Repetitive Strain: Tedium

By Lewis Denby on November 1st, 2010 at 2:30 pm.


We all like the art mods, right? Good – glad we’re in chin-stroking, beret-topped agreement. Earlier this week, Eddie Cameron got in touch to poke me in the direction of his new Half-Life 2 mod, Tedium, which I finally got round to playing yesterday. And, oh my, it is interesting.

Initially, it seems like an idea we’ve seen quite a few times before. You begin in a small, basic apartment, the glare of the sun shining through the windows. It’s stark and bare, and the only thing you can really do – other than have a nosey around in the bathroom – is leave your home and set about your somewhat mundane daily task.

It’s basically a more abstract version of something like Every Day The Same Dream. Your place of work is giant, skyscraping building with an enormous, architecturally mental lobby. But there’s nothing in it other than a lift up to a single higher floor. What’s all the excess space for? It’s never explained, which is kind of the point. Take the elevator up and you find yourself in a corridor, where all the doors are painted on except for one, which leads to your place of work. Your job? Collect small, glowing letters, and place them into their correspondingly coloured tubes.

Do this a few times and the letters stop appearing, leaving you with nothing to do but to head back down to the lobby, out of the door, and back to your apartment. It’s night time now, but you’ve barely a chance to get settled before your alarm’s going off, it’s morning, and the mod loops, sending you back to the start. Repeat ad infinitum. And every day, with every letter you correctly deposit, the score counter in the top right climbs higher. Towards what? Who knows. A hundred points of commission for every letter. Keep on sorting.

Tedium is not particularly pretty (although again, that seems almost to be the point), and nor is it enormously original. Other games have played around with this sort of mundanity, highlighting the daily grind of a boring office job – although usually taking a more literal route than the sorting of glowing As, Bs and Cs – but I found Tedium’s interpretation of the theme to be particularly intriguing. If you think this sounds like your sort of thing, I suggest you might want to go play it now (you’ll need HL2 and Source SDK Base 2007), then continue reading. (Spoilers follow, obviously.)


I’m interested to know how long it took you to figure out the trick. For me, rather embarrassingly, it took five in-game days. I’m not sure whether that says more about how conditioned we are by gaming convention, or about how slowly my mind clunks away sometimes. Either way, it wasn’t until day five that I finally managed to break the game.

I think there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I was primarily interested in seeing whether something would happen. Obviously the game was looping, but was there a limit to this? If I ploughed away for long enough, would there be some sort of reward? Was this a game about waiting patiently for a pay-out, or one about being inexorably gripped by routine? That seemed to be the main question the mod was posing, so it was the one I ran with. It’s called Tedium, after all. The assumption was that it was testing my patience.

Secondly, games which ask us to break the rules tend to be pretty explicit about what those rules are. Consider something like The Path. The only way to beat that game is to disobey what it’s asking you to do, but to ensure that’s clear enough, it pastes that rule over the screen in huge glowing letters the second you press play. Here, you’re left to establish things for yourself. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, given that you’re told that Mouse 1 is your default use key when you get to the letter-sorting stage, but it took me a while to even figure out how to open my apartment door. When you learn by doing, there’s a tendency to place more trust in those rules than when someone explicitly plonks them in front of you.

But most interesting of all is that I did try to break the game before day five, and assumed nothing was happening. Because I’d forgotten about the score.

It’s just there, in the top right. When I noticed it climbing with every letter I filed away, edging increasingly upwards into a void of numerical nothingness, my reaction was to think, “Hey, that’s quite a smart idea,” then not bother glancing at it again. So when I first tried to lob the wrong letter into the wrong tube, I didn’t bother to check what had happened to my score. I heard the buzz, but nothing else seemed to be going on. Oh well, I thought. Back to playing the game properly. It was, of course, the key to the entire thing.

I’m not sure whether any of these elements were fully intentional, or whether others would go through the same thought processes as I did. But for me, these cognitive tricks are what make Tedium stand out above the other games and mods that try to play with us in similar ways. And, of course, the ending is creative and lovely, going against the bland grain of what came before to close on a genuinely pretty scene. I like this a lot – not so much for what it says, but for how it goes about saying it.

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43 Comments »

  1. Gabe Kotick says:

    You know what Tedium needs? An item store.

  2. Gundrea says:

    The boring 9-5 office job is much maligned. Frankly I think it’s non-existent.

    • Huggster says:

      Yeah, if your that bored you can just share jokes with workmates.
      People make life interesting, not your job.

    • Rich says:

      However, I would argue that the inventor of the office cubicle deserves a long stretch in the scorpion pit.

    • JRez says:

      Yeah, it’s a boring 8-5 job.

      It’s very real. And it’s very bad.

