Windows/$0/Requires Garry's Mod
"Go to random maps on the workshop, pillage its trash for money, and converse with your higher-dimensional cat overlords."
I found this via Alice O'Connor's write-up on RockPaperShotgun – it's a free mod for Garry's Mod, which of course is one of the most famous mods of Half-Life 2. I don't really play mods at all, so a mod of a mod is pretty far outside the zone of things I would normally play.
A game like this is best played without spoilers, so if I can convince you to play it by the end of this paragraph, you should just close the browser window and go get it. Here goes: Jazztronauts is simultaneously a silly, chaotic multiplayer goof-off session and a truly avant-garde work of art that shows how little we have explored the space of what's possible in videogames. It's a moon landing in the shape of bouncy castle.
The game opens with a custom setpiece that sets up the main conceit of the game: interdimensional thieves want you to help them salvage materials from videogame levels across the conceptual multiverse that is the Steam Workshop. You take a bus to a level from an actual videogame (or more often, a mod of an actual videogame) and start stealing all the props from it, using a magical stick that warps the props away into your inventory. Once everything in the area has been seized and pawned, you get back on the bus and go the next dimension. In the fiction of the game, you're an unchained entropic force, strip-mining the collective cultural works of the medium of games in exchange for goofy cutscenes.
Jazztronauts recalls Zach Gage's old thinkpiece Lose/Lose, a game that deletes files from your computer as you play it. By contrast, Jazztronauts' deletions are fictitious but also conceptually much more transgressive, since the files are deleted without the consent of the owner. Since you're not deleting anything real, you are unleashed to click everything you see with wild obsessive abandon, almost tidying the spaces away to nothing.
Getting mods to run is always a bit of a project – which is why I so seldom try them – and this one is more demanding than most. You need Garry's Mod, of course, and the mod and its content packs. Then ideally you've also got a lot of Source Engine games installed, like Half Life 2, Counter Strike: Source, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Then, on top of that, you really need friends to play with. Jazztronauts is a procedural experience, and so there naturally will be procedural lulls in the excitement, and procedural bugs, and all of that works best when you have human behavior filling in the negative space in the game.
So the barrier to entry is steep. But for me that inaccessibility created a boutique feeling. The narrative and structure of Jazztronauts frame it as a secret experience, a kind of accident of circumstance or a mistake, twisting recycled videogame assets into something that feels special and even rare. I've thought a lot about how games benefit from that kind of feeling; players who reach the QWOP page still often assume they've found a lost, broken corner of the Internet, a frontiersman feeling that has become all too rare in an era where people spend 99% of their connected time on two or three websites.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the idea that the interactivity of videogames lets them do things artistically that other media cannot do. Here, though, is a game that is doing something that would literally be impossible in any other medium – to allow the audience to interlope into other creative works in the medium and deconstruct them! The possibility of Jazztronauts has less to do with the interactivity of videogames, and much more to do with the peculiarity of how games are constructed and disseminated, and in particular how they are often set up to permit remixing, modification, and even destruction of original works.
You could not make a Jazztronauts of popular music, or movies, or theatre, or books. It would be impossible technically, legally, culturally... but it would also be impossible conceptually, since any movie which allowed you to delete the props in hundreds of other movies would be, almost by definition, a videogame.
I guess I unconsciously associate modding culture with the idea of videogames as machines for generating fun or escapist immersion rather than art. Most of the mods I've played are either new games built within games (like Counter-Strike), or graphical enhancements or story content for older games. But mods have also long been at the forefront of experimental artistic work in games, going back as far as Tale of Tales' 'Adam and Eve' models for Quake 3, Mary Flanagan's autobiographical mod [domestic] for Unreal Tournament 2003, or my friend Robert Yang's Radiator mod for Half-Life 2. I'm making a mental note to pay more attention.