Star Trick: Radiator Episode 1

By Alec Meer on June 11th, 2009 at 4:08 pm.

2009 is looking very much like being the year that mods grew up. A little while back, Dear Esther nudged real emotion out of gamers’ stony hearts, and now experimental, one-room Half-Life 2 mod Radiator successfully creates a sad, beautiful sense of moment and place through minimalistic events and controls. Oh, and it also teaches basic astronomy to boot.

On this first of several mooted episodes, this one known as Polaris, you’re on a date – a cheap and crappy date, in the unseen protagonist’s own words. You’re in a moonlit forest, with Him sitting casually on a bench, and acoustic guitar lilting from an iPod. There is tension, but not necessarily sexual – more the strange unknowing of His intentions. He doesn’t seem to be making a move on you – he’s just looking at the stars. And he wants you to look too.

And therein lies the crux of the game, and also the point where I’d say Polaris triumphs and stumbles in equal measure. A guy showing his date the stars is classic romance territory, but there’s something creepy and opportunistic about it too. He knows the stars; you do not. He’ll show you a particular constellation, then demand you find it yourself. Every second you fail to identify it is mortifying – he says nothing, but you feel more and more pathetic. You could walk out there and then. You can walk out there and then – ending both the date and the game. Or you can struggle through his tasks. In that, it vaugely evokes the splendid text adventure Aisle – you decide your character’s short-term destiny by a choice of very simple actions.

The stargazing doesn’t constitute hard tasks at all, but they’re not terribly satisfying either: mechanical compared to the very organic situation outside it. I’d thought this was deliberate, part of the general air of smugness He pervades – but open reading the liner notes (don’t scan ‘em until you’ve played through the thing) it’s clear creator Robert Yang struggled a little to reconcile the mood of the piece with the means of interaction. The trial-and-error educational element feels a little jarring, and the short musical refrain when you look at the correct constellation feels incredibly out of place.

Nonetheless, it hangs together – it’s a challenge you either get through because you want this date to go somewhere, or you walk out on because he’s not impressed you. The choice is yours. There’s at least one other option too, but I won’t spoil all here.

Even though the central mechanic doesn’t feel as smoothly implemented as it arguably needs to be, Polaris is a fascinating piece, and a important statement on how first-person games really need to escape the gun from time to time. It’s also based on a bold manifesto – a word we’re comically cautious of since The Great NGJ War – to “provoke thought, iterate, experiment and shorten.” I see only interesting things coming from that.

In Episode 2, due later this month, we have this to look forward to: “HANDLE WITH CARE: You’re struggling to repress stressful memories while your worthless husband moans and whines to that equally worthless marriage counselor.” Happy days, eh? Based on what’s by and large a huge success with this first episode, I’m hugely looking forward to seeing how that’s realised. There really aren’t enough marriage counselling sims, after all…

Download Radiator 1-1: Polaris from here . Alternatively, enjoy a little tease of it below:

Many Bothans died to bring us this information. Thanks to all the readers who mailed about it.

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34 Comments »

  1. Slippery Jim says:

    If I hear even one “this mod needs /giveweapon machinegun” I might frown upon you.

  2. Schmung says:

    Hes been working on some other vaguely barmy stuff as well. Made some meta-game thing a while back about level design or something if memory serves. I’ll dig up the link if anyone else is interested, though I’m not sure if he ever finished it it just released the beta to a few people.

  3. Halcyon says:

    this mod needs an enima

  4. Ewok says:

    I imagine this mod is the type of mellow affair someone would enjoy if they were high. The average half-life game would result in them getting confused and bewildered at the fast pace combat. Whereas, looking at the stars would be more or less a perfect fit.

    I wouldn’t know this, seen as drugs are bad.

  5. Duoae says:

    These first two episodes sound very auto-biographical in nature… an insight into the creator? :/ (Haven’t read the liner notes so no idea if this is addressed)

    Sounds interesting, at any rate.

