Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Whapocalypse? Part 2

As I mentioned in the previous Whapocalypse? post, another game I've been playing, now that I've realized my iMac has the power to run some of the higher-profile recent releases, is Fallout 3.

Fallout 3, like Left 4 Dead, is set in a ruined world, but this time, it's not a zombie infestation but a nuclear war between the U.S. and China that's devastated this country and presumably the rest of the world. Specifically, Fallout 3 gives the player the opportunity to range through the desolate wilds of the D.C. area, referred to in the game as the Capital Wasteland, which bear some degree of similarity—topographically not aesthetically!—to the real-world Washington. In fact, the use of Washington as a post-apocalyptic setting caused some controversy as the game was released; an angry letter appeared in the Washington Post after a reader took offense at Washington Metro ads for the game (the ads prominently featured the graphic above), and Todd Howard, the game's executive producer, went to some pains to assure Stephen Totilo that the game's release date (October 28) was not intended to coincide with the presidential election, and the game's content was not intended as any sort of political statement. However, Totilo did put together a photographic tour of Fallout 3's version of the inauguration site a couple of weeks ago, and it's provocative imagery, whether deployed in an explicitly political context or not.

As far as I can tell—I'm no expert on Washington or especially its suburbs, though I've been in the city a few times—the use of D.C. as a setting mostly works out, and things are basically where they're supposed to be. Someone who's actually lived there, like Bobby of the GameCulture Journal Blog, who wrote this excellent post on Fallout 3's metro system, can talk about this far better than I can. The monuments and museums are there, and that's interesting, of course. The first view of the outside world, when the player exits the vault, takes in a crumbling Washington Monument that stands miles away from the player's position, across an apparently endless and imposing waste, and this is both beautiful and terrifying. Getting into the city (eventually), the player finds Arlington National Cemetery, the National Mall, the Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, and various other famous sites, right where they're supposed to be, just in a state of advanced disrepair.

What's really been amusing to me, though, is running across the less obvious Washington sites, ones that you'll have heard of and visited in the past, perhaps. For instance, the game's developer and publisher, Bethesda Softworks, is based in Rockville, MD. Rockville is a bit outside the scope of the in-game world, but if you walk out towards Rockville in the game, you'll eventually come across a place closeish to the real-world Bethesda, MD, which includes "Bethesda Ruins," a depressing shell of an office park that's placed just about in the very spot where, in the real world, Bethesda Softworks operated until 1990. Friendship Station is a ruined metro stop that corresponds roughly to the Friendship Heights neighborhood in the real world. Dupont Circle is in the game. The Georgetown neighborhood is sort of where it should be, as is the Chevy Chase neighborhood.

The missing element, of course, is the usual set of the mechanisms of civilization. Or anyway, there are none of these in the game that would be familiar to us. Fallout 3's version of Greater Washington has been sliced up into several sections. In the most straightforward terms, these sections are owned, settled, occupied—whatever—by various groups of people who, in the absence of any "official" authorities, serve as the authorities in their respective sections. The few forms of governance that exist are fragile: in Megaton, one of the first settlements the player is likely to find, the most visible authority figure is Lucas Simms, the town's self-appointed sheriff. But during one available quest in the game, it is quite likely (as has happened in the game I'm playing) that Sheriff Simms will be shot and killed; no other characters will ever step in to take his place. Even when Simms is alive, though, other inhabitants of Megaton will speak frankly to the player about him and call into question whether he is an entirely legitimate agent of the law. Their criticisms are mild, though, and all those who do point out the vigilante nature of his position nevertheless express that they are willing to go along with the situation. His presence certainly doesn't seem to make living in Megaton any less safe.

The player may find it easiest to associate different locations in the game world with the inhabitants or, where present, the governing authorities that appear in those locations. So the freeway overpass community of Arefu "belongs" to Evan King and his neighbors; Megaton "belongs" to Lucas Simms and its other citizens; Tenpenny Tower "belongs" to Allistair Tenpenny, Chief Gustavo, and its other residents. This is certainly the most obvious way, aside from nomenclature, of thinking of different locations, and it facilitates gameplay in general and navigation in particular by allowing the player to "put names to faces."

But these are almost never the only people interested in any given location in the game. The fortunes of the characters in Fallout 3 are always in flux, and much of the territory in the game is contested. Although at the game's outset Megaton is, again, "owned" by its various inhabitants and its sheriff, the player can undertake a quest that requires the detonation of a live but unexploded nuclear bomb that acts as something of a war memorial/religious object in the center of the town. This quest is performed at the behest of Allistair Tenpenny, an enterprising man who owns a converted hotel in the Capital Wasteland. Tenpenny wishes to eliminate Megaton and its inhabitants simply because he is disgusted by their existence. The residents of Megaton, meanwhile, tell stories of the town's early days, when pieces of abandoned airplanes were brought in from a nearby airport (Reagan?) to construct a barrier to protect settlers from bands of raiders; this barrier now creates the small town's outer boundaries, and it's still crucial as a means of protecting the townspeople from the predatory raiders.

