25 Years of ‘Quake’: A Thread on Level Design

Henrique Lage
10 min readJun 23, 2021


The first room of “Quake” is a mini-tutorial, relatively crude: the first thing that strikes us is the flashing light on the right. If we approach it, the game tells us that we can jump.

As you jump, one of the walls has two red lights. If you get close, it tells you to shoot to open the secret door. Important detail: the player learns that there are unlockable secrets by shooting certain points. Inside there is ammunition.

If we are impatient and rush towards the door, it opens automatically: there is our first enemy (with two shots he dies) and an elevator with a big red button. But let’s ignore it for the moment.

Next to the door (and, in fact, the first thing we see at the bottom) there is a shelf with ammo. It’s too high, but if we approach the next platform, the game tells us that we can jump from there. Another lesson: some jumps require finding the right spot.

When we go to pick up the ammo high up, we see something that wasn’t visible from the ground: a door. Inside is our first armor. We’ve already told the player that it’s not just about shooting, flipping switches and opening doors: it’s also about jumping(*) and exploring. And it is key.

(*) The first FPS to include jumping is Star Wars: Dark Forces, released in February 1995. Quake was released in June 1996, so those familiar with Doom and Doom II needed this little tutorial.

This screen is very interesting: one button (the first one you shoot, it doesn’t matter) opens a door on the other side of the river, where an enemy is. The other button makes the bridge emerge. The funny thing is that the enemy can jump from the other side and surprise you.

Sometimes it is not about teaching how to play but teaching how NOT to play. Example: you give an explosive weapon, but the next enemy appears quickly, rounding a corner and pounces on you. If you shoot, you may die too. You have to learn to switch weapons fast.

The fact that it’s a corner not only serves to catch the enemy off guard: it also serves as an advantage. If you back up and shoot at the wall, the grenade bounces and falls against the enemy before he has time to get out.

One of the first power-ups in the game: Quad Damage is literally the icon of the game and multiplies by four the damage level of your weapons. The level is called The Ogre Citadel and is full of “ogres”, so getting to the power-up and finishing them off is very satisfying.

Quake’s ogres are a very interesting enemy because they appear very early and are quite lethal: from a distance, they shoot with a grenade launcher (which, remember, bounce), up close they have a chainsaw that takes a lot of life, very fast.

The Crypt of Decay (E2M3) is a level I like a lot: built around a “strong center”, a pillar from which we activate different drawbridges but on which we have to return. Advancing means both unlocking paths and blocking previous bridges.

Finally the exit. Wait, do you trust it? It’s locked and, of course, there’s a hidden enemy but… Could you have opened the door and escaped? If you had looked over the entrance you came through, you would see the three switches. Not fighting the enemy would be more difficult.

I think when you often play different games, you get into the habit of looking around corners, under ladders, over your head or behind a waterfall. If there’s a reward, then serotonin you get.

The Wizard’s Manse (E2M5) has an idea that repeats the whole level and works very well: two paths. One has a health item (that after the first two enemies, you’ll need) when you take it, a space lets you see that from the other path an enemy is approaching.

The Vaults of Zin (E3M2) It starts with a classic: in front of you, a grenade launcher and a silver key. As soon as you take the grenade launcher, the platform with the key descends and gates with enemies open behind you.

Further ahead, there is a room that functions as an elevator: when you enter, it descends and leaves on your left a wall with a switch and on your right an ogre. There is another switch that can only be activated when the room ascends (leaving a stretch of lava below).

The Tomb of Terror (E3M3) repeats again the idea of the “strong center” with a platform and four drawbridges, but also extends it to be teleported to the beginning of the level every time you unlock a new path to the next key.

One striking decision in the game is that the items, while they don’t emit light, aren’t much affected by the environment either. That first aid kit is in the dark, in a corner, but it invites us to grab it Who does the absence of light affect? The ogre who is waiting RIGHT NEXT TO THE SIDE.

