits, the Ark project—even pausing to acknowledge your ignorance. “I guess you don’t know anything about any of this,” he chuckles wearily, adding in a jaded grumble, “welcome to the future.” But when you get back to the base, he turns around to give you a pistol and sends you straight back into the wasteland, explaining briskly that you that you have to kill the bandit tribe nearby since saving you stirred up so much trouble.
This is how playing the majority of Rage feels—there is a powerful scripted sequence supported by incredible production values that ultimately leads to a completely unintelligible discontinuity between any ludic and narrative progression. Why, I sat there wondering as the beautifully rendered character (voice-acted by a charmingly gruff John Goodman) stood before me, would you send me back into the Wasteland right after you mentioned my ark suit was a “dead giveaway” to get me killed? How do you even know that I can use a weapon, much less walk in a straight line after being asleep for over a century? And is it really that urgent that you can’t even offer me a change of clothes that might save my life? Couldn’t you at least show me some artfully constructed slide show narrated by, say, Ron Perlman, explaining how “astronomy, astronomy never changes” that could explain what the hell is going on?
But that isn’t the kind of game id makes. The desperate, last-minute pace of Quake’s production perfectly mimics the sensation of playing the game itself. As in Doom before it, you were thrown into a strange and frightening world where there were no people speak to, no questions to ask, just things to kill. Critics complained that Doom 3 was predictable and arbitrary because of its outdated voiceless protagonist and subsequent featureless plot. But the nameless marine in Doom didn’t have to speak. For if he did, what could he even say? Doom 3 became frighteningly authentic through its dark and lifeless hallways, the eerily sterile atmosphere of the space station. The environment was plotless and derivative by some people’s standards precisely because it was so claustrophobic and isolated.
The Need for Story
The universe in Rage is just as well imagined, if not better simply for the sheer quality of its graphics and the obvious care put into its sound and level design. The world you witness as you walk through the desert wastelands and ruined cities of Rage feels so sunburnt and sweaty that simply observing the game is exhausting. After I finished levels, I found myself walking back through them just to get another chance to breathe everything in.
There is a story somewhere in Rage, but it is a story that is ultimately inaccessible. It glimmers when you walk into the dank, dripping hallways of Subwaytown, or the wind-swept and rusted shell of Wellspring, noticing warily that every time you return more people seem to be disappearing behind closed doors. In front of them, the Authority guardsmen stare at you through the enclosure of their black and beetle-like uniforms, ordering you to get back with a firm gesture of their firearms.
But its absence is pronounced by the fact that the world around it is so beautifully and intricately imagined. Stepping into the Dead City (one of the best designed levels I can remember playing in a long time) is a frightening experience as you continually encounter new characters and challenges for which, you begin to realize, you are barely prepared. Each of the different clans and races in the game is so carefully realized that every level feels unique despite the universal gritty, battered aesthetic of the game. The cagey, metal encrusted Gearheads scoff at you with sheer quantity of their firepower, while the guttural and acrobatic mutants and Jackals jump and dive through the levels as you struggle to get a handle on them. The weapons are just as well crafted and imaginative; when combined with all of the other design factors that id builds so well, it produces stunning moments. The game often leaves you panting and frantic behind cover as you realize you just ran out of the perfect type of ammo to deal with whatever is around the corner.
Rage builds a world like nothing I have ever seen before. But it’s a world in which you should be able to speak, to ask questions, to acknowledge the fact that there are other living things around you, things that—for once in the long and storied history of id—aren’t just trying to kill you. But, on some level, this isn’t the world id wants to give us. The best moments of Rage alternate between shining examples of id’s stellar design and those moments from other shooters that began to diverge from the paradigm Doom had established. Playing Rage feels as if the developers never decided which model they liked better. Unsure how to proceed Rage instead returns to id’s standard design patterns that suddenly look strange in a new light. The final level of the game drops you conspicuously into a series of tightly constrained gray and black metal corridors to fight a group of cyborgian mutants, the same levels and monsters id has been making for so long. As if to hit you over the head with the sudden Doom-like similarities, it even randomly gives you a new BFG. Then, as strangely and quickly as the story reverts itself, it suddenly, randomly, ends.
John Carmack, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
“Have you played Rage yet?” My father called me shortly after I texted him that id’s new game had finally arrived at my doorstep.
“Is it any good? The graphics look amazing.” While other father-son pairs bonded over things like sports and politics, we usually ended up discussing the past and future of video games.
“Is it anything like Doom 3? It looks really different.” And, like a lot of diligent computer programmers, my father held id Software and John Carmack in high regard for the combination of ethical and aesthetic choices they had made throughout the years. The decision to release their games through Shareware, the choice to freely share their engine’s source code, and, more recently, the decision to remain exclusive to the PC as more shooters drifted over to the console universe.
Then came the climactic question: “does it run on Linux?”
It is impossible for those of us who play games to feel ambivalent about id Software. Negative reviews of their later releases often carry a conspicuous tone of betrayal, as if the critic is addressing a wayward son or absent father. But playing Rage does give a strange sense that id is departing from the roots that made so many people fall in love with its games. Questions of sophistication or narrative aside, Doom and Quake titles have always redeemed themselves on account of their polish and technical prowess. So many players of Rage’s PC version were shocked this past week when they started up the game to numerous glitches and crashes. Developer comments that the game was designed entirely for console gameplay only seemed to add insult to injury.
Perhaps gamers hold id to unfairly high and divergent expectations. As the father of the modern shooter and the video game’s popularity more generally, there are many twists and turns in id’s development that we each would like to see happen differently. But as the credits started to roll I found myself in the same place I was in at the beginning of the game—curious to ask questions and frustrated by the unresponsiveness of this richly imagined and deftly portrayed universe. If this game was supposed to be another Doom, why didn’t they make these over-the-top weapons at the beginning and offer id’s standard multiplayer modes like deathmatch, a classic they happened to invent?
Playing Rage ultimately gives the odd sensation of playing a game that doesn’t fully understand what it’s supposed to be. At the end, I was still struck by its incredible, odd beauty, but more by the obvious potential of what this could be. But I suppose everyone who plays games today has their own feeling for what the next id game should be.