Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Life in Fallout: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

As I've said before, I'm not crazy about Ian Bogost's “Procedural Rhetoric” idea. Maybe it's just me, it has this reek of system about it that always inclines me to skepticism. But the idea does give powerful expression to an important idea: video games can be a form of persuasion. Bogost's basic idea is that a game can be a sort of argument, an argument that unfolds in the player's assimilation of rules. And as I've been playing through Fallout 1 and 2 the last week I can't shake the feeling that the game is making an argument to me, an argument about hazardous joys of the state of nature.

The idea of a “state of nature” was a common device in modern political theory; it represents the conditions of human existence prior to the advent of society. It wasn't that anyone literally thought there was such a time in history; rather, reflecting on the complexion of human nature in the absence of any civil order was a sort of heuristic device, one that was meant throw the basic functions of human social life into full relief. They thought the best way to get a handle on what society was for was considering the complexion of human life in its unvarnished state and then asking what benefits civil organization provided.

For the political thinkers of the Enlightenment, the natives on the newly discovered continent across the Atlantic offered an apparent (though, of course, false) analogue of this state, a world stripped of civilization and guided by the untutored hand of human nature. But now, it seems to me that apocalypse has displaced colonization in the popular consciousness. It's not a world prior to civilization, but the world after civilization that fires our imaginations. Thermonuclear war means wiping the slate clean: no government, no society, no police. Just men, their native powers, and the scarce goods that survived the apocalypse. Fallout is a vision of that world that is grim and liberating at the same time.

How grim? The outlaw vistas of Fallout reminded me of the state of nature as it's envisioned by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is as well-known in the public mind for his colorful misanthropy as for his highly influential constractualist political theory. To Hobbes, any scrutiny of human conduct testified to the fact that humans are essentially motivated by the constant, destructive, and restless desire for power. When this need runs up against the needs of other humans, the result is predictable: “Felicity is the continual progress of the desire, form one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter... so that in the first place, I put for the general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death... competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war: because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other.” This understanding of human nature explained the function of the social compact-- by setting up a system of laws and ceding their individual wills to the sovereign, they gained a measure of protection from the relentless lusts of their fellow-men.

Fallout embraces this basic argument about the basic tendency of mankind towards destructive self-aggrandizement. As Hobbes wrote, “it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man.” In every town you visit (save a few Vaults) the demise of society has ushered in an era of entrepreneurial criminality: racketeering, gambling, slavery. Not only are you liable to be attacked by raiders as you cross the wastes; you can also be attacked for minor breaches of honor in regular conversation at a saloon. Your life and property are never secure, always threatened by the casual malice of the other survivors. In this world there is “no account of time, no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brustish, and short.” It is a world that is unendurable without a quicksave key.

Despite all this, relentlessly hostile world created by Fallout has an incredibly satisfying quality. A few weeks ago, I read an article on the excellent blog Game Design Advance that captured the allure of Fallout to me. Bob Clark wrote a post on how most modern games (with their increasing reliance on autosaving, adjustable difficulty, and other miscellaneous handholding devices) deprive the player of the “freedom to fail.” His guiding idea in the post is that games reflect different underlying assumptions about the importance of sociality, about the tradeoffs between allowing for failure and maximizing freedom. Based on this idea, he spins out this great riff on the way that capitalism and socialism propose different philosophies of game design: “If Ronald Reagan were a game designer, he probably wouldn’t be happy with the state of modern games– he’d say that without the risk of really losing, the player loses a vital piece of agency.”

And he has a point. The old-school world of Fallout is a masterpiece of deregulation. It is a world dreamed especially for entrepreneurs-- there are unimaginable gains to be had for the person who is willing to assume the risk and operate without a safety net. You can freely wander the scorched wastes and you will most likely end up dead. But unlike many RPGs, there is this chance that you will happen upon some unthinkable bonanza: weapons and equipment that are far beyond your current level, resources far outstripping those closer to the beaten path.

I can't deny that there is something empowering, even freeing, about a world in which total failure is a live possibility. The successes are more rewarding, more tangible because they carry so much more risk. In exchange for the constancy of death there is a constant sense of possibility. And it makes your final triumph feel earned, because you have had something truly at stake as you've played.

