The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of PC game mods

Matt takes a look at the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying world of PC game mods.

PC gamers have something of a reputation for being smug, elitist jerks who imagine themselves gaming demigods, ruling over lesser console-playing mortals from jewelled thrones atop some gaming MountOlympus. This is not to say there’s no truth to be found in their many tedious arguments for the superiority of PC gaming. Both consoles and PCs have their strengths and weaknesses of course but one legitimate advantage the PC gaming star children can claim for themselves – a shimmering luminescent jewel in their home-made tinfoil crowns – is modding. The art of taking a base game and changing it on a fundamental level, sometimes beyond all recognition, into something new and wondrous. It’s like medieval alchemy, only with computers and more tits.

Mods generally fall into one of four categories depending on their complexity. Add-ons are things like user-made maps, small tweaks to NPCs, texture packs and new weapons, and are often made by just one person. Total Conversions and Overhauls are team projects that radically alter a game to create something entirely new, or update an existing game’s graphics, sound, mechanics and so forth to something approaching more modern standards. Finally, unofficial patches are efforts by teams of very devoted fans to fix bugs that haven’t been addressed by the developer, and sometimes even reintroduce content cut from the main game for various reasons. All of this is possible thanks to the PC’s unique nature as an open platform, allowing PC versions of games to reap benefits denied to the closed systems of their console counterparts.

One of the greatest benefits that mods can give a PC game is replayability or shelf life. Unless it has some seriously shit-hot multiplayer like Modern Warfare or can implement some sort of user-generated content, ala Little Big Planet, your average console title might enjoy perhaps a month or two of life before it’s shelved for the next triple-A title. On the PC that same title can potentially remain popular for months, even years, if it can accommodate and sustain a dedicated modding community. A passionate fanbase, with a knack for their favourite games’ inner gubbins, can produce a staggering amount of new content even the biggest developers couldn’t hope to match with DLC without spending stupid sums of money. One of the main reasons for Minecraft’s popularity and longevity is community mods like Buildcraft and Industrialcraft, which add far more to the game than Notch has been able to do on his own. In addition mods can also use a base game as a launchpad for entirely new games. Classics like Counter Strike, Team Fortress and Dota all began as user-created mods.

Mods can also outright fix a horribly broken game, as was the case with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Bloodlines was a game with great potential neutered by many bugs, stemming from a rushed development that also forced the developer to leave chunks of content on the cutting room floor. For many people it was literally unplayable at launch and official patches could only mend so much. Thanks to unofficial patches made by die-hard fans Bloodlines now lives up to a lot of its previously wasted potential, and is now considered an essential title for any fan of Deus Ex and similar FPS-RPGs. Similarly the Complete mods for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series fix nearly of the bugs in their unmodded states, while also sprucing up the graphics in a way that makes the hostile Zone of the setting a place of beauty as well as horror.

When someone asks you if you're running a mod, you say "Yes!"

As much as I love mods they’re not entirely without their downsides. For every amazing total conversion or overhaul there are potentially thousands of crappy half-arsed efforts, especially if the vanilla game generously caters to modders with easy-to-learn tools and a freely available Software Development Kit (SDK). Thankfully we’ve come a long way since the days of downloading Doom .wads from a BBS where the only indicator of quality was the standard of grammar in the accompanying FILE_ID.DIZ file. Any decent mod repository worth its salt will have a ratings system with user reviews, so you can tell at a glance whether a particular mod is worth your time and bandwidth. You can still expect to crawl through some shit before you get to smell the roses though.

A less-common albeit still-irritating problem with the modding scene is something I like to call “The Auteur Modder.” We all have our own ideas about what we’d change in our favourite games to make them that little bit better, like maybe some small tweaks to the combat mechanics or tightening up some clunky dialogue here and there. Nothing too drastic or out of sync with the “spirit” of the vanilla game. Sometimes however we’ll come up with completely ludicrous ideas utterly at odds with a game’s tone and character, like Elven mimes piloting Stealth Bombers in a human-centric medieval fantasy RPG. We know they’re dumb of course, but it’s all good clean fun and we don’t take them seriously. Besides, it’s not as if we’ll ever have the programming nous to implement that kind of crazy shit.

Auter modders have these stupid ideas in abundance and they take them very, very seriously, because they have a particular “vision” of what they think the game should have been. A highly subjective, often batshit-crazy vision saturated by the modder’s personal beliefs, idiosyncrasies, quirks, and sometimes even their deepest, darkest fetishes. One modder might insist the only proper way to play Grim Serious Modern Military Shooter VII, a grim serious modern military shooter, is if every enemy delivered a tearful soliloquy about their life in an unskippable cutscene right before they die. All to better convey the pointless futility of war. Another autuer modder might fervently believe all female NPCs in an RPG should be literal shrieking harpies that devour the still-beating hearts of innocent men. Purely for artistic and literary reasons of course, and certainly not because the cute barista at his local coffee shop politely refuses to go on a date with him.

Never sleep again.

Something all auteur mods have in common is they usually change the vanilla game in ways that detract from what made it fun in the first place. Some might have one or two worthwhile ideas that genuinely change the game for the better, but they’re nearly always intrinsically bound up with a bunch of other detrimental crap in an all-or-nothing package. If you’re lucky a sane modder will take the good bits and repackage them in a separate mod, causing the auteur modder to throw a hissy fit and scream about plagiarism in the process. Otherwise you have no choice but to put up with the shark-cat-fairy girls, who all have the faces of crying children where their eyes should be, as best you can.

