Mod of the year: The Dark Mod

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Welcome to the PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards 2013. For an explanation of how the awards were decided, a round-up of all the awards and the list of judges, check here .

Great mods let us get so much more out of our games, the best mods are games unto themselves, as interesting and worthy as any commercial release. This year we celebrate the mod that revived and reinvigorated a PC gaming classic: The Dark Mod.

CHRIS The first version might have come out in 2009, but this year saw the release of The Dark Mod as a complete, standalone package. It's a tremendous achievement – a detailed tribute to the Thief series that adds advanced object manipulation to the already broad range of tools at the player's disposal. When I first played Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I wanted a Thief game made with its sense of physicality. The Dark Mod is pretty much that: the way you can reach out and grab objects in the world is a fantastic augmentation of the fantasy of being a thief in a murky, dangerous, candle-lit world.

I love the way the team encourage players to download, share, and build their own missions. That sense of creativity and community is a great match for the enthusiastic stealth game fanbase, and it's something that we'd never see from a major publisher. The future of Thief might look uncertain at the moment, but the series' spirit has a very good home here.

PHIL Agreed: the community is the heart of The Dark Mod. What I love about it is that, as a Thief-inspired project originally created as a Doom 3 mod, it's different enough from the Looking Glass-era Thief games to give that community a sense of ownership. The lore, setting and systems have been tweaked just enough to provide a framework for its creators' imaginations.

As a standalone download, The Dark Mod is just a stealth tutorial and single mission, so imagination is the key to its success. Its download page contains over 70 alternative missions, each of which respects, and in some cases adds to, an expanding crowdsourced universe full of rich detail, richer treasures, and cunning taffers who want to enjoy and steal both.

Unlike other tributes to older games, the mod's makers also weren't precious about reinventing Thief's systems to make them better. Every developer with an interest in creating professional pilferers should look to The Dark Mod's lockpicking system and, well, steal it. It's not tied to a minigame, but it's also not a canned animation you have to endure. Instead, you wait while your master thief does the job, and use sound cues to identify and mark the end of the sequence. The result makes you feel like part of the process, but also keeps you detached enough to listen out for approaching guards. It's a perfect balance of interaction and situational awareness, creating tension and rewarding advanced planning.

The result is an improved and constantly expanding version of a game that's still notable for how enjoyable its stealth is. I don't often agree with the idea that the old ways were better, but the series remains uniquely unmatched in its free-form, open ended thievery. More of that is a fine thing.

CHRIS It makes for an interesting case study of the point where triple-A, indie and modding converge. I like the idea that fangenerated games can act as a kind of practical criticism, a way of broadcasting the desires of 'hardcore' fans to publishers. I've heard a lot of major game developers claim that they covet the attention of those core audiences, but it's a stance that warrants scepticism. Projects like The Dark Mod are a way for those fans to say “if you won't make it, we will” – to deftly lift what was good and meaningful about the games that inspired us years ago and run away with it.

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