Mod Nation

It is often said that one of the most essential strengths of PC gaming is the ability to make modifications to the games, and I do agree to that sentiment to an extent. I believe where modding works best are the little things, like fixing an annoying camera-angle or a disruptive HUD element. What then comes to altering more essential (visual) elements of a game, like adding/replacing new geometry and textures, I’m really not that sure.

I have two main reasons not to unreservedly celebrate modding: an ideological one and a practical one.

The main ideological problem that I see in extensive modding originates from the sanctitude of an art piece, which I consider fundamental. For me, it’s crucial to experience an artifact so that the piece reflects in its every facet the original vision of the author(s). Even back when I was a kid I felt deeply unsettled when my brother altered my out of the box Lego airplane set by putting extra lights and stickers on it because “they made it look cooler”. Of course, I undid all the modifications soon afterwards, as they simply felt wrong and abusive towards the original design.

The reason for me to feel this strongly about the issue may stem from the fact that I consider myself very much a creative person, and thus can relate how bad it feels when factors beyond my control get to distort my vision.

In regard to the remix culture that produces novel art pieces out of old ones by sampling and recombination, I’m highly okay with that. But that’s the difference: A remix isn’t there to replace the original but to co-exist with it as a separate entity of its own.

That being said, I wonder who in their right mind wasn’t bothered by the digitally “enhanced” versions of the original Star Wars trilogy, especially when George Lucas tried to bury the original untouched ones? New scenes, creatures, and effects did nothing but transformed the movies into weird Frankenstein versions of themselves, consequently ruining them for everyone.

Which brings us conveniently to the second, i.e. practical reason I’m dubious about modding, which is artistic consistency. The thing is, there are several factors that affect the final look of an art piece, such as the era the piece was produced in, or the technology being used, but most importantly, the artistic judgment of the art director who assures that in the end everything fit together.

So, modding (sans total conversions, which is a whole another issue) doesn’t have that benefit of one coherent visual view on things that comes with an adequate art direction. I would go even as far that modding can be, at worst, a violent act of injecting an alien component into a carefully designed visual ecosystem, which then throws the whole aesthetics scheme out of balance. For instance, I have yet to see a Grand Theft Auto IV car mod that blends perfectly into the environment, like the native cars do. Modded cars, while being often high quality and beautiful objects in themselves, just lack the look and feel provided by the original art direction, which makes them pop up like a sore thumb.

Obviously, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have great, consistent results with extensive modding. I’m saying it’s pretty damn difficult to pull off nicely, which becomes apparent by just glimpsing at the modding scene at large.

In short: modding is harmless, but unethical (in the mildest sense of the word) and usually unaesthetic, fun.