Id Software's Quake III: Arena is widely hailed as a masterpiece among video game enthusiasts - an ageless classic with an addictive gameplay, and a milestone of first-person shooters that defined the genre for years to come. However, a lot of people forget that the Quake III experience is so much more than just its frantic action; its setting and characters are just as impressive as its core gameplay. A thorough look at any of the game's maps will reveal an astounding amount of environmental detail that will register as nothing more than a blur in the peripheral vision of a player during the heat of a match, and each of the game's 32 characters has a defined personality and a wide range of responses to the player's actions. The variety of the character roster is also worthy of note; the same game features space marines and fat bikers, proud space amazons and cyborgs on skates and glow-in-the-dark skeletons with a penchant for puns.
Out of all these characters, however, one stands out as being the most bizarre: its name is Orbb, and its appearance is so outlandish that it cannot be adequately described without seeing it. You can see for yourself...
This is Orbb: a grotesque assemblage of flesh and steel revolving around a huge eyeball. If its design weren't weird enough, Orbb's personality makes the whole ensemble look even weirder - it speaks in a polite and upbeat manner, if sometimes a bit stilted, and sounds genuinely happy to be part of the gladiators of Quake III: Arena.
Games, comics, movies and the like are full of weird alien creatures, but none quite like Orbb. Through this page, I'd like to present and celebrate this wonderfully weird character.
The game manual describes Orbb as an alien biomechanical construct. Although many of the warriors of the Arena are not human, Orbb is somewhat special as it is closely related to its mysterious overlords.
Where most games of the same genre are content to have a set of characters who shoot, kill and respawn with no other explanation to it, Quake III goes the extra length of trying to give a logical explanation to its own gameplay: the events of the game are happening because of a race of bloodthirsty creatures - the so-called Vadrigar - who built the interdimensional battlefield known as the Arena Eternal to be the stage for a game of endless death. For their own amusement, the Vadrigar seized their favorite heroes from their home dimensions and trapped them in this hellish world to fight each other for all eternity. To follow the battles from a vantage point, they built Orbb as a walking camera that would record the fighting for them.
It is not known for how long Orbb acted as it was instructed to; however, what is known is that one day it decided that the game of death it was overseeing was great fun, and it wanted in. This would make Orbb the only character of Quake III who is known to have chosen its destiny in the battlegrounds rather than having been abducted and forced to fight, which explains why it always seems so cheerful to play this game - even when it sometimes results in its gruesome death.
Being possibly the last warrior to join the fray (although, who knows what "last" even means in the context of nonlinear time) and lacking the other gladiators' expertise, Orbb is among the lowest level opponents to be met in a single-player campaign: it appears in the very first Free For All match of Tier 1 - Trainee. However, it also reappears in several matches of Tier 2 - Skilled, meaning that it must have improved in the meanwhile!
Next up there is Orbb's official bio as it appears in the game manual:
Designed by the Vadrigar to monitor combat in the arena, Orbb evolved beyond his specifications and became a deadly combatant.
The eerily bipedal eyeball, Orbb first entered the battleground between worlds as an uninvolved observer, constructed by the Arena Masters to watch and record the battles. Soon, it surprised its masters (and other combatants) by taking up a weapon and joining the fray. What goes on in the mind behind that glassy lens remains a mystery. The trail of carnage it leaves behind is not.
As previously said, Orbb has definitely the most bizarre design of Quake III, and is the only character to not be remotely humanoid in shape. Even keeping in mind that it's meant to look like it was designed by the Vadrigar with a specific purpose in mind, it still looks quite bizarre, and there are many oddities about it.
Orbb has a little antenna with a red blinking tip, reminescent of the blinking icon that appears on cameras during recording. It blinks even as Orbb lies dead. If that is really what it's for, it must mean that it was meant to keep recording even when the unit itself can no longer move, as long as it's not been blown up to little pieces; makes sense that the Vadrigar wouldn't want to miss on a single second of the fight as Orbb gets ready for respawning. The question remains open on whether Orbb still serves as a camera for the Vadrigar or whether its indicator light is purely vestigial at this point.
