Busy! I've been besieged with non-gaming-related business this week, like going on the job market and traveling back to visit Boston, my adoptive home town. It's hard to keep the blog up while you're on the road, and the steps needed to secure gainful employment at the conclusion of my PhD seem to trump my impulses to apply the later philosophy of Wittgenstein to Crash Bandicoot's Nitro Kart. But since I knew I be spending some quality time with the lappy whilst on the road, I brought Fallout 1&2 along.
Fallout makes me anxious. Anxious about failing.
Maybe this requires some explanation. I grew up playing Japanese role-playing games as a kid. While many of the other boys were out avoiding obesity, hitting on girls, and developing critical social skills I was in my bedroom leveling up Moogles. Strangely enough I have a great deal of retrospective fondness for this time. I can't help it. It was my childhood after all.
I began playing through Final Fantasy VI for the GBA during my last round of traveling, and though it's been totally enjoyable the thing I notice most about the defining game of my young adulthood is how structured it is. The early Final Fantasy games, in retrospect, seem like they are very safe and user-friendly adventures.
Paradoxically enough for a game with an amnesiac protagonist, FFVI excels at keeping the player to the path they are intended to pursue: your movements are largely restricted to particular areas of the world in the early going, and the hostile menagerie you find in those areas is always scaled appropriately. Even when you don't know where you're supposed to go next, you can be supremely confident that there is such a place. You're supposed to be someplace, and you know that Final Fantasy is going to do its damnedest to get you there.
Final Fantasy VI draws a set of well-defined boundaries when it comes to the incidence and relative difficulty of its obstacles. It's not that it lacks challenges; it's more that the challenges it sends your way are predictable-- monsters in the fields, but not in the towns. Bosses are at the end of the dungeon, not at the entrance. You know that victory will be in your grasp so long as you keep on grabbing at the next rung of the ladder the game feeds to you, and it's a cheering piece of knowledge to have.There are a definite suite of rituals to be observed : keep leveling up your Moogles, keep buying them better equipment, pack lots of potions, and everything will turn out fine.
So given that this reassuring brand of tightly scripted role-playing adventure is my primary frame of reference, Fallout makes me nervous. Here's the setup: A man tells you that you're supposed to get a new chip for your fallout shelter's water purification system, or they will run out of potable water in 150 days. You begin the game by shooting a couple of rats in a cave, which goes pretty well. And then you step out of the vault and into the surrounding wasteland. Now what?
I've played the game for hours and hours now and I still have no idea whether I'm making any progress. I've wandered from town to town, asking about this chip; nobody seems to know where to find one. I have no feel for whether I'm getting anywhere; I just don't know if I'm doing the right things. There's 94 days left, and though I know I've made some good moves along the way (I've cleared out some Radscorpions, I've killed some bandits, I've freed some slaves) I have no idea if I'm any closer to finding that water chip.
Sometimes, in the towns, you will say the wrong thing in conversation and somebody will just jump you. The next thing you know you'll be locked in a fight to the death with a crowd of religious zealots or petty criminals, because you've picked the wrong dialogue option. I was wandering around a new town yesterday and I was suddenly attacked by a monster-- a deathclaw, for chrissake-- that was entirely capable of killing me and my companion single-handedly. Random, unforeseeable death of this kind is a constant in Fallout.
Even though I find this constant sense of aimlessness and danger unsettling, there is something of genius in the way that this experience of aimlessness communicated by the gameplay dovetails with the setting and narrative of Fallout. Your character has spent his entire life sequestered away in a shelter, where a form of society has survived in complete isolation from the rest of the world aboveground. The surface world of Fallout has been obliterated by nuclear war, and in the wake of this conflict all the order and regularity promised by social life has been wiped from the earth. In its wake only the barest rudiments of settled living have taken root-- small, largely lawless settlements, linked by hazardous trading routes. In the absence of the social contract that makes life predictable you face a world governed by chance, a world that is only accidentally susceptible to your talents and foresight.
And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship. We're saving often.