How Quake Sparked a Filmmaking Revolution

The machinima genre wouldn't exist if it weren't for a few dedicated Quake fans...

In 2003, I had a bit of a problem on my hands. I had just discovered this great new internet show by the name of Red vs. Blue and was trying to inform a friend of its hilarious glory. While this would usually be a joyous occurrence in the world of social entertainment, the problem was that I had no idea how to describe the show properly.

“So, it’s like a bunch of guys playing Halo, but it’s not like you’re watching them play the game,” I said with the expert prose that only a 14-year old could possibly deliver. “It’s more like they’re in the game playing, but they’re also playing characters that they play. Does that make sense?”

Naturally, it did not. Though that explanation (which is, to the best of my memory, verbatim) is admittedly an awful way to describe the show, in my defense it was tough to accurately convey such an innovative concept. There was nothing else quite like Red vs. Blue at the time, and it’s not like there was some convenient word that could accurately describe the format.

Except, as it turns out, that wasn’t quite the case. What I didn’t know as a youngster was that Red vs. Blue was just a continuation of a filmmaking technique called machinima. What’s particularly funny about machinima is that it didn’t start with a small group of gamers working on obscure indie titles for the purposes of their own amusement. Instead, it’s early days can be traced to the mighty Quake and, for a time, the concept was the darling of the gaming industry.

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So why is it that the history of the Quake machinima scene has all but faded into memory?

Machini-huh?

The first thing that you need to know about the true origins of the machinima concept is that you’re probably not going to find two fans that agree on what exactly the origins of machinima are.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: machinima is defined as the making of an animated film via the use of software designed for making video and computer games. What that means is that machinima creators are, essentially, recording themselves playing games and presenting it as a film. So if someone played Contra as a kid and recorded player one arguing with player two in-character, that could arguably be considered a machinima project.

While it’s almost a guarantee that some scenario similar to the one above happened at some point, there really is no official record of machinima projects during the ‘70s and ‘80s. What there is a record of, however, is the demoscene.

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The demoscene began in the late ‘70s and consisted of developers creating short, software-based demos designed to showcase their more artistic design abilities. In many ways, for better or worse, the demoscene can be considered something of a prelude to those game trailers that bill themselves as using “in-game assets” even though the final product will not look quite as good. These demos were designed to maximize the technological potential of a certain piece of hardware or software by showcasing how they could create the most stylish, and non-interactive, creative sequence possible.

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Though the demoscene had a respectable following in its heyday, it never quite achieved mainstream success due largely to the niche nature of the technology that fueled it and the underground distribution methods that it relied on (which were actually something of a prelude to the file sharing scene). Still, the concept did leave a mark on the games industry by showcasing the potential that video game software has to create more traditionally cinematic experiences. Both Will Wright (The Sims) and John Carmack (Quake) have cited the demoscene as a tremendous influence in terms of helping them mature their own mentality towards game development.

Yet the demoscene’s influence on machinima and gaming is not entirely intangible. Over time, it would eventually lead to developers incorporating more traditional film capturing techniques into their games. One of the earliest examples of this comes from the 1992 Disney Interactive game Stunt Island.

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In lieu of traditional gameplay, Stunt Island instead asked players to create the most exciting stunt sequences they could using a variety of planes and locations. Most importantly, it allowed players to set up their own camera positions, props, and action triggers in order to complete the feeling of actually creating film sequences within the game. Stunt Island even sported a rudimentary film editor program designed to allow the player to craft their final sequence. In their 1993 review of the title, Computer Gaming World mentioned that Stunt Island represents “a step toward a future where films can be created completely on the microcomputer.”

As innovative as Stunt Island was from a conceptual standpoint, however, the game didn’t really inspire a machinima scene of its own. Perhaps it was just too obscure and specific to really capture the imagination of its users. Still, it did enough to advance the concept of capturing gameplay to inspire other developers to continue the premise. One of these developers was id Software, who actually designed the original DOOM to allow for a simplified form of video capture so that gamers could show off their gameplay highlights.

Although the presence of this feature was lost among the million of other innovations that DOOM inspired, it was still recognized enough to convince id that it was worth expanding upon in DOOM II and eventually porting over to their new franchise, Quake, when it was released in 1996.

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It’s a good thing they did, too, because things were about to get very interesting from there.

