The Backlog is a zine where we pick a single game that deserves your attention, and we craft a focused essay around it.
The following zine is available for free online, or you may visit our online store to purchase for $2 (plus 50 cents shipping).
Under the Influence
In the Summer of 2016, the Turner Broadcasting System televised a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012) tournament to over 18 million viewers1. In August of 2015, the winning team for a Dota 2 (2013) tournament raked in $6.6 million split between five players, the youngest of which was 16 years old2. The Turner company expects eSports to become a billion dollar industry by 20191, but the aspect of this brave new reality that isn’t often mentioned is that the multi-million dollar games (in this case, CS:GO and Dota 2) were originally created by college students ten or twenty years ago. In fact, independent game developers around the world are creating new games—or modifying existing ones—and their influences aren’t changing the world with a bang; most of their influence trickles into neighboring communities and eventually reverberate into the mainstream.
This issue of The Backlog is about influence, about how one idea can spread while creating original ideas that go on to influence other things down the line. Specifically, we’ll take a look at a horror-action game—a modification for the Source Engine—that took its inspiration from a movie loosely based on a novel and a glitch in a popular multiplayer game, and then how this mod went on to influence games that have followed.
Since modifications of existing games (aka “mods”) are currently released as complete, standalone products, their origins have become blurred. Now, gamers can open up Steam, purchase a title, and click “Play Game”. But back when the first Counter-Strike came out in 1999, gamers had to download a .zip file and uncompress it within a directory in their “Program Files/Half-Life” folder. Counter-Strike was free, but gamers couldn’t play it without installing Half-Life (1998). Before Half-Life, mods for Quake or Doom required players to alter or replace game files and then run special commands in a DOS prompt. In fact, Steam has been making this process easier for only ten years. When Counter-Strike version 1.6 came out in 2003, players fought against Valve for requiring them to install Steam, a program that (at the time) only served as copyright protection for Half-Life and its “official” mods3. Of course, Steam also made the process easier; instead of downloading compressed files and copying them into the folder, Steam let you click “Install”, download the game, and click “Play”. Nowadays, when a publisher doesn’t release their game on Steam, players boycott their games4. It’s strange to imagine that the world’s largest marketplace for PC games5 started out as a controversial way to make installing a mod easier. Part of the reason these histories are so hard to grasp might be that, in hindsight, they’re just so strange.
Before delving into this month’s game, consider the following line of influence: Counter-Strike:Global Offensive (2012) is the follow-up to Counter-Strike: Source (2003), which graphically improved Counter-Strike (1999), which was the spiritual sequel to Action Quake II (1998), a mod for Quake II based on Navy SEALS (1997) for Quake3. And for anyone who’s read David Kushner’s Masters of Doom (2003), id Software’s Quake and (before that) Doom (1993) revolutionized the entire video game industry in the early to mid ’90s (they basically created the idea of mods, game engines, and first-person shooters), which is amazing, especially considering that those games were just incrementally better than id’s premier first-person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D (1992), an unlicensed follow-up to Castle Wolfenstein (1981), a relatively obscure stealth game for the Apple II. All of this is to explain how it’s easy to take for granted these video game influences: they are often small improvements that, over time, build to something that changes the world. As they say, acorns become oak trees.
The Game & Its Inspirations
The Hidden (2005) is a mod for the Source Engine, which launched with Half-Life 2 (2004). In the game, a team of up to five military gunmen for the Infinitum Research Intercept Squad (aka IRIS) fight against a single opponent: Subject 617. The members of IRIS enter each match with a primary weapon (such as a shotgun, assault rifle, or machine gun), while Subject 617 has only a knife and three grenades. To balance the fight, Subject 617 is a creature with supernatural powers, such as the ability to jump incredible distances, cling to walls, and appear practically invisible.
While players might make comparisons to the film Predator (1987), Technical Adviser for The Hidden, Mark Wherrett, says that inspiration for the horror movie feel came from Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2000). But the gameplay itself, Wherrett says in an interview for The Backlog, came from someplace else entirely:
We were into our second year and Counter-Strike was getting popular, so far too much time was spent playing that instead of studying. We even had a large coax cable stretched between our flat and the lads next door so we could enjoy some smaller LAN games at home and avoid the battle of finding a free machine on the campus network. On one particular occasion the game bugged out, my character stopped rendering in the world, and I was left completely invisible. We quickly recognised this, but instead of restarting, we just made a simple rule: I could only use a knife and it was me versus everyone else. What followed was about 20 minutes of cackling and screaming as we enjoyed an improvised but intense horror game. We watched people group together and covering angles (a rather pointless act considering I was completely invisible) and then scatter like rats at the first sign of trouble. Right there we knew there was a mod just begging to be made and this strange asymmetrical form of play felt really fresh.
As far as other inspirations, Wherrett says that he’d played plenty of Team Fortress Classic (1999), a Half-Life mod based on the Quake mod Team Fortress (1996)6. In fact, Wherrett admits that influence is inevitable:
It’s very hard to make any game (or creative media) these days without a comparison being drawn to someone else’s work. Even to this day, we start work on concepts in the office, getting excited about a new idea, and then a few weeks later one of us discovers an indie team is already half-way through a really similar concept. It’s the nature of the beast and one you’ve just got to embrace at the end of the day.