  6. RogB says:

    does anyone else mentally stumble whenever they read a capitalised He / She / Him / Her?
    Last time I encountered that (other than religious stuff) was in the Rainbow Six book (yeah, yeah..) with bloody mother nature and -H-er wisdom and all that guff. I find it distracting for some reason. Anyhow. totally offtopic. carry on!

  7. Jim says:

    Hmm, i’m not one for artsy fartsy mods. I’m making a source mod where you shoot fuck loads of zombies in space!!!

    YEEEEAAAAHHHHHHH

  8. Pace says:

    Perhaps it’s just some sort of disorder of mine, but it always feels a bit odd to me to play as a girl first person games. It becomes somewhat problematic when that game is set on a date with some guy. But I don’t wanna be on a date with this guy! (I’m getting the impression that artsy type ‘games’ in general aren’t really for me. Also, knowing some basic astronomy that part got a bit tedious for me.)

  9. Walsh says:

    I hope they patch in some sort of mace spray weapon because this guy is clearly a new breed of astronomer rapist.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    Have to agree with Alec that this a little hit and miss. The idea is an interesting one, which will hopefully be expanded as the creator goes into the later episodes, but I feel that it could have been implemented more smoothly. I often found myself stumbling upon the constellations rather than finding them myself, but still I felt that the “game” side of this was less important. The atmosphere is where it excels. The music, outside of the stated noise when a constellation is found, is spot on and the lack of voice acting oddly works wonders here, with the silent man guiding you through the stars.

    I recommend everyone who plays this to check out the notes. One of the most interesting parts is the fact that the atmosphere seemed to be the least of his priorities when envisioning the mod. I really hope he continues to work on getting us to ‘look’ in games, something that a lot of big name games struggle to encourage.

  11. DSX says:

    Best trailer ever.

    ….

    mk, perhaps not.

  12. Bhazor says:

    Isn’t that the music from Braid? And the sky as well?

  13. Wooly says:

    Needs more zombies.

    Just kidding, looks like an interesting mod!

  14. Bhazor says:

    From the episode liner notes

    “One playtester lamented that he wasn’t able to reach the “good” ending – and I think that’s a false promise offered in many games. In real-life you might do the “right thing” all the time and you’re lucky if you get good results from it. Plus, I was still kind of pissed off about how my last semi-relationship ended, so I wanted to make something pessimistic.”

    Issues.

  15. Ronnie76er says:

    I think you need to have HL2 Ep2 installed to play this? When I try to start it up, it’s telling me to install that.

  16. radomaj says:

    Why is that guy used for everything? Every frickin’ HL2/GMod comic, every frickin’ HL2/GMod mod has him. I mean that character model seen in the trailer.

  17. Max says:

    I think I got every ending (walk out on the date, poor ending and good ending – in that order).

    Tried bottling the guy, and even hit him in the face with a rock, but he’s surprisingly resilient.

  18. greg says:

    I’m not that impressed. I thought it was a “game” and did the puzzles with stars until i couldn’t find the effing orion’s belt and the “h” key seemed not to work. Got pissed off because of an apparent bug and then accidentally saw the guy was gone. Then this Aaaaahhh.. moment. Cool but I expected somethig stronger.
    I expect something more from a game that’s supposed to be “grown up”. Something more “artsy”, a transcendent moment that one gets when appreciating paintngs or architecture or literature made by great artists. Maybe producers should hire “names” for, say, art directory or music for developing games (they do hire writers to some small degree). Present formula seems to be depleted seeing they make mostly sequels nowadays. We need avant – garde in games development and we seem to lack true artists.

  19. Narwolf says:

    Why is that guy used for everything? Every frickin’ HL2/GMod comic, every frickin’ HL2/GMod mod has him. I mean that character model seen in the trailer.
    I know, its not like there aren’t other HL2 civilians.

    I liked the idea, nice experiment. The resentful tone of the writing soured the mood for me though, and it didn’t really click. The next one sounds even harsher in that regard. Also the jarring record-scratch sound. But I agree with much of that manifesto.

    Greg, this is a small mod by an independent individual so I don’t really see what you’re talking about being relevant…

  20. Narwolf says:

    It would appear my blockquote failed. Curses!