    • Jhoosier says:

      The place I work has a large open room for everyone, it’s great. Two rows, facing each other. People make their own mini-cubicles from piles of books, but that’s about it. Lots of laughing and joking usually.

      Cubicles aren’t so bad, either, if they’re set up well and you have fun people nearby.

  3. Alexander Norris says:

    (you’ll need HL2 and Source SDK Base 2007)

    It’s one or the other (either the game runs off HL2 or it runs off SDK Base in which case any Valve-made Source game will let you play it), so which one is it? :P

    • CMaster says:

      The latter, according to the moddb page.

      Anyway, I was erm, underwhelmed.
      Ugly mapping, followed by a punish you for doing the logical thing, reward for being “oh so crazy and deviant” schtick that’s been done before, and I kinda question the merit of anyway.

  4. Pobblepop says:

    Primo Levi – Small Red Lights.

  5. Mortis says:

    I guess Lewis Denby didn’t read that article about mechanical spoilers. Since you’re interested to know how long it took me to figure out the trick, well, I read the article in maybe four, five minutes.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      Evidently missing the part where I suggested you play the mod before reading it, right?

    • DrGonzo says:

      I did do the same thing though. It’s just I’m lazy, its either read the article, which I can do now or wait for the mod to download and install etc.

      I have no one else to blame but myself of course.

  6. Elpizo says:

    Broke my everyday life on 3-rd day. Nice, very nice. Also, very interesting idea about your score, which nobody seems to think about in any game, unless high score gives some sort of achievement. I actually thought that game will kill me if I reach 0 points for being non-productive.

  7. MadTinkerer says:

    Having played similar mods like it, I figured out how to “break” it on day two (playing day 1 straight, of course, just to see what a normal loop looks like). I am marginally disappointed that if you break the machine after opening the normal door, you can go back home and loop around again, but there’s no point in doing so because everything is the same anyway. I know it’s just a small art mod, but I would have appreciated some kind of easter egg like the other office doors opening and there’s odd things inside.

  8. mod the world says:

    This guy should be lucky that he has a job, instead of damaging his employer’s property.

  9. Unaco says:

    “We all like the art mods, right? Good – glad we’re in chin-stroking, beret-topped agreement.”

    Man… I wish I’d stopped reading after that line.

    • Brumisator says:

      To be fair, you had been warned.

      I played it, and was absolutely bored throughout the entire game, so I’d say, mission accomplished, mod maker! As long as nobody tries to put this in an art museum, I won’t stab anyone in the face.

  10. Rich says:

    Regardless of the content of the mod itself, that fourth screen is pretty cool. Very 2001.
    It would be better though, if you couldn’t see the blocks the light squares are attached to.

  11. Ixpodsix says:

    I did not figure it out until day 4, but I spent day three filling the room up with glowing letters in an attempt to suffocate myself. Also spread letters around the hallway to spruce up the place a bit.

  12. JeCa says:

    “I like this a lot – not so much for what it says, but for how it goes about saying it.”

    My main problem with the game is that I don’t really know what it tries to say, if anything. Yes, you’re a slave doing a job you don’t understand the importance of for an employer you don’t care about, but that’s no new statement and doesn’t say anything special in its own. I could’ve ran by it if there’d been something more to breaking the cycle, but the final scene just doesn’t seem to mean or say anything, making the whole process rather pointless. Maybe I’m missing something vital, but still I’m mostly underwhelmed. (/Me wants another Dear Esther)

    Oh yea, 3 days if anyone’s gathering data from this or anything…

    • Poltergeist says:

      When you don’t follow the rules you are thrown in prison (the part where you are shortly trapped by walls) and then you die there (the claustrophobic rooms opening up into vast nothing).
      That’s my interpretation, anyway.

  13. Brumisator says:

    Oh, second day, btw. After 1 cycle, I immediately grew bored and tried to break the game. I guess I have the heart of a beta tester.

    • sfury says:

      Me too, I started putting them wrong on the 1st day just to see what happens and was tempted to bring the score to 0, but decided I should do the “right” thing at least once before I bork the game completely. :)

  14. Ragnar says:

    I found the solution on day 2 (mostly because I wanted to see the day/night thing so I played by the rules for one night). But that is probably because if a game tells me to do X, I try to do everything but X first and just do X as a last resort.

  15. Dreamhacker says:

    I believe we have found ourselves in the middle of a conspiracy, a conspiracy to turn HL2 modding into digital perfomance arts fest.

    And I think it’s a great thing :)

  16. Joshua says:

    I broke it in day one. I geuss I am such a person that likes to violates the rules just to see what happens.