Frags on Film

Quake’s footage capture software was certainly more expansive and user-friendly than the technology available in DOOM, but the biggest reason it achieved more initial success is arguably due to the expanded popularity of Quake’s multiplayer mode and the game’s more complex level design elements. This combination made the act of recording and sharing particularly intense Quake deathmatches presented with a certain cinematic flair quite popular. It wasn’t long before a small scene of particularly talented Quake players began to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the system’s mechanics due to the number of uploads they were making.

Among them was the group known as the Rangers. The Rangers were already uploading a large number of Quake highlight videos when the group allegedly decided to make something a little more traditionally cinematic in August 1996 (about two months after the release of Quake). Under the name of United Ranger Films, the group showcased their vision in the form of a minute and a half video known as Diary of a Camper.

If you’re watching that video now and thinking, “Oh boy, that’s pretty rough,” you’re not alone. Even at the time of its release, critics and fans noted that this supposed film sported some amateur camera work, awful dialogue, and an inherently limited story concept. This video about a group of soldiers killing a camper and discovering that it was John Romero all along is about as rough as a piece of machinima can get.

But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Diary of a Camper is the first project of notoriety that we can definitively classify as a work of machinima (or, as it was known at that time, Quake movies). Perhaps there was a small project that came before which could strictly be branded under the machinima label, but Diary of a Camper exemplified all of the qualities of machinima and was invented at a time when its role as the medium’s innovator could be officially recognized by fan sites and distribution networks.

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That last part is the real kicker. Soon after Diary of a Camper released, other Quake fans began to produce similar works of their own. In response to this, sites like Pysk’s Popcorn Jungle, The Cineplex, and Quake Movie Library were created to provide fans a central hub for all known Quake machinima projects. Due to this increased exposure among the community, it wasn’t long before groups attempted to one-up each other’s efforts by increasing the production value and script quality of subsequent machinima releases.

Soon thereafter, the medium saw its first feature-length release (Devil’s Covenant) and the early foundations of machinima as a primarily comedic format via films such as Apartment Huntin and Blahbalicious. The former was a very Looney Tunes-esque production, while the latter was praised for its Monty Python-style of humor and production. Actually, Blahbalicious would go on to win seven Quake Movie Awards, and is generally considered to be one of the most important pieces of machinima in terms of characters and scripting. Even that would pale in comparison to the ambition of such machinima projects as Seal of Nehahra. Made in 2000, this true machinima epic clocks in at just under four hours in runtime (making it the longest Quake movie ever made). Nehahra not only attempted to add a bit of lore to the Quake universe but innovated such machinima techniques as automated character movement and a more serialized approach to continuing narrative. 

So far as innovation goes, though, the holy trinity of Quake machinima projects is considered to be Diary of a Camper, Operation Bayshield, and Quake Done Quick. Operation Bayshield is essentially the Citizen Kane of Quake movie projects, as it pioneered the use of advanced machinima filmmaking techniques such as lip syncing, custom assets, and the first real instance of a cinematography mindset in the camera work. Like Orson Welles’ masterpiece, it inspired a new generation of Quake filmmakers to reach for traditionally cinematic heights with their creations. Unlike Citizen Kane, it contains a healthy dose of racism and a semi-nude man with a rocket launcher.

However, there may be no piece of Quake machinima more important in the long-term than the Quake Done Quick series. Though this series is little more than traditional speedruns captured via the game’s recording system, its use of a multi-person run format and style-oriented filming techniques helped Quake achieve a level of popularity among the internet speedrunning community that no other title had ever enjoyed. If you’ve ever enjoyed a speedrunning streaming event, you have Quake Done Quick to thank for showcasing the entertainment potential of the concept.

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In short, between 1996 and 1999 the Quake machinima movement was everywhere. The machinima community began to grow in ways that not even the concept’s biggest fans would have dared to predict. In fact, given that Quake was supplanted by the more advanced Quake II and the community only benefited because of it, there was little doubt that 1999’s Quake III would help the concept reach new heights as gaming entered the millennium. 

Instead, Quake III would signal the end of the franchise’s role as the premier source of machinima.

