Sectors and Voxels and Sprites and more...
April 19, 2017 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Ken Silverman's Build Engine served as the backbone for a generation of shooters that bridged the early efforts of DOOM and Wolfenstein with the later 3D revolution of Quake and Half-Life. The Build Engine's Golden Era (in Rock Paper Shotgun) traces the inception and legacy of the quirky and clunky, but powerful software: "... Build [engine] games took the action to urban centres, morgues and small-town Americana. We were whisked away to more fantastical worlds by Shadow Warrior and the wonderful Outlaws ... What unified all these environments is that they felt like real spaces designed for humans to reside in, but which just happened to be beset by zombies, aliens, or foul-mouthed shotgun-wielding hillbilly clones (that’s Redneck Rampage, in case you were wondering)."

As the article outlines, the Build engine was released just in time to be obsolesced by the true 3D of the Quake idTech 2 engine. Still the games that were created with the engine are often highly lauded by fans of the genre. Ken Silverman has a (very early web aesthetic) page about his creation that details some of the technical aspects that allowed 2D (well, 2.5D) rendering software to cleverly mimic 3D environments. Computer programmer Fabien Sanglard goes into further detail about how the engine accomplished such feats in this article series about Duke 3D's codebase.

Here is a video from Machinima that details the gradual evolution of the engine over the course of the 90s, highlighting several key features that enabled the software to simulate 3D space. People are still creating custom maps for Build games - for instance, here's a playthrough of a custom level for the action-horror game Blood (content warning: lots of cartoon gore) by the mapper Tekedon that takes the engine to its limits. Most Build Engine games are available on Good Old Games with custom DOSBOX wrappers, if you'd like to try them on a modern system.
posted by codacorolla (11 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite fact about Redneck Rampage is that it was one of the first games to be worked on by Viktor Antonov, who later went on to do the legendary art direction on Half Life 2 and Dishonored. Everybody's got to start somewhere!

The build engine is also how Monolith Productions got their start (with Blood) and Monolith later went on to become one of the most technically accomplished studios around. I think Blood was my favorite of the Build games; it was my kind of stupid.
posted by selfnoise at 6:26 PM on April 19, 2017

In the comments of the RPS article was a link to some internal text files that were found in a leaked alpha version of Blood. They describe their difficulties working with Ken Silverman and offer some more insight into the relationship between the developers of the game and the developer of the engine. "By the time we're done with Blood, we probably won't have any of Ken's engine left... Perhaps you'll want to reconsider the royalties that you are paying him."
posted by thecjm at 6:40 PM on April 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

I agree about Blood - I can't really think of any subsequent game that captures the style of that one.
posted by atoxyl at 6:44 PM on April 19, 2017

Oh, yes. I spent a lot of hours on Redneck Rampage back in the 90's. For all the painful over-the-top stereotypes in that game, it could also pack a surprising amount of tense atmosphere at times.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:06 PM on April 19, 2017

The Build editor was great, so much better than any of the Doom editors of the time. Also probably the only time I've ever used the Scroll Lock key. (Scroll Lock was the key to place the marker for the player's starting point in the level! All the other keys were needed for more important functions...)

Being able to have rooms on top of other rooms was great, a big step up from Doom, but what I really loved was that you could even have rooms occupying the same 3D space--as long as it wasn't possible to see one from the other. So you could be in a big room, leave through a twisty little corridor that ultimately amounts to a 180-degree turn, and come out into a totally different room where the first room ought to be!

The subway-car mechanism was a lot of fun too.
posted by equalpants at 7:58 PM on April 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

There are some cool custom maps I've seen that play with the wonky nature of sectors: mostly to create nightmare levels. I've always thought that a 201X revival of Build could really do a lot of cool stuff with the concept in terms of making a horror game.
posted by codacorolla at 9:51 PM on April 19, 2017

selfnoise: the goth kids in my pre-columbine dorm actually made a Blood mod of the dorm we were in. How times have changed...
posted by lkc at 9:58 PM on April 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I read Wolfenstein, my immediate memory is of a 2D game, not a 3D game. Total fun. It might be the first time I heard a computer talk, although C=64's Software Automatic Mouth (S.A.M.) came out around basically the same time. One was recorded, the other was synthesized. Result was the same: O.O
posted by hippybear at 2:48 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you will indulge me, I am going to become sentimental for a few moments:

Ah, Build. I spent many of my young adult hours building things in Build. It was a meditative pleasure at times to carefully craft a small, dynamic world within tight constraints. Alongside the satisfaction of constructing buildings, tunnels, and city blocks, it required a lot of thoughtful consideration to plan the locations of items and enemies to work well in single-player, co-op, and deathmatch.

If anyone here ever happened to play Nukecity or Nukecity2 downloaded from one of those once-plentiful Duke3D map sites, those were mine. They were popular, but a big contributing factor was that the maps came with CON and ART files I had hacked, which:
  • Caused steroids to turn the player invisible;
  • Caused a player to explode like a pipe bomb if you stomped them after shrinking them;
  • Randomly allowed a killed player to resurrect with 1 health rather than respawn; and
  • Transformed one of the ordinary enemies into a 'Dukebot,' an enemy with the same health as a real player, access to all of Duke's weapons, and a jetpack.
I was delighted to later be hired to build a level for an official Shadow Warrior add-on called Twin Dragon. But the add-on was canceled after we freelancers finished all of the work, and we were never paid. If you buy the "Shadow Warrior Classic Redux" on Steam, they've bundled Twin Dragon with it. My level was "Fortress of Hung Lo." I don't mind that they published it without ever compensating me, I'm just glad it saw a little light of day.

I miss those days where a game's guts were so readily accessible, and the learning curve was not so steep. They say that Ken Silverman was a bit of a grump, but he invented a thing that furnished a lot of people with good times.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:58 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

(I forgot to mention that the Dukebots also looked like Duke. The idea was to simulate multiplayer without the need for pesky friends.)
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 10:51 AM on April 20, 2017

Clearly something is in the air. Jacobin has a piece today on Duke Nukem 3D and the Build engine, which while quite good leaves me scratching my head "why is this in Jacobin?"
posted by crazy with stars at 2:55 PM on April 20, 2017

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