Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Gabe Durham, Boss Fight Books

Gabe Durham is the brains (officially the publisher / series editor, but, whatever, brains) behind Boss Fight Books, an excellent series about video games that spans authors, generations, and genres. Depending upon the title you could read about somebody’s childhood, design theory, personal identity, or theological grappling…all through the filter of that author’s game of choice.

But whatever the game at the heart of the book, whomever the author writing it, you’re in for a thrillingly unique reading experience, and one that’s immensely rewarding. If that sounds like a gushing introduction, it’s only because the series has undoubtedly earned it.

I’m far from alone in thinking that; Boss Fight recently launched a Kickstarter for its third series of titles, including books on Mega Man 3, Katamari Damacy, and Kingdom Hearts II, and as of this writing it’s at about $30,000 of its $5,000 goal. That’s the result of a lot of satisfied readers. The Kickstarter is clearly in no danger of not being funded, but if you’re interested in the series at all, now is the time to pledge and get the entire set at a nice discount.

In celebration of Boss Fight Books series 3, I decided to ask Durham a few good questions, and a lot of very awful ones. Enjoy!

Earthbound, Boss Fight Books1) One day you had the idea for Boss Fight Books, and the day before you didn’t. Tell us what happened in your mind between those two points.

I was reading a cool book about Nintendo/Mario that I’d checked out of the Glendale Public Library, and it occurred to me that all the books I’d seen and read about games were vast industry histories — more stories about capitalism itself than the actual games. I wondered if anyone was publishing book-length criticism that approached games as art, using a personal and historical approach. Nobody was. Seemed like an oversight.

2) If you weren’t publishing books, what would you be doing?

Writing. And, for work, teaching or maybe some other new career track it’s impossible to know about. Oh god — maybe I’d be dead!

3) In an alternate universe, you didn’t write about Bible Adventures. What game did you write about?

Recently, I learned that actual Simpsons writers were involved in Tapped Out, the phone game, so what I think I’d do is write about that and use the book as an excuse to pick their brains and nerd out.

Bible Adventures, Boss Fight Books4) One Bible story that should have been included in Bible Adventures.

Sidescroller. You are Zaccheus the tax collector. You’re a wee little man: Mario pre-mushroom. In each level, you navigate through a crowd of people who hate you because you’ve taken all their money to line your own pockets. To appease them, you must throw coins at them. At the end of the level is a tree. You must climb the tree, avoiding animals, until you reach the top, where you ring a bell to get Jesus to notice you. As the levels progress, the streets get more dangerous and the trees get higher. At the end of the final level, the bell you ring comes alive and begins to attack you! You must throw coins at it until the last coin makes the bell ring out so loud that (1) the bell cracks, like the Liberty Bell, and (2) Jesus takes notice and says, “Zaccheus, you come down from there! For I’m going to your house today.” And in an animated cutscene, you and Jesus stand in your house, there are piles of gold everywhere, and Jesus waves his arms, zapping you with blue light, and suddenly—you’re big! You’re not a wee man at all! Thanks so much, Jesus!

5) Other than yourself, who is the most talented Gabe?

Newell! Marquez!

6) What video game has the best writing? No waffling. There can be only one answer, and you’ll have to carry it with you for the rest of your life.

Honestly, all my most-loved games aren’t loved for their writing! I’ll say Mass Effect 2.

7) When you grow up, you’re going to be…

An improv master. I do it in my free time — it’s challenging/humbling.

8) Who did you have a crush on at age 12?

Jeanette from school.

Chrono Trigger, Boss Fight Books9) Games that have a perfect soundtrack. Go.

Mega Man 2. A Link to the Past. All-time favorite is Chrono Trigger.

10) What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written in your life?

At 19, I wrote half of a novel about weirdos holed up in a hotel writing a novel. And wow, yeah, it was bad. I think it was the first blush of understanding that metafiction existed, but I was not deploying it for any reason other than just to do it.

11) Describe Boss Fight Books to a space alien.

Humankind makes a lot of stuff, but only in retrospect can we guess at what that stuff does to us/for us.

12) What’s the biggest / most surprising thing you learned from managing the Boss Fight Books project?

