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.