Back to the Source: Jazztronauts and Garry's Mod Creations

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As indie games chart ever-more experimental territory, we've found much of the conventional wisdom about what a game is and what a game can be falling by the wayside. It is the nature of any advancing medium that the number of inherent attributes to it is continually proven to be smaller than we believed previously and that creators are capable of taking more choices in their work that we ever thought possible. The way that we once discovered that paintings don't have to depict realistic scenes or that stories don't have to be linear, we've more recently learned that games can be heavily narratively-based or can disregard player agency in some circumstances. There are also likely boundaries being broken today that we won't realise were broken until long into the future. But some rules are common sense, right? There are fundamental truths about video games and media that we can never disprove. For example, it's surely self-evident that every game contains a roughly fixed set of content developed by its creator. Jazztronauts says no.

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Jazztronauts is an indie game that runs within Garry's Mod which is in turn built on the Source software development kit; it's a secondary-level mod if you like. On entry, we make our way through a tumbledown settlement of empty shacks and dust roads which give way to surreal levitating gantries and a ceremonial stone circle lit with fire. Then, in one of the most hilarious tonal shifts I've seen all year, three round-headed cats arrive and begin arguing about how to steal one of these flaming rocks. These cats, referred to as the Pianist, the Cellist, and the Singer are aware that G Mod maps are just that, maps, and understand the in-game rules that govern them. They use their experience of and expertise on these levels to pilfer them of their valuables. Soon, you're just another inter-dimensional thief along for the ride, but what makes Jazztronauts unique is the source of its maps. When you wish to start play, the game loads a G Mod map in at random from the Steam Workshop and asks if you want to dive into it or spin the wheel again for a different stage. Once you've made your selection, you commute to that map to collect "shards" procedurally hidden across it. You can also steal objects from the levels with a specially-modified baton. This gets you currency which you can use to buy equipment that helps you more efficiently raid levels, or, in the grand tradition of G Mod, just mess about. To beat the game, you must collect one-hundred shards.

A common response to Jazztronauts is numbness to the play after finding that every level is the same hidden object game and frenzy of primary mouse button spam, but there's much more going on here than a trans-dimensional easter egg hunt. My reaction to Jazztronauts came in four stages:

  1. This is a slightly unsettling ambient experience.
  2. Actually, this is a quirky, self-aware comedy game.
  3. Actually, this a boring and repetitive slog through the same objectives and interactions.
  4. Actually, neither the play nor the off-the-wall characters are the heart of this game. These are framing techniques which allow us to run our hands across a gallery of amateur video game maps, and ultimately, it's those maps which are the magic behind Jazztronauts.
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But I can picture the average players' reserves of interest emptying out before that fourth reaction. To get there, you need a keen interest in user-created content, a tolerance and perhaps even love of rough edges, and possibly also a nostalgia for Valve games and the Garry's Mod pandemonium of the late 00s. The inclusion of purchasable powers that let you clip through surfaces or jump the height of buildings is an implicit admission by the developers that the architecture of levels routinely breaks down, and as this is G Mod, sometimes you load into swamps of missing textures and error signs. But the loading screens and the "no texture" checkerboards have become as much part of the Source Engine experience as the pliable physics engine or the dystopian default assets. And while Jazztronauts' goals are simple and its systems lack detail, this is because the developers had to come up with a play structure that they could retrofit onto any Garry's Mod map. They must provide tasks for environments they've never seen and so are forced to design with their eyes closed.

If you can embrace or at least ignore its technical turbulence and mechanical airiness, Jazztronauts is a carnival of unconventional and earnest modder creativity, and if you still don't understand why someone would want a walking tour of amateur Source maps, Davey Wreden's The Beginner's Guide may be an informative starting point. Wreden's title spends a lot of time remarking that details of levels which are faulty or underdeveloped are as much part of their character and as much fingerprints of the artist behind them as their more polished aspects. Human beings are flawed so there's something to the argument that the most human creations would be flawed.

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Looking at these Source maps, there's a hobbyist tint to them which I can't help but be drawn to. These environments weren't all put together by the most educated or talented of developers. However, they were usually built by people doing their best with what little design chops they had, developing not for economic gain but purely to provide others with a fun experience, because they found personal satisfaction in creation, or because architecting maps helped them learn the ropes of games dev. This is evident in the maps' understated, workman-like quality, and its endearing. Jazztronauts probably won't help you find the new de_dust, but many of us can relate to these environments because they're closer to what most of us would make, given the shot. If The Beginner's Guide is a primer on appreciating low-end game art within the confines of the Source Engine, Jazztronauts is the genuine article, showing you actual non-professional level development with an authentically homespun look.

