January 19, 2009 4:00 PM |
['Hit Self-Destruct' is a regular new GameSetWatch column by blogger and writer Duncan Fyfe, focusing on alternative approaches to game criticism. In this inaugural edition, he dips into the English Lit paint-pot for some musings on Fallout 3.]
The protagonist of Bethesda's Fallout 3 is a cipher, a window through which to view the gameworld, so if he had a LiveJournal he would not be writing about his feelings. He'd write about the post-nuclear Wasteland, about the slaves who rallied around the Lincoln Memorial, the android who wanted to live like a human, free elections in a one-man republic, the day the ghouls crashed the gated community.
He'd write about the young girl who fell in love with a priest, the father who took shelter with his injured son in a storm drain, the downfall of Vault 106 and the rangers trapped on the hotel roof. Fallout 3 is like any other RPG insofar as the player collects experience points, gear and currency, but it's essential to the experience that they collect stories, too.
Fallout 3 is easily cross-referenced and classifiable in the modern video gaming canon. The game grew up in an Elder Scrolls household where it aspired to be Fallout, it has all the trappings of a Western RPG and the unbroken camera of Half-Life, and gameplay buzzwords cling to it: non-linear, open world, emergent. Its least likely structural resemblance, though, as per the above paragraph, is to a book of short stories. Essentially, it's Dubliners with guns.
Holding forth on Irish municipal politics in a drunken stagger, this thought probably never even crossed James Joyce's mind. There was nothing to suggest the eventual similarity in the video games of Joyce's day (older games, they would have been in black and white). Dubliners and Fallout 3 compile isolated tales about unrelated people to establish the character of a city in decline: Dublin and a fictional future Washington, respectively.
They abstain from a central unifying plot (more on Fallout's exception later): Dubliners relies on its 13 vignettes, Fallout 3 on an array of sidequests, text and environmental tableaus for players who skip all the dialogue.
Joyce presents 13 drunks, writers, schoolboys and stage mothers whose collective epiphanies on themes of religion, nationalism and masculinity inform the artist's portrait of a city. The book is less a chronicle of individuals but of the social, religious and economic constitution of early 20th century Dublin. Fallout 3, obviously, is not nearly the literary equivalent of Dubliners: they are analogues in form, not in depth.
This is, in part, because Fallout 3 is collaboratively written and designed, and so lacks a prominent auteur as its figurehead. While critics can analyze Dubliners in the context of Joyce's personal history, Fallout 3 players don't know as much about the troubled Roman Catholic upbringing of Todd Howard or the trenchant alcoholism of Emil Pagliarulo, and so instead of subtle and deeply-encoded meaning we see plainness.
To be fair, some of it is plain: the Fallout 3 dramatis personae is not blessed with Joyce's lavish attention to detail: the Wasteland mercenaries, victims and general losers are thinly drawn, comparatively. However, they are sketched out enough to communicate their circumstances and contribute to the persistent mood which hangs over the world. Through this series of character interactions, players discover exactly what kind of place Washington is.
You, the player, encounter people trying to survive in peculiar ways, whether emulating pre-war domesticity or pretending to be vampires. You'll casually be asked to murder, as your prospective employer has no fear of recrimination and neither of you have any expectation that you'll be held accountable for your crime. Everyone assumes that they can put monetary value on your morality, because that's how it's worked there as long as they all can remember.
There's an alarmingly high proportion of slaves, addicts, thieves, nomads and beggars. This is the new society. All instituions and laws were erased after the bombs fell. Life is lethargic and brutal, the Wasteland is a nightmare with a dubious chance at survival, and it's no surprise the only bastions of normalcy have to aggressively barricade themselves from the outside world with walls of steel.
The archetypically evil slavers of Paradise Falls, the willfully ignorant ruler of the Republic of Dave and the Megaton bartender who hordes blackmail material on the town's secretly ugly residents have nothing to do with one another except that they all exist in the same game, and so they inform the player's perception of the setting.
There's a derelict police station in the game, whose computers can recall transcripts of 911 calls from before the war, one of them a realistically horrifying account of a home invasion in progress. That has nothing to do with a post-apocalyptic future but it's there to reinforce the point, in terms contemporary and familiar: Washington DC is fucking bleak.
The message is not all that sophisticated. A moody teenager scribbling "life sucks" in her diary has it beat. As always, the key is not what it says but how it says it. Fallout 3 unleashes anecdotes that cohere into a whole, and tells stories through characters instead of about them. Washington isn't explained in an opening crawl or an in-game textbook, the player learns by being there.
It's an uncommon narrative construction, especially in a medium whose great existential debate on storytelling sometimes feels like an argument over whether the cutscene proportion should be more like Half-Life 2 or Metal Gear Solid. Look at BioShock for an example of something similar: the posthumous histories of its characters, told via audio diaries, represent one sociological element of Rapture. The difference being that the stories run parallel and are paced out for the entire length of the game, where the Fallout 3 vignettes are segmented and sequential.
The separate chapters of Fallout 3 have a thematic unity that the content of other RPGs lack. This is why the short story associating doesn't apply to the whole RPG genre, even though the games usually have a comparable volume of sidequests and incidental characters.
Frequently, side content is more explicitly an elective method by which to improve skills and gather gold, but in Fallout 3 there's no reward for uncovering the diary entries of the war nurse succumbing to radiation poisoning the besides the story itself. Few RPGs share Fallout 3's subdued main quest or centralised setting. Mass Effect doesn't say much about the galaxy except that every planet conceals an artifact or a building of pirates.
While considering points of difference, here's where the Dubliners/Fallout 3 analogy fails. Fallout 3 quite clearly has a primary plotline, which would suggest the shorter, incidental stories, so highly prized by the thesis of this article, are in fact tertiary and do not bear the narrative weight of the game. If the comparison is to hold at all, it relies on marginalising the game's plot.
Fortunately the game itself does that, intentionally. In a departure from its predecessors, there is no time limit or even implied pressure on the player to finish the main quest; instead, they are encouraged to ignore it. Players following their progress on the in-game map will note that the ostensible "story" path only takes them through the smallest portion of the city. To adhere to the main quest is to visit the Wasteland by way of a Disneyland tour bus. Also, the majority of the questline can be skipped entirely without penalty. None of this negates the main story's existence but diminishes its traditional stature and renders it equivalent to the sidequests.
Fallout 3's non-linearity is an obvious distinction with Joyce's prose. Sidequests can be discovered and abandoned in no order, like short stories on shuffle. It therefore loses the deliberate escalation of Dubliners, which features progressively older characters and concludes with the longest instalment in the book.
Then, of course, Fallout 3 is interactive, and the player is forced to intervene in almost every conflict. This is how the player contributes to the game's greater premise, a referendum on whether the city unfailingly venal and corrupt or if it is capable of altruism despite itself. The ending of Fallout 3, thematically, rests less on a final binary choice but over dozens of encounters with strange people that coalesce to make the player's own point about humanity.
There's really a wealth of potentially very interesting and creative literary influences still unrealised by games. Lord of the Rings and Ender's Game are covered. The entire history of entertainment and art is available, inspiration can come from some pretty weird places.
Joyce never got the chance to consider Fallout 3, but we can leave Vault 101 with something as improbable as Joyce's prose in mind: "...real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad." Even if Fallout 3 is not consistently inhabited by the literary spirit of James Joyce, for a moment, it fits.