Sometimes people pay attention! They mostly hadn’t before.

13) Zelda or Peach?

Peach, for sure. When my girlfriend and I play Mario Kart 8, she’s Peach and I’m Morton. So now there’s an ongoing casual fanfic between us where we’re Morton/Peach shippers. It’s not weird at all. It’s totally fine.

14) Tell us about one piece of media you love that nobody else seems to.

The album Secaucus by The Wrens. I’ve been listening to it since around 2000 and it still doesn’t feel as if I’ve “solved” it yet. There’s so much there.

ZZT, Boss Fight Books15) Tell us about some reader / fan feedback that you’ve carried with you. Positive or negative.

Last week someone tweeted something like, “The last two Boss Fight Books made me tear up — let’s see if the third one does too,” and someone (in an unrelated conversation) tweeted, “Those books are too hippie dippy for me.” And, you know, fair enough. For better or worse, we’re not making books just about games, but games filtered through human experience. Not the best for “stick to the facts” types.

16) What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

“Hurricane,” “The Man in Me,” “To Make You Feel My Love.”

17) Is there one game you secretly hope somebody will cover? (I promise not to use this question to my advantage.)

The Binding of Isaac

Spelunky, Boss Fight Books18) Somebody wants to read just one book to determine if Boss Fight is for them. Which do you recommend?

I think they should pick based on the game they most want to read about.

19) Somebody wants to read just one book, period. Which do you recommend?

Yikes! Have they learned to read yet? Maybe Go, Dog, Go?

20) We’re making a video game about your life. Describe the most common enemy.

Self-doubt! And it looks just like a Red Slime from Dragon Quest.

BONUS: Say anything to our readers that you haven’t gotten to say above!

Have you seen Everybody Wants Some!! yet? What a cool movie.

Fallout 3

I wrote recently about one of the few true ethical dilemmas I found myself having to navigate in Fallout 4. It was a satisfying moment, if only because I couldn’t be satisfied. For the first time (at least, the first time that I noticed) I was not able to do things my way. And that was a good thing. The decided lack of satisfaction was more satisfying than the go-anywhere/do-anything open world had yet been. There was a beauty in the fact that this situation wasn’t as simple as I’d like it to be.

And, as I mentioned briefly in that earlier piece, it was accidental. This wasn’t an ethical conflict by design, like my Necropolis example from the original Fallout. No, this was a conflict born of circumstance. A few speech checks failed, against all odds. I’d sided with a certain faction that made the situation less straight forward. And I’d invested time (in-game) and empathy (personally) with The Minutemen, the group of interlopers that became my eventual sacrifice to the greater good.

Had any of those things been different, there wouldn’t have been an issue. I could have gotten, in theory at least, what I wanted, as I wanted to get it. I said all that before. But here’s the one additional complication I want to spotlight here, where I can give it a larger discussion: I was playing the game as a good guy.

Fallout 4 ditches the karma system from previous games, and that’s good, because it was never totally compatible with Bethesda’s approach to the franchise anyway. It was also an oddly cosmic concept for games that are otherwise fairly down to earth. Sure, killing an unarmed stranger in a remote corner of the map is a bad thing to do, but if nobody saw you do it, why do people you meet later treat you like a monster? The game knows you did something bad, but the other characters shouldn’t. (And don’t even get me started on the needless complications of New Vegas and its various faction reputations. A great idea in theory. A distracting and irrelevant mess on execution.)

People have given Fallout 4 guff for scrapping karma, but that was unquestionably a simplification in the right direction. It wasn’t an act of creative laziness…it was a recognition of the fact that the system never did was it was supposed to do anyway, and so instead of spinning out scripts and quests for various karmic branches, the designers streamlined the game and let players play in their own ways. Whatever one may think of this game’s particular execution of that simplification, that’s up for discussion. But the fact that it was simplified is a good thing.

Here’s the main reason that simplification was needed: in spite of the lip service paid to choice, you’re supposed to play these games as a good guy. That’s how the games are written, that’s how the games are designed, and that’s the only way they actually work.

This is especially apparent in Fallout 3‘s narrative arc. Spoilers, yes.

