By: George Weidman
By the end of my time playing Puce Moose’s New Vegas mod, my whole world was on fire. I had to contact this man. I’ve played other Puce Moose mods before, but this one in particular reshaped my whole opinion about where a game’s story is supposed to be, and what role the player shares in shaping it. I let him know. The ensuing conversation was steamy and intense.
Puce Moose (or, ahem, Dustin Jackson) lives in the small rural town of Pall Mall, Tennessee. He recently earned a Masters of Biology. Previous employment consists of tech support, ISP troubleshooting, and teaching Biology. In his free time, he likes to peruse used bookstores and watch wildlife. When asked what inspired “Tales,” he said it was a “power pylon, imposing its unwelcome metal structure in front of a seriously awesome sunset.”
What is the role of writing in the game-making process? What can videogame storytelling accomplish?
I always wince when I hear a reviewer say something like “I skipped through the cutscenes and dialog, because hey, it’s a video game, right? Who plays a video game for its story?” as that minimizes the medium’s potential. Not every game has to have a good story (or even any story), but I’d like to see more attention (and discussion) applied to those that do.
One of the ways in which video games can enhance the storytelling/atmosphere of a segment is through the ability of the player to focus on the parts that interest him the most. For example, in a book, let’s say we have a description of a cabin in the woods, perched next to a small pond. The author describes the lush grass and the busy din of dragonflies weaving over the water, cattails stirring in the breeze. However, the author fails to mention anything else about the pond. Are there any fish in there? Is there a small dock that went unmentioned, perhaps a cranky old bullfrog lurking in a half-submerged bucket? In a game, you can explore the mini-environment completely. Are there any fish? Dive in and see. Perhaps you want to see what’s behind the cabin; well, walk back there and take a look. These are the sort of experiences that games can (and sometimes do) bring to the table. Books and movies are generally completely on-rails experiences; with video games, we have an opportunity for a player to dig out more of the story (or craft his own) from the clutter and set-pieces presented to him.
I’ve noticed a recurring theme in your mods: corporate scheming. Any influences tipping you towards this direction?
Nearly everyone who’s been a part of a corporate engine can attest to the sometimes byzantine and confounding regulations and practices that seem to fly in the face of common sense. This sort of ecosystem is ripe to host a few bite-sized stories of normal people with everyday struggles.
I’ve always been attracted to the smaller stories within the larger whole. Focusing on the lives of a small handful of (relatively) normal people in the belly of a corporate machine is appealing to me, especially when the majority of game stories spend more time focusing on ‘Mr. Super-pants Hero man with his blazing sword of immolation and his herd of loyal wing’d diamond-toothed wombat warriors’ and similar. Less attention is generally paid to the people whose lives fill in the gaps, whose work and sweat keep the wombat warriors fed and watered, and Mr. Super-pants Hero man’s sword clean. Someone needs to tell the story of the wombat poop shoveler.
Why do you do it? To broaden the scope, why do modders do it: spending hours and hours of unpaid personal time to make content for free? What’s the incentive?
Part of my incentive comes from the situations that arise while playing the game. I’ll sometimes find myself recalling a line from the previous console generation’s iteration of Prince of Persia: “No no no, that’s not the way it happened. Shall I start again?” That’s often when the urge to mod will strike, poking a stick at something I didn’t like, or would have done differently. All of my mods start (as I imagine is the case with most modders) with something I personally want to experience in the game world, be it a change to a gameplay system, a visual overhaul, a bug fix, a story, etc. With a little effort, that work can be shared with with others.
I think modding also offers a great creative outlet for people who like experimenting with several different forms of expression. For example, I enjoy writing, but I’m not sure if I’d have the patience (or the skill) to write a full-length novel. Making adventure mods gives me a chance to write a lot of micro-stories. I enjoy designing interiors, but not so much that I’d want to do that exclusively. The same goes for texture work, voice acting, weapon design, gameplay balancing, etc. I can do a bit of this and a bit of that, and still have something to show for it (in terms of a mod that combines a bit of each of these elements) instead of a huge project that will likely never be finished.
Finally, I think that modding is a way for creative folks to make art, especially if they (like me) don’t have the typical skills associated with an artist. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I have no skill at weaving/sculpting, and I can only play one instrument (trombone), and that one, poorly. Yet, by Wikipedia’s definition: “Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect”, I feel validation of my creative endeavors. Stumping players with puzzles, getting reports of misty eyes from a player moved by a character’s story, happiness at seeing a visual spectacle I’ve crafted; these are the revelations that really elevate the process. I think this is true for a lot of modders; it’s a chance to share, to create, to build something better than the sum of its parts and have it stand up to scrutiny. – End
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