The mod is a wonderful thing. It represents the best of the gaming community – creativity, a plucky spirit to bring new life to old games, and opportunities for people who want to learn more about game design to get involved without forcing them into an academic route or substantial financial commitment. Over the years there have been many engines, many ways to create the mod… and while the Unreal3 engine is getting very popular now there will always be one engine that, to me, seems to confound expectations and live on – and therefore will no doubt remain fond in our minds for years to come: The source engine.
Lucky, then, that the mods I’m going to talk about happen to be made in that engine too. I want to discuss three mods you’ve probably already played, and while you may have read pieces about them at the time they were released I have not seen one that discusses them all in relation to each other – and how they have achieved their individual goals against what they actually provide to the discourse on experimental game design. These mods (you may sigh): Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Radiator. If you liked these mods then by all means read on and if you didn’t like them then by all means read on. I’m not here to change your mind, but let’s not dismiss them. And hey, I may even bring something new to the conversation.
“Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”
These may be the first words you hear when you start a game of Dear Esther. They may not be. The basic mechanic of Dear Esther is walking around, looking at stuff, and setting off partially randomized audio from triggers in the environment. I fully expect many of you already know about it, but for those who don’t it was part of a still on-going research project from Dan Pinchbeck and his mini-studio thechineseroom at Portsmouth University into experimental game design in the first person. Should you want to read Pinchbeck’s post-mortem of Dear Esther it is here. The experience for me playing the mod was despairing, somewhat haunting, quite beautiful, and affecting. I remember sitting, staring at the blank black screen at the end – the last strains of music long since silenced not knowing what to do next.
How was this accomplished? By realising two important things: Firstly; by realising humans are capable of pulling a lot out of ambiguity – seeing it as a mental game in itself and secondly; by realising a potential draw for a “game” is not entirely the story or rule-based system of reward, but the ability to inhabit a game-space. The ambiguity I am referring to is the 106 piece jigsaw puzzle that is the narration, and the jigsaw puzzle that is the world design – only these are unsolvable puzzles with contradictory pieces that don’t match the picture on the box. The argument about the game-space requires more explanation…
The term “game” is gradually becoming less important as we explore further territory in the games industry (or should that be interactive media industry?). It’s something we should recognize now, as we have known for years that a videogame as we see it is a blend of both narrative and ludology, and there are going to be times when projects are released in a typical videogame format that have very little ludology of a traditional sort. What Dear Esther offers is a narrative journey that could not be expressed the same way in any other medium. The interactivity of exploring the environment is key to its success, to it making you care. When I say game-space I am not referring simply to the “map”. I am referring to the combination of the graphical environment, and the all of the game’s systems. The AI, the cause and effect relationships, the physics, and boundaries you find – investigating and learning about these are important parts of your experience of a game. It happens with every game you play, to the point you forget you’re doing it. It is, perhaps, odd that a game with such a small amount of ludic agency would be the example that brings it up, but sometimes we commit ourselves so much to the idea of genre that when playing a first-person game we go through the same old check-list and think about the enemies AI to find cover or flank you, and we forget there are more subtle things that can provide an equally powerful experience. Dear Esther shows that, given the right atmosphere, being told to “Come back!” when you’re nearing the edge of the map and following the visual clue of a seagull flying, can be just as valid as chasing down the helicopter with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped the famous scientist you’ve got to save – despite producing different sensations in the player.
So Dear Esther was an experiment into reducing player agency to its bare minimum to see if narrative alone, presented in a 3D explorable environment presented in the first-person would be enough to create a meaningful artistic experience for an audience used to the more common tropes of the first-person genre. Reception was mixed – but then so is the gaming audience, and pro-tip: I don’t read comments in any kind of degenerative slang English. There was no way this was going to appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got this far you’ll probably agree that Dear Esther is at least a lesson in using the unreality of a videogame environment to enforce the ambiguity of reality in the narrative’s environment (the island – is it real, imagined, or merely metaphorical?). We can’t judge by looking at a videogame environment whether or not it’s meant to be a real place – it could just all of a sudden flicker into non-existence like The Matrix. There is no solid reality in games, and this is an example of how that has been used slightly to show developers that chasing after reality in games can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.
If Dear Esther did that slightly then Korsakovia, the next mod by thechineseroom, ran all the way with it.
“I am waiting to take delivery of a new set of eyes.”
Korsakovia is the story of Christopher, a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. He believes he has survived the end of the world, and apparently in our world has blinded himself, punched a hole through his television, and set fire to his home, in an effort to pass over to the world of his delusions. As having Korsakoff’s means the patient loses the ability to form new memories and differentiate between reality and fiction (often supplanting their memories with fantasy) it would appear to be the perfect subject for a videogame of this nature.