In Fallout 3, you are a character who sees for the first time — along with the player — the lengths to which people will go in order to survive in the Wasteland. It starts from the very beginning, in Vault 101, where a small community survives by shutting itself off from the dangers of the outside world. Importantly, the same metal door that keeps its residents safe inside strands others in danger, outside. When you enter the Wasteland early in the game, you see the skeletons of those who sought the safety of Vault 101, only to be turned away. Some of their signs remain, which they presumably held up to the security camera to convey the urgency of their plight. One says, “Help us.” Another reads, “We’re dying, assholes!”

They died there, inches from salvation because a conscious choice was made not to give it to them. Arguments could be made either way as far as “the right decision” goes, but there’s one central fact: Vault 101 was safe, and in order to remain safe it refused that safety to all others. They may have done the right thing…but they’re still assholes. It’s your earliest example of survival at all costs, and it’s one of the least cruel.

Throughout the game you meet murderers. Slavers. Cannibals. Raiders. Madmen. And every so often you encounter a little town…and steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment, the (often literal) skeletons in the closet. Some folks might be closer than others to living an ethical life, but they’re never more than one stolen item or threatening gesture away from pulling out a gun and killing somebody.

In the Wasteland, it’s kill or be killed. I understand that. The game is designed to convince us of that at every point, with every settlement we encounter, with every disemboweled corpse we stumble over, with every ironic reminder of just how far and how quickly civilization fell. You need to be the biggest and most dangerous fish in the (glowing) sea if you want to survive…and even then, an angry enough smaller fish can take you down. Nobody is safe. Nobody is secure. Everybody is on edge, and nobody is more than one wrong move away from having their life taken away.

Then you meet your father, James.

The search for your father is the main driving force of the first part of the game. He escaped Vault 101 shortly before you did. He never said goodbye. You don’t know where he is. You’re thrust into the Wasteland less experienced and less prepared than he is, but you need to find him. And as you scrounge for clues in and around post-war D.C., you learn something important:

He’s not an asshole.

James fled the vault and put himself in danger — two significant opposites to the behavior of almost everybody else you meet in the game — in order to assist with Project Purity, an ambitious experiment to provide clean drinking water to the residents of the Capital Wasteland.

All of them.

Every one of them.

The murderers, the slavers, the cannibals, the raiders, the madmen. The enemy.

Why?

Because among those, there are children. There are good-hearted people mired through no fault of their own in a life of violence and mistrust. There’s potential. There’s humanity out there, somewhere, even if neither you nor James ever really finds it, or at least there’s a chance that it exists…and James puts himself in mortal danger for the chance to keep it alive.

And he doesn’t just speak about idealism; he lives by it, and eventually dies by it.

If the first part of the game revolves around finding James, the second part revolves around helping him. Together you work to get Project Purity online. There are a series of small tasks that need doing…nothing at all compared to the Super Mutants and Death Claws you’ve fought to make it this far. If anything, this is easy. It’s a reward for having overcome so much. All you need to do is turn a few valves here, flip some switches there…

…until the project is interrupted by The Enclave.

The Enclave are Fallout 3‘s clear bad guys. They’re the very well armed and fairly well organized remnants of the U.S. Government, pumping propaganda through one of the few surviving radio stations while they gun down anyone they view as a threat to their authority…which is just about everybody.

They demand control of Project Purity. James doesn’t give it to them. They threaten to kill him. James beats them to the punch; he releases a flood of radiation into the room to kill the Enclave’s commanding officer…and, because there was no avoiding it, himself.

It was the only way to save the project.

Everybody else in the Wasteland does anything it takes to stay alive. James — your father — realizes that there’s a goal much more important and much larger than the survival of one man. In a world of selfishness, James is willing to sacrifice.

It’s a powerful moment, and probably the single most important thing that happens in Fallout 3.

The third part of the game is you following in your father’s footsteps…and it ends with you, too, sacrificing yourself for the good of the Wasteland.*

That is the arc of the game. And though you can choose not to sacrifice yourself, and to play the game as an evil character, that doesn’t change the emotional journey of the game…it just renders it irrelevant. You’re supposed to play it this way, but you can choose to play it some other way. Should you do that, though, Fallout 3 loses its entire ethical framework. You’re left with a game in which you can kill people and fight monsters and scrounge for cool weapons, but that’s any game. Fallout 3 relies on its story as its identity, and it’s a good one…but that story only has meaning if you’re good, too.

