“Even other monsters fear him, so expect a clobbering. He shrugs off explosions. Good luck.”
— Quake 1 Manual
I was 12 years old when Quake was released in 1996 and at a bare minimum of once a year since I have thought about The Shambler. There is very little about the world contained within id Software’s seminal first installment in the Quake series that is pleasant. A medieval, inter-dimensional satanic nightmare all wrapped up in Lovecraftian tentacles. Every enemy is a ghastly horror. Everything is set to cause you anguish and pain. Even the surface of the walls look like they’ll cut you to ribbons if you lean against them. So it says something that in a game that is the very essence of punishment, one thing stands out above all else. That thing is The Shambler.
Trying to put my finger on exactly what it is about The Shambler that still finds my mind wandering to its brutal majesty 18 years later is tricky. Maybe it’s that he’s built like an American fridge-freezer but moves faster than greased shit off a shovel. Maybe it’s that once he spots you he’s prone to raising his tree-like arms aloft, tilting his head back and summoning forth a bolt of cosmic lightning, destination: your face. Maybe it’s that his own face isn’t really a face at all, rather it’s a bloody, gaping set of teeth in the centre of a chunk of flesh that sits atop his shoulders. Perhaps it’s those gigantic claws that will smush you to death and cause you to burst into numerous pixelated globs of gore if you’re daft enough to get too close to this utter monstrosity.
I’ll wager that it’s all of the above. A perfect combination of phenomenal power, enormous heft, graceful speed and disturbing appearance. Influence was drawn from H.P Lovecraft and his overarching Cthulhu mythos for many aspects of Quake (less so than was originally envisioned by id due to time constraints) and The Shambler is no exception. Robert Bloch was a Lovecraft cohort and contributor to the Cthulhu mythos, and it’s from his 1935 published short story ‘The Shambler From The Stars’ that id drew specific inspiration:
“The thing was bloated and obscene; a headless, faceless, eyeless bulk with the ravenous maw and titanic talons of a star-born monster. The human blood on which it had fed revealed the hitherto invisible outlines of the feaster.
—Robert Bloch, “The Shambler from the Stars”
Pretty grim stuff. As befitting the beasts based in the world of cosmic horror, this original Shambler (or Star Vampire as it was also known) was decked out with tentacles and suckers but aside from that, the version we got in Quake was pretty faithful to the thing that disturbed so many readers decades ago.
And this, I think, is the key. By drawing on the image of a creature that has disturbed and horrified among literary circles for almost 100 years, id tapped into something so arcane and powerful that by animating it and sending it hurtling down a corridor at you when you only had 25 health and 17 nails in your Nailgun they were onto a winner. That is why it lasts. This is why the horror of The Shambler will never die. Because evil never does.