Berlin Wall Map for Garry's Mod

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Garry's Mod, a modification and customization tool based on Valve's Source Engine (used for Half-Life 2) has become a way for players to create three-dimensional environments that take advantage of the physics and object handling engine as well as existing (and new) assets. In Fall 2008, a Berlin Wall "mod" was released to the public by an independent creator. The creators of the map describe it as:

"This is the Berlin Wall singleplayer map for Half-Life 2: Episode Two. After a huge anticipation for almost 2 months, the little sketch by Stene was soon made real by a group of talented modders. As the story goes, you are a citizen of the East Berlin, and tired of the evil communist government. You dream of living at the West Germany, and you are about to find a way there somehow. There are many routes you can find and take, maybe you want to roam through dirty tunnel, or have a little gunfight with the guards. The buildings on the map are based on those of real-life, such as Checkpoint Charlie and the death strip."

As a proponent of the potential of three-dimension game spaces as informative experiential sources, the Berlin Wall mod caught my attention. In a landscape mostly void of what we have termed "documentary games," the Berlin Wall mod seemed a welcome addition. This kind of game represents an historical issue through exploration, the conglomeration of factual sources, and a presentation style akin to our common notions of the documentary in film and television. I downloaded it, gave it a go, and was severely disappointed. Though it has a documentary quality in its presentation it doesn't make much of an attempt to tell a story. Though it may have modeled some of the physical landscape, the mod lacked any of the qualities that would have represented the social and political tensions of the era.


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The game itself offers no guidance or explanation as to what to do, but the extra textual material the player would have encountered while downloading and installing the game indicates that the goal is to make it from East Berlin to West Berlin. I feel it is important to note my expectations going into my play session. Most importantly, I assumed the point of the game was to represent the challenge of crossing from East to West Berlin. This assumption was based on environment being represented--a level containing concerete walls, barbed wire, armed guards, and (decorative) tanks--combined with the traditional death-based reset mechanic of Source engine games.

The game opens with the player's view (first person, as per the Source engine) pointed toward the wall and a ladder scaling the side. This positioning invites the player to try this route as their first attempt to cross to the other side. If they choose to attempt it, jumping over the wall sounds the alarms and armed guards begin firing at the player as they jump over the barbed wire fence and make their way across. I was successful at this first attempt, which seemed to negate the purpose of the whole mod. After doing a bit of research, I learned that nearly 5,000 people successfully escaped East Germany in the near 30 years of the wall's existence. Reports of deaths range from 100 to 200, which meant that success was far more common than failure.

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My method of achievement--gung-ho, over-the-top, storming the castle--was probably the kind that most common resulted in death, but the game engine's settings ensured I could take on heavy-fire from assault rifles (as opposed to a more perilous/realistic one-shot-kills setting). I had even avoided pulling a gun out of the arsenal of Half-Life weapons available to me through the game, assuming that I was not supposed to have access to said guns.

I restarted the game and pursued a different route. This time I went looking for underground tunnels. I deftly moved through the tunnels, popped up on the Western side, and felt I had crossed with almost no effort. I attempted the other underground routes and continued to succeed. Also contributing to this was the absence of a notation of accomplishment. There was no win-screen, no game-over, no reset. Once I made it to the other side, I had to manually restart the game. During one of my successful escapes, I ended up backtracking through the Death Strip (the area between the walls), switching to my Half-Life 2 inventory, and killing all the guards. These examples are all by means of illustrating the disconnect between the setting and the mechanics.

So why does the Berlin Wall mod exist? Unfortunately I don't know the motivations behind the game. The map comes with a readme file that explains the game takes place in 1984, at a time when no end was in sight for the Cold War. There's no information on the background of the creators, though I was able to learn that the director of the mod is from Finland. The download package does interestingly include a separate map image file of Germany and the wall. It clearly strives to take on the challenge of recreation, but falls short. Rather than totally dismiss it, however, I think it's worth addressing what might improve it.

I am no Cold War historian, so to make specific recommendations would be misguided. But I do strongly believe that merely creating a three-dimensional space modeled on a real place is not enough to make it meaningful. The narrative environment of the Berlin Wall mod was relatively strong, but I have no idea how well it captured the actual tenor of the period. In the game, the world is empty except for the guards and one non-player character sitting on a bench on the Eastern side. The soundscape is airy, desolate, and ominous. The strongest visual presence is the graffitied section of the Wall. The rest of the city is comprised of flat textures. This all leads me to wonder what the real environment of 1984 was like and how much of the design choices made in the mod were a matter of technical limitations. The difficulty of three-dimensional worlds is that even if they're not direct translations they at least have to be representative to be effective.

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But the Berlin Wall was not just a physical obstacle at a geographic location. It represented a multitude of complex socio-political issues on a global scale. The game assumes we know why we're trying to cross the barrier, but there's no diagetic source of motivation for the player. We easily accept the goal because it maps well to our patterns of play in video games--we blindly move from Point A to Point B because that is what the game presents, and failure to comply is a failure to play. The game's goal also fits into our Western narrative of the Cold War, in which socialism/communism is bad and the obvious course of action is to escape at any cost. Even though there's no built-in win condition for the game, it is clear that staying in East Berlin is not an option. It could be interesting to see how players of different nationalities approach the mod to see how cultural heritage influences their decisions.

We can use the Berlin Wall map for Garry's Mod as the inspiration for a design experiment. Though we might shy away from critiquing it--excusing it for not tackling complex issues or striving for an accurate representation--we really should strive for game artifacts that serve some purpose other than proving we can model real spaces. If nothing else, the shortcomings of the Berlin Wall map force us to think about the necessary elements of rhetorical 3D video game spaces.

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That's a very interesting discussion, Bobby. I haven't "played" this mod, but it strikes me less as a thesis-oriented (persuasive) documentary and more like a digital historical preserve -- an attempt to capture the physical realities of the location for future generations and present-yet-distant players to visit with their own understandings of what the place represents.