You can’t blame Fallout 3 for being weighted toward good characters. Those, after all, are the only ones who can face ethical dilemma. Being called an asshole only matters if you aren’t actually an asshole. It only hurts if you’re trying not to be an asshole. “Asshole” only has meaning, that is to say, when you’re working really damned hard to be an asshole’s opposite.

And when Fallout 4** came out, the lack of a karma system made sense. Only by treating the character the same — regardless of what his or her past actions were — could it force all players into a single, coherent story, as opposed to one in which some stuff happened while you were out murdering innocents.

Only “good” characters can face ethical dilemmas because only “good” characters can feel conflicted.

Whether it’s a situation like the one I described recruiting a scientist for The Institute — which is a dilemma that must be faced in the moment — or a situation in which the ethical “right” answer had the logistical “wrong” result, only a “good” character would care.

A “bad” character lies, steals, and kills to get what he or she wants. Unintended consequences (or…erm…”fallout”) don’t mean anything. How could they? You were perfectly willing to spill blood. Spilling more blood, however unexpected that extra blood may have been, doesn’t challenge your ethics. You overrode those before you set the gory dominoes into motion. You chose to be an asshole; revealing yourself to be a bigger asshole does not add retroactive meaning to your actions.

Good characters face ethical crises when things go from bad to worse, or when good intentions result in terrible outcomes. Bad characters could, in theory, face an ethical crisis if their intended bad behavior led to a good outcome, but it’s hard to imagine what that might be, as it’d have to be something that both that player and “good” players recognize as a good outcome.

It’s difficult to think of examples. Perhaps by robbing a bank you’d unwittingly cause a customer to realize how short life is, and he’d run out and build an orphanage, but that’s a tortured example, and I’m pretty sure most of them would have to be.

I’m open to suggestions on how something like this might work, but it’s safe to say that Fallout 3 wasn’t interested in those possibilities. All of its crises are built around “good” behavior. “Bad” behavior leads to a few unique situations, quests, and items, but nothing at all by way of ethical crisis. Play as a “good” character, though, and you get them one right after another.

Here are a few of the ethical shitstorms I had to face in Fallout 3…two of which were scripted, and one of which was naturally occurring by virtue of the game’s strong ethical throughline:

– Upon arriving in Megaton, a large and fairly secure community, I’m approached by a man who offers to pay me handsomely to destroy the town by detonating a bomb at its center. I refuse the offer, and tell the sheriff — a good man named Lucas Simms who keeps the residents under his watch completely safe — and the sheriff confronts the man…who shoots him and kills him, and strolls off without consequence. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

– I discover Tenpenny Tower, a secure high-rise catering to the relative upper crust of the Wasteland. They don’t allow ghouls — highly irradiated humans with a zombie-like appearance — inside. One ghoul is fed up with it, and plans to attack Tenpenny Tower to give his people a secure place to live. I convince him to back down, and diplomatically convince Tenpenny Tower to voluntarily let them move in. Things are great…until I come back and find that the revolutionary ghoul who wanted in has murdered all of the non-ghoul residents over a perceived slight. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

– There’s a shanty village called Arefu. The residents don’t leave their homes because they’re afraid of a gang of humans who drink blood. I find the gang and convince them to stop terrorizing the residents of Arefu. Now those innocent townsfolk can wander outside their homes again. They thank me, because for the first time in a long time, they feel safe. I return a few days later to find that a radscorpion has made it into town, and it kills the residents one by one while I try to take it down. There are no survivors…but there would have been lots, if I hadn’t convinced them it was safe to go outdoors. Ethically the right decision, logistically the worst outcome.

But those are all from Fallout 3. I could throw in plenty more from the original Fallout. (I haven’t played Fallout 2 enough to say much about that one.) Fallout 4 had…almost nothing. It was a game of choice instead of one of dilemma. It was a game of physical conflict as opposed to psychological conflict.

