BBelief 2008 – Visual Storytelling
September 17, 2008 · Print This Article
One thing that has bugged me a lot about Quake environments – especially now that I’m taking another look 12 years later – is how sterile they often feel. That’s not a new complaint, of course. Back in ’96, several print reviews expressed the same sentiment – undoubtedly still under the impression of a recently released Duke Nukem 3D, which created a much more intricate world. Most of Quake’s sterility can be attributed to the game’s lack of visual storytelling.
As explained in my earlier post, visual storytelling is all about adding a sense of history and purpose to the 3D environments that the player traverses. A well done 3D level never feels like it was built for the player (or, by extension, for the game). A good environment feels like has its own identity. The more the player feels like he is passing through a living, breathing place (or better yet, the more he feels like he is trespassing), the better.
A similar rule applies to the enemies that the player is facing. Do they feel like they belong in the environment? Do they appear to be living inside that environment, and does their life not necessarily seem to be centered around the player? Monsters that obviously were just waiting for the player to show up quickly give the game a heightened, artificial feel.
Quake, as it shipped, is a series of abstract dungeons without any internal ecology. The enemies are usually just standing around. We have no idea why they are in the environment in the first place. I don’t attribute that to the times – by 1996, games like Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Duke Nukem 3D had already established much more fleshed out 3D worlds. A more likely culprit is Quake’s development history, which culminated in a mad 7-month reboot that threw a number of elements together in an effort to ship the game. Visual storytelling relies on a lot of props and specially designed textures, and a period of polish time to add all these little touches to the game. id Software apparently ran out of the time – if you remember, Doom actually did have elements that added character and a sense of place to the game.
For Beyond Belief 2008, I’ve been thinking of ways to remedy this situation a bit, digging into the surface that early mods like Zerstörer and Mexx9 had already begun scratching back in the 90s. I can’t do anything about Quake’s overarching narrative – it was never conclusively established, and while I could come up with my own interpretation of The Way Things Are, there isn’t enough time to establish that background in my puny little level. My solution needs to be doable with my limited resources, and it shouldn’t completely destroy the nostalgic feeling of the old game. Sure, it’s possible to build a believable medieval world with touches of reality (with clearly themed rooms – “the forge”, “the inn”, “the church” etc.). But I want to make an abstract dungeon! That’s what Quake was about, and I want to stay true to the design principles that I established earlier.
So I let my level inspire me instead. There’s a bunch of common themes in the medieval texture set, and I inadvertently used them when I started building the new level.
So here’s my story idea for BBelief2008:
Quake always had textures with bones, skulls and dead faces in them. The exit gate is made out of nothing else! Somebody must have made all of this stuff, and all the organic…material that went into fabrication must have come from somewhere. Undoubtedly from explorers just like our hero, who met a more untimely fate than us. I like this premise. It’s fun, contained, and ties in well with the old Quake world that we all remember. It’s also suitably gruesome to fit the game (and the title of my blog). Starting with the premise, I can give my enemy classes something to do:
- The Ogres become my gatherers. Very much like players in the old Headhunter mod, they scour the world for dead Quake troopers, collect their heads, use their chainsaws to cut up the bodies and return their collection of heads to a central collection place. Some of the ogres are walking around, while others are camping a specific area (don’t you just hate spawn campers?). I only need a few simple props to sell this story: dead bodies (beheaded and not), a bucket that’s partially filled with heads, and maybe a little stool that the spawn campers had been sitting on while waiting for the player (add a hastily discarded Ogre Playboy on the ground for extra credit).
- The Fiends (demon dogs) work well as the primary hunters that these Ogres employ. They’re savage beasts and can’t quite be controlled (you don’t walk your fiend on a leash – you set it free!), and they roam the level freely. When they catch something, the ogres take away the head, leaving the body for the fiend to feast upon. I can create some cool moments using dead body meshes and a few strategic blood sprinkles (okay…a lot of them). Maybe I can add a dog whistle to the ogre
- Knights and Death Knights walk around the world collecting the rest of the bodies, usually for bone extraction. They don’t like fiends a lot, which often end up crushing their prey’s bones and rendering the body unusable. So they prefer to corner and slice up their prey themselves. Generally the smaller knights do the hunting, while the big knight comes in to finish the job. This means that a number of knights often set up a base camp together, from where they go hunting. Remnant of these camps can be found throughout the level – a camp fire here, a tent there. You’ll also find the wheelbarrows that are used to cart off the dead bodies. And when you see a knight next to a dead body, you’ll marvel at the neatly arranged piles of matching, cleanly separated body parts. Not like the site of a fiend mauling at all!
- Shamblers are my shamans and craftsmen. You will often find them in ritualistic caverns (or defiled churches), where they work the harvested bodies into the works of art that adorn the rest of the level. Knight and ogres bring their body parts here, and the shamblers pay by weight – so there’s probably a scale and a pile of gold coins on the altar.
- The Zombies…well, they stay zombies of course, since this was the only class that could actually be placed in the context of a particular environment (usually a graveyard) back in the days. Who these zombies were is a different question, though. They have a state where they hang from the wall, flailing and moaning. This zombiefication might be something that the Shalraths do, using arcane methods and tools that I haven’t quite devised yet.
All of this sounds like a lot of fun to me. It’s not a complete scheme, I’m not sure yet what to do with the Wizards, for example (they don’t have any behaviors/animations on the ground, which makes it hard to characterize them “outside work”). But I can use all these elements to tell a little story about the environment, as the player explores it and kills monsters in the usual, old fashion.
Unfortunately, this also sounds like a lot of work! We’re just talking about a few low-poly models here, many of them modified from existing assets. But I never had an established tool path for any of this stuff (I had no 3D modeling experience back in the Quake days), and I am entering new territory here. When I took my first stab at this a few weeks ago, following David Fromberg’s .mld tutorial, I ran into some problems that I haven’t been able to resolve yet.
So I’m not sure how many of these ideas (if any) will actually make it into the finished BBelief2008 level. I wanted to post them, though! And maybe somebody wants to help me on this? If any of the above sounds like fun to you, you already know how to do this stuff, and if you want to spare a few hours of your time, please email me or leave a comment. You’ll be credited, of course, and make BBelief2008 a better level.