A decade ago, Morrowind made me realize how far graphics had come when I found myself pausing between quests to stand on the top of a mountain and watch the sunrise. This is particularly important because I'm not otherwise a graphically-oriented person. Earlier this year, when some Redditor asked the community what game they'd most like to see remade with today's graphics and the top-voted answer was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), I was surprised--not because someone would want to remake KOTOR but because I already thought of the game as existing in the era of "today's graphics." The idea that it's not good enough for a large group of players just astonishes me. Then again, if graphic development had stopped with Ultima Underworld in 1992, I don't think I'd be bothered; I'm into RPGs for the mechanics, not the visuals. Nonetheless, I can still recognize beauty when I see it, and that sunrise in Morrowind was just beautiful.
I found a similar moment a couple of days ago in Fallout 4. I was in Salem, Massachusetts, the town in which Chester Bolingbroke actually lives. Although Fallout's Salem doesn't look much like the real Salem (among other things, the in-game Salem has only one witch museum), it was still lovely by post-apocalyptic standards. I found myself down on a beach listening to the waves and watching the eastern sky light up. There didn't seem to be a single object representing the sun as in Morrowind, but it was still nice. Peaceful. Beautiful...
Whap. At first, I didn't notice it--I was too intent on the sky. But then it came again. Whap. Whap. Whapwhapwhapwhapwhap. I noticed with alarm that my radiation level was rising dramatically, and before I could react, I was dead. Some jackass belonging to the Children of Atom had wandered over from a nearby commune and fried me with a gamma gun. As I sat there and looked at the reloading screen, I thought, what a perfect encapsulation of the Fallout universe. Forget that you're in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for even a moment, and you're dead.
An overwhelming sense of bleakness overcame me, and when the game finally came back up, I didn't want to keep playing. I was at once depressed and disgusted at the relentless violence of the universe. It's an absurd statement, I know--computer RPGs are, if nothing else, primarily about violence. Every RPG character reaches the winning screen after trekking through the blood of thousands. We hand-wave it by saying they were all "evil," but note that they're not the ones marching through the doors of our dungeons with small arsenals on their backs. (RPG players believe in some kind of reverse Castle Doctrine in which we can enter any building we want, and it's your fault if you turn violent in response.) My Fallout 4 character is Level 56 and has killed...let's see...1,076 people. Can you imagine how thoroughly traumatized a real-life solider would be with that kind of body count? I don't care if you make "good" or "evil" role-playing choices in quests and dialogue--either way, you're role-playing a sociopath.
Like its predecessor, I find Fallout 4 addictive but not fun. Its universe makes me feel uncomfortable. Dirty. I hate the radiation mechanic more than anything--especially because those annoying clicks often come up when I can't see any reason for it. That's part of the world, I guess--everything is so poisoned that sometimes you just start taking rads because screw you, you live in a wasteland. I don't like killing human raiders instead of orcs, or injecting myself with chemicals instead of drinking potions. I don't like role-playing the real world.
Yes, I know, Fallout isn't the real world. Its timeline diverged from the real world sometime after World War II. Somehow they got complex artificial intelligence without a microprocessor, fusion reactors but no flat-screen televisions, drugs that improve physical and mental performance but no wireless technology beyond the radio. The bombs fell in 2077 after a war with China and humanity has become a scavenging society. Somehow, 200 years later, pre-war packaged food is still both widely available and still good to eat. People wear pre-war clothes and use pre-war toilets; except for a few nods to agriculture, no one seems to have built or made anything new. I'm not sure whether we're supposed to regard all weapons and ammunition as all pre-war (New Vegas and the other games seem to diverge on this point), but either way there's plenty of them.
What's insidious about the Fallout universe is that the pre-war world was in some ways much worse than the post-war world. You piece this together mostly through the pre-war logs kept on computer terminals. Vault-Tec sold safety to its customers but then scheduled each vault for some cruel physical or psychological experiment. (The mystery remains: To what end? Since vaults wouldn't be populated except in the case of a nuclear war, what did they hope to do with the results when civilization no longer remained?) Every business seems to have been actively defrauding both the public and the government while subjecting its own employees to armed security robots and machine gun turrets. Employees were consumed with petty inter-office rivalries and extramarital affairs. The government was full of incompetent, immoral megalomaniacs. Store robots gunned down shoplifters. Corporations and governments experimented on unwilling human subjects. Hazardous waste was dumped everywhere from reservoirs to random basements. Desks of random businesses, even schools, were full of weapons and ammunition. And on top of all this corruption, everything had a shiny, smiley, patriotic, self-consciously polite veneer.
Yes, I know: hurr, durr, how is that different from the real world? While of course I see analogs--caricaturization of the real world is really Fallout's entire raison d'etre--I'm not quite that cynical. We have lots of bad but we also have lots of good; Fallout's pre-war world seems to be all bad. "This civilization deserved nuclear apocalypse," the game wants us to believe.
Not that the post-war world is any better. "War...war never changes," we hear repeatedly, but what the game really seems to believe is that governments and people never change. Every time more than 6 people come together, corruption seems to follow. None of the major factions is unequivocally "good." The Brotherhood of Steel, with its knights and paladins, sounds like an organization concerned with justice and protection--until you get to know them and find out that they just care about the preservation of technology. The Enclave represents the worst of the pre-war government. The New California Republic sounds like a good thing, but at times it seems more interested in control than justice, and its president is a total jerk. Even the Minutemen, the supposed heroes of Fallout 4, seem to have more deserters than dedicated soldiers.
