Allow me to take you back to October 2003, a few days after the release of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. I vividly remember how I’ve spent my winter holiday that year. For days, I had locked myself up in my parents’ ice-cold attic, where my dad’s trusty Pentium 3 computer situated. What used to be his home office had turned into a dark den reeking of leftover food. The only source of light emitted in the room was coming from the PC’s giant CRT monitor, which had an annoying buzzing sound. That sound was so off-putting, I had to mask it by playing some music in the background so I could remain focussed on the thing I had been trying to pull off for days: infinite bullet-time, getting those ragdolls just right, and changing some of the enemies into zombies.
I might have romanticized the story above, but my obsession with modding was real. One of the first mods I played for Max Payne 2 turned the game into a First Person Shooter. This change of perspective significantly altered the experience, and it was pulled-off just by changing some numbers in a text file! If modding a game was this simple, even a novice in coding like myself should be able to do it.
After successfully compiling a mod of my own, I had unknowingly entered the rabbit hole. I started to develop an obsession to see what else I could change in the game. My enthusiasm was getting curbed as I wandered further into the rabbit hole. This stuff was way more difficult than I initially expected. Luckily, I had stumbled upon a welcoming community with like-minded people all willing to help. My love for Max Payne and the Remedy community got cemented in these early days.
Gaming has changed a lot over time. Developers are no longer keen on curious gamers peeking through their files. Datamining has already managed to spoil a few in-game surprises or allowed gamers to leave code on servers that enabled cheating. Modding your favorite game has become a rare exception rather than something that’s being supported by the game’s developers. There are a few exceptions, like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 4, but even in these cases, the studio is requiring gamers to follow a set of rules.
If a game doesn’t support modding, it doesn’t mean people are not willing to try. Obsession is a powerful thing. Some gamers even go the extra mile and develop tools of their own to unpack the game’s files! Many publishers are quick in ceasing such projects while others turn a blind eye. It has all resulted in modding being wrapped in a veil of mystery these days. With that said, history has a funny way of repeating itself. Just mere days ago, I caught a glimpse of the very first mods for Control. With no official modding tools out there, the only question I had was: How did they manage to pull this off?!
1,2,3 Pause! Or not?
Allow me to introduce Colin Nguyễn. Ever since she was a little girl, she loved playing videogames. Even though Colin couldn’t speak English, and games back then often lacked Vietnamese subtitles, it was her favorite thing to do when she had free time on her hands. She loved meeting people in MMORPGs and take group photos. It managed to get her interested in the idea of taking a photo in-game, even though games back then had no way to hide the HUD or lacked a proper photo mode. Her interest peaked when another MMORPG – called Jade Dynasty – based on a series of books, was released. She’d see members of the game’s community publishing screenshots in which they reenacted scenes from the books. She was amazed when she realized the tricky thing being, in an MMORPG, there’s no way to pause the game.
Through her own experience, Colin quickly learned there are three requirements needed to make virtual photography work: a hot-key to hide the HUD, the ability to move the camera and to pause the game. Other nice-to-haves allow manipulation of the environment or add camera effects. But pausing has turned out to be crucial to take a good screenshot.
Just like real-life photography, ‘virtual photography’ has turned into a relaxing pastime. The chase for the perfect shot is often more rewarding than the actual screenshot itself. The right lighting conditions or an animation paused at just the right moment can make all the difference. There are sprawling communities centered around virtual photography. Some groups have weekly themes to inspire the ‘Virtual Photographers’ what to shoot or to force them out of their comfort zones. These aren’t contests but rather opportunities for everyone to get creative, have fun, and share feedback.
“Control is easily one of my favorite games,” Colin told us. “I’m grateful Remedy made such a great game. Especially the Ashtray Maze sequence!”. Like many of us, Control had struck a chord with Colin. The game’s unique atmosphere and visual design managed to draw in a host of virtual photographers who’ve all amazed the community with some incredible work. But as stated before, the chase is almost always better than the catch. VP’s (short for virtual photographers) are consistently on the hunt for something new that will spark their creativity. ” For example, if someone is going to look at my work on Jesse wearing the Astral Dive suit, I don’t think they’d want to look at the same outfit by the time they get to photo #100 of that outfit. If they even get that far,” Colin explains.
When support for a game ends – after all the DLCs and patches – creativity runs dry pretty quickly. Mods provide the VP with an opportunity to spice up their game and rekindle their interest. Colin continues: “It’s a shame when you love a game and the main character, but that outfit you would rather have in green is missing.” Thoughts like these are what drives a modder to look for ways to access the game files. In the case of Control, there was a success. A good friend of Colin, who goes by the alias ‘Fallbob’ explained to us how it works.
“First, you have to locate and identify which game files are the textures you want to edit and extract them. For Control, the extraction tool is called “Northlight Tool” by evin. Then, you need to edit these textures corresponding to your preferences using Photoshop. A 3D model is often composed of different parts (such as tops, bottom, and accessories) and each part has four different texture layers (for the main color, depth, shine intensity..). Depending on the results you want you will need to edit up to four textures and save them in the right DirectDraw Surface (.dds) format, which isn’t always the same. For some, you are required to do some hex editing as well. Once all that is done, you need an “injection tool” to make sure these newly edited textures overwrite the vanilla ones. For Control, that injection tool is “Loose Files Loader” by reg2k.”
By reading the above instructions it’s pretty clear modding Control is not a one-man job. Colin often works together with “amisthiosintraining”, a fellow friend with whom she shares her passion for virtual photography. After a few sleepless nights and a lot of unsuccessful attempts, they finally found a way to get their first few texture mods in the game. After sharing the first results in the community, people were quick to send in a few requests. Colin and amisthiosintraining also continue to make designs of their own. Some were inspired by outfits that Remedy has shown but never made the final game. “Inspiration for the white hair on Jesse comes from the costume designer herself, Heli Salomaa. We saw her original design for the Astral Dive suit on ArtStation and we thought, “Oh we gotta give Jesse this hair color! Once we change the hair and outfit, we need to change other aspects as well to match, such as service weapon and eye color for a complete “outfit kit”. Colin and amisthiosintraining share their work on a site called NexusMods. The biggest and most well-known website to share mods.
The perfect screenshot
Virtual photography is all about capturing the moment, along with the spontaneous emotions that come with that moment. Just like real-life photography, these moments often come unexpectedly and cannot be planned. “I just play the games and see where they lead me. If I love a game too much (like Control), then I will of course replay it often and capture whatever that comes during that play session.” Colin said. Her hard drives are easily filled with the hundreds of high-quality screenshots she takes. To the untrained eye, some shots might appear simple. But after talking to Colin we’ve learned some shots required delicate precision to shoot. “To get Jesse to smile, I had to do the unthinkable. Which is….getting her injured. That’s right, getting Jesse to a near-death state and waiting for her to make the right facial animation before hitting that pause button at the right moment were the steps I had to do. It took several tries of course, but the shot was worth it.” The perfect screenshot is but a button-press away. Or is it?