September 11th, 1997. Late night radio host Art Bell received this frantic call from a man claiming to be a former employee of Area-51. He seemed like any ordinary lunatic...
...until Art Bell's transmission was suddenly cut.
From SKATEshop Games, the studio that brought you July Anarchy Prologue, Static is a survival-horror mod for Neverwinter Nights that puts you in the role of the mysterious Caller. Desperate and on the run, you have no choice but to seek help in the small Arizona town of Windgate. You are alone, just you and the gentle sound of static... And whatever lurks within it.
First, let me put this as clear and concise as I can:
Although if you had the misfortune of clicking "Watch" on the page for the advertised upcoming Neverwinter Nights mod "Static", then you would already know this. If you happened to have an account on the D20 Modern Mod development forums or NWVault.com and heard me announce its existence a good year earlier, or caught my awkward ModInformer interview where I briefly discussed it, you know this is an understatement. But if you're new to mods like July Anarchy Prologue and Static, allow me to introduce myself. My name is JM Scion, and I suck at making mods.
With that out of the way, there's a page on moddb.com advertising an upcoming survival-horror mod for Neverwinter Nights called "Static". It promises a unique story, gameplay that's completely different from the default Neverwinter Nights campaign, and to be genuinely scary, and a handful of vague screenshots seem to hint that the mod might just meet those goals. The problem is those screenshots are about a year old. Worse yet, the mod hasn't grown much since they were taken.
So is Static dead? Yes and no (and yes). A while back, one user left a comment on Static's page declaring it dead. The moment I saw that, I got on the defensive and assured him the mod was still alive despite technical difficulties. In truth, that user was more accurate than I was. Static is, as far as the community who was interested in it is concerned, dead. But that doesn't mean a game called Static won't come out in some shape or form.
Static was conceived while I was still working on the earliest version of July Anarchy Prologue (which at that point was intended to be a massive, multi-chapter mod instead of a prologue) in October of 2008. While searching for creepy stuff on the internet for Halloween, I came across a recording of an Art Bell broadcast from September 11th, 1997, now famously regarded as the "Area 51 Caller". At this point I was tooling around with July Anarchy so much that I wanted a quick side project to jump to whenever I got tired of it, and got the idea to make a horror game out of the Area 51 Call. It was supposed to be quick: Just a few areas, about 15-20 minutes of gameplay and released just in time for Halloween.
Halloween came and went, and Static had grown exponentially in scope. The question went from "How can I make Neverwinter Nights actually scary?" to "What if I could turn Neverwinter Nights into Silent Hill?". All of a sudden there were 30 areas, page upon page of dialogue, new scripts to handle everything from lighting to an upgradable taser weapon, and a story that expanded upon the events of September 11th, 1997. I fell in love with the concept, and the inspiration never stopped flowing, but July Anarchy Prologue was still the main priority. After its v.1.2 MODDB release, I planned to work on Static just as fervently and have a playable demo out in a matter of months. Therefore, I put together a bunch of teaser promotional material, like the screaming face in the TV and the jittery Static logo, and tried to build hype for a project that I never had a real handle on.
The first real hurdle came when both the CEP pack and D20 Modern Mod had major updates around the same time. Unlike July Anarchy Prologue, almost every asset and area present in Static is from D20MM, so the game had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That wasn't a huge blow, since the new D20MM was a major improvement and the new Static build was already looking better. The bigger problem came when I encountered a glitch about a year ago that put development to a screeching halt. For whatever reason, entering a certain area early in the game would put a "ghost" effect on the PC, causing most scripts attached to the player to malfunction. I bashed my face against this glitch for months, and I still haven't found the cause of it. I tried removing all scripts attached to the area, removing all scripts attached to the module itself, changed the entrance parameters, removed inventory items, everything. It became apparent that this glitch was actually part of the area tileset that I was using, and since I didn't build it (or know how to build another one), I had no way of fixing the glitch.
But the real kicker came around the time July Anarchy Prologue was released. Some time in 2011, when LulzSec was busy making the internet a lot less fun for everyone else, somebody hacked the Neverwinter Nights forum and apparently obtained passwords. This led to Bioware taking their whole forum system to the drawing board, but rather than tighten security for the existing NWN forums, they closed it down completely. That turned out to be the death knell for the NWN modding community. A decade's worth of builders and players lost their best resource for sharing information, and a lot of them never found another central location to share mods and building tips. NWVault, the premier host of NWN content for ten years, had a sudden drop in traffic, to the point where its mod review team was dissolved and the site is now only maintained by one admin in his spare time. After a decade of being one of the most popular games for modders in existence, the community around Neverwinter Nights has quickly and quietly faded away. Go to the NWN section of the Bioware Social Network, the forum that eventually succeeded the original NWN boards, and most discussions are about how far the community has fallen and what can be done to save it.
