A wizard lives here, supposedly. Either he’s out to lunch, or someone at id Software in 1996 came up with the name for Quake’s E2M5, ‘The Wizard’s Manse’, and decided it was too cool—sorry, too metal—to change, even when the wizard himself never makes an appearance. Forgivable, considering it’s one of the most tightly crafted levels in a game full of them.
I’ve been on a classic first-person shooter tear recently, playing a mix of old-old and designed-to-feel-old shooters like Amid Evil, Dusk, Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. With so many games today designed to keep you playing for a hundred hours, it’s refreshing to pick up a shooter that lets you ice skate uphill at Olympic speeds and tear through a dozen levels in an hour or two. But with Quake, it wasn’t really the speed that pulled me in. Even closing in on 25 years old, Quake still surprisingly feels like a game with a surprising amount of wisdom (though again, no wizards) to offer.
It’s simple wisdom, really, but few shooters have outdone id’s level design even with two decades to study them. Here’s a basic lesson Quake imparts in The Wizard’s Manse: Climbing up a staircase and realizing that you’re now standing on a platform above the room you fought through a few minutes ago is more empowering than any shotgun. It’s a perfect videogame moment, closing the loop on the thought ‘how do I get up there?’ with the sudden satisfaction of doing it without you even realizing it.
Another Quake lesson, which goes hand-in-hand with that one: a small level is almost always more impressive than a big one. The Wizard’s Manse is about a dozen levels into Quake’s campaign, and was the first one to really make my lizard brain stop and pay close attention. John Romero once tweeted it’s his favorite level in the game, and I can see why: E2M5 channels id’s excitement with three dimensions into an intricate construction of crisscrossing walkways, looping back over itself twice before you reach the end.
It’s so easy to chew through these old shooters without really stopping to look around. And in Quake, there’s usually not a whole lot to look around at. A few levels borrow Doom’s sci-fi aesthetic, but each episode invariably descends into a vaguely Lovecraftian castle or dungeon. Quake’s defining characteristic is the color brown. Even the water is muddy.
Doom is favorably remembered for its amazing maze-like levels, while Quake’s campaign is mostly remembered for what it wasn’t: The more RPG-esque fantasy adventure that John Romero wanted to make, which wouldn’t actually have been a shooter at all. You would have ended up some guy named Quake carrying around a massive hammer. It ended up a shooter, of course, an awful lot like Doom, but in full 3D. But when Quake tries to show how big of a deal those state-of-the-art polygons were, it really shines through.
The Wizard’s Manse starts with one of Quake’s most underused gimmicks: Its enemies fighting each other. I walk out onto a long bridge, then immediately retreat back to the cave I started in. I get lucky: An ogre and two Death Knights follow, and a poorly aimed fireball blast into the ogre’s back makes him take a chainsaw to the Death Knight instead of me. The bridge and a couple grenade-throwing ogres outside are the manse’s lookout tower, and a warm-up for a level that’s going to constantly ask you to watch out above.
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