Somewhere around 1982, I was in fifth grade, and every kid everywhere wanted nothing more than an Atari for Christmas. The 2600 console was the hot thing – you could take the green square and make it fire red squares at the blue square! – and it offered every kid the promise that they could have just a little taste of their favorite video arcade, right there in their very own living room.
Of course, those video games looked so much more impressive in commercials than in real life. That’s the power of marketing, and Atari marketing sure as hell worked on the kid I was. Because the last thing an 11-year-old wanted was to be the kid who didn’t have the games.
I’m sure I begged and whined and complained. And somewhere around the summer of ’82, my parents relented. My dad bought us an Atari.
An Atari 400. A home computer, with 48K of RAM and a flat plastic membrane keyboard. NOT a console. NOT what every kid wanted.
What. The. Hell.
And not even any damned games! My friends were playing Space Invaders and Pac Man and all the rest, and I got the BASIC programming language. When I asked Dad for some video games, he told me I’d just have to learn to go write them myself.
To be fair, he eventually did buy us a copy of Star Raiders, which was about as cool as it got in those days. So I can’t be overly harsh here.
You roll with what you have. I took the BASIC reference manual off to a corner of our apartment, and I’ve been coding ever since.
While I learned to create crude little things, I also learned the joy of software piracy. Everyone did it: you’d swap floppy disks at a users group meeting, or with friends, or find a local BBS that had a hard drive full of games. Within a couple of years I had built a rather massive collection of illicit 200K executable files, and if you got bored with Blue Max or Archon or Alley Cat, that was fine, because there were two hundred other games you hadn’t played yet. In the world of easy and free, boredom didn’t exist. You also never dove deep into anything.
For me, that era of disposable boredom ended in 1985, with an RPG game by Paradise Programming called “Alternate Reality: The City“.
AR was a revelation. It was an amazing game in its own right, but what made it truly miraculous was how much potential it managed to wring out of the Atari 8-bit frame. Philip Price pulled every trick and created a bunch of new ones. It showed me that, no matter how thin the frame or constrained the resources, it’s often possible to make a machine do things the designers never dreamed of.
It also taught me the power of a hex editor. By that point I was learning assembly, and so I was spending a lot of time with hex codes. One day I started rooting through the AR save files, and I found a listing for a projectile weapon (a bow, probably) in my character. With some effort, I discovered the bytes I had to change to make the bow into something different.
I made a “Robocop Gun”, with full ammo clips, and DPS through the roof. That certainly made AR more lively for me. In the years following, I would learn to do similar save game edits to other games, such as the Ultima series. Yeah, it was cheating, but I didn’t really care. I was taking something that someone had created, twisting it for my own purposes, and having fun breaking the rules. It was a different kind of piracy, the high seas thrill of the hijack, rather than the ground level thuggery of basic theft.
And then I grew up.
I work as a writer today. It’s not exciting, there are no book deals or celebrity lunches. Mainly I write marketing material for technology companies and divide my time between phone interviews and trying to cram 5,000 words worth of tech message into a 7-word headline. I’m certainly not complaining – it pays decently and keeps me busy, and the commute from my bed to my home office is reasonable. I’m doing my part to encourage you to buy things that you likely could live fine without.
For a couple of decades, I didn’t do much coding. Some Perl stuff, back in my days as a server admin, but not much else.
And then, in 2010, I discovered Fallout 3. It was an enjoyable enough game, nothing fantastic, but a decent time waster. At least, that’s how I felt about it before I stumbled over the Fallout modding community and saw for the first time what the modern world of Blackbeards were managing to hack into this game. I was completely hooked, making all the classic mistakes, cramming every cool mod I could, wading through the choppy seas of CTDs, eventually arriving at something special – a gaming experience I hadn’t enjoyed since 1985 and Alternate Reality.
At one point I remember being wounded, on my way back to Megaton, late at night (Fellout), in a violent thunderstorm (Enhanced Weather). Crouching to avoid detection, because the area was crawling and I couldn’t risk it. No fast travel, so I had to walk. I could hole up in an empty house for the night or I could keep moving, and I was borderline starving (IMCN), so spending the night was also a danger. My companion (Amy Wong) and I were crouched on a ridge overlooking the Potomac, watching the lightning and trying to decide which risk to take.
It was a situation that Bethesda never planned. But at this point, I sort of see the base game as a polite suggestion for a starting point, and not much more than that. It’s all about what a game can be, not what it is.
If you’re reading this, though, you probably know me from my Fallout 4 mod, Pack Attack NPC Edition (PANPC).
Anyway, that’s enough about me. If you’re still reading this – and I’m not entirely sure why that would be the case, but I try not to judge – I’m saying all this to make a very simple point, and one that I hope you take to heart. Especially in this time of uncertainty that we find ourselves in.
The point is this: just because they sell you something, and just because you buy it, doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t make it yours. And you sure don’t need to discard it just because they need you to buy the new thing. It’s not your job to validate anyone’s business model.
We live in a consumerist world designed to drive us in a very simple cycle: buy things we don’t need, bore of them or wear them down quickly, buy more things we don’t need. Keep spending money, preferably on things that we’ll soon throw away and crave replacements for. If you make something, this model says, it’s worthless unless someone pays you money for it.
In that world, we all exist merely to move money around. The human lives involved are expendable in that model. What you want and value doesn’t matter. It only matters that you do your part in keeping the buy-waste-buy cycle going for another day.
It’s a demeaning, dehumanizing ethic. And it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many ways to say “fuck that shit” and to do something different.
Game modding is one humble way to do it. Bored of the game that the publisher shipped? You don’t need to just fall into the next scheduled triple-A title marketing plan. Just turn the game you like into something more, something you love. Pull the wires and see what sparks. Figure out a way to screw up the system, to stop wasting it, to be creative.. and to join others in communities of creativity.
If you love games, you should be modding. If you love games and hate being regarded as just another consumer purchase on some corporation’s profit-loss statement, you absolutely should be modding.
So I hope you stick around. I look forward to seeing what crazy, bizarre, and totally unexpected things you manage to do. Frankly, it inspires me to do more stuff, and that’s the joy of it all.