The violent clash of incompatible interests, often over one group or another's claim to a given section of the Wasteland, is common in the game. Portions of downtown Washington are the sites of skirmishes between an organization known as the Brotherhood of Steel and gangs of mutants; the community of Arefu is apparently suffering from a string of attacks by a group of vampires. Many spots on the map that aren't major settlements are defended by pockets of raiders who will attack the player on sight. The game plays out in the midst of all of this confusion, which is precisely what you'd expect from the post-apocalyptic setting: in the absence of the traditional authorities, people either improvise new societies, or they assault the ones that already exist, looking for easy gain.

One of the most satisfying features of the RPG genre is the ability to pick an "alignment," some sort of moral or ethical outlook you intend for your character to follow, and to stick to it throughout the game. Of course, in an older Japanese RPG like Final Fantasy, this doesn't mean much, as dialogue choices are limited and there are only so many things you're free to do in the game. But many more recent Japanese RPGs and so-called western RPGs have presented the player with some sort of system for negotiating the game in accordance with the player's preferred moral alignment. One interesting example is Baldur's Gate, a 1998 RPG that gave the player a party of up to six characters to play with. Baldur's Gate actually presented opportunities for mixing together characters who wouldn't necessarily get along, like evil and good characters. In the most extreme case, the player could form a party with a good surface-dwelling elf and an evil, cave-dwelling dark elf, each of whom hated the other intensely. The two would exchange heated words throughout the game, and in some games, they would even fight each other to the death.

Naturally, the post-apocalyptic setting is the perfect landscape for this kind of moral navigation. Apart from any sympathy the player may develop towards the game's NPCs, there's little reason to accept the cobbled-together bodies politic of the Capital Wasteland as anything more than arbitrary constructions. The player has the freedom to prop up these tenuous systems or to undermine them and use them to advance his or her interests within the game. Most quests even have multiple ways to approach individual solutions, often one that's violent and one that's peaceful. A group of outcasts asking for help getting access to Tenpenny Tower can use the player's diplomatic skills, or they'll just as happily accept his or her help in shooting their way into the building. A crafty player might even devise a plan to loose feral humans on the tower's wealthy residents, clearing it out for the outcasts' use.

Many of the game's quests offer alternatives that are mildly sickening, like the quest where the player is asked to detonate the nuclear bomb in Megaton. Fallout 3 is a dark game, set in a world that I personally have found it upsetting to visit for too much time in any one play session. It's a world filled with desperation, unquestionably a world that offers more enticing and easier rewards to the player who's willing to play the game "evil" and often handicaps the player who insists on playing "good." The sad state of things in any given place in the game world doesn't create much incentive to maintain the status quo, and it's easy to feel the draw of nihilism. Don't get me wrong: there's humor here, too; there's a whole world in Fallout 3, and as Denis Farr points out, some of the details in this messed-up land can bring a smile. I can't help feeling, though, that the majority of the responses the typical player of Fallout 3 will experience will fall somewhere in the range between "disturbed" and "repulsed." Many of these responses will come up as the player thinks about how to conduct him or herself in the Wasteland. There's as much wide-open play area morally, I guess I'm saying, as there is geographically. As Karen Green asked in a column about Robert Kirkman's zombie comic book The Walking Dead, "What is the role of government in crisis (a timely question) and what does society become when that role has been well and truly abdicated? Do people change to adapt to extreme events, or do the events change the people? When do the ends justify the means? What does it take to make someone a survivor?"

I wrote in the first "Whapocalypse?" entry about the suitability of the zombie genre to the signature Valve-style FPS. The reason I started this series in the first place was because I've been interested in some of the same questions Karen asks, or at least I've been interested in the way those questions have been explored recently in the medium of video games. The answers I've found in Fallout 3 weren't always the ones I would've wanted to find if I'd had a choice. Still, the game is horribly compelling; I'm simultaneously anxious and terrified to return to Fallout 3's Washington.

I've yet to talk about how close to each other on the genre tree these two branches are, the zombie story and the post-apocalyptic story, but that's one of the other big reasons I began writing this series, and it's an issue that's been working its way through my head lately, too. Next time I revisit this topic, I'll have something to say about that. Till then, as always, thank you so much for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment