A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
Okay, so here’s something a bit different. The other night I stumbled across something buried amongst the oldest files on my external storage drive which made me feel like a kid again. Something I have been carefully copying from computer to computer for over a decade. It was an archive of dozens and dozens of old Nerf Arena maps and Unreal Tournament mods, downloaded by myself, sometime circa 1999-2002.
Tonight I want to revel in a little nostalgia, and give you a look into a lost world that I used to inhabit during some of my earliest days on the internet. Back when The Simpsons was still funny, my Neopets were still alive, and my most-visited webpage looked like this:
Tonight I’m gonna ramble on a bit about various game mods, and how they were probably some of the most fun and interesting things I played during my early gaming days.
Originally I was just gonna write about the first Unreal Tournament, but thinking on it a little more yesterday I realised that I was just as deeply invested in the mod scene of Half-Life, and those of both games’ sequels, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Half-Life 2. I’ve tinkered with Jedi Knight II, Quake 3, Dawn of War, and plenty of other games too, most recently Skyrim, but I think the four games of those two series neatly bookend my experiences within what I’d call the golden age in the mid 00s. I have memories and experiences I’d like to recall and explore for all of them, and think I will probably do it in a post or two for each. Maybe one wandering around the scene itself, then another diving into my favourite parts of it.
UT99’s what I’ve been playing this weekend, what inspired me to get writing this, and what’s mostly filling my head right now, so that’s where I’ll start. Or at least, somewhere fairly near there. I’ll get to showing off some of the crazy mods themselves eventually, but it’ll be a meandering path on the way there. I wanna start off just recalling how I even ended up on the scene in the first place.
Nerf Arenablast was the first game I played online, the first game community I joined, and the first game I learned how to install custom content for. I was like, 9 or 10 years old, and soon after venturing online into Clan Destiny’s home server, got taught by the cool kids how to download and play in custom arenas. Oh wow, Custer’s NAB Homepage still exists! You’ve no idea how happy this makes me. This is where they all came from. Every time you found or got invited to play in a server which was running a map you didn’t recognise, you’d check Custer’s site for the download. If you made levels yourself, you’d send them to Custer to review and host, and if they were good, they’d start appearing online as other people downloaded and hosted them. Mine are still there! No, I am not saying which ones. They’re all awful, and if you know what my first-ever online handle was, you’ll be able to find them anyway.
So what’s Nerf got to do with modding Unreal Tournament? Well, Nerf was essentially just Unreal Tournament for kids, and a lot of people who played Nerf played UT as well. Since they shared the same engine, stages from UT could easily be converted to run in Nerf almost 100% unchanged. To play them, however, you would need to download a copy of any relevant UT art assets such as textures, sound effects or music, as well as the geometry file for the map itself. For the year or so that I was active within Nerf’s community an awareness was growing in me of this other game, one which the senior mappers referred to in passing on their Nerf blogs and homepages. Something bigger, scarier and more awesome than Nerf, but entirely alien to the little web-rings that made up my online life.
Web rings! Anyone else remember those? It’s amazing to think how fragmented the internet was back in the late 90s and early 00s. Web rings were like little chains of torch-lit islands, connected by bridges and pontoons in a vast, dark ocean. Sometimes you’d click the magical “next site in ring” button and find yourself at a dazzling nexus, full of links to realms uncharted, but without the precious internet time to check them all out. You hurried past, trying to find what you were looking for, making a note of the address on a pad of paper on the desk so that you could find your way back again. They grew and evolved into formalised, commerical networks of sites, which is how I later found myself skipping between the various Planets of Gamespy and the smaller satellite sites which they were connected to.
I can’t remember whether it was before or after I found my way to Planet Unreal on the Gamespy network that I stumbled across the copy of Unreal Tournament one Saturday morning in Woolworths, but both completely transformed the way I looked at videogames forever. Gamespy gave me a proper look at a bigger picture that I’d previously only glimpsed on the cover disks and pages of the magazines that dad occasionally bought for me, and UT let me become a part of it myself. It was like a conduit for the madly creative cosmic forces of the web, showing me for the first time the scale of what was out there beyond the Nerf ring, and how easy it was to become a part of it.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before I discovered the vast modding communities online, I spent at least a year or so playing with what came in UT’s box.
