Much has recently been written about the fact that Hollywood is seriously setting its sights on video games. This trend, welcomed by some, decried by others, has clearly been spurred by the much-cited fact that the $20 billion shelled out annually for videogames now exceeds box-office takeaways.
These discussions, interesting as they are, rarely talk about the degree to which certain category-leading games, such as ID Software's Quake, have already created large libraries of digital movies that are now invisibly festering in cyberspace. "Quake Movies", as they were known, were a pioneering genre of digital filmmaking whose rise and fall has yet to be openly chronicled.
Google the term "Quake Movies" and you will immediately come across a rich gaggle of Web sites that not only hosted these films, most created 1997 and 2000, but reviewed, rated, and otherwise sought to jumpstart a vibrant community of independent digital filmmakers. Today, as noted by one of this community's creators, Quake Movies have succumbed to the same "slow death" afflicting just about every digital product that mankind has ever produced.
Why was Quake Movie-making such a phenomenon back in the late 1990's? Well, for many of the same reasons that Hollywood is citing today to explain its newfound interest in virtual entertainment. With a few clicks of the mouse (actually, thousands of clicks), any kid with fantasies of being Orson Welles or Fritz Murnau could build a massive virtual movie set and populate it with robotic stunt men clamboring about its treacherous walls with chain saws, grappling hooks, and rocket-propelled grenades. Forget union rules and insurance requirements - if an actor or a camera man got killed, you simply yelled "cut" and reloaded the game engine.
Of course, I'm oversimplifying the ease with which these early films were made, especially in a day when State of the Art 60MHz processors required that any customized "sets" often took hours, not minutes, to compile. Bugs with first-generation authoring software were frequent, important game features were undocumented, and one's carefully crafted set was often obliterated when certain unknown thresholds were exceeded in the game engine. The actual experience of designing and delivering a Quake movie was, in other words, more akin to being a besieged Second Unit director for "Heavens Gate" or "Apocalypse Now" than it was being Orson Welles.
Beyond the joy and pain of creating these first-gen digital movies, the Quake Movie craze also illustrates the rapid acceleration of networked-based creativity possible when, for a brief moment in time, everybody tunes into the same game experience while being offered cheap tools for the customization of one's experience.
If you'll remember, for a brief time, Quake was the "it" game - the one shoot-em-up that every young male on the planet needed to exorcise his aggressive demons. Within a few short weeks, most players had shot their way through Quake's canned levels, and were clamboring for new levels, weapons, and ways to experience Quake, a condition that thrust the Quake Move auteur community into existence.
Especially important in the genre's development was the decision by ID software to tolerate the distribution of 3rd-party creations made using a standard set of freely available authoring tools - a tradition which continues today among the distributors of Half-Life, Quake's successor. The logic of this decision was simple: by permitting individuals to modify the game to their liking without charging them an extra penny, sales of the licensed game version were spurred, even if the quality of the resulting modifications was often laughably below the canned elements included in the game itself (as was often the case). One has a hard time imagining Walt Disney or Universal allowing similar liberties to be taken with the likenesses of Pierce Brosnan or Bruce Willis in any forthcoming virtual complements to the James Bond or Die Hard film franchises.
Were Quake movies any good? Well - one is left with the reviews - (see: http://www.planetquake.com/cineplex/q1-t.html) - today, the movies themselves are rarely accessible to public view, having drifted from their original URLs over the years. At the risk of over-generalizing about the genre, most Quake movies had simple plot lines that were resolved through an appeal to acrobatics and massive physical force. Few auteurs sought to use Quake Movies to stage romantic comedies or psychological dramas - it was a medium ruled by Jerry Bruckheimers, not Hitchcocks or Viscontis. Nor, to my knowledge, were there any "directors" of Quake Movies who were not male, thus limiting the expressive possibilities of the genre.
What happened to the legions of shoestring Quake Movie autuers - the Bruckheimers and Irwin Allens of Quake? Well, a number of them are likely continuing to crank out independent "movies" using the more advanced tools and engines provided by Quake's successors under the general umbrella of "Machinima" - a term that is shorthand for "machine produced cinema". Others may well have taken their virtual set building and storyboarding skills and upgraded them to the point that they are now "CG" (computer graphics) creators working in Hollywood.
But others have laid down their virtual Panavision cameras for the same simple reason that most Ghost Site creators abandon their cherished projects - because it becomes evident at a certain sad "Puff the Magic Dragon" moment in time that their Herculean efforts and enthusiasms have been overtaken by events - a depressing experience so common in the computer industry that it has long enjoyed its own acronym (OBE).
Consider this poignant farewell note from the creator of www.planetquake.com:
I opened this site more than 3 years ago as just a small listing of all the Quake movies I could find, and it quickly snowballed into something larger than I could ever imagine. I never really wanted to review movies, but rather provide a listing of every single Quake movie made.
Reasons for closing? A few. First and foremost, I have become increasingly busy due to increasing responsibilities, such as family matters, my social life, and school. I have to devote most of my time to those things. Secondly, the slow death of the old Quake Movie community. In the beginning, I ran this site passionately, updating constantly with news about upcoming movies, and reviews of just released ones. The community is still going strong, but not as strong as it use (sic) to. With less and less (sic) news and movie releases to cover, this site has slowed down in the area where (sic) it excelled at covering. I really miss the days of when Quake was the only game people used to make movies with. There wasn't machinima, there were Quake movies and nothing else.