  21. Robert Yang says:

    Ah crap. I was going to include a “bottling the guy” ending but I forgot, a few months back. But, uh, I’m glad the Hive Mind recommends it overall. Thanks.

  22. Robert Yang says:

    Oh, and speaking of Dear Esther, my main complaint with it was the technical quality of the level design – it was kind of bad – but now Robert Briscoe is giving it a proper face lift which should firmly propel it back into the spotlight.

  23. I Am Thermite says:

    Why is that guy used for everything? Every frickin’ HL2/GMod comic, every frickin’ HL2/GMod mod has him. I mean that character model seen in the trailer.

    Male09 is the new Male07!
    But in reality, its because its the only non-black/old/asian model besides 07 (goatee fellow, john freeman etc) and 02 (round-faced guy).

    I stumbled upon this on moddb the other day. It looks alright and I suppose the creator gave the mod a lot of thought, but… That trailer was a minute and forty seconds of a guy looking up in silence. I just didn’t think it was paced very well.

  24. Bas says:

    This was really relaxing, I liked it a lot. I can now find the big dipper!

    Also, great news that Dear Esther is getting a face lift. I really wanted to like it, but the piss-poor graphics prevented me from being able to figure out where the heck I am supposed to be going.

    Fingers crossed for Dear Esther as well.

  25. Lewis says:

    That is really interesting. I’m going to hold off judgement until I’ve played more of the episodes, which I hope arrive soon. Currently, it’s a fascinating vignette, really exquisite in setting the mood, and ever-so-slightly awkward in its presentation.

    But I like it, I think. A lot.

  26. Robert Yang says:

    I chose Male09 more because I like the way he ages, from Group1 C17 citizen (neatly groomed) to Group2 coastline refugee (tussled hair) to Group3 rebel (beard!) – the others already had facial hair right from the beginning of HL2, so the passage of time is less noticeable.

    And everyone uses Male07. Ugh.

  27. jay says:

    Looks like I’ll have to re-install episode 2.

    @Schmung

    Can you find that link? It sounds interesting.

  28. Herpers says:

    Anyone else notice that the first time you are shown the big dipper, there is an extra star, that isn’t present afterwards? At the rectangle-ish end, on between the top two stars of the rectangle, is another star, which is connected, but when you need to find the big dipper later, it’s gone! Also: they leave the ipod there!

  29. odeed says:

    Heh, I got bored, typed sv_cheats 1, and impulse 101. Shot the friggin’ place up.

  30. jameskond says:

    A-M-A-Z-I-N-G this game got me at the pointing at stars and learning something you can do in real life (what game has ever done that for you? Half-Life?) but the good ending really surprised me, I played it trough the first time by doing the objectives and then walking away, but after that I read these comments and tried out some more stuff for the other endings. Dang that good ending rocks.

  31. Sulphur says:

    Who is Many Bothans?

  32. Sum0 says:

    Many Bothans is one of RPS’s finest contributors. His sacrifices are legendary.

    I played this, and for a little piece of gaming artyness it really works. I especially liked the trick when the instructions suddenly stop and you look down to find out what’s happened – and then you know exactly what to do.

    I can’t wait until “proper” games start doing these slice-of-life arty things as part of a story. Imagine if this mod was just a interlude in a HL2-style buddy FPS romp. How awesome would that be in building character?

  33. Scandalon says:

    It should be noted that this requires HL2:Episode 2 – I had HL2 re-installed for Dear Esther, now I get to wait for another 8 gigs or so to DL…while I’m waiting, figured I’d watch the trailer…

    Yea, not a good trailer. Also, probably really not the mod author’s fault (using existing meshes/skeletons and possibly animations), but can we please, please get engines that just plain don’t allow clipping?!? (unless desired, obv.) When a guy crosses his arms and they magically disappear into each other and his torso, it kinda ruins the illusion, ya know?

  34. EyeMessiah says:

    I’m usually a fan of this sort of stuff, but this didn’t really work for me, it seemed very short and slight. I’d be interested to see how the other chapters pan out though, and I’m hoping they’ll be a bit more substantial.