In Jazztronauts, we explore the community-made levels we do because of the one-of-a-kind curation, or depending on how you see it, lack of curation, spinning the gears behind its faceplate. Most curated spaces, from museums to online galleries, hold their work to a bar of quality, often only giving us the cream of the crop, and even more open platforms like video hosting sites tend to put the most attractive content in the front window. But this is an alien concept to Jazztronauts; in what looks like almost naive glee, it's just rolling a die and seeing which one of the 15,000 Steam Workshop maps that gets it. Through doing that, Jazztronauts dispenses with the notion of quality and that would be the death blow for almost any other art space, but for a game that wants us to see every scrape and scratch on this creations, it's a boon. By doing away with the ideal Source map experience, Jazztronauts makes sure you get the average Source map experience: an accurate cross-section of what went down in G Mod's map-making community with a few hidden gems on the side. The random map retriever provides play sessions just as off-beat and unpredictable as the music genre Jazztronauts is named for and its knowing cast of characters staring sidelong at these works with a wry smile embody the reception that the Source fandom has often given this content.

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Jazztronauts is keeping the working history of one of the most productive modding scenes in video games alive. We should note that it does not capture the models, game modes, or machinima that piggy-backed on Source, all of which were and are key to the G Mod community, but with 15,000 stages on the Workshop alone, just exploring the maps is a substantial enough activity to support a whole interactive experience. Jazztronauts also gives small winks of recognition to show that it cares about these stages as community creations and not just settings. The cats' bar, the Samsara, is decorated with pictures of levels and when you drop a new map into the hopper, walls of monitors display statistics about it, including the name of its author and a sample comment on it. I've had the inter-dimensional bus that delivers us to maps show up and painted across its side has been a link to a Twitter post showing its owner constructing it, and on another occasion, the bus bore a complaint about users uploading that stage too much. These emergent moments remind us that the maps belong to people first and the software second.

It is true that any of us could visit the Workshop, download these creations for free, and boot them up in a Sandbox or Trouble in Terrorist Town server, and in light of that, playing Jazztronauts may seem like a contrived middle step to unearthing the catalogue of DIY work in the Source space. But I know I never would have found many of these maps, especially the more obscure ones, if Jazztronauts had not given me a push. It is the reality in 2018 that there are more media out there than one person could ever see in their lifetime and that there are back alleys and underpasses of these content spaces that none of us would ever seek out on our own, but that autoplay features and recommendation algorithms can lead us to media we enjoy that we would never have found otherwise. Jazztronauts uses the same kind of guiding light and for a surprising variety of environments.

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We are at an all-time peak for games with extraordinarily manipulable map editors; Mario Maker and Trials are two prime examples, but G Mod beat them to the punch. When Garry's Mod 10, the first version that appeared on the Steam store, made its debut in 2006, it paved the way for later game creation tools and communities. To this day, there may be no other title which gives the typical user as much ability to configure and develop assets and play types as G Mod. While many companies have become overbearing and hawkish with regards to their intellectual property, Valve was a company who freely distributed the SDK for Source a month after releasing Half-Life 2, their first game on the engine. The physics wizardry possible in the Half-Life sequel also encouraged players to explore the limits of this engine and Source was developed in such a way that remodelling Valve's current games is something even those with no existing development history can get a feel for.

When users began using third-party tools to mutate Valve's assets and code to their own whims and depict Valve's characters with decidedly off-brand expressions and attitudes, the company's response was not only to let them continue doing so, but to distribute the tools that were allowing them to do so in their store, host user content in their shop for no charge, and develop free software to help fans record their work without a lot of fuss. For better or worse, it's also clear that no small amount of this fan expression has been possible because Valve has turned a blind eye to maps and models which may infringe third-parties copyrights. While the legality of it may be grey, maps imitating Bikini Bottom and Tamriel feel as much part of the community history as those reconstituting City 17 or gm_construct.

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It's a laissez-faire attitude to content appropriation on Valve's part which made the followers of G Mod possibly the largest and most empowered modding community that has ever existed and has led to a future where there are thousands of maps for a toy like Jazztronauts to pull from. But this is also a bittersweet sight. It's impossible to play Jazztronauts without being conscious of a time during which Valve better supported their community and without imagining a world where every developer made their games as malleable as Valve did instead of sitting on the assets and code like a mother hen. I feel this while also understanding that the legal system can be ruthless towards those who permit unlicensed transformation of their intellectual property and knowing that if smaller creators don't maintain a tight leash on their creations, they might not be able to keep the lights on. But even if G Mod and its user-made content were one-time phenomena, that only makes them more precious. At least we got to see this treasure trove of hobbyist development in all its glory; it's malfunctioning, copy-paste, copyright-infringing glory. It's a symbol of what companies can do for their community when they give them the keys to the kingdom.

The magnitude of the creative effort behind the amateur Source assets, the pioneering nature of the Source SDK, and the unprecedentedly open tools of the platform mean that Garry's Mod and the Source community content are of considerable historical interest to anyone looking at the medium. As far as tools that put us in touch with such history go, Jazztronauts is the best I've had the pleasure of speeding through at several kilometres an hour, prop baton in hand. Thanks for reading.