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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Emotional Fallout

Preppie 2 was the first computer game to evoke an emotional response from me. I played it at my cousin Darwin's place, on his Atari 800. The game was a variation of Pac-Man, only instead of eating dots in a maze and avoiding ghosts, you painted the floors of a sorority house and avoided giant frogs.

The game's music, graphics and sense of humour gave it a whimsical, innocent charm that I adored. At the time I thought to myself, "This is what's wonderful about human culture."

That was more than twenty years ago. Today, I'm about halfway through Fallout 3, the much-ballyhooed post-nuclear roleplaying game, the third, as you may have guessed, in a series.

Fallout 3 is a bleak game, played out on the ruined, atomic-scarred landscape of an apocalyptic Washington DC. Ruined junk and debris are scattered across the landscape, and feral dogs and mutated insects hunger for your flesh. People are uniformly impoverished; bottlecaps serve as cash, and old vacuum cleaners, tools and even tin cans are valuable. Everyone is armed, frightened, and pessimistic.

And yet there's a melancholy beauty to be had in this game. The 50s aesthetic, however rusted-out and radiation-soaked, has an irresistable appeal. Rocketship-themed gas stations and Nuka-Cola vending machines dot the landscape. Faded propaganda posters brighten up crumbling walls. Old computer records, books and notes paint a picture of a happier time. Surviving radio broadcasts play popular hits of the 40s and 50s - particularly "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," by the Inkspots, an ironic counterpoint to this world's fate.

It's a violent game. In my search for my father, I've had to kill over 60 people so far, and hundreds of mutated monsters (the game keeps track). And even though my victims are pixels, not people, I feel deeply saddened. For in a world like this, every life is precious.

More than anything else, Fallout 3 reminds me exactly how much we have to lose. The Washington of our world is home to incredible architecture, priceless archives, great works of art - and of course, millions of human beings. Now multiply that by all the thousands of cities across the globe, each with equal value.

I grew up living with the fear that a nuclear holocaust would destroy all that. In the 1990s, that fear faded away. We seem to be facing a more gradual catastrophe these days.

But Fallout 3 reminds me that all manner of self-inflicted horrors could yet be unleashed on humanity. I hope we're wise enough to play out our violent impulses in the virtual world, rather than the real one. The world of Fallout is a fun place to visit - and every second I play, it shows me how lucky I am to live in a world still brimming with life.


ZeeBride said...

I think we are more likely to face an enviromental disaster nowadays than a nuclear holocaust. Not saying the nuclear one can't happen, just that the enviromental one is a guarantee in the current situation.

And I find a lot of irony in you being sad at killing virtual characters, yet continuing to play the game and kill more.

Anonymous said...

Irony for me will have to wait until next year, when the game's price gets chopped down a bit.

Earl J. Woods said...

There's a certain level of irony to be had, to be sure. And I haven't killed anyone who hasn't tried to kill me first! That has to count for something.

Anonymous said...

I doubt anybody is following this thread anymore, but I read an interesting article about nuclear war in fiction, and how it creates a dangerous precedent.

The research suggests that fiction, especially pulp-style science fiction about a post-apocalyptic war scenario romanticizes a nuclear attack, and actually causes people to reduce their fear of the Bomb.

In most of the fiction, you have the resouceful hero often battling mutated survivors, monsters, and such, and in the end prevailing. This gives readers the thought that not only is nuclear war survivable, but that they will be allocated some sort of supernatural energy that will help them to survive. Often, it's the "bad guys" that turn into mutants, but sometimes the hero mutates as well. Of course, the protagonist often finds some way to turn the mutation to their advantage.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, then, feeds the same needs that a reader has when they indulge in superhero fiction. Instead of donning a cape and flying through the sky, the protagonist evades an atomic blast relatively unscathed. Such an atomic survivor would be to the rest of the irradiated population not unlike how Superman would be compared to us in contemporary society. I guess it's not so much that the post-nuke protagonist gains power, so much as the surrounding population loses theirs.

Real nuclear holocaust does not provide this sort of resolution. Everybody either dies instantly or horribly and slowly. The blast of the bomb forms a scar in society that may possibly never heal.

Witness Japanese manga, where cataclysmic events are positively common, and the concept of the determined survivor is pushed almost to a mania. Or look at a lot of current American offerings where in a post-911 world vengeance, torture, and "shock and awe" style violence is in order.

We don't see realistic consequences for this violence in our media. As a reult, we learn to marginalize the cost in terror and despair that this destruction would offer. Not that we WANT to know the true resolution to these events! The six o'oclock news is already bad enough as our institutionalized provider of mass-media fear (This news broadcast is sponsored by Blankety Bank: You're Not As Rich As You Think!). There's only so much misery we can take in.

But if the hawks truly had their way, the (ICBM) rockets' red glare and the (Hydrogen) bombs bursting in the air would give proof to the light (the detonation flash, natch), that nothing more would be there, in the land of the free (fallout) and the home of the (mass) grave.

Fracture said...

My favourite game of all time is the original System Shock.

It was amazing and gripping. It got buried in the media blitz for Doom (or was it Duke Nukem?).

The sequel was very good, but pales in comparison to the original.

It's (not really) abandonware, so there are copies of it floating around. The initial set up (DOSBox) and learning curve are worth the trouble.