Orbb's main feature is obviously its eye. It seems fully organic, but it must be wired in such a way that it can record what it sees. Perhaps it is better that we don't know what horrible alien species was its eye taken from.
In case it wasn't clear, Orbb walks on its arms! These arms seem to belong to a different species than its eye. However, they doesn't seem to belong to any of the species that appear in the rest of the cast of Quake III. They seem to have been cobbled on rather approximately, as evidenced by the blood on the shoulders, but they still work fine. The detail of the blood has been removed in the Quake Live version so that the game could get a Teen rating, but we know it's supposed to be there...
Although Orbb used to be a walking camera, it is interesting to note that it has a slot to attach its weapon to. Perhaps this is part of the "evolved beyond its specifications" line in its bio: maybe it modified itself to have a place where to put its weapon, although I do have more than one theory about this (see the section Conjectures on Orbb). The blueprint on the left shows Orbb wielding the Gauntlet, but it can switch to anything; the weapon seemingly switches up from hammerspace, like on the other characters. This is obviously just because of technical limitations - hey, we are talking about a game from 1999, after all. The weapon is conveniently wired so that it can be operated without the use of arms. The Plasma Gun is Orbb's favorite.
While Orbb's gender is stated as neuter in the bio and in the game files, there are two notable caveats to that. At one point in the bio, Orbb is referred to as male
[...] Orbb evolved beyond his specifications [...]. But then, some of its lines can be pulled out of a dialogue group that is specific of female characters (you can view this in the Q3A Quote Database).
Take what you will out of this; my guess is that they're just mistakes and that Orbb is fully neuter. Why would a walking camera have a sex or a gender, after all? And why would interdimensional beings who might not have a concept of gender at all build a gendered walking camera? It just seems very unlikely to me.
Another thing about Orbb's design are its alternative skins. For those who don't know what skins are in this context, think of each character in the game as a candy within a candy wrapper. The character model with all its geometry and shape would be the candy, and the skin would be the candy wrapper. So, you can change the character's skin, which will make the character look radically different, although still within the limits of the shape underneath. In Quake III, most characters come with a default skin and then several other skins; some are used to create different characters (for example, Lucy and Angel share the same model, but are distinct characters), and some are purely cosmetic and are akin to the character just changing their clothes. Anyway, this was all to say that Orbb is one of the few characters that doesn't have a plethora of skins to choose from, having only the default one plus the red and blue team game uniforms. Like most team game skins in Quake III, however, they are not just the base character in different colors, but rather completely different skins based on the original character model. Most of the team game skins look more cyborgic than the original design, and Orbb's are no exception. Get hypnotized by that spinning eye!
Here below are all the skins from Quake Live. As Quake Live was released with the aim to get a Teen rating instead of Quake III's Mature, all player skins were edited so they wouldn't look as bloody; in Orbb's case, the reddish tinge at the top of the shoulders was removed. However, no important changes were made. Quake Live also added a few brighter-colored skins for visibility in tournaments; they are very similar to the team game skins, except for the arms being more colorful.
We have seen that Orbb is quite strange design-wise. However, it might be even stranger personality-wise. As mentioned before, Orbb is quite cheerful and eager to take part in the bloodbath of the Arena Eternal; it always greets its opponents politely
Salutations to all, and to all a good fight. at the start of a match and then has a great time fragging. It doesn't even seem to be too concerned by losing, and accepts its defeat very gracefully
This unit very happy for winner. But next time this unit frags you better..
At the beginning of this page, I was talking about the little background details of Quake III and how they contribute to the global feel of the game while being almost invisible to the player. One such detail is how every character has different rates of how likely they are to behave in a certain way or even talk about certain things as NPCs. Some characters play in a more aggressive way, some are likely to jump around a lot, and some will chit-chat whenever they feel like it, giving each one of them a finely-tuned characterization. In Orbb's case, it is interesting to note that it is among the characters that are most likely to reply to another bot or to the player, adding to its friendly personality. It gets less talkative at higher difficulty levels, because there's no time to chat when things are getting serious. Orbb is also one of the least likely to ever insult its fellow gladiators; it's too nice for that.
