Just last night a gamer said to me: “Half-Life 2 – is it as good as they say?” “Oh yes indeed,” I replied. “But not for the reasons you might think.” Of course I was breathless with excitement when I first played Half-Life 2, but my reasons for breathlessness have changed. Now, almost a year later, there’s something else going on – something entirely crazed and absurd that makes Half-Life 2 “as good as they say.” It’s called http://www.garry.tv/garrysmod/” title=”Garry's Mod” target=”_blank”>Garry’s Mod.
By now we should all be familiar with mods – the user-created add-ons and remixes of certain games, the projects that spawned things like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Desert Combat. Using a popular game as a template to create your own is an obvious solution to the seemingly insurmountable problems of starting a modern game from scratch.
Coding is all about remixing – recombination of old elements into something new. This method has given us hundreds if not thousands of new games to play. But none them can boast the mad verve of Garry’s Mod. It is the ultimate remix: a mod without limits.
It’s perhaps because Garry’s Mod was never meant to be a game at all that it has become one of the most peculiar and entertaining experiences on the PC. Rather than attempt to create a new game world or multi-player deathmatch, the titular Garry has simply encoded new tools into the complex physics framework of Half-Life 2. He has created a gameplay palette that allows gamers to engineer some of the most deranged creations that have ever clanked, groaned and exploded their way across a gamer’s desktop. It is both hilarious and bizarre in equal measure.
I originally encountered Garry’s Mod in the office of a popular games magazine. The chap whose task it was to play and collate game mods was giggling to himself and hooting with joy. Nothing unusual about that, but then I saw what he was playing with: The giggler had built a ‘snake’ of interconnected barrels, tied them to a rocket canister and sent it flailing, wildly across the sandbox map.
This was a couple of iterations into Garry’s Mod and some of the physics tools had been implemented. There wasn’t much more to it than that, but it nevertheless left a strong first impression. I write about games because I want to experience the novel and the new, and I knew I’d come back to this. I watched him play a little more, blasting heaps of ragdoll corpses across the map. It was grotesquely compulsive. But then I had to talk business and my attention moved elsewhere. It would be a couple of months before I saw it again.
Initially Garry’s Mod was little more than a rag-doll poser, allowing players to fiddle with the posture and facial expressions of game characters, leading to galleries of surreal and grotesque screenshots. It was a puerile fancy, something worth a smirk and nothing more. If it had remained like that, I doubt I would be writing about it now. But Garry, an unassuming coder who rules his mod forum with an iron fist, kept on refining his creation. It’s thanks to the enthusiasm of the online community, and their dedication to annoying and helping Garry on his forum, that it has grown into something I just can’t ignore. A friend forwarded me a screenshot of Half-Life 2‘s Father Grigori riding a monstrous contraption pulled along by a team of zombies. It was a bizarre image. Where the hell had this come from? Ah, of course. Garry’s Mod.
Today the mod is a game-physics sandbox of startling proportions. It provides the gamer with a smorgasbord of objects, properties and tools that at first seem bewildering and disconnected but, with a little ingenuity, can be fashioned into creations of remarkable complexity. It’s a next-generation Lego kit, filled with motors, explosives, people and guns. Likewise, my first experiences were strangely reminiscent of trying to build something complex from Lego without any instructions. I ended up blasting around heaps of bodies and smacking myself unto death with flailing strings of sofas.
Not very impressive.
But players whose dedication and engineer sense surpasses my own have gone on to build baroque contraptions worthy of Da Vinci, as well as conjuring up some of the most surreal sights to emerge from games: cartwheeling furniture with rocket boosters attached; forests of floating, twitching corpses hanging from brightly colored balloons; even lurid and disturbing ways to play the original game itself. Defeating the striders by welding their legs together or battering them with rocket-propelled sofas are just some of the delights that unfold, dream-like, in this deranged remix of Valve’s gaming world.
As with all the best toolkits, the possibilities for creativity within Garry’s Mod are generally limited only by imagination. It was thanks to Garry’s own challenges that I was inspired to plunge back into his mod. When you see what people have made – moving bridges, absurd vignettes of characters in unlikely situations, even working vehicles, spliced together from the physics objects in the game – you realize how grand this simple idea can be. It’s now possible to download ready-made inventions of startling intricacy. Giant combine harvesters and zombie-drawn carts populate a deranged carnival of invention, all thanks to this unheralded piece of clever coding.
What is most thrilling though is that this sandbox toy is so easy to use. You conjure up items from noodle cartons to giant chimneys, all of which are physics objects that can be picked up, stuck together and turned into alien flesh. Instantly you work out ways to play: creating obstacle courses for the dune buggy, building domino-like chain-reactions of explosions and collisions.
Ever see that Honda advert where all the car parts knocked into one another in a perfectly engineered chain reaction? I started making that without even thinking about it. The immediacy of Garry’s Mod, thanks to our familiarity with first-person gaming conventions, is part of its genius. While it takes application and dedication to create some of the more complex things that appear on Garry’s forums, it’s all too easy to download this tiny app, install and begin playing with a game in a way that had never been intended by the developers. It’s ludicrous, filled with a surreal logic in the way that only games can be.
Where it’ll end up is anyone’s guess, but for now at least Garry’s Mod continues to be refined, continues to expand its tools, and continues to produce works of bewildering originality. It is a striking example of the most important aspect gaming: the imagination of the players themselves. It’s a celebration of what we do best – think up ever more ludicrous ways to play. The latest challenge for the fans is to build a working rollercoaster, and their efforts are already caving in the walls of my tiny mind.