Every time you run across some bastion of civilization, like a small city, it almost always turns out to have a dark secret, a dictatorial government, or a sharp divide between rich and poor--sometimes all three. If the city in question seems too clean or the people too well-dressed, you might as well start shooting them right away. They're cannibals or Terminators or something worse.
Of course, Fallout 4 lets you set up your own communities--little agrarian plots of 2, 5, 20 people who work in harmony. Such small societies seem to be the only ones worth saving in the Fallout games. The only good government is small government; the only bonds you can trust are familial ones. And everyone has a gun. A libertarian paradise? Maybe, but I'm the unequivocal master of all of these little communes. I have the sole, unchallenged right to decide everything from the physical layout to where people sleep to what clothes they wear to what jobs they do. I can force them to give me all their stuff. I can send people from one place to another at my whim. Displease me, and you'll be the sole resident of some inner-city ghetto with a single stalk of corn. People rise and sleep under the protection of the turrets I've built. I'm basically Chairman Mao. (That a game with such a mechanic is set in "The Commonwealth" is surely no accident.) And yet these places are only viable societies in the landscape. People flock to them when they hear my radio beacon.
(Spoilers after this point for Fallout 3 and beyond.)
I haven't played Fallout or Fallout 2, so my only experience has been with the last three games, but its notable how little progress gets made. "Victory" in Fallout 3 means a relatively small area has somewhat cleaner water. Fallout: New Vegas has a number of potential endings, but all they really come down to is one faction--none of whom are particularly better than the others--controlling New Vegas. Even if you kill the leaders of the major factions, nothing really changes. I don't know how Fallout 4 is going to end, but at best it feels like it's going to solve a personal mystery for my character and not necessarily make the Commonwealth a better world. In fact, note that the instigating event of all three games is personal--in sharp contrast to most RPGs where an external threat precedes the rise of the Hero. In the Fallout world, the protagonist isn't "called upon" to save the world--he injects himself into a world that, for good or ill, is already humming along.
So what is Fallout's real philosophy? Libertarianism? Socialism? Benevolent authoritarianism? No underlying philosophy at all except the world sucks and only the individual matters? (I guess that would be anarchism.) I'm not sure, but all of them run contrary to my own beliefs and make playing Fallout vaguely uncomfortable. Never before have I run across a game series that fills me with this palpable background angst even as I enjoy some of the game mechanics.
I don't know if civilization as we know it will some day end in fire. I had a middle school teacher--who in retrospect should have been institutionalized--who seemed sure of it. "Simple math," he called it: now that humanity has the capability to destroy itself, every year there is a small but non-zero probability that it will do so, and the cumulative probability eventually reaches 100%. Even if he's right, and 90% of the world dies in a nuclear war, I like to think the remaining 10% will come together, vow to learn from past mistakes, and rebuild. If 200 years later, they're fending off raiders, trading in bottle caps, and eating Cheetos and Spam, I'm going to be awfully disappointed.
A few more thoughts on Fallout 4 aside from the topical theme:
1. It's a good game, probably better than Fallout 3, but in everything but graphics, it falls short of New Vegas. I don't understand why Bethesda can't get that players want complex role-playing choices, multiple quest paths, and deep faction immersion. You'd think of all of the stuff that goes into developing an open-world video game, these things would be the easiest to do well.
2. On the subject of graphics, I've been reading a lot of postings that opine that they "suck" because Bethesda is still using blah-blah-blah technology instead of upgrading to yadda-yadda-yadda technology featured in Go Screw Yourself: You Nitpicking Jackass. People posting this kind of nonsense have a memory of about 2 years. To all readers: if Fallout 4's graphics aren't good enough for you, I'm not even sure what you're doing on my blog.
3. I did something I rarely do and gave my character my real name, which is not all that uncommon. I nearly fell out of my chair when my little house robot addressed me, in the spoken dialogue, by my actual name. Apparently, the programmers recorded audio for around a thousand common names. Unfortunately, they only did it for this one character, and the rest of the game hasn't even referenced my name in text.
4. The economy is the most broken of any Fallout game I've played so far. I literally cannot think of a single thing to buy except some of the upgrades to my little communes that cost money. Ammunition and stimpaks are both far too plentiful. Drugs are everywhere. I have like 80 shots of jet, 150 of Rad-X.
5. But maybe #4 is a consequence of the way I play. Since you can't repack ammo like in New Vegas, I feel like I have to carry around a weapon for every potential type of ammo. I suppose a better approach would be to favor a smaller set of weapons, sell unneeded ammo of other types, and buy the ammo you really want.
6. Aluminum! Adhesive! Oil! Screws!
7. Because of #5 and #6, I spend almost the entire game on the edge of being over-encumbered. I've invested in several related perks and strength, but even after returning to a workbench and unloading all the junk, I have maybe 25 pounds free.
8. Partly because of #7, I need all the strength I can get. I thus walk around in a Grognak costume that makes me look half-naked.
9. I like that there's no level cap. I'm otherwise ambivalent about the changes to the skill and perks system. I tend to alternate between giving myself an extra point in one of the SPECIAL variables and one of the skills.
10. While I can understand the appeal of the occasional Piper, I'm more of a Cait man. Not that the game actually makes you choose. I started the game with low charisma but managed to get into a romance with Cait by eating some grape mentats. Is it immoral if you roofie yourself?
Yes, Fallout 4 is responsible for my not having posted on my regular list since Sunday. I'm working on a second Disciples of Steel outing now, probably for posting this coming Sunday. To avoid spoilers for both Fallout 4 and Star Wars, I'm probably going to be staying off the Internet until then.