I have a little story for you. Cast your mind back to the early 2000’s, back to Half Life, Unreal Tournament, to Quake 3 Arena. Aside from being great games, they drew the wide-eyed gaze of new and old modders alike. All of these games enjoyed a thriving, popular modding community and for all the quality mods that came from these games, it sometimes felt like perusing an exotic bazaar, with mods of all shapes and sizes finding their own little niche among the horrific baubles and outcast fare. Mods were fan made modifications using in game assets from particular games – games that tended to come pre packaged with development tools. In my case, I was obsessed with the seminal science fiction epic Half Life and even though Half-Life will be remembered for its groundbreaking storytelling and incredible level design what I remember Half-Life for was the kaleidoscopic variety of the modding scene.
Modding in the early 2000’s was a veritable wild west colony of creative ideas. Ranging from the insane, to the stupid, to the thoughtful, fun and well made. it was entirely possible to play something as stupid as a mod that replaces your gun for a penis or a full recreation of Fawlty Towers to some of the more elaborate efforts of Day of Defeat and Natural Selection. Often the difference between bizzarro land and high quality work was pretty damn obvious. But in between those chasms of quality was the hidden gems. The diamonds in the rough. And one of those mods (and still my personal favourite) was Sven Co-op.
Probably the oldest mod for Half-Life, simply mentioning it makes me feel unreasonably old because Sven Co-op is still going strong well into its 18th year of existence and in no way does it show signs of abating. In its initial inception Sven was an attempt to crowbar some rudimentary co op play into a strictly single player experience. Nowadays, it has warped and morphed into a mutated, player driven experience, one where the developers of the mod have had just as much a hand in making it as the fans have. A large portion of content in Sven is made up of a variety fun pack of fan made maps, weapons, textures, models and nearly everything that doesn’t involve the core coding of the mod. It flies the co op banner loudly and proudly with a feature list so long that I’m frankly having trouble recalling a lot of it. Basically, this mod is a gigantic mess of community made garbage; It’s unprofessional, messy, has more rough edges than a roll of sandpaper and that’s exactly why it’s one of my favourite mods of all time. It’s got personality bleeding out of every pore, out of every strand of player made content comes with it a chaotic car crash of everything all at the same time. Every map is a brand new person making their own attempt to daub their unique form of graffiti on to the community wall erected by Sven Viking and his team. And whether it’s a crudely constructed trap maze, a full game of golf re-worked to fit the Half-Life engine or a full 6 level co-op campaign with story line, characters and weapons of their own, all of it was welcomed with open arms in Sven Co Op. It was really where many modders (including yours truly) got their start.
I used to throw my attempts at creation into the melting pot, too, modest as they were. Sven got me interested in level design and thanks to the community driven nature of the game it managed to cultivate a competitive culture around map design. Maps weren’t limited in their design, either. Many were narrative experiences that had multiple stages and a story, but there were also many excursions into the comically ridiculous – maps that challenged your memory or your reflexes, insane monster mazes with inescapable death traps, maps dedicated to wave defence or maps where enemies with stupidly high health pools made up most of the challenge. My fondest memory of Sven Co Op was a cruel maze level that involved invisible and impossible to detect traps where you had to navigate a warehouse sized maze of death using steely grit, determination and pure muscle memory to survive and if you were lucky enough to finish, you got to sit in a secret room above the maze, watching your compatriots attempt to finish the map from the safety of the room… Where you could mercilessly slaughter each and every one of them at the press of a button. Dropping environmental hazards and bosses and God knows what else on your ailing pals brought a delightfully perverse joy. Watching all their progress turn to dust in an instant was devilishly cruel fun, and the sort of insanity that could only have oozed from the glowing pores of a modding community.
Sven Coop represented a snapshot of the modding community. It was all things at once: silly, serious, hilarious fun that sometimes shocked you, made you feel revolted, but had you belly laughing at the insanity. Sometimes, it was just genuinely good fun, and that was the core of Sven Co Op and it’s at the core of modding. It’s no secret that modders often work on projects out of pure passion. There’s no money here. They earn no cash for their work apart from the priceless approval and fun of their peers. There are no gaming awards ceremonies for modders, no flashy trailers, Hideo Kojima didn’t direct their work. It’s just people, bedroom coders, outcast level designers, burgeoning talents and even veteran creators doing what they can with what little they have. Modding was, and still is, the true wild west of gaming. Everything is possible when you have nothing. No budget, no artists, no advertising campaign. No investors to keep happy. And it’s this wild freedom, or rather, lack of strict guidelines, that make modding communities such vital creative well springs. Often these projects are rough, or pointless, sure. But you always get something truly personal. Something that have the designers personality unwittingly emblazoned upon its sleeve. And what with how expensive games are to make now and with how hamstrung by corporate instruments AAA developers often feel, something like having a personal touch is truly, sadly lost in the mists of time and money. In our race to perfection, we forgot just how personal passion projects can be. Surely it would be a good idea to bottle up some of that lightning and let it free over some of our more commercial endeavours?