A large portion of Orbb's characterization comes from its fractured speech patterns. It's somewhat clichéd to have the robot character talk
ME-CHA-NI-CAL or in beeps and boops, so the writers dodged that bullet by having Orbb's dialogue be stilted in subtler, less obvious ways. For example, take the way Orbb refers to itself. Sometimes it might refer to itself as "this unit"
Ow! [Enemy] hit this unit in blind side., and call its fellow gladiator units
Phooey! [Enemy] unit survived this unit's attack. as well; some other times it talks about itself in the third person
Is Orbb correct in assuming that you not know how to use that weapon, [enemy]?; and some other times yet it will sound more natural.
What really brings the character to life is the way these speech patterns are inconsistent, not unlike those of an actual artificial intelligence. Sometimes this is rendered through awkward capitalization
Ahhh. The Agony of Defeat. Very Interesting., some other times by bizarre phrasing
[Enemy], you use this weapon because you are not good warrior? Yes?, and some other times yet by an unnatural use of quotes
You are a 'BFG-Camper', [enemy], yes?! When you think about it, Orbb is an AI who is trying to sound as much like an AI as possible - and I think the writers did an excellent job at portraying that quality without resorting to the same old tired tropes.
But while Orbb is a biomechanical construct, it is no soulless automaton; in fact, it has emotions
This unit does not understand its feelings. Feel ... sad.! It is actually quite the gentle-hearted
Ow! You hurt orbb. You not nice person, [enemy]. machine, if something. Poor thing, it just wants to please
[Enemy], could you love a being with only one eye?. Its feelings are not the only anthropomorphized thing about it: Orbb has a cute sense of humor, and likes to make little eye-based puns
Note to self: Keep an eye on [enemy]., make pop culture references
Curse you Dorothy, I'm melting ... melting. it can't possibly fully understand, and sometimes even be take its chance to be a smartass
Look, another piece of [enemy]. Be first to collect them all!!.
I would like to add that actually all of Orbb's lines are hilarious and that it was hard to pick some that could represent the character better than others, so if you want to read them all, I advise checking out Orbb's page at another of my projects, the Q3A Quote Database.
We have seen similar characters before... While Orbb is rather unique in its type, there are some characters who have a lot to share with it - other kind robots with an adorable sense of humor. Here are some of them...
This is Number 5, the protagonist of the movie Short Circuit (1986). He is a robot constructed for military purposes that, struck by lightning, has gained sentience. The movie's plot follows Number 5's adventures as he explores his new state of being while being on the run from the military, who is trying to recapture and disassemble what they believe to be just an ordinary robot. Number 5's personality is very similar to Orbb's in which he is cheerful, curious, interested in pop culture, sometimes a bit of a smartass, but always kind and polite. And he's also absolutely adorable.
Wall•E from the eponymous movie (Pixar, 2008) both looks and acts very similar to Number 5, although this is apparently a mere coincidence. He is a trash compactor unit who has gained sentience in his many centuries of cleaning up a deserted Earth, which is not very different from how Orbb gained sentience after an eternity of being a surveillance camera; and much like Orbb, he's kind, gentle, even a little shy, and driven by his great curiosity.
Of course, there might be more characters that are like Orbb - right now this section only tackles characters I know and am personally familiar with, so please contact me if you know of other characters that could be added here.
So far, we have discussed what we know about Orbb's character. Now, I would like to discuss what we don't know about it. More precisely, I would like to advance some hypotheses about its origin and purposes. While it might seem like overthinking for a character in an arena shooter game, the Quake III universe is far more elaborated than one would expect; there are a lot of said-unsaid things to discuss, as typical for Id Software games (if you'd like to further your reading on the topic, I recommend this wonderful essay proposing the theory that all of their games are connected!).
