Because games are about more than headshots

Adventures in First Person, Or how I came to Love the Mod

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Inspired by the recent release of ‘thechineseroom‘ ‘s survival horror ‘Korsakovia‘, I decided to do a one day binge of some of the Source engine mod’s I had missed over the last year or two, with an eye to the artistic or innovative. After scouring Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Moddb for an hour or two, I ended up with the following list of (mostly) excellent mods, to which I owe each a few lines of commentary, which you will find below. All of these mods are highly narrative (at least in their own way) so the commentary will contain SPOILERS, so I recommend you download and play through each before reading, links will be scattered throughout the article and bar Korsakovia none are particularly time consuming. The mods which will be discussed today are all independently made with fairly small teams, although thechineseroom mod team (led by Dan Pinchbeck of Portsmouth University) did receive a grant from the UK’s board of interactive entertainment, a grant which was worth approximately $10,000 according to one of the commenters on Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS). The mods all have a tendency towards the artistic, experimenting with immersion and storytelling techniques within the first person and all tell quite different stories from those we’re used to in video games. The mods I will discuss today are as follows;

  1. Dear Esther
  2. Reverie (Chapters 1 +2)
  3. Radiator (Chapter 1, ‘Polaris’ and Chapter 2 ‘Handle with Care’)
  4. And finally Korsakovia, the hot property on everyone’s lips.

As a good rule of thumb, these mods will require Half Life 2: Episode 2 to work but to be perfectly honest, I would be surprised if anyone who had the prevention to read a blog on game design didn’t already own Valve’s latest masterpiece.

Of the mods presented here, Dear Esther is probably the most disconcerting a feature accomplished in no small part due to the randomized order in which the narrative is revealed to the player. As part of the grant that thechineseroom received from the British board of Interactivity all of their mods are in some form an experiment and that of Dear Esther was into randomized storytelling, which while interesting as an experiment is frustrating as a player.  Probably #1 on my list of complaints about the choice is that it makes the already disjointed tale told in Dear Esther even harder to properly discern, as secondary playthroughs will produce a different tale. When in one game the crashed ship would be accompanied by a tale of illness and death on the island the next playthrough may have the ship linked with Paul’s journey to Damascus, stripping the ship of any contextual symbolic value and leaving it totally up to the player to decide what it means, since it has no intrinsic place in the narrative. The order the player is introduced to the narrative also creates large dissonance within the story, for while every playthrough will probably arrive at the conclusion that central character was involved in an accident which killed his wife, a playthrough which has the religious bits all placed at the start leads itself into a reading that the island is a representation of the centeral character’s mind and that the player is a psychologist of sorts, while if the same clips are clumped together at the end of the game it becomes far more logical to read it as the player being the centeral character on his journey to oblivion.

Found underwater in a cave

Found underwater in a cave

A voice at the back of my head asks whether such an experience is less valuable or ‘correct’ because it’s unique and unplanned, whether my desire for a central and definitive narrative is bourne out of my literary education being grounded in traditional and linear mediums.  Is it not a marvel that the one piece of art can manifest itself in so many ways? Is it not merely an extension of any game with multiple narrative paths, such as Mass Effect or Far Cry 2? However (still talking to myself) I then consider that both of the aforementioned titles feature narrative dissonance as a result of player choice, thus making the altered narrative reflective of the player, while in Dear Esther it is an arbitrary change with no bearing to authorial intent from either Pinchbeck or the player. Perhaps illogically this fact that the story reflects neither the person who wrote it or the player in definitive terms detracts from the poignancy of the piece in addition to making any serious discussion of it horrendously confusing.  Although one thing it does do for the player is reinforce the mood of the piece, supporting the themes of madness with a story which can be told to the player in an order totally lacking rhyme or reason. In this regard I regret knowing the purpose of this ‘experiement’ before playing, whereby I might have had a cooler experience if I had been able to attribute the illogical information flow to the broken mind in the story rather than it merely breaking the 4th wall every time I heard something which was totally out of whack.  Still, a great story with incredible atmosphere and hopefully a worthwhile experiment for the guys over in Portsmouth. Highlights for me was the first time I was presented with a 20m drop as my only path forward (I do love this sort of black humour) and dropping into the water with all of the cars, which aside from looking very cool was the first point I was really keyed into my personal reading of the island being a subconscious representation. Also the bit with the crow/gull as you exit the house scared me more than just about anything in Dead Space.

I'd be lying if I said I fully appreciate what the game's talking about when it mentioned electrical diagrams...

Now I think that Reverie has to be next mod on the list, as it shares so much in common with Dear Esther. Both are essentially ‘Ghost Houses’ linear paths which the players walk through in order to have things jump out and scare them, or in the case of Dear Esther, tell them a sad story (When I think about it, this description seems fairly analagous to my experience in the holocaust museum in New York…). Reverie has a little more interactivity in that in order to progress players must sometimes open doors or examine items and even features two fairly interactive puzzles, one in which the player must walk up to keys then use a door and another in which the player must rips boards of wood off a fence.  Regardless, both mods by and large eschew traditional interactivity in games (shooting things, solving gratuitous puzzles) in favour of reducing interactivity to its rawest state: Progression or Non-progression. As with many things, reducing the number of elements within a system sharpens the focus on the elements which have been maintained and both of these games turn progression into a constant battle against oneself as players have to force themselves to progress through these nightmarish and hostile environments. All of the effort that players usually focus into overcoming obstacles is instead channeled into the world, so players become hyper aware and extremely immersed within the game, making these horror titles so acutely more horrific than other mediums can achieve or even dedicated action horror games such as Silent Hill or Dead Space. Also I find it interesting how much scarier games set in the first person are as compared to the third person, which is surprising considering that the horror genre of video games is so deeply ingrained within the third person.


Reverie is ‘A game design experiment based in Source, Reverie takes a new approach to environmental storytelling. Players take the role of a coma victim who must traverse their own subconscious to uncover their identity, their life, and ultimately, the traumatizing event that caused the coma.’ according to the website, and with just the first two chapters released, I have to take issue with the claim that it’s taking a new approach to environmental storytelling. Symbolism driven narrative in a surreal environment is hardly anything new and the other way the narrative is told is through text, which is also hardly new. I’m also pretty worried about the prospects of ever seeing the entire story, as the website boats a 20 chapter narrative with a 4 month development time per chapter, coming to 80 months or 6 years, an incredible investment of time for an enthusiast product.  In the early chapters the manifest of the story about the ‘coma’ is minimal, so unless the rest of the narrative is explored, I feel that the story is best viewed as surreal horror instead of much else.  The highlight of this mod for me was the scene where you walked down the hall of shattering glass, which was amazingly tense and shocking, easily evoking the memories of that first dog through the window in Biohazard. I’m not sure what it is about shattering glass, but it sure scares the hell out of just about everyone.


Here I’m going to break up this post as it’s approached 1500 words, Korsakovia and Radiator will be discussed in part 2.  Hope you enjoyed it 🙂


Written by Aonshix

September 25, 2009 at 6:05 pm

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