If you cast your eyes to steam right now, you might see UNLOVED, a spirited indie effort from one Paul Schneider, a labour of love born from his award winning Doom 2 mod of the same name. Unloved is about as rough and ready as it gets, to the point where I actually thought it was running on the Unreal 2 engine, turns out it’s on the Unreal 4 engine. And I don’t use that as a negative either. Unloved comes straight from gaming’s underground, with procedurally generated monster mazes it’s decidedly amateur in its approach but it’s execution shows a mind brimming with ideas ready to pour at any moment. And while the art style adopts a kind of dingy early 2000s horror aesthetic a teenager might dream of in his dark, dusty bedroom, it has so many disparate moving parts that somehow, against the odds, it manages to form a cohesive bond. Through some kind of magic, this all gels together. You won’t find high poly models or picturesque level geometry, hell it doesn’t even screenshot too well, but once you’re wading waist deep in the blood you won’t care too much. Fast, brutal, terrifying… And fun. All the personality of a hobby creation, poured on like buckets of blood. Unloved is a true modders creation currently being sold for real world money right now on Steam. It’s a beautiful thing that a man can go from pure bedroom hobbyist to actually making money off something he loves. We should support that more.
On the other side of the coin though I’ve also recently been playing Dishonoured 2, which is a fantastic, collaborative effort of genuinely clever, creative minds. It’s a highly polished, glossy and artistic immersive sim that not only offers open ended game design but a beautifully detailed world to explore. It’s great stuff, and I’ve been heavily absorbed into its dark alleys and sun drenched docks. Dishonoured 2 in many ways, represents two sides of the coin here. It’s a slick, high budget sequel to a previously successful game. It features combat mechanics and action orientated movement systems usually reserved for big budget action games, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see an artist’s hallmark emblazed within its DNA. An immersive sim in the classic, Deus Ex strain, it weaves steam punk aesthetics with turn of the century colonial politics. It’s part mechanical soldiers skulking through clockwork mansions and part industrial exploitation of natural resources in foreign lands. It’s a classic rich vs. poor diatribe against rampant capitalism and culturally destructive colonialism. All packaged up as some kind of cool, slickly presented action game. In many ways, Dishonoured 2 dances on both sides of the border. And while it possesses many traits that make up a fantastic game (oh and believe me, after that clockwork mansion level? this is a FANTASTIC game) its peers don’t often fair much better.
It’s no secret that the industry is dominated by capital interests. As a tech savvy industry it relies greatly not only on expensive, time consuming tech advancements but also on tried and trusted formulas to ensure return on investment. Game development is too expensive and too long an undertaking to risk creating something as wildly inventive, shockingly offensive and downright stupid as mods have the freedom to be. It’s entirely logical, then, that AAA gaming follows a cultural pattern of playing it safe with iteration after iteration of popular game series’, often leading to long running, endless sequels that fatigue consumers with over exposure and idiotic, backwards design, infuriating and clearly outstaying it’s welcome. I mean, just look at Call Of Duty. Struggling to stay relevant in 2016… Is this what gaming has to say for itself? Is this the best we can do? Is this the jewel in our crowns? It’s sad. Immensely sad.
Call of Duty is the McDonald’s of games. They factory produce identical products (key focus on products… They’re not games. They’re products. ) With as little change to the core formula as possible with only mild rebranding to tell the previous iterations apart from the others. The rampant success of Call of Duty, of course means a knock on effect for the industry. Other companies will want their take, so they’ll create a similar product in its image. As this process rolls on, we have a level of hegemony that slowly accumulates over time, becoming the general defacto AAA gaming cultures we see today. And while this is slowly changing, it’s not changing fast enough, and at the end of the day, there will always be a Call of Duty, weather in name or otherwise.
But cast your eyes back to the early golden years of PC gaming. The critical peak of PC games in the late 90’s saw titles that took brave, creative risks because the stakes were so low. Games like: Grim Fandango, Fallout, Half-life, even Doom and Quake. Something like Duke Nukem 3D has so much more personality in its dirty jokes and references to its own developers and other forms of media. Duke, regardless of how times have changed and attitudes moved on, did things and went to places others couldn’t because of the niche it had built for itself. But with how far the corporate tendrils have entrenched themselves in our culture now are we digging ourselves a creative grave? Is this really what progress looks like? How does a developer put some of his personality into his projects without upsetting a faceless shareholder droid and costing millions in the process?
Play more mods.
It’s time to view mod teams as renegade creative’s, a veritable mad spirit dropped into a colourless war, a dancing jester that can go to places others can’t. Maybe in our time of hyper corporate gaming, modders have the answers we didn’t know we needed. As clandestine rebel leaders that fly under the corporate radar and have no money to play with you could argue that there’s some kind of creative compromise but actually historically speaking art created under awkward, strained circumstances often breeds unique offspring.
We can do this through many ways, and none of them involve insane budgets and bowing before corporate stake holders. We can remember the freedom of modding, the lack of anyone to please, and to entertain ourselves primarily, than to please a panel of droids, or to throw meat to the baying crowd of consumers. We can invest in a culture that welcomes diversity, that welcomes the cracks in the pavement, the untidy window frames or the broken bottles in the pits. We can learn to find something unique buried amidst the chaos of early access abortions. We can make our art more creative, weird, bizarre and interesting. But key to all this is we have to let it try. We have to keep an open mind, and refuse to retreat to our caves of safety, to our comfort games. Refuse the generic, corporate gaming feeding frenzy and start investing in the wonderful weird world of outsider art we call modifications.