“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” — Brian Eno
This summer, the library system I work for had begun construction on a ‘Makerspace’ for members of the public to come in and use the various tools it has. This facility, a repurposed section of the Downtown Branch, includes such goodies as a 3D printer, sound and video recording tools, a gaming space, and computers for working on projects (including game design). This concept of content creation amongst library users is a new direction for public libraries as a way of connecting with communities, engaging users, and staying relevant in the ever-changing technological world we live in.
This new project, along with my library’s continued integration of video games into its collection and culture, has got me thinking about The Stanley Parable, which was just given a full release this week. Reviews for it have been overwhelmingly positive across the board by many sites (including ours), and it is the game that seemingly everyone is talking about at present. It’s always exciting to see something small and off-the-wall that started off as a mod achieving both critical AND commercial success. More than this however, it’s got me thinking about Half-Life 2 (the game engine it was built upon) and how influential it has been in facilitating a rich and successful modding culture over this past decade.
I’m sure there are some of you who will be quick to point out that many games have spawned excellent modding communities and successful results. You would be absolutely right, and frankly any modding is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I’m singling out Half-Life 2 and the Source engine specifically because of its popularity, flexibility, and accessibility for all kinds of users. DayZ for example is an incredible achievement and worth every word of praise it gets, but there is a significant portion of the gaming population who will never touch it due to its esoteric control scheme and unforgiving mechanics. That’s not a criticism as much as it’s a statement of fact that DayZ has chosen its audience and caters to it alone. More power to them, but I’d never be able to convince my wife, mom, or colleague at work to try it out as opposed to something like Dear Esther.
Half-Life 2 will have its tenth anniversary around this time next year, and … well, let’s be honest; it’s starting to show its age a bit. Textures don’t look quite as good as they used to, faces aren’t quite as expressive and detailed as we remembered, the level design is a little too binary (You’re fighting! Now do a physics puzzle! Now fight some more! etc.), and the countryside/Antlion scenes go on way longer than they should.
Even after all this time however, Half-Life 2 is still an extremely fun and gripping video game full of brilliant pacing, unforgettable characters, and thrilling setpieces. I’ll go to my grave insisting that this game (and the original which is in many ways better…but that’s an article for another day) is easily one of the greatest and most important ever made. Furthermore, proclaiming Half-Life 2 as such is really not much of a controversial statement. Looking back however, it’s become apparent to me that its true legacy isn’t necessarily the game itself but the creation tools it has provided for its fans.
Valve’s Source Engine is in essence a makerspace for fans of Half-Life 2 (and Portal, Team Fortress 2, etc.) to basically do whatever they want with it. At this time there are over 1000 mods listed for it at ModDB. Factor in the number which are available for other Source titles and you have a staggering amount of content for the entry cost of one game. Stanley isn’t an outlier either; there are a number of outstanding mods such as Research and Development, Minerva, and of course Black Mesa which are equally impressive achievements that cover widely divergent ground in terms of both storytelling and gameplay.
While there is certainly a lot of forgettable material out there, the sheer variety of quality content branching out from this source (pardon the pun) material demonstrates just how significant Half-Life 2 has been at not just inspiring people, but FACILITATING them as well. The creativity shown by the Source modding community over the past decade is astounding, and it’s an object lesson in how providing people with a free space to be creative can pay dividends in so many ways. I highly recommend digging around and trying out some of the neat Source mods out there.
As my library’s Makerspace opens to the public, it will hopefully provide an outlet for creative minds to express themselves; particularly those without the resources to afford expensive equipment. If it proves to be successful, perhaps it will expand to other libraries — maybe the one in your hometown. The example set by mod communities in PC gaming of a collaborative and open platform is endlessly exciting and is exactly the kind of philosophy which is in line with the open nature of public libraries; one of society’s truly free spaces. Not only does a Makerspace project have the potential to draw in new users, but also to draw in more diverse users. With little more than an idea and access to an open source development kit, the possibilities are limitless for anyone to create something clever, funny, thrilling, juvenile, bizarre, all of the above, or perhaps even something nobody has ever seen before.
P.S. Go get a library card already!