And it's this fragile sense of agency that sticks with me after playing Fallout. Where Hobbes' rhetoric in the Leviathan was meant to work on the reader and convince her of the empowerment she gained from participation in the civil contract, Fallout's rhetoric is all about the compelling ambiguity of a world without security and without laws. Your essential vulnerability is an inescapable component of your sense of mastery. the unfettered freedom the game's design affords the player conveys a unique sense that your individual gifts as a player (the choices you make amongst your skills and attributes and perks) have a purchase on the world that would be lacking in a more structured, socialized environment. Here's hoping that Fallout 3 can retain this balance that has made the series so compelling.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree about Bogost's procedural rhetoric. I think that what makes it more irritating, for me, is that in Unit Operations he goes on for several pages about how formalist and structuralist Ludologists and Narratologists have been, and then goes on to formulate this highly systematic way of analysing games based on component parts.

Kirk Battle said...

Wow, great write-up. I like the fact that you assess the idea that the game is communicating more than elements of narrative or game design.

Both 'Procedural Rhetoric' or Koster's 'Theory of Fun' struck me as stabs at an overarching 'Games as Language Systems' theory that has been rattling down the pipeline slowly. They get how the author is communicating and they get why the audience is listening, but I wonder about the how much room there is for a reaction from the player to it (beyond turning the game off or continuing play). For as much as Fallout is communicating a brutal message about human nature, I wonder about its capacity to get that point across to a broad audience.

Love me some Fallout though...

CrashTranslation said...

I've been getting a similar feeling recently playing Far Cry 2 and was also provoked to references Hobbes in a post.

Though contrary to Fallout, there is a lot more safety in the world of Far Cry 2, as your buddies will come to your rescue if you are in trouble. However that is a favour that is often asked of in return, with you having to save them in times of trouble. You can choose not to but if that happens you will lose that safety net for a while. I wonder what, if anything, this says about human behaviour in a "state of nature"?

Might some degree of ad-hoc alliances naturally form based around mutually beneficial desires, alliances that by their very nature are fragile and temporary?

The creative director of Far Cry 2, Clint Hocking, has been open about his desire to provoke an emotional reaction in players, and specifically to make them feel uneasy about their actions. They were specifically aiming to evoke a “Heart of Darkness” sensation, and I think they have succeeded, in a way that is not so obviously hostile to new players.

pixelvixen707 said...

crashtranslation, my buddies stopped rescuing me sometime after I stopped bothering to save them after they stopped remembering to dodge bullets ... I played under constant threat of death and worse, long load times.

Iroquois, loved your take on the first Fallout, which I still have not played. I wonder if procedural rhetoric is adequate for a game like this, or like Fallout 3 (which I have beat), which is full of themes and ideas but doesn't channel the player into one way of reading them. Games can make arguments, but more than static works, they are by nature open to interpretation. With Fallout 3, from the Capitol setting on down, the game is loaded with American iconography. But per L.B., does it boil down to a message to be communicated? Did the designers have clear intentions, or is it a grabbag of meaningful elements for us to construe any way we wish? Something is there - the game has far more brains than say, Fracture - but the approach is subtle, and even passive.

I enjoyed your interpretation!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@daniel: I guess I'm not categorically opposed to formal analysis of any kind. I'm just not crazy about the attempt to use rhetoric as a model for the kind of work that games do. When it comes down to it I'm just suspicious of anything that involves creating new words. (As thoreau said, distrust any venture that requires new clothes)

@crashtranslation: you bring up a good point, which is that there are still some criminal bands about; but Hobbes' point was that in a state of war all things were unstable because each individual would feel free to turn on his fellows when he felt it was to his advantage.

Also, I've been extremely intrigued by the Far Cry 2; I'm wondering if the frustrations of the gameplay are counterbalanced by the grim narrative and moral unease.

@pixelvixen: hey, thanks for stopping by, I really like your blog.

As to your question, I don't know how to respond without getting into the thorny issues that surround the idea of authorial intent in games, but I would say this: the rules of the original Fallout were such that they allowed a great deal of freedom and entrepreneurial spirit. You could be good, or you could sell your friends into slavery. There was more than one way to do everything.

Here's my idea: just by doing *this* -- leaving all these avenues open, the designers are saying something interesting about the world, or at least creating an experience that is different from other games in ways that are definite and calculated. I think the way games make statements, sometimes, is by leaving avenues open to the player rather than forcing you down some path.

CrashTranslation said...

I've not found any frustrations with the gameplay that I would consider note worthy, but I have been spending extended periods just wandering around the countryside so the combat isn't as frequent for me as it is for people who stick to the main roads.

Also playing on the PC means I don't suffer from long load times which makes extended play sessions more tolerable.

If you are intersted in Far Cry 2 I'd suggest reading Clint's replies to particular criticisms, over on Tom Francis' blog. Certain elements were designed to be unpleasant or irritating (The personalities of the buddies for example) as to highlight the nature of the world.