It has been said that once a piece of art is created, it no longer belongs to the creator but rather to its audience.
The original intent of the author plays secondary importance to the ways that its fanbase engages with it and the meaning that is drawn from a work in the ever-changing context in which it is viewed.
There are many ways in which artistic works have been adapted and commented upon, most famously through fanfiction and non-canonical expansions to the stories told by the original authors.
For many, Mara Jade is just as integral a character in the Star Wars universe as is Han Solo. For most, the version of James Bond that we are most familiar with is a version filtered through the lenses of creators many steps removed from Ian Fleming.
These works of expanded fiction may use interpretations of the characters and settings introduced by the original author, and they may even emulate the style in which the original works were written, but there is nothing that tangibly links them to their source material in any permanent way.
This is where videogames are uniquely privileged. Videogames are “assembled” on the machines of those playing them. They are not pre-recorded or written onto pages. Unlike a film, the “actors” (at least their visual representations), settings, and actions are all within the code of the game.
Knocking down a building in Red Faction: Guerilla is making a change to the actual world of the fiction in a way that writing fanfiction about the fall of Dracula’s castle is not. Shooting a character in the N64’s GoldenEye 007 is affecting the character in the game’s fiction in a way that imagining alternate gunfights in the film GoldenEye does not.
This gives game audiences access to the manifest content of the game. Creative freedom to change and adapt the actual world and events of the fiction in a way that no other medium has been able to accomplish before.
Taking this one step further, when gamers are able to modify the game’s code and assets to create their own stories and content, they are doing so in a way that is uniquely true to the game.
Creating a Half-Life 2 custom campaign in the Source Engine is like making a fan-film, but being able to cast the original actors and being given access to the original sets and locations.
Ultimately, every videogame engine is a toolbox. Every set of assets is a collection of raw materials. The finished game is a singular story told by the developers using those assets and that engine. To creatively-minded fans, though, that toolbox and those raw materials can be repurposed to create something great and original, and, in some cases, better than the original game that the assets were built for.
The history of game modding extends to the very earliest days of videogaming. The earliest of gamers often came from traditions where modification of games and their rules was expected and celebrated.
Dungeons & Dragons, for example, celebrates Dungeon Masters experimenting with new rules and stipulations, making each game played and story told unique and unpredictable, while many card game players view the rules and instructions included inside the box as a set of suggestions, and seek ways to repurpose the cards to create different gameplay experiences.
One of the earliest videogame mods is perhaps Castle Smurfenstein, designed by Andrew Johnson, Preston Nevins, and Rob Romanchuk as a parody of Castle Wolfenstein, which replaced the enemy Nazis in the Apple II classic with Peyo’s popular Smurf cartoon and comic characters.
Modding was really pushed into the public consciousness after the release of DOOM, though. id Software, the developers of DOOM, noticed the amount of content being produced by fans of their groundbreaking first-person shooter and embraced the community in full. Seeing this modified content as a way of extending the life and appeal of their software, id released tools to make the creation of new content as easy as possible for amateur content creators.
This served to not only extend the amount of content in the DOOM experience (as later evidenced by the release of Final DOOM, which incorporated missions and content made by fans into a retail release), but also greatly diversifying the experience in a way that a singular team could not. DOOM, a horror-action game, could now be played as a comedy farce, a 3D platformer, an old-western cowboy adventure, a Batman simulation, or even a Chex cereal commercial.
Modding soon became widely embraced by those marketing PC games, especially evident in the success of series like Unreal Tournament and Half-Life. The mods created by the community, ranged from unofficial patches, which made various fixes and modifications to games that the developers could not have the time or money to implement themselves, to total conversion mods that use the structural skeleton of the original game to build something entirely new, many such mods have been so successful and popular in their own right that they have gone on to spin-off into entirely original series or even genres.
Notable examples include Alien Swarm, Red Orchestra, and Killing Floor (built in Unreal Tournament 2004), Team Fortress (built in Quake), Natural Selection and Counter Strike (built in Half-Life), DayZ (built in ARMA 2), and the original MOBAs, Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients (built in StarCraft and WarCraft III, respectively).
Over the years, developers have given gamers simpler and easier-to-use tools to create modifications, and streamlined avenues for their distribution. Games like Super Meat Boy, Gunpoint, Sound Shapes, and Portal 2 have very easy-to-use level editors that make content creation an accessible task, and some games, like Mario Maker, WarioWare D.I.Y., and LittleBigPlanet are built entirely around such features. This gives aspiring game designers a safe and easy space to test their ideas and learn how to design tight gameplay experiences.