Korsakovia was designed specifically to disorientate and disturb players not by merely having a chilling narrative (which it does, in spades) but to have mechanics that deliberately subverted what people expected from a first-person game, or “well made” QA passed game in general. Not that it was too buggy (perhaps in bits), but its treatment of the level design, visual effects, and sound design were used to make the distinction between the norms of a regular game level and the fabrication that is the protagonist’s delusional world which you inhabit. The videogame, again, is the perfect tool to provide this experience as unlike film, videogames are synthetic from the ground up. Because games are made in engines with underlying systems, it’s as though they exist independently in a nondescript universe of intangible natural law. This means that Christopher’s delusional world is, in terms of a game, just as real as any other in-game environment – which neatly carries over the message that Christopher’s world is just as real to him as any other world.
The game was criticized for some of the tools it implemented to make the player feel unease. People didn’t like the loud bursts of static (from the televisions, a recurring plot element) which punctuated some of the dialogue at ear-piercing volume. I do not mind it. It infuriated me while I was playing it, but it did its job – it could be argued that it’s meant to make you consider turning the volume down – as the story involves Christopher having needles jammed in his ears to “take away the excess noise”. The rest of the sound design is superb as well, terrifyingly so. Jessica Curry, who also provided the music for Dear Esther, deserves (and has probably won) an award for her work in Korsakovia.
The main way Korsakovia differs with Dear Esther is its approach to player agency. There are enemies (mostly to run away from in terror). There are obstacles to be smashed (which is slightly thematic), and platforms to be jumped – which is also thematic partially (the fragmentation of the world makes sense, but why do you need to ascend to a high place? That is never mentioned). The point is Korsakovia succeeds on not only giving people a place to explore, but a place for people to get frantically, terrifyingly, lost in while desperately searching for an exit. Its primary success is its approach to sound-design, and the approach to the unreality of simulated environments being thematically exploited. The final mod I want to talk about also exploits the unreality of videogame environments but with a different goal.
“That’s not productive discourse!”
The Radiator Mod’s two releases to date, Polaris and Handle With Care, are probably my favourite in this line-up. Each for different reasons. They are the product of one man, Robert Yang – a college student in English Lit based in California. Before I go into detail I would like to discuss why I am personally inspired by these mods: they’re short-form, and episodic in nature. To anyone wanting to get into modding of an experimental nature (or any kind at all) it is worth reading Robert Yang’s manifesto on mod design (even if you don’t agree with all of it it’s useful to have around).
The short-form episode format is perfect for experimental mods. You can test out an idea, and because it’s short get a decent turnaround of people thinking and talking about it. The idea gets from your head to the screen quicker, and you don’t burn out dealing with a progressively more difficult to finish behemoth mod. That’s the pragmatic reason they’re better. To me they’re also great because they’re an experiment themselves in the short-story style of making games. Creating a poignant moment with the minimum of exposition. Creating an experience that doesn’t demand 40+ hours of your time but is still fulfilling. It’s an exercise in efficiency, or perhaps, purity.
In Polaris you are on a date that is being recollected by your avatar. You are in a small clearing in some woods with a guy who is sitting at a park bench staring up at the stars. He then guides you through astronomy 101 for the duration of the episode. There’s a strange tension about the situation. Why are you alone in the woods with this guy? There’s empty bottles everywhere. The only illumination is an eerie red light and the glow of an iPod playing acoustic guitar. As you’re gazing at the stars he suddenly and without announcement leaves. He has shown you how to find north using the stars, so perhaps you should follow him. Or, you could of course think “Sod that!” and go off on your own. Or, you could have already left before this. The mod would take you around 10-15 minutes to play. Its tone is contemplative, somewhat pessimistic, but I believe you can drag a morsel of hope of it. A morsel of experience. A morsel of life. It’s something I want to capture in my own games.
Polaris takes advantage of its nature as a videogame during the astronomy sections. Specifically the wildly spinning sky to “jumble” the stars between rounds not only looks quite good aesthetically, but it also serves the function of making the star finding more difficult without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The reason it gets away with it, again, is because of the mod’s brevity. There is no set up to this situation – this is more or less your first interaction with the world, and so this is setting the tone – not breaking it. What’s more you’re told it’s a memory leaving even greater room for interpretation. It’s the second part of the mod, however, that plays with reality much more.
