One couldn't be blamed for assuming there must be a metal music concert happening somewhere near QuakeCon Europe 2019 – the crowd making their way from Canada Water station is older, often clad in black clothes and piercings. During the 90s, this generation found themselves on the defensive, engulfed in the Satanic panic, but encountered refuge in games that spoke to their aesthetic, namely Id's Doom and Quake.
Once they reach the door of the venue, their eyes twinkle, they rediscover that teenager inside. ''This is the most hype I have seen in Printworks and no one's on drugs,'' my friend notes. The warehouse is famous for its huge techno raves, hidden at this hip East London location.
I grew up in seedy internet cafes in the corners of Eastern Europe battling my teenage friends and enemies on Quake Arena so the dream has always been to witness QuakeCon, with its BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) culture first-hand. Today's event is more of a BethesdaCon than the DIY, grass-roots QuakeCon I was expecting to see; there is a small stage of eight set-ups with Quake II and Quake Champions, but these few exceptions aside, the rest of this industrial building is filled with other famous titles by the publisher – Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein and of course, the upcoming Doom Eternal. Bethesda's choices of published games do share the elements of dark, gory, industrial, dystopian, purgatory-like aesthetic, but it was the tunes by Prodigy, Slipknot, Nirvana and other similar 90s bangers, blaring in the background, that facilitated linking all these separate games into a cohesive theme on the floor.
The main QuakeCon event is also taking place in its original birthplace of Texas during the same weekend, so clearly the same budget wasn't allocated to the European version. Still, for a free event, there is plenty to do – we get to try out the new Wolfenstein: Youngblood, I get some pictures taken in front of a Doom Guy sculpture, in front of a green screen that puts me alongside some Quake Champions concept art, there is an Evolution of Doom gallery with every version of the game, on both PC and consoles, Bethesda titles on Nintendo Switch, a board games area, VR set-ups and much more!
The panel talks, however, feel like a missed opportunity. Id's and Bethesda's titles have been historically key to crucial cultural conversations about the significance of violence of video games (Doom), the birth of esports (Quake), the discourse surrounding political affiliations in the game plots (Wolfenstein), there's so much fascinating ground to cover! So when the talks are instead focused on such generic themes as 'So, you want to be a Bethesda Streamer?' and discussing the latest updates to Fallout 76, I feel like the organisers are undervaluing the more mature QuakeCon crowd that is capable of comprehending more complex themes – ideas more relevant to the real world, as well as where the medium is going overall.
There is no doubt where Bethesda itself is going though: by far the largest booth here is dedicated to the much hyped-up Doom Eternal; ticketed slots allowed potential buyers to preview a couple of levels of the game. All the weapons feel as satisfying as always, but it’s the level design and an even more expanded movement that truly sets it apart from the 2016 predecessor. While bunnyhopping around, mowing down the demons with my Super Shotgun, I can’t help but think that for all the work going into rebranding gaming as this highbrow activity, sometimes we really don’t need to reinvent the wheel. A smooth, fast shooter with high-quality atmospheric soundtrack, cinematics, movement is all that’s necessary for a fulfilling gaming sesh.
The most striking feeling that settles in after a few hours of mulling over different areas of QuakeCon is that although I'm caught in a web of LAN cable nostalgia here, I can now celebrate my past amongst a whole international community of former angsty teenagers sharing that same past. The vast majority of mainstream AAA games these days are so neutral in their aesthetics, stripped of that sense of rebelliousness, let alone any whiff of a counter-culture. Those who grew up in the 1990s and played Id’s titles were often outcasts, the first generation dealing with the ‘games cause violence’ hysteria, but now look at us – sipping Quake-themed cocktails, artisan coffee, some of us even bringing our own kids to the event. The mood here is more that of a post-rock concert than a videogame convention: mature, nihilist, but incredibly kind and pleasant. We may require higher production values these days, but we spend more money on merchandise too.
I leave Printworks a changed woman - my childhood, sometimes secret, love for gaming feeling at one with my present. But the games, or at least their PR teams, have grown up with me, it seems. No longer does QuakeCon only attract the prepubescent white boy once synonymous with a lot of these titles. We are now here as ladies, dudes, and everyone inbetween, from all corners of Europe, keen to explore more of the stomping ground that keep us returning for nearly three decades now (sadly no gender-neutral toilets though). I entered the event with the aim of remembering the good ol’ times of my youth, but left accepting that the past has shaped my presence and it will never leave my future. The antsy little goth kid is still very much with me today and that’s okay!
It’s the celebration of that legacy that I hope QuakeCon will be more inclined to demonstrate in the future, a trust in their audience to not only be curious about the latest update or release, but what maintains our affiliation with Bethesda / Id in the first place. Of course, it may bring less of that initial cash, but it’s precisely the sense of camaraderie and shared history that has been delivering thousands of people to QuakeCon since its dawn in 1996. It sure is an almighty task to create an event that will equally attract an excitable teenager and a cynical thirty-something with a mortgage and kids, an issue the videogames industry will have to grapple with increasingly in the future. QuakeCon Europe 2019 gives me hope that Bethesda is up to the challenge - good news, as I cannot wait to be fragging enemies for another thirty or even sixty years.