Satan’s Dark Delight (E3M4) is a level with long underwater moments, which allows to take advantage of something that the game engine has not used too much until then (only for fish) underwater combat! It would be a pity to have an abundance of electric gun ammo…

E3M4 also uses a map with a strong center and four walkways, but it’s just for passing: later, it replaces the walkways by moving platforms, horizontal and vertical, and the need to shoot switches to activate traps for your enemies.

The Wind Tunnels (E3M5) has a series of pipes that, by jumping under them, transport you to different rooms. Propulsion and disorientation are factors, so to know when you’ve unlocked one, items appear under them, inviting you to jump at that point.

When you start Chambers of Torment (E3M6), on the left, there’s a ring that makes you invisible, which allows something new: you can first explore the level without being attacked by enemies, but when the effect wears off, you’re forced to walk the same corridors.

Chambers of Torment started out being designed (like many other levels shown here) by American McGee, but due to illness it was finished by Tim Willis. I believe it is the only level to have two designers and the mix of sensibilities shows.

The beginning of the last chapter is The Sewage System (E4M1), because every game needs a sewer level. In this case, moving platforms are combined with water and pipes. All the mechanics we’ve been taught now work together.

If you liked that the key descends and hides when you approach it, you’ll love that you’re the one who falls several floors when you approach the key and have to climb The Tower of Despair (E4M2) while avoiding trap doors.

In The Elder God Shrine (E4M3) there is a cemetery. One of the tombs is open and you can get a grenade launcher, but from the other tombs zombies come out. In a narrow space and only with the grenade launcher to defend yourself. At this point if you fall into this, it’s your fault.

The very long corridor that comes next I really like: there are no noises, weird because you almost always hear at least some creature, which increases the tension and makes you alert but as you approach a poorly lit corner you hear a sword being unsheathed.

Just after that the floor of the corridor starts to slide: you have just enough time to keep walking without distractions (don’t pay attention to the enemies) and against the edge so you don’t fall into the lava.

Hell’s Atrium (E3M5) is a very good level. It uses several moments where you get a power-up and open gates with enemies. There are two rings of shadows that, if you pick them up in the right order, make the path from when you get the key to when you leave the level smoother.

There’s also a fun moment where the closer you get to a portal, the farther it moves away from you. It’s a level that rewards you for doing it very quickly in a specific order and if you get the method right, it shows how well you’ve learned before the grand finale!

The Pain Maze (E4M6) lives up to its name and is insufferable. You need a silver and a gold key. The silver one is hidden behind an elevator, in a place that you will only see when, after advancing and reaching an altar that blocks the way, you decide to retrace your steps.

To get to the golden key you need to go through a room where a moving altar starts pushing you to a lower level, a flooded area full of the worst enemies in the game: Spawns, which explode when they die.

The keys are for a room accessed through an underwater passage opened from the beginning of the level: the golden key activates an elevator, which leads to the pillars on the ceiling. From there you jump to a gate locked by the silver key.

The “catch” is that, on both sides, there are two hard-to-access platforms with enemies that throw projectiles (in the picture I’ve already killed them).

Azure Agony (E4M7) is the penultimate level (not counting the secrets) and, rather than the frustration of the previous one, it focuses on large crossroads with power-ups and lots of enemies. It also requires you to shoot hidden switches, one of them underwater, to advance.

And all that’s left is the ending:

The final boss is actually a joke. It starts very hard: you fall into a deep pit with piranhas, the only weapon is electric, metal bars descend slowly, so you’re going to lose some life drowning, whether you want it or not.

After collecting ammo (limited) and the weapons you need, the level is built as a spiral staircase around the boss, from which hard enemies descend. It’s made so that you run out of ammo just before you reach the end.

But the boss is indestructible and you’re out of ammo! At the bottom of the stairs is a portal that teleports you to wherever that spiked ball is floating. Just wait for the ball to pass through the boss, enter the portal and blow it up FROM INSIDE.

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Henrique Lage

Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.