So there's my situation: Fighting an uphill battle to release a mod for a game that might have nobody playing it by the time I'm done with it. When I was working on July Anarchy Prologue, I felt possessed by it. I wanted so badly to make an experience completely different than anything else developed for this game engine, and if just a handful of people would download the mod and run around in this chaotic and hellish world I've created for a few hours, it would all be worth it. Over 300 people from NWVault and moddb.com have downloaded July Anarchy Prologue, and I'm thrilled with that.
Nowadays, whenever I open the Aurora Toolset, I type a few lines of code, find myself wondering "what the fuck am I doing with my life?", minimize the whole toolset and start working on something else. This April I will be 25 years old. I still haven't had a novel published or figured out which college I'm going to transfer to, or even what I want to do with my life. Do I really want my biggest achievement of the year to be a horror mod I built for a dying game without a prayer of recognition or profit?
Make no mistake, I love Static. I love wandering the huge, lonely streets of Windgate with a sense of both fear and mourning. I love not knowing when the lights are going to go out on me. I love navigating those pitch-black hallways with nothing but a flashlight while the voices of interdimensional aliens taunt me through the walls. Hell, I even find myself playing with the light switches like a monkey on cocaine, just to see the lights work just the way they've been scripted every time.
A little over a year ago, I invited a friend of mine to try what I had built of Static so far. Even though I told her in advance that I hadn't put enemies into the game yet and there was really nothing there to kill her, she still jumped and grabbed my arm at a certain moment that I had forgotten the fear of. That's when I realized, this is working. Static is a Neverwinter Nights game that actually scares you. You are isolated in a town under control of forces beyond your comprehension. The power in the building you're wandering through could be cut at any time. Your radio picks up strange and foreboding signals as you progress, and occasionally you can tune in to Coast To Coast AM to hear your situation narrated by Art Bell himself. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Static is its connection to the real world. Those radio signals you hear are actual secret transmissions collected from various parts of the world by the Conet Project, and the Art Bell recordings are from the night of the actual Area 51 Call. These touches combine, hopefully, to make you feel a little less safe when you turn off the game and go to bed at night.
I also haven't lost my love for modding in general. A few months ago, I started working on a follow-up to July Anarchy Prologue. Under the title "July Anarchy: Incursion Namibia", the goal here was to take the action of the Prologue and allow for cooperative multiplayer of up to 6 players. Similar to Static, the scope of this mod has grown exponentially, enough for me to know this time around not to prematurely make a page for it. Frankly, I probably shouldn't be working on it at all if I can't even finish a single-player survival horror mod, but the call to build, test limits and create stories is still there. All that's stopping me is the humbling sense of reality that I've gained over the last two years.
So the question that's been bouncing around in my head when it comes to Static isn't "Should I declare the mod dead?", but rather "Am I building this game on the right engine?" The Aurora engine is a great tool for rookie and veteran modders alike. Very few, if any, game editors give you the tools to create comprehensive plots, round characters, and dire conflicts with as much ease and enjoyment as Bioware's Aurora toolset does. However, it is very hard to wrestle the game out of the grip of its Dungeons And Dragons-based dice rolls and turns. The age of the technology makes it unwieldy to work with multi-core processors, and every extra pack of content you apply to your mod is another file your player base has to download before they can see it. So while there's a lot one can do with this engine, maybe it's time to stop fighting my own toolset and mod a game that allows for much more flexibility. Unfortunately, very few games have available resources that combine modern technology with mythological creatures the way Neverwinter Nights does, and I lack the resources to create computer models and textures myself, so if I do go with another engine, I'll need to... *gasp*... work with other people!
Whatever the case, Static and Incursion Namibia are both a long way off. Everything is up in the air right now. I could suck it up and develop them as Neverwinter Nights mods in the hope that they'll reignite interest in the NWN modding scene. I could try making Static in the Amnesia engine or Incursion Namibia in Skyrim's Creation Toolset or the Arma II engine and put a team of modders together to pull it off. Or I could take some classes in programming and end up releasing them as independent games, completely free from the confines of a previous set of rules.
Either way, I suck, and for that I apologize.
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