Now, on Orbb. At a first glance, the information given in the bio can be taken at face value. Orbb was created by the Vadrigar to be a walking camera, and then one day decided to join the fight. Very simple, very linear. But upon closer inspection, some things seem to be off. If Orbb was created to record battles, then why does it have a weapon slot? Because it's not like it's a humanoid character with limbs that can be used to hold weapons; in Orbb's case, there would need to be a specific slot wired in a certain way to operate a weapon...and Orbb does have such a slot. Maybe Orbb is something more than a robotic referee. Perhaps it is also a sort of guard that was originally programmed to suppress any rebellion in the Arena Eternal. After all, the gladiators have all eternity to devise a plan of escape from the dimension in which the Vadrigar trapped them; they would eventually try (according to some random dialogue that any character can use, it might have already happened
Hey. Truce. Let's all team up [and] go after the Arena Masters.).
What the Vadrigar probably didn't predict is that their creation would eventually side with the gladiators, which leads to another question: why did Orbb join the fight? One has to consider that Orbb is the only character in Quake III that literally does not have a past. As far as we know, it was born in the Arena Eternal and knows nothing outside of it. From its perspective, there is nothing to its existence beyond sound of gunfire and constant bloodshed; it has no other experience to compare it with, so it can't know how terrible it really is. Moreover, Orbb was the only one excluded from being an active participant to the games of death. Once again, it had all eternity to decide that it wanted to be on the other side of the gun; it happened, and it was something that would have eventually happened...and it is possible - if not likely - that the Arena Masters had taken this into consideration as well. I think that Orbb might have a very incomplete understanding of the events, and that from its perspective it might as well be some sort of game
So much fun, [enemy]. Now you shoot me. whose side effect is a lot of pain, which Orbb has accepted as a fact of life.
Naturally, all of the opinions in the previous paragraphs are strictly non-canon and are just my personal theories on the character. However, I am very open to other interpretations and theories (I like to hold several different opinions at the same time, actually), so if you have other ideas, let's talk about them!
Lastly, I would like to talk about Orbb's reception as a character. Because of its outlandish design, Orbb is easily one of the most memorable characters of Quake III: Arena, and as such it often gets under the limelight - both in official material and within fandom.
While no concept art was released for Quake III, Orbb still gets to appear in some official paraphernalia. For example, this little render of Orbb appears as an illustration for the error page of Quake Live! Oh no, Orbb, what did you do. But we can't blame it too much for spilling coffee; it's not easy to use a computer when you have to balance on your arms.
Then Orbb appeared again in a Quake Live April's Fools (year 2009, if I am not mistaken). Here is a larger version. I don't think I can provide any commentary that could surpass the perfection that is picture itself. Sometimes I think about this picture at night and I laugh. Then I remember about the fine print and laugh some more.
As for what concerns the fandom side of things, I am going to give an overview of some of the most notable pieces of artwork featuring Orbb that I know of. Of course I can only feature the things that I know about, so if there's something that I didn't talk about and that I should really see, let me know!
This awesome render of Orbb is work of 3D artist Mark Harrington. It features a full reimagining of Orbb and of the popular map Campgrounds...at insane levels of detail. You can see more about this work here, along with a detailed breakdown about how was it made.
This badass painting of Orbb is the work of Brian Prince, and can be viewed at his site. Orbb takes a very death metal, almost demonic look with those added spikes and that cat-like pupil. And it's using the railgun - how appropriate for a giant eyeball! You don't want to know what happened to the unfortunate victim, just off screen...
I would also like to show this ballpoint pen rendition of Orbb, work of none other than my girlfriend, ritabuuk. If this picture appears to be somewhat unpolished, it's because you're missing a crucial detail: the whole picture is just 6 by 3.5 inches! Now isn't that impressive? You can see more about this work here.
As for what concerns physical objects, this Orbb sculpture is the only one I know of...and it's my own work. :) It's made out of Sculpey on an aluminum base and painted with acrylic paint. You can see more pictures here. If you'd like to see more of my work, I also have some Orbb fanart under the Orbb tag of my artblog.
While the fandom tends to have a positive response to Orbb, some say that its squeaky noises are irritating and distracting and make it impossible to play as Orbb, and that they don't like Orbb because of the terrible noises it makes. I personally don't understand the hatred and I think its little chirps and squeaks are cute...but again, I play as Slash, so what do I know.