And I wonder if that’s because it is so difficult to craft ethical dilemma in open world games. Fallout 3 did it if you ask me…but I played the game as a “good” character. I’ve had others tell me that the story was “barely there” in that game. Invariably, they also happened to play as “bad” characters.

Maybe in Fallout 4 the emphasis switched to gunfire over careful thinking, and ethical dilemma wasn’t a natural fit for that, so the developers discarded it. Or maybe the developers realized that well-thought-out ethical dilemmas would be completely missed by at least half of the people playing the game, and therefore emphasized gunfire over careful thinking.

Either is possible, and both are disappointing.

The problem in Fallout 3 — and to a far lesser extent New Vegas — was that playing as a bad character removed all ethical obstacles from the playing field. Fallout 4 made the decision to treat everyone, instead, like a neutral character. People could do bad things without consequence, and do good things without complication. They were neither proud nor disappointed at being called assholes, because the game featured no characters who would call them one.

A simplification was the right decision, but logistically it had the worst outcome.

—–
* I’m ignoring the Broken Steel DLC, which idiotically resurrects you and says, “Hey, go kill more things.” It’s a pretty substantial narrative fuck-you, brought about by one of the worst trends in modern gaming: asking players to pay several times for the same experience.

** New Vegas is barely being touched here because that game was handled by another developer, and was more tailored — by design — to the player’s ethical compass of choice. The theme of the game is less “living up to your father’s legacy” and more “shaping the world in your own image.” It’s a joyously selfish experience, so I’m leaving it out because it’s irrelevant, and not because I think it isn’t worthy of discussion. On the subject of ethics, though? I sure did kill folks for their Sunset Sarsaparilla Star bottlecaps. And when I finally had enough to redeem, I had my ethical shitstorm itch firmly and deeply scratched.

Graygarden Homestead

So, I finished Fallout 4 recently. There’s at least one more post I’ll be writing about it — also on the subject of ethics — but if you’re curious as to my opinion: it was pretty great. A bit of a mixed bag, as in some senses it represents Bethesda’s best work on the series, and in other senses it represents far and away their worst.

But there are plenty of discussions about the game’s quality going on right now, and I really don’t care to join them. I left game reviewing for a reason, not least because it allows me to actually have fun with games again. If they’re lousy but I still find them enjoyable, I can spend my time with them. If they’re technically great but not really up my alley, I’m free to ignore them.

In short, I can get back to what I like to play, and play it when I want to play it. That’s good, because I’ve read in some history books that video games used to be a source of fun for people. How nice to catch a glimpse of that distant past!

Anyway, one of the things that I’ve loved about the Fallout series, going all the way back to the first game, is the ethical wringer it puts you through. In fact, as much as I like to play a “good guy” character in those games, the first Fallout successfully stressed me into behaving badly. As the days counted down and I was running out of time to find a water chip, I found one in the ghoul town of Necropolis. But the residents there needed it to stay alive; their pump was broken. They offered to let me have the chip if I fixed the pump for them…

…which was something I couldn’t do. I could try to get my Repair skill higher or find the parts I needed, but I very likely wouldn’t live long enough to do so. My life, like the lives of everyone waiting for the water chip in Vault 13, was in danger now, and I didn’t have the time to spare.

So I stole their water chip and got the hell out of there. My problem became their problem, quite literally. I passed the hot potato and tried my best to forget that this ever happened. (The poor ghouls would have no such luxury of forgetting.)

Fallout 4, though, was pretty sadly free of ethical dilemmas. You always had the choice of who to kill or who not to kill, who to side with or who to side against, but those aren’t dilemmas; they’re just options. A true dilemma comes from something like my situation in Necropolis, when I could let one group of innocents stay alive, or sabotage their survival to keep a different group alive.

There’s no right answer. There’s a moral answer, but not necessarily a right one.

Toward the end of the game, though, Fallout 4 stranded me in a situation I didn’t expect. It may not even have been intentional, as I only ended up in it because I failed to talk my way into an alternate solution. But for the first and only time in the game, I felt genuinely conflicted. And I still do.

Spoilers follow, but they’re pretty minor ones. This is your warning.

Years ago I took The Moral Sense Test after reading about it in The Three-Pound Enigma. I recommend both the test and the book strongly.

In the