Dusty Mods: DeFRaG for Quake 3

Despite the intentions of one John Carmack, Quake 3 (1999) became one of the most fast-paced reaction-driven shooters of all time. While other titles were turning their attention to military realism, Quake 3 reveled in the absurd as it championed bunny-hopping, rocket-jumping, and those subtle engine bugs that made strafe-jumping (perhaps the defining feature of the game) possible.

The Quake 3 mod DeFRaG was born in an age where you could write your name in randomly capitalized letters and not look like a dick. Society has progressed in the 17 years since the mod was released and we’re all a bit more sensible, but the mod has lost none of its appeal. The community-made levels moved away from the arena style seen in the base game, focusing instead on obstacle-filled, linear maps. The goal given to players was to navigate the level from start to finish as quickly as possible. How they did this was up to them. DeFRaG took a gory first-person shooter and turned it into a low-violence racing game, and it was a fascinating new experience.

We saw an incredible amount of inventiveness as players and level designers used and abused the game's in built systems to create increasingly difficult challenges. Weapons were transformed into tools; the explosive burst of a rocket could be used to launch players upwards onto ledges, or across chasms. The rapid-firing plasma gun pellets exploded with a much smaller physical effect, but could still nudge players along vertical surfaces if fired at point-blank range, giving players something similar to a wall-run ability. And the engine's accidental strafe-jump feature was developed into an art form: I speculate that it was here that the more advanced circle jumping technique was perfected. All of these methods of enhancing movement fed directly into map designs, with the more difficult levels requiring skilled use of these techniques in order to progress. 

While the violence of Quake 3 hardly holds a flame to the gore and horror of Doom (2016) or Jericho (2007), the clouds of blood and chunks of meat that burst forth from corpses earned the game a Mature 17+ rating. DeFRaG went in the opposite direction, removing all player-versus-player violence by redefining the aim of the game. Players were given power-ups that negated self-damage, enabling them to blast themselves (or one another if working cooperatively) with weapons without risking harm. A small amount of gore was still present with the occasional death-pit included as a way of resetting the level without relying on extra programming, but this seems like a matter of convenience rather than intentional aesthetic. 

DeFRaG's shift from violence to non-violence, from combat to speed, turned Quake 3 into a racing game - but it's far removed from the standard racing experience. The mod has more in common with parkour than car-racing, but even then it's more complex than either. Parkour gives the runner periods of rest from high-skill activities; all able-bodied humans know how to run in a straight line. Car racing is similar, with most tracks featuring at least one long straight section to give racers some breathing room. DeFRaG demands skill and attention with every foot of movement. Strafe jumping relies on a mixture of bunny hopping and precise mouse control: players hop along, holding the strafe key left and right with alternate jumps and turning the mouse left and right at precise angles relative to their forward motion. Done correctly, this helps them gain a massive amount of speed. A single bad hop or fumble with the mouse, however, and they can lose some or all of the velocity they've built up, resulting in them having to start the level from the beginning. Players are also forced to think in three dimensions rather than the two dimensions of a race-track. DeFRaG levels have players leaping over walls, rocketing up vertical shafts, and using air-control to duck and weave between airborne obstacles while on ballistic trajectories. Not even professional parkourists have to deal with that nonsense.

A strafe-jumping tutorial by LephariaGaming

While the techniques discussed may not have originated within DeFRaG, the mod was an excellent training ground for these movement skills, and these skills can be directly carried over into Quake 3 proper, as well as its many competitive combat mods, like CPMA and Rocket Arena 3. Regular players of Quake 3 will be able to visualize their most-played levels - they'll know where each teleport leads, how to reach a particular weapon from their current position, and at any time they'll know the three or four different doorways their enemies are likely to appear in. It's not uncommon to see professionals thinking several steps ahead of their opponents, shooting rockets into doorways and scoring hits despite not having seen their enemy for several seconds. Quake 3 arenas have intuitive, commonly used routes. The skills trained in DeFRaG enable players to subvert this meta of the map, to appear unexpectedly and throw their enemies off balance. The Bullshit Expedition series of videos features several great examples of this, including precision rocket jumps followed by solid railgun kills and plasma-climbs up otherwise impassable walls.

The requirement of DeFRaG players to know where they are and how they are moving in 3D space is also a vital skill in regular games of Quake 3. The more advanced tiers of play have players shooting rockets in anticipation of where their enemy will be. While this isn't too difficult when aiming for a grounded enemy given splash damage, hitting an airborne enemy with a rocket is a challenge - but one with a huge payoff. While it's disorienting to be knocked out of your expected trajectory, it's when caught by multiple mid-air rockets that the real value of the skill is seen. Advanced players are able to 'juggle' enemies in the air, bouncing them upwards repeatedly with rockets until enough damage is dealt to cause death. Given the relatively weak air-control in Quake 3, it's almost impossible to escape while being juggled, and so a skilled player is almost guaranteed a kill. This skill is trained repeatedly in DeFRaG, as players are asked to hit buttons while moving, or even to catch themselves with rockets, firing at a surface hundreds of meters away and arriving at the same time as the rocket. This unusual training in rocket speed and relative motion carries over directly into vanilla games.

I poured more of my time into DeFRaG than I feel comfortable admitting. The fast-paced gameplay and lack of a delay-punishment between attempts reminds me of Super Meat Boy, and perhaps this is the appeal: it's far too easy to say 'one more try' until the early hours of the morning. This free mod made me a better player, and showed a generation of gamers that you don't have to be blowing each other up to be having fun.