The Games it Inspires
In a review for Turtle Rock Studios’ Evolve (2015), Rick Lane begins by comparing it to The Hidden, which he calls “one of the most unique and thrilling FPS experiences around.”7
“I’ve certainly seen the two mentioned together before,” says Wherrett, “and to get that kind of recognition is still a real pleasure.” Wherrett insists that The Hidden drew more inspiration from Hollow Man while Evolve seemed to draw from Predator. Even still, he is flattered at the idea. “I’d love to think they played The Hidden and brought some of that into it though,” he says.
Arguably, all video games draw inspiration from Spacewar! (1962), the first video game. However, “Two interactive programs existed before Spacewar,” says the creator of Spacewar!, Steve Russell. “But they weren’t particularly designed as games. And they weren’t very popular because, as games, they weren’t very good.”8
Not only is inspiration viral and inevitable, it’s cumulative; whether or not we want to admit it, everything we create is influenced by what came before. Likewise, everything that will be created is influenced by what we’re making now.
Down the Line
Because video games are such a young medium, it’s pretty easy to track down their lineage. Plus, a lot of games wear their inspirations on their sleaves; it’s safe to assume that Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (2016) is inspired by its prequel, Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015). But what is not always obvious is where the chain of inspiration goes from there. And, the Call of Duty series is especially strange because every game alternates developers so that Infinity Ward creates games on even years (2016, 2014, etc.) and Treyarch developes games on odd years.
And if you really want to go down a rabbit hole, Call of Duty games are based on the IW Engine, which is based on id Tech 39, the same engine used to create Quake III: Arena (1999). And not only did a vast number of games use the id Tech 3 engine, plenty of others used id Tech 2 and id Tech 1. In fact, Half-Life, the game that is responsible for launching Valve—the owners of the world’s largest online computer game storefront—uses an engine called GoldSrc, which is, according to Valve’s Senior Engineer Ken Birdwell, “just a heavily modified Quake 1 engine.”10
Nearly every first-person shooter is based on an engine created by id. But despite the short length of the industry, these familial ties are rarely talked about. As publications change their names, switch content hosts, or go bankrupt, this history is slowly disappearing and, along with it, the emotional voyages that these games bring.
Mark Wherrett ended our interview by saying that his team “simply made a mod, it was loved and remade by another team of students, and now I can type that into YouTube and watch people sharing their enjoyment of it. I worked on the LEGO franchise for years and saw them review well but that doesn’t mean anywhere near as much to me as watching people scare the shit out of each other in The Hidden and then implore others to play it too.”
If nothing else, hopefully this issue of The Backlog has encouraged you to take your own journey into a game that you care about. And hopefully, we’ll be reading those soon.
A special “thank you” to Mark Wherrett, for providing an interview for this issue of The Backlog, as well as Sajborg for giving me permission to the screenshot used in the cover image.
Mark Wherrett’s portfolio is available on ditherworks.com, and he suffers “the classic issue of making lots and finishing almost nothing – dithering when I should be pushing forward (hence the name).”
- Minotti, Mike. (01 Aug 2016). “Eleague’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive esports season on TBS attracts 19 million viewers”. VentureBeat. Retrieved on 20 Oct 2016 from http://venturebeat.com/2016/08/01/eleagues-counter-strike-global-offensive-esports-season-on-tbs-attracts-19-million-viewers/
- Dator, James. (08 Aug 2015). “The International Dota 2 Championships final results and prize money”. SB Nation. Vox Media. Retrieved on 20 Oct 2016 from http://www.sbnation.com/2015/8/8/9121929/the-international-ti-5-dota-2-results-prize-money-prize-distribution
- (11 Oct 2011). “A Comprehensive Timeline of Counter-Strike’s Evolution”. Jolie’s Junk. Retrieved on 20 Oct 2016 from https://joliesjunk.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/the-history-of-counter-strike/
- Kuchera, Ben. (08 Aug 2011). “Battlefield 3 is not coming to Steam, but EA has a real reason”. Ars Technica. Conde Nast. Retrieved on 20 Oct 2016 from http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2011/08/battlefield-3-not-coming-to-steam-ea-provides-good-reason/
- Edwards, Cliff. (04 Nov 2013). “Valve Lines Up Console Partners in Challenge to Microsoft, Sony”. Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P. Retrieved on 20 Oct 2016 from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-04/valve-lines-up-console-partners-in-challenge-to-microsoft-sony
- “Team Fortress”. Retrieved on 27 Oct 2016 from http://www.moddb.com/mods/team-fortress
- Lane, Rick. (17 Feb 2015). “Evolve Review”. bit-tech. Retrieved on 28 Oct 2016 from http://www.bit-tech.net/gaming/pc/2015/02/17/evolve-review/1
- Kent, Steven L. (2001). The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House: New York. Print.
- Stead, Chris. (15 Jul 2009). “The 10 Best Game Engines of This Generation”. IGN, Ziff Davis, LLC. Retrieved on 27 Oct from http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/07/15/the-10-best-game-engines-of-this-generation
- Bokitch, Chris. (01 Aug 2002). “Half-Life’s Code Basis”. VERC Collective. Retrieved on 27 Oct 2016 from archive at https://web.archive.org/web/20070301012630/http://collective.valve-erc.com/index.php?go=q1_or_q2