Look Upon My Works…

As a multiplayer-only shooter, Quake III Arena needed to make certain changes to the series in order to ensure that it would be able to adapt properly to the new format. Along with the more obvious design tweaks to the multiplayer itself, one of the most important changes Quake III introduced was an alteration of its file formatting laws that id implemented in order to cut down on cheating.

What this meant is that the software fueling this new Quake went from being fairly open sourced to very restricted. As such, it became much more difficult to not only implement necessary programs needed to create traditional Quake machinima, but the distribution of that software via the old file format system was now forbidden.

Though it’s reasonable to assume this change was not intended to directly impact the machinima community, it nevertheless had a tremendous effect on the production of further content. Hugh Hancock (founder of machinima.com and the man who coined the term machinima) was able to achieve a hefty amount of traffic for his new site with the release of Quad God and its introduction of a traditional file format release system, but such projects were few and far between. Most of the community had either been unable or unwilling to adapt to the new creative system that the game implemented. Some had reverted back to filming in Quake II,but more had simply moved on. 

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Though it’s tempting to blame id for not considering the importance of machinima when designing Quake III, it’s not fair to put the burden of the scene’s demise entirely on their shoulders. No, the hard truth was that Quake III’s design limitations were a wake-up call to the limitations of the Quake machinima films themselves. Removed from the frantic onslaught of releases, viewers became aware of the amateurish and juvenile nature of many of these machinima pieces. Though technologically impressive, even the best Quake shorts (such as Operation Bayshield) feature some questionable jokes and an overall lack of maturely crafted content. While there is an argument that Quake machinima pieces could have matured creatively speaking if id had made the Quake III software a bit more accommodating, the scene had reached its zenith and the most talented machinima artists had moved on to other projects in new titles.

In the immediate years that would follow the release of Quake III, we would see the first machinima video ever played on MTV (“In the Waiting Line” by Zero7), a highly regarded machinima recreation of the poem “Ozymandias” produced by The Strange Company, Steven Spielberg using Unreal Tournament to help make his film A.I., and, of course, the aforementioned Red vs. Blue and the rise of Rooster Teeth as an internet powerhouse.

From that point, machinima would somehow just keep growing. G4 started the first machinima series in Portal, X-Play used Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory to bring us the adventures of Bob and Steve, South Park gave us perhaps its best episode ever in the machinima-driven “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” a host of new games incorporated advanced filmmaking options never before dreamed of, and companies like Valve used machinima as a concept for their Source Filmmaker and the Team Fortress 2 “Meet the Team” series. You could even argue that the entire idea behind let’s play videos are just an expansion of the machinima concept.

Even though machinima eventually reached nearly every corner of the entertainment industry, the early days of Quake movies never quite receive the widespread notoriety that we usually assign to innovators. Quake’s role in the formation of machinima is not entirely forgotten, and it’s not as if Quake itself doesn’t still receive plenty of love from generations of gamers, but the scene’s once-mighty online empire stands in ruins. Cineplex’s former website now leads to an IGN 404 page, while Quake Move Library’s directs to a similar one over at Machinima.com. Speaking of Machinima, they have grown into a content provider that barely even produces their namesake content anymore much less reserves much bandwidth to pay tribute to the game that helped launch their site. The saddest example, though, would have to be the home page of the formerly popular Quake Done Quick sites. The headline of the site’s last post (dated December 29, 2011) reads: “Is Anybody Still There?” while the post itself begins with the words: “I guess most of you had given up hope by now.”

Though it is natural that the evolution of the internet would leave some sites and works in the dust, it somehow seems cruel that such an innovative early internet phenomenon is now relegated to some scattered YouTube channels and the memories of the “remember when” section of a few message boards. Quake movies mastered the community building potential of the internet and now much of their original online presence is easily forgotten. At a time when most gamers and game makers found themselves constantly needing to argue the merits of the industry, Quake gave members of the gaming community a chance to showcase the artistic creativity of the medium and its fans. Though their work may be dated, the spirit behind these projects lingers in the very best of modern gaming.

Every time Wolfenstein‘s anniversary rolls around, we sing its praises for essentially creating the first person shooter genre. Every DOOM anniversary, we are treated to a flood of memories regarding the game’s mod scene and other noteworthy innovations. On Quake‘s anniversary, perhaps we should take a moment to remember that special group of gamers who looked at a Super Nailgun and saw a 30 MM camera.

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Matthew Byrd is a freelance contributor.