The ease and accessibility allows the fanbase to engage creatively with their favorite games. It extends and diversifies the content available to players. It gives developers an extended audience that may not have been interested in the base game. It seems to be a very good thing for everyone. I would argue, though, that there is one member that takes a hit in the influx of mods, and that is the game fiction itself.
While it is true that fan works can deviate quite dramatically in tone and direction from their original works, they are nothing when compared to seeing the actual people involved with the work doing something tonally incongruous.
I would argue that the images that people held of Harry Potter were affected more by seeing the real life actor, Daniel Radcliffe, star in Equus more than the volumes of Malfoy / Weasley family slash-fiction that no doubt exists, even though the fanfiction held a more direct link to its source material than did the stage play. Similarly, fans of science fiction classic Forbidden Planet may never be able to watch the movie in the same way again after seeing one of its stars, Leslie Nielsen, in the roles that he played afterwards, including Airplane! and The Naked Gun.
Whether for good or ill (see: Hannah Montana), the actors are inseparable from the film, stage, or television roles in which they are cast. How do the digital actors that make up the cast of a video game compare? Does the fan-driven reappropriation of characters or elements of the game world dilute their dramatic potential?
Let’s look at the example of Half-Life’s antagonist (or perhaps mysterious protagonist), the G-Man. A shadowy government agent/perhaps alien that seems to be holding all of the strings on both sides of the human / combine conflict in the Half-Life games. He briefly appears at various points in the background of the games, apparently keeping tabs of Gordon Freeman’s activities, and he apparently boasts incredible, unexplained powers, such as being able to stop time. It could be argued that he is the lynchpin that holds the Half-Life mythos together, and is likely the force driving all of the game’s biggest questions.
Yet, it is impossible, any longer, to take him seriously as a character after he became the face of Garry’s Mod, the often-humorous sandbox mod built in Half-Life 2’s Source Engine. The viral and ubiquitous nature of his stupidly-grinning face as he skips through fields or spins endlessly on office chairs, accompanied by Tiny Tim’s gleeful tunes, has entirely replaced any feeling of dread and uncertainty that I have about the character. G-Man, the digital actor, has starred in his own Naked Gun, and I won’t ever be able to see his Forbidden Planet the same again.
Similarly, Bethesda’s open-world games have always invited modding communities with open arms. While certainly expanding and diversifying the amount of content available in their games, have not the mods become more closely associated with the games than the stories that Bethesda has created themselves?
Mention Skyrim to me, and I no longer immediately think of Nordic warriors climbing to the tops of snowy mountains to engage in fierce battles against terrifying dragons. Instead, I think of My Little Ponies attacking Whiterun, characters dancing in strange, out-of-character ways, and palaces being filled with infinitely spawning cabbages.
Is the most iconic image of Oblivion; the dreaded Oblivion gate, or is it a guard with his torso stuck in a door, mercilessly flopping around like a caffeinated fish? Some games, like the Left 4 Dead games, almost seem drab when played without mods that turn them into a Super Smash Bros.-like team-up between Ezio, Shrek, Garrus Vakarian, and Ghost Rider hunting down the Teletubbies.
Games like Saints Row IV openly spoof the inseparability of ridiculous mods from their respective games, placing players in a world operating entirely on mod and glitch logic. It is an empowering experience, but it also feels fragmented and lacking in substance.
Ultimately, mods are quite powerful things. They give beginning programmers the opportunity to build content in a well-established framework, allowing them unparalleled freedom to create and access to top-quality resources and assets in their creation process. When considering the long-term effects that mods have on the popular image of a game, though, it becomes clear that the game makers are making conscious sacrifices to allow for player created content.
Let’s face it, it will be that much harder to write and implement the G-Man character in future Half-Life games. That said, Valve has embraced many of the lessons learned from Garry’s Mod, and the images, videos, and content created by modders of the game have gone on to shape the way that Team Fortress 2 has grown as a game since its inception.
There are positives and negatives that must be weighed when developers are deciding how much hands-on freedom they want to allow their player base. It is worth considering, when a game chooses to or not to allow for modding, whether or not the game ultimately benefitted from that decision.