What might Sigmund Freud make of a game like Quake? In this follow-up to Doom, one of the most popular computer games of all time, players are represented on screen by a succession of lethal, priapic weapons that pump bullets, shotgun shells, and nine-inch nails into bad guys. Arguably, there are more violent games — the Mortal Kombat series is no Sunday in the Park With George — but Quake, like its daddy, Doom, and its granddaddy, Wolfenstein 3D, reduces participants to grunting, ambulatory phallic symbols.
Of course, as Freud himself might say, sometimes a double-barreled shotgun is just a double-barreled shotgun. So, leaving aside the supposition that 90 percent of Quake’s audience consists of sexually frustrated males, it’s worth examining this game’s incredible carnage quotient — and asking how society got to the point where it’s acceptable to link up with pals over a worldwide computer network (the way to play, unless you prefer a more solitary experience) and blow their virtual heads off.
It all started four years ago with id’s Wolfenstein 3D, a primitive gorefest that at least had the virtue of a well-defined enemy — to wit, Nazis. Although Wolfenstein 3D was probably the bloodiest game of its day, it’s hard to hold id responsible for desensitizing impressionable teens when Nazis have been blown up, impaled, and incinerated in 50 years of World War II movies. Though Doom is populated mainly by bloodthirsty demons, players get to decimate enough Homo sapiens that the game veers, at times, uncomfortably close to an interactive snuff movie. (It doesn’t help that game hackers can alter the appearance of the bad guys to resemble their bosses, or even custom-design levels to resemble their places of work.)
Which brings us to Quake, an extended bit of subterranean mayhem that offers three major improvements over its immediate predecessor. First, the game’s graphics have more depth: Its dank corridors, twisty labyrinths, and shaky bridges over lethal rivers of flame give you the uncanny feeling of being trapped in a textured, sharp-cornered nightmare, rather than in the flattened-out hallucinations of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Second, the under-your-skin sound effects and ambient music on the $50 disc were composed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who’s been known to ponder a few issues concerning sex, violence, and gruesome death. And third, on a simple cost-per-kill basis, Quake is the most cathartic experience you can legally have within the confines of your own home, as you blow away vicious dogs, brutish ogres, and armed-to-the-teeth enemy infantrymen (although, unlike Doom, you can’t paste your spouse’s face onto a demon’s body). It may not be healthy — heck, it may not even be normal — but it is a lot of fun.
As with Doom, id Software has made the first episode of Quake available as free shareware via the Internet, thus luring players to cough up cash for the full, four-episode version (which you’ll eventually be able to download for a fee from the company’s website or buy on CD-ROM). When I was in elementary school, well-meaning teachers used to present this as the modus operandi of drug dealers: Get kids hooked on free samples, then rake in the dough when they need to satisfy their joneses. And anyone who’s ever experienced an officeful of twentysomethings playing networked Doom — shouts of ”Die, you sonofabitch!” punctuating the tap-tap-tap of computer keyboards — will marvel at the variety of things people can get themselves addicted to.
It may not surprise you, then, that I feel a deep inner conflict about assigning this game a grade. My superego says it deserves an F, but beware the monsters of the id — they give it a B+