Alrighty folks, it’s that time again where I dredge up an old Half-Life mod and tell you why it’s freakin’ neato. For those who missed out on Valve’s flagship title Half-Life (1998), it's a game where you roleplay as a skinny four-eyes nerd with a beard who pushes a shopping trolley into a laser and and starts a chain reaction that attracts the attention of aliens who attract the attention of more aliens who eventually enslave all of humanity and make it so we can’t have babies no more. It’s a jolly time, and frankly I don’t know why it’s not a Disney movie.
Part of the lasting success of the game was due to its support for modding, and the huge community that grew from that support - the remnants of which are still operating today. Previously we looked at some relatively light-hearted mods: the ape-styled Monkey Strike, the strangely-lacking-in-hentai Dragonball Z mod Earth’s Special Forces, and the downright-weird Half-Life deathmatch mod Yoda. This week we’re going darker and grittier.
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself floating in an ooze; a warm, comforting fluid. Reminiscent, maybe, of that amino-rich primordial soup that birthed our ancestors, billions of years ago. Or perhaps of that quiet, safe womb in which you spent the earliest months of your life. Now imagine footsteps, a radio-crackle, and the chick-chuck of a shotgun slide. Uh oh, it’s a Marine. And you’re still gestating.
Natural Selection is a mod that pitches two teams against one another in a base-building, combat-driven fight to the death. You’ve got the centrally-organised, high-tech Marines, and the monstrous, organic Aliens, both fighting one another for control of huge, sprawling space-stations and cramped, industrial ships.
It was the stark contrast between the two teams that that made Natural Selection so compelling. In the majority of first-person-shooters of the time, the core gameplay experience of each player was pretty similar. In Quake (1996), players are only differentiated by their appearance, their sound effects, and the player's own skill level. In Counter-Strike the two teams, Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists, are clearly ideologically opposed. However the only gameplay differences between the teams are that their weapons vary slightly in stats and that their victory conditions are unique.
The contrast in gameplay between the two teams in Natural Selection is huge. If we look broadly at team dynamics we see that the intended organisational style of each side is designed to be unique, driven by specific built-in systems, or the lack of them. Marines are intended to be centrally organised, with one player assuming the role of Commander by sitting in the command chair. This player can see the level through an RTS-style interface, and through this interface they can send orders to teammates, lay down foundations for base structures, and alert the team about incoming hostiles. A skilled Commander can hold a relatively unskilled or disorganized team together, acting as decision maker and removing tactical uncertainty. Resources are centralized for the Marines too, with all earned resource points going directly into a group pool. When Marines outfit themselves with equipment or create new structures, resources come from this central store.
The Aliens are the polar opposite of this. There's no command chair or other system for viewing the map and dishing out orders. Players are required develop and use their own style of organisation, using group consensus, voting, or ad-hoc leaders to ensure the necessary construction work gets done and that defenses and offensive skirmishes are properly coordinated. This reliance on cooperation extends to resource management, with each player having their own pool of resources that they manage themselves. Without a centrally controlled store, players need to communicate with all team members to determine which structures they should be building and which forms they should be gestating into.
The distinction between the teams extends to the beat-by-beat gameplay as well. The Marines are humans, and they handle like humans, running around on human legs and shooting human guns. It all feels very comfortable to anybody who’s played an FPS game. The way you become more powerful or change your skill-set is overtly human as well - you simply return to base and pick up a different weapon, similar to how one would in real-life.
Any sense of experiential familiarity goes out the window when playing on the Alien side. You begin as a crawling Skulk, your view inches from the ground and coming from between the Skulk’s teeth. Your movement is inherently inhuman, as you climb walls and skitter around on four legs. When it comes time to assume a different role in the team, you find a hiding spot, choose your new form, and crawl into an organic egg-like sac of skin and membrane. You emerge from this cocoon like a mutant butterfly, with a new appearance and new abilities.
Whereas the Marine experience was relatively standardized between roles, with movement speed and movement style almost identical between each player (besides the use of a jet-pack for some and a slightly slower speed when wearing heavy armor), the experience within the Alien team is incredibly varied. Every form the Alien player can take has its own movement: some faster, some slower, some able to climb on walls, some able to fly, some able to blink forwards instantaneously to deal devastating melee attacks.
If we compare these unique experiences to the range of experiences offered in games like Counter-Strike, Unreal Tournament, or Quake, it's clear that Natural Selection offers infinitely more variety. The similarities between player experiences in these other games fosters a broad similarity in tactics and strategy, ultimately resulting in players using very similar play styles.
In Natural Selection it’s a case of two teams that are forced by the design of the game to act in completely opposing ways. The margins of difference between yourself and your enemy are no longer razor-thin: you may be playing as an Alien with excellent mobility and high damage but come up against a slow Marine with heavy armor. You and two other basketball-sized Aliens may launch a lightning-fast but loosely coordinated attack against a single jet-pack Marine. With the variety of possible encounters and the variety of ways in which these encounters could be resolved, it feels as though there are far more opportunities for interesting gameplay moments here, all born from this intentionally designed contrast.
The other benefit of this split between the teams is replayability. The visual, audible, organisational, environmental, and tactical differences between Aliens and Marines results in what feels like two unique games occurring at the same time, and the ability to switch from one team to another between matches helps keep the players’ experiences fresh. These opportunities are present in other games: changing weapons in Counter-Strike pushes the player into a new role and set of responsibilities, for instance. But it's uncommon to see titles that offer teams as polarized as those in Natural Selection.
Natural Selection was a massive deal, exploring unusual and exciting gameplay ideas at a time when the majority of titles were following a pretty standard template. It stands as an example of the innovative and exciting experiences a dedicated team can create when given a mod-friendly game to work with. The release of SDKs and the willingness of publishers and developers to let people alter their products is essential in enabling the experimentation-driven progress that modders offer the industry. Natural Selection developer Unknown Worlds Entertainment seems to understand this as well, having released the Natural Selection source code under a GNU GPL license in 2014, giving everybody the opportunity pick their work apart, learn from it, and build on it.
Thumbnail image sourced from ModDB