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.