  17. RagingLion says:

    I broke it on day 3. I was in the process of trying to steal myself a nice set of A, B & C, shuttling them to the lift, when I thought I might as well try to plonk them in the wrong holes as well first. I was thinking maybe someone would come after me for stealing company property. I had previously just dumped all the letters onto the floor on day 3 before realising the trigger was getting to 1000 rather than a specific number of letters spawning.

  18. Crane says:

    When the door behind me opened and my score reset after I put the blocks in the correct chutes, I assumed it was bugged and used noclip to get through the door.
    I only realised after I saw people here talking about ‘days’ that maybe I was supposed to leave the way I’d entered. Once I spotted that, I realised there had to be some other way to open the side door, and the solution was immediately obvious.
    This fails utterly as an ‘art game’ in my eyes, because whatever statement it’s trying to make seems entirely opaque to me.

    “Do your job properly, or your whole world will dissolve and consume you with glowing cubes!” ?

    Oh, also, as soon as the first wall sealed up behind me in the corridor, I immediately went the rest of the way looking backwards, which prevented any more walls from closing behind me and thus broke the game…

  19. Tm says:

    Why does everyone (read:most people) seem to hate things that purport to be “art?”
    Methinks there’s some prejudice.
    I really liked it, bravo. Day 6 for me. Yeah. Fail.

  20. Bel says:

    What finally triggered it for me was when I realized that the score reset before I even left the ‘office’ for the day.

  21. dragon_hunter21 says:

    I think the gameplay itself is nothing to be particularly excited about. However, the mapping… Let’s just say that the ending had some of the best mapping mindfuckery I’ve ever seen in a game, and I’m dying for more of it. If you kindly RPSfolk know about any more mind-melting maps, I’d love to know about them.

  22. Marar Patrunjica says:

    First day for me, but of course, I always try to break each and every game I play

  23. mes_gots_its says:

    This mod was short, but it certainly was sweet.

    For me, while I read this article and got the the “spoiler alert” part, I immediantly stopped reading and started playing. After going through the cycle 3-4 times (something like that) I was wondering, much like the author was, wondering if something was going to happen. Would my patience be rewarded, or did I have to break the system? I tried various things, including causing the elevator to go up without me (you gotta press the button then step out REALLY quick) but to no avail. I had a feeling that the score had something to do with it, but it reset after every letter-sorting session.

    I came back to the article in hopes of finding a hint without giving away the whole thing, and after reading “I wonder how long it took you to figure out the trick,” it immediantly clicked. I proceeded to asplode the letter sorting system and have my mind torn out, fucked from the inside out and thrown back in my face. Sure, the overall message is unclear, but the ending so abstract and beautiful that my heart almost skipped a beat. The last time I played something like this was the HL2 map “Paranoia,” and that was more Twilght Zone-themed.

    Anyway, to wrap up my thoughts, this mod was very well done and, as mentioned by others, would like to see more of this type of modding and mapping done in the Source Engine. Now if you’ll excuse
    me, I’m off to give this mod another go.

    (~3-4 days for me)

  24. Unimural says:

    I wonder how I would have played the game, had there not been aware (based on the spoiler warning in this piece) that there’s more to it. In any case, I’m one of the those players that often tries to break the rules. Given a mechanic, I immediately try and see what limits it has. So I managed to break the elevator before I got into the office. (you can press the button inside the elevator while you’re standing in the doorway, thus activating the elevator but leaving the elevator door open).

    On the second day I spent considerable amount of time piling the alphabets of the floor. I doubt there’s a limit to them, but I did succeed in getting the alphabet chute bottom grate stuck open. I also got to the ending on the second day. A nice little piece, all in all.

  25. Ergates says:

    Broke it first day. But then I tend to dick around in games that give you the freedom to do so – I spent the first 2 minutes trying to throw the chairs and television through the window of my appartment.

  26. Stevoisiak says:

    The first thing I DID was break it. I didn’t even put a single one in the right vent.

  27. Pete says:

    Well, that was cool.

    It took me three in-game days, but I did read the first sentence of the spoiler since I wasn’t initially interested in playing it. Once I found out that there was a trick (and that it wasn’t just about farming points or making a point), I gave it a go, and it was indeed interesting! I tried bringing a C home and bringing a chair to work on the second and third days, respectively, but no luck, even though I was able to grab them before the fadeouts. I also thought of stacking letters to reach the ceiling vent, but I dropped them down inappropriate tubes instead and got quite a scare when my score reached zero. I liked the end bits, particularly the BSP holes, which I initially thought were due to lack of caring. (Maybe they were, but they fit in well.)

    *monocle* Good show!
    -Pete

  28. Daniel says:

    Anyone else managed to break the chairs? How about the unbreakable TV?