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How Modding Changes Art

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | April 18, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | April 18, 2012 |

When I first played Planescape Torment, it was about five years after the fact, long enough that some enterprising modders had torn open the game, gone to town on a variety of issues, and released an unofficial patch. That was the version that I played. I have never played the actual released version of what might just be the greatest video game after written. And I say written because the game had 800,000 words of text. When your game has as much text (I don’t mean computer code, I mean actual words that the player can read) as one and half copies of War and Peace, then you’ve written something.

The story behind it is simply that Interplay wanted to push that game out the door so badly that the end result was in many ways unfinished. Multiple side stories that were almost done were simply cut, left in the source code, but hidden from view. The original release was legendary for epidemic levels of typos and a number of serious bugs.

Dedicated fans systematically fixed these problems, copyedited the voluminous text, hacked the source code in order to finish the bits and pieces of programming necessary to make the hidden content fully playable. Sure, there were official patches, but they fixed only parts of what the fan patches did in full.

Modifications like this are accepted practice in the gaming industry. Games are designed specifically to be friendly to modification as a selling point. Especially good mods get polished up a bit and then officially released by the game company with their next expansion pack. Economically at least, the companies involved see fan involvement as a value-added selling point. But there’s also a cultural element.

We see the same impulse in other areas but not with quite the same quantity or significance, and certainly not the same openness. With the publishing industry, fan fiction is the closest comparison, but such work always stands separate from the original. There is no downloading a “patch” that adds a few new chapters in the middle of a novel and cleans up spelling. The difference of course is that a fan writer with a few bright ideas can’t duplicate the quality of the original (or if they could, they’d just write their own book). But even if they were as good a writer as the original, it would be almost impossible to duplicate the tone and feel of someone else’s prose. The additions would always be obviously grafted on. Games have engines so that the fan creator doesn’t need to be a C++ programmer or graphics guru, any more than the level designers at a game company do. But there is no engine for text that renders top notch writing for you, no matter how much I wished someone would mod Jean Auel’s last Earth’s Children novel to take out the half of the book that is just describing caves.

Movies are a different ball game entirely. There is ample free and not-free software out there that allows any amount of editing and reediting of existing video. Recutting the Star Wars prequels into something approaching a quality film is practically a sub-niche of fandom at this point. But releasing those things publicly? Oh you can get away with shorts on YouTube, but giving a film the equivalent of the Planescape treatment and putting it online is just inviting the inevitable take down notice. Music is similar to a degree, with the omnipresence of sampling and covers. But what happens when the technology reaches that point when it is not only possible to reedit a film, but to seamlessly change what is in it? To actually mod a film the way a game can be modded today? When there is something akin to the game engine that takes care of all the little things like special effects and rendering and such, so that not only can someone splice out Greedo shooting first, but can make Han shoot another smuggler with a blaster in his other hand? To actually add new dialog translated seamlessly into Harrison Ford’s 30-year-old voice?

The easy answer is that the movie industry will never let that happen. That the tools might be invented, but that every site and video that attempts such legal sacrilege will get the lawyer note and takedown notice.

But a deeper effect is what such a development does to our relationship with art. What game companies have gotten, if only because of the anarcho-libertarian hacker ethos of their employment demographic, is that with the right technology, art is a two way street. It’s built into the very nature of games as well. They’re not static viewing experiences, there is always user input. So perhaps it’s natural that modding would be part of gaming.

Take the recent furor over Mass Effect 3. When a movie trilogy has an ending that pisses off a bunch of fans, their blood boils and the Internet ripples with a flood of foaming fury. But that’s it. Maybe it gets Mysterious Science Theatre treatments, maybe some few enterprising fans make fan cuts once the DVD gets released. What you don’t see is people writing their own end to the movie, filming it, and releasing it such that it can be integrated with the original.

There’s a sort of community ownership going on that transcends copyright. It’s individuals saying that this piece of art belongs to the community and therefore the community can change it, tweak it, improve upon it. It’s a democratization of art that is only possible in a given field once the technology is such that anyone can do it on their own.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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