Fanfiction was birthed out of the desire to experience more, to reimagine or recreate, or perhaps even to reestablish what its world deems to be "real." Sometimes this is done out of dissatisfaction over a story's outcome, but other times, it's quite the opposite. An immersive universe, or, more often, mesmerizing characters can sometimes be so gripping that fans have a hard time letting go. And it's easy to stay stuck in those worlds when billions of words online keep them going to your heart's desire. Fanfiction is such an accessible format that even the most amateur or skilled writers will have a community waiting to support them.
Despite any rampant stigmas, fanfiction fills an undeniably prominent corner of the internet; the Harry Potter series alone boasted over 800,000 works on FanFiction.net. This supportive space, especially for the lesser-experienced, is a place to practice their craft behind the anonymity of the internet while still providing forums to receive feedback from readers who enjoy the same subjects. And sometimes, fanfiction takes it a little bit further than simply fantasizing about pairings in adorable fluff or heartbreaking tragedies, leading to more heartfelt and touching but also relatable stories than many traditionally published novels I've read.
You can observe this phenomenon happening with gaming mods as well, especially those with massively open-world settings. They exist largely for the same reason: perhaps fans were left unsatisfied with the current romance options, or perhaps they wanted more from the experience and found ways to sneak new storylines, entire cities, and original characters into the lore of Skyrim, Fallout, The Witcher 3, Stardew Valley, and Grand Theft Auto, just a few games with the most vigorously active modding communities.
The Potential of Mods
When looking at those examples, for those familiar with open-world games, it's easy to see why they've been susceptible to a plethora of fan creations. While some mods -- Stardew Valley's Lookup Anything, Skyrim's Better Dialogue Controls, and Fallout 4's Place Everywhere being just a few examples -- exist purely for quality-of-life purposes, some others build on their creative foundations. There's a lovely and lengthy list of quest mods that uncover new, unseen corners of Morrowind, Cyrodiil, and Skyrim. Even more impressive is a mod I stumbled upon earlier this year called The Commonwealth Responders, a questline made for Fallout 4 that brings the Responders faction from Fallout 76 to New England, complete with brand new dialogue, voiceovers, quests, and characters. The Skyblivion mod, though it's still a work-in-progress, takes the setting of Oblivion and overhauls it into Skyrim. And Stardew Valley Expanded quite literally expands the universe of ConcernedApe's hit indie by adding new locations, tasks, and NPCs that fit in so well that it feels like a genuine update.
These mods -- and many more -- have gone far beyond writing a successful story and advanced plot. But even so, just as the large majority of fanfiction exists for romance's sake, there are plenty of mods that do the exact same. Take, for example, the Mass Effect series. Unfortunately, some characters are unavailable depending on Commander Shepard's gender. There was a whole conundrum that surfaced about Jack, a woman who appears in Mass Effect 2 originally written as pansexual, but due to censorship, she was revised into a straight woman. There's also Miranda Lawson, another gorgeous but canonically heterosexual woman. Behold: a mod that takes Jennifer Hale's unused voice files paired with FemShep's character model during what used to be romance scenes only accessible to a male Commander Shepard. Another made by the same modder exists for Jack. Finally, players could live out their queer fantasies in peace.
Other instances of game mods are lesser known for their entries into the modding community, but also closely resemble the motivation behind reading and writing fanfiction. One of the most apparent examples of this is with one of the most notorious indie games to come out of the last decade: Undertale.
This tiny game from, at the time, a college student aspiring to be a game dev known as Toby Fox affected fans in a way that he wasn't expecting. Playing as a child named Frisk, you can traverse Undertale like any normal RPG, killing any monsters that cross your path, but the point of the game, as hinted by the motherly NPC Toriel, is to spare and save them. This core idea combined with its lovably genuine cast left players yearning for more, unable to let go, resulting in amateur game development and fanfiction intertwining.
Interestingly, Undertale isn't a hotspot for mods. Rather, scanning the web client GamingJolt, you can find pages upon pages of free fan-made games set in a slew of alternate universes, but many of them still use Toby Fox's assets from the original game code, which is why they could obviously never be copyrighted as an original IP. While they may not be officially mods, Undertale’s slew of fan creations often exists as forms of fanfiction by taking players to alternate realities of the Underworld or exploring the big question of “if.” Dreemurr Reborn, a fangame that follows Asriel had he returned to the surface after a True Pacifist run, derives from a fan comic that was posted to Tumblr just eight days after Undertale’s release in 2015. Searching YouTube for a couple of other alternate universe fangames, Underfell and Underswap, yields videos with millions of views each, showing just how hungry the fanbase is for more.
Fanfiction can exist because, like any writing medium, it’s accessible to anyone, anywhere. Likewise, mods can be accessible to anyone, given they have the time to invest in many hours of learning code. Though you do need the breadth of knowledge and an array of talents, you don’t need to be hired by a AAA development studio or get a polished degree in computer science. But if the only thing barring someone from creating something under a franchise they’re passionate about is learning valuable and worthwhile skills such as game development, many folks are willing to take that leap. In return, they can give something back to the community they came from, something that other fans, who don’t have the skills or means to make mods, might be longing for.
Mods and Fanfiction Share a Similar Purpose
The unfortunate truth about fanfic-turned authors, thanks to some of the most prominent names we know of, is they don't have a strong reputation in the professional writing space. You've heard of E.L. James, the author of the Fifty Shades series, which started out as Twilight fanfiction called Master of the Universe under her username Snowqueens Icedragon. She used what's called "pulling-to-publish," or renaming characters to avoid copyright infringement when professionally selling works. The same practice was used for After, a controversial novel that was born as a Wattpad fanfiction featuring the boyband One Direction. But luckily there are also positive examples of strong, talented writers who've turned their fanfics into published works. Because of his notoriety, Neil Gaiman was able to get away with unchanged characters in novels set in Sherlock's universe.
But despite how detested Fifty Shades might be by some, the reality is that James’ trilogy has sold an astonishing 150 million copies, and when it was originally titled Master of the Universe online, it had over 56,000 reviews before it was deleted. These fanfictions reach their peaks in popularity because of their followings, the online community craving something, and Snowqueens Icedragon’s hit that nail on the head the same way Dreemurr Reborn did. Mods are quite similar in this regard: They’re able to add or provide something that many are looking for or might be interested in, be it AI enhancements, playing Skyrim as an extinct race, or removing effects that can trigger epilepsy. Someone out there could be looking for that exact fix.
From a consumer standpoint, you then have a boundless catalog of free, downloadable content for when you think, "It'd be great if Dogmeat could follow me around even when I have other companions with me," or "I'm in love with Judy Alvarez but I'm not playing Cyberpunk 2077 as a woman." These mods become so prolific in their respective communities because they're mutual feelings shared among players.
This type of content, fanfiction and mods alike, is made by fans for fans, and that's why it will always have a place on the internet, even if one game, movie, show, or book series teeters on the edge of perfection. Because only fans can understand what it is that other fans want to see, why Shepard and Garrus' relationship wasn't quite satisfying enough, why Fallout 4's factions didn't quite hit the mark, or that we just really want to see modern versions of Oblivion and Morrowind after all these years. Why not just make it ourselves, then?
What are some of your favorite mods? Let us know in the comments below.