Another downside to Mods is they can sometimes cause trouble for developers. Such was the case with the notorious Hot Coffee mod for 2005’s GTA: San Andreas that let players control C.J. in a sex minigame with one of his six possible girlfriends. All the modders did was reactivate unused content left in the game by Rockstar, it initially only worked for the PC version and the content was thought to be inaccessible without it. This sadly failed to stop the mainstream media accusing Rockstar of peddling filth to impressionable kids. Considering the media’s ignorance of all things gaming, risqué mods created entirely whole-cloth by the community can also, in theory, reflect badly on the developers. Which leads us nicely onto the topic of the modding scene’s grimy underbelly caked in all manner of filth, perversion, murder and other stuff to make self-appointed moral guardians shake their heads in despair.

Nude mods are the tamest of the bunch and are nearly always, quelle surprise, aimed at males. Often sporting names like “Beautiful Babes” or “Photorealistic Nipples!” they tend to be some of the more popular mods, and are often the first to appear around any new game. One of Skyrim’s first nude mods was uploaded to the internet on 12/11/11, only a day after the game’s official release, and was created without any official Bethesda modding support (the Skyrim construction kit isn’t due until January 2012). It was also created with no regard for the practicality of wearing absolutely nothing under metal armour in sub-zero temperatures. You don’t need to have watched “A Christmas Story” to know bare skin and freezing metal do not play well together.

On a similar level, overlapping in places with nude mods and auteur mods, are madly incongruous and incomprehensible mods. Stuff that goes beyond the Elven mime bomber pilots I joked about earlier into the kind of insane territory that’d make David Lynch choke on his coffee in bewilderment. I don’t mean barmy-but-brilliant mods like The Stanley Parable or Korsakovia that play with players and offer something genuinely engaging, interesting and, dare I say, artistic. I’m referring to stuff like Team Fortress 2 mods that replace the Heavy with a glittering 10 year-old anime nymphomaniac star child with fairy wings, who is secretly 5000 years old and speaks entirely in Aramaic. Weird, crazy, mental total conversions that make Timecube read like a lecture by Professor Brian Cox and play like being stuck in an elevator with someone having a full blown psychotic episode. Stuff that makes you wonder how much free time the modder has on their hands and when the nurse last gave them their meds.

For some players this simply isn't grim and depressing enough.

Towards the bottom, beneath the undulating membrane of the kinky and the bizarre, lurk the genuinely disturbing mods dealing in grim, real-world nastiness like murder, torture and rape. Things like School Shooter: North American Tour 2012, a Source engine mod that does exactly what it says on the tin by letting you gun down American highschool teens with impunity. The Lovers plugin for Oblivion proudly lists as one of its main features “a bad ending in which PC (player character) is teleported to a castle and is repeated raped by homeless people,” before cheerfully advising players not to save their game if this happens in case they lose some equipment. I don’t know about you, but a missing Daedric warhammer would be the least of my worries if I’d just been gangbanged in Castle Hoborape.

Bethesda games seem to be a magnet for this sort of thing thanks to their open world sandbox settings and “be who you want to be” philosophy, with Fallout 3 and now Skyrim having mods that allow you to brutally kill the otherwise immortal child NPCs roaming around. Now I don’t object to showing the death of children in videogames so long as it’s handled tastefully. Ultima 4, a game about becoming a champion of virtue, used the potential for child killing in a moral quandary in the game’s final dungeon. Modern Warfare 3 shows the death of a young child in a cutscene to push players’ emotional buttons, and the trailer for Dead Island caused quite a kerfuffle for its emotional scenes of a little girl being violently defenestrated. None of these instances were particularly gratuitous however, whereas the people who slaver with glee at killable children mods tend do so in a “Child murder is fun! Please ignore my turgid erection!” way that isn’t really my cup of tea.

As horrible as it might sound the very existence of such disturbing mods is a dark testament to the diversity of PC game mods. Thankfully they barely register as a percentage alongside the sheer amount of good, clean, regular “wholesome” mods out there. If there are over a thousand lazy, poorly-made add-ons for every stellar Total Conversion or Overhaul, the ratio of nightmare fuel to game-improving awesomeness would be roughly the reverse: one skin-crawler for every thousand greats. They’re a niche in a niche within another niche, the gaming equivalent of “A Serbian Film” or “The Human Centipede 2,” and its ultimately up to individual players to choose whether or not they install them. You don’t have to download the Bumper Minecraft Mod of Infanticide and Lady Bits if you don’t want to.

Mods are a great way to squeeze more fun and enjoyment from your favourite games and are one of PC gaming’s greatest strengths, so don’t be afraid to dabble if you’ve never tried them before. You do yourself a great disservice if you’re a PC gamer that strictly limits themselves to a vanilla game experience with the odd bit of paid DLC. Some developers and publishers prefer to keep strict control over what they produce, yet more and more are following in the footsteps of Bethesda, id software, Epic Games, Valve and other game pioneers that recognised early-on the immense contribution fans could make to their games. So go on. Give ‘em a go. You could find yourself playing The Next Big Thing in gaming.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.