Hobbyists have always toyed with digital games. By altering in-game elements, changing gameplay and extending the narrative, gamers have started creating what is called a “mod” – short for modificaiton. This is an extension of a commercial game designed by non-profiting individuals.
Falskaar is one of these mods, built on the recent open-world RPG Skyrim. With 30 hours of gameplay, 26 new quests, a brand new soundtrack, and 29 voice actors playing 54 characters, it is an astonishing feat for a free-to-download add-on. It is one of literally thousands available online. Skyrim is but only one of many games that allow large communities to drastically transform how a game can be experienced.
The first game to really take advantage of gamers’ penchant for thinking they can do better was Doom. While being a great game in itself, its lifespan was greatly increased by the large community created around user-generated content. Id Software, the developer, even commercially distributed maps made by fans.
Slowly, various game companies realised the mutual benefits of having such an engaged community surrounding their creations. Publishers would start developing games in mod-friendly ways, making the original code more readily available, and even releasing development tools. Skyrim and its predecessors Oblivion and Morrowind are considered especially “moddable”, as Bethesda designed these games with mod communities particularly in mind.
Altering existing gameplay is only one way in which modders can interact, innovate and remix existing game elements. Creating cinematic productions (or “machinima”) is also a very common practice amongst the modding scene.
Machinima arose from the desire to archive impressive gameplay moments. (That twitch headshot no-scope deserves to live on in history!) Then came narratives and stories. This repurposing of an existing artistic work and presenting it in a new way is known as intertextuality, or resemiosis. The extremely popular web-series Red vs Blue, which uses character models and maps from Halo, has managed 200 episodes, and is credited as the first commercially successful machinima series.
Not all machinima is original conception. Another common practice involves using an existing game engine to re-shoot famous movie scenes. One example is A Few Good G-Men (the title being a pun on the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson film, with G-Man being a character from the Half-Life series).
Moddable games allow for bridging the gap between media production and consumption in a way that hasn’t before been feasible. Video games are being designed for the specific purpose of allowing people to create and innovate, rather than simply passively consume. It’s a form of meta-gaming: playing a game that itself plays with an existing game.
Of course this raises an obvious question. Why would anyone spend so much time doing this when, by its very nature, you cannot make a profit since you are using copyrighted material? Perhaps because modding is much accessible than other media outlets, be it making an entire video game, or a story in some other video form. Modding one of your favourite games can also bring an intimacy that you could only otherwise experience by being one of the original developers.
Naturally many people mod for the purpose of gaining specific insight into game development, and to obtain experience in the gaming industry – as was the intention of Falskaar’s 19-year-old creator Alexander J. Velicky. Taking a year off after high school, Velicky has (with the help of many others) created a mod that rivals Bethesda’s own downloadable content, with a fraction of their resources. Modding allows an audience to participate in the production of a creative work more so than any other medium has in the past.