Handle With Care, begins in the office of a marriage counselor. The man from the previous episode is sitting next to you. His name is Dylan. Your name is James. Your marriage it seems is in trouble – Dylan thinks you do not communicate, he has trouble speaking up, and you do not listen. You will never forget these three things as they are repeated almost constantly in the next section (I think it’s a good thing – though this is contentious). The next section sees you either as James, or a facet of James’ mind. You are in his brain. In his “Internal Repression Centre” to be exact. You work for his IRS. You enter a room full of shelves, each with crates in their individual places. There certain areas labeled: “Cancer, Dad’s”, “Funeral, Dad’s”, “Mother Naked”, “Nagging: constant”, “Final Exams, 2004”. A large screen shows you the view you had as James before, in the office. In an adjacent room crates are dropped one by one, and you are told which shelf to put them on (using battleship-like coordinates). If you put the crate in its corresponding place without breaking it then you have successfully repressed that memory. Technically as an IRS man you’ve done your job, yet why does the marriage counselor scold James? It would appear that by repressing your memories you cause James (who you work for, it must be assumed) to lash out, refusing to share his thoughts. If you break a crate it explodes – symbolic of you and James “letting it all out”. You are transported to an orange tinted flashback of the memory, and the counselor applauds James’ sharing. Yet you are failing in your job as an IRS man – the walls begin to crumble, and the room starts to flood.
When I played through it I repressed a couple of memories. Then, almost by my conscience I knew I was harming my character in the long run, and started smashing the crates. At the end, my letting it all out – choosing honesty over a marriage built on a lie caused Dylan to announce we’re getting a divorce. To whit my IRS man received a final crate “x9”. A crate with no slot. I smashed it, and left the room for a place with all my past memories, and each Dylan repeating that despite what we went through we had changed, and our marriage was irrecoverably doomed. I sort of felt glad that I had freed these two people from each other, offering them both the chance to live their lives.
If you repress all the memories Dylan says you’ll stay together, and attempt to weather the storm, as he loves you. I find that interesting, as people would no doubt have done the easier “smash the crates” ending first, so to see this afterwards brings a new context to your actions last time. Essentially I felt that the time prior, I must have broken that man’s heart.
I probably don’t need to explain how Handle With Care plays with unreality – it puts you not only into a metaphorical interpretation of a man’s memory centre in his brain, but into the memories themselves too. At the “endgame” it even lets you hover around the room where the ending occurred, along with the other memories to leisurely walk amongst them and pick them apart yourself, like a detective at a crime scene. This interactivity of wandering around is as if you’re allowing the audience of a film walk around the sets (in fact it’s probably a commentary on that, and an intentional break of the fourth wall, as the final scene is reminiscent of a movie set, with prefab walls, and electricity generators around the place). Putting you into this place of unreality is used very effectively to make Yang’s point on the morality of dealing with our past in the context of a relationship – and the responsibilities you have to yourself and other people. If he had aimed to retain reality, and left the action solely in the counselor’s office, with a text-box system of different conversation choices (or just repress & release) it would have been a boring, uneventful, and powerless game. The challenge that comes from stacking the boxes demonstrates the difficulty of repressing a memory, and maintaining a lie – being told it’s difficult is not as effective as accidentally smashing a box. Conversely being told it’s a release to let something off your chest is not the same as seeing the explosion, the colour, the shock and wonder of the memory, and the feeling that whatever you did was good. The conflict of the opposing sides of the argument are also not fleshed out as elegantly as the jarring visual dichotomy of seeing your actions produce devastation in your environment while making progress in the office and vice-versa.
Over the course of all these mods we have seen that videogames can be powerful tools of artistic expression. We have also seen why they need to stop clinging onto ludic tropes, and the desire to attain virtual realism – they’re not as effective. Currently the mods I have described have been lumped into an “arty mod” category, or if the community is generous they’re called “arty games”, with something of a derogatory but curious hiss. However, one corner of the internet seems to latch on to the idea that our current understandings of games (that they must be “fun”, that you must be able to “win” them, and that empowerment is the only worthy goal, and narrative has little or no place in games) are becoming outdated, and archaic. While I wouldn’t align myself to any particular “movement” and I think it’s better that, in acknowledgement of each other, we continue to each do our own thing, it is interesting to note this website (and accidental movement) that has kicked off: Notgames.
In vague agreement to ideas I have been having the community at Notgames seem to think we can do a lot more with our medium than is currently the industry standard. Perhaps it’s a little pretentious, but you don’t break new ground thinking with your feet on it.
Robert Yang has said that he was partially inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of the subject matter and the presentation of the past memories. It is interesting, then, to see how their similarities produce different results in terms of the experience you have with them. The message I got from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that it was rumination on what part of our identity our unwanted memories form, and whether we could be truly happy without them at all. Handle With Care’s message steps out of the theoretical and asks whether repressing our memories, and lying to ourselves (or attempting to) is ever an alternative to brutal cold honesty at all times. This, ironically, is because in the game you have less control than the characters in the film. You cannot destroy the memories. They are either in your head forever, or let out into the open to be examined. Either way you live with the consequence of their continued existence.
I also wrote a piece on Genre here that may be of interest to you.