The first disk in Unreal Tournament’s “Best of Infogrames” DVD case had the game itself, which was kinda important, and mindblowing enough to the pre-teen gamer, but the second- the second was where the treasure really lay. It contained bonus maps and bonus Mutators from co-developers Digital Extremes, and it contained the masterpiece that was Chaos UT.
Once I stopped playing the rigidly structured singleplayer mode and discovered that the freeform Practice Sessions (in which you can just pick a match type, pick an arena and go) were where the most fun was to be had, it wasn’t long before I also discovered the pre-packaged Mutators. Mutators allow you to make small modifications or additions to the game on top of whatever type of match you wanted to play. Some did stuff like give you infinite jump boots, or allowed you to start with all the game’s weapons instead of having to run and pick them up. Others replaced weapons entirely, or did dumb stuff like cause high-scoring players to grow fat and the losers to become increasingly emaciated the longer they played without a kill. You could add as many or as few as you like, and hours could be wasted experimenting with different combinations. I didn’t really get why you’d want to disable the nuclear-powered Redeemer superweapon, or what difference adding ‘Instant Rockets’ made, but I sure as hell understood ‘Chainsaw Melee’. I was also delighted to discover that ‘Chaos UT’ primarily added a grappling hook, a crossbow with three different kinds of ammo, hopping sentient proximity mines and a freaking bastard sword. I’d play Assault matches where everyone had big heads and the only weapons were sniper rifles, allowing for ludicrously easy defenses with long chains of headshots. Games of Capture the Flag on tight indoor maps where everyone was armed with the swords, so that making your escape meant running a gauntlet of terrible attack animations whilst desperately hoping the guard button worked properly. I’d set all the AI opponents on one team to be Nali War-Cows and arm them with chainsaws, then see how long I could survive against the terrifying horde of bovine butchers, soon learning where to aim to quickly decapitate them in one swing.
Kids don’t just play games, they play with games. I used to wonder how I spent so long playing the same games over and over on my own without getting anywhere- never finishing the third stage of Wild 9, never going beyond Beregost in Baldur’s Gate, never leaving the Mansion in Tomb Raider 2. Watching the children of friend’s and family members, I’ve since realised. They don’t wanna run to the flag at the end of the level, they wanna try and get on top of that hill over there. They wanna try and push that guy off that cliff. They wanna try and jump down all those stairs in one go. They play with the game like it’s a toy, without any sense of direction or progress, making their own fun as they go along. I was the same with Unreal Tournament. I did eventually finish the singleplayer ladders, but the base game seemed drab and boring by comparison to the mayhem you could unleash in the Mutator-enchanted Practice Sessions.
I think I must have gotten UT first, then found Planet Unreal afterwards, because if I’d known exactly what awaited me online I don’t think I’d have spent so long playing with the bonus content in the box. The ten weapons and fifty-odd maps which made up the base game and the half a dozen weapons, maps and mutators added by the bonus disk made for an impressive toybox, but it was dwarfed by the one I was soon to discover.
Planet Unreal was one of dozens of sites in the Gamespy network, each dedicated to news focused on a single game or game series. The site would host screenshots, cheats, guides and links to fansites, and in the case of big multiplayer games like UT, Half-Life, Quake and Warcraft, sites dedicated to modding. Planet Unreal had Modsquad, Nali City and Skincity, and next time I sit down to write, it’ll be about what I found there.
Here’s a preview:
I’ll probably try to ramble less and actually show off some of the awesome old stuff I found. I also found that you can still download stuff from the haunted ruins of FilePlanet, so I may even go in search of some stuff I remember having installed but couldn’t find. It’s gonna be awesome. I genuinely can’t wait to get started.