More than just being awesome Robert Yang‘s radiator series of mods is possibly the best example of a certain subset of modding (particularly defined among HL2 modders) called “alt mods”. These “experimental” titles often explore different uses of common (and somewhat less common) tropes of gaming in different contexts and situations then we’d usually expect with the intention of eliciting emotion and challenging our understanding of the gaming medium.
This is an article about exploration, and it does have to do allot with “alt mods”, but the type of exploration we’ll be discussing over the next couple of articles is of a marginally different type. I’m talking about the act of exploring, of 16th century “explorer-like” discovery.
Over the next few articles I’ll be discussing the emergence of a new genre in the gaming world, an “exploration genre” if you will. Now I will mention that like any genre “exploration” is at best a vague term, and is never an absolute label for anything (see PBS’s Idea Channel: Mashups), but in a modern gaming world we might be needing to come up with a few more labels rather than just calling everything new “experimental”.
While exploratory elements existed in past generations (See LSD: Dream Emulator and even certain parts of Elite along with its many successors), – generally speaking – alt mods were where “exploration games” really found their form. We’ve all heard about Dear Esther and even The Stanley Parable (whose connection to the genre I’ll discuss in the third article in this series) but since we’ve already done quite a bit of talking for today let’s just start out with something somewhat smaller.
Let’s start with “THAT“.
THAT is an experimental “art instillation” mod designed by Axel Shokk as a sort of personal virtual art gallery.
Consisting of 8 “pieces” linked by a general hub, the player is free to explore the world of THAT to his own volition, one possible objective exists: to collect cubes strewn across each of the worlds – albeit to negligible reward.
THAT‘s art style is blocky and is textured by simple shadowed solid colors, all in all it’s very reminiscent of early 3D iPhone games such Jet Car Stunts with a touch of Voxatron. THAT is designed to bring to mind “abstract” modern art, and the lack of complex textures is great for limiting loading times (as they do occur rather often) and encouraging the use of the player’s imagination.
Exploration in its most basic sense requires an area to explore (be it physical, virtual or emotional). The great ages of exploration were times when our world seemed limitless, more than anything else: a great unknown, that feeling of “unknown” is probably one of the most important features of the exploration game, and coupled with a lack of classical objective it’s often the player’s only motivation.
While some exploration titles (such as Ed Key & David Kanaga’s sublime Proteus, [which I sadly won’t be covering in this series as it is not a mod]) rely on geographic breathe to maintain curiosity, the unknowable meaning behind THAT‘s unknown on the other hand is what drives one forward through an average THAT playthrough.
Abstract art is known for having a rather “unattainable” meaning, multiple interpretations and repeated viewing are all necessary to full appreciate the scope of a certain creation. However, as much the player might explore every inch of THAT‘s landscape, each instance will reveal new potential meaning and interpretations possibly beyond even what the artist originally envisioned, old becomes new again, and for a significant while curiosity drives gameplay.
THAT‘s fault then lies squarely within its singular try to win the player over with an objective.
The act of collecting all the cubes scattered across the 8 stages leaves each area ends up being somewhat empty and meaningless. The process isn’t defined by exploration, and rarely requires the player to examine his environment in a new manner or from a new perspective. Only a few environments offer any diversion or meaning outside of the path leading to these specific blocks.
Furthermore two of the environments require you to engage in some cringe worthy poorly calibrated low gravity first person platforming, which (while challenging) takes focus away from the meaning (or lack thereof) of the environment’s features transmuting them into simple “can I or can’t I jump on this?” questions.
If you’re the kind of player who enjoys just exploring the worlds games give us to play with, THAT is definitely for you, being (relatively) free of most objective it’s just about as much a ‘time waster” as you want it to be. If you really enjoy THAT you might also want to check out “TRIP” which is THAT‘s Unity powered commercially released spiritual successor.
This ends part one of our exploration of exploration in modding, next week in part two of this series we’ll be exploring The Chinese Room’s classic Dear Esther and its use of tandem geographical and emotional curiosity, followed a week after that by a finale focusing on The Stanley Parable and a more “meta” use of exploration and finally a surprise coda a few days later.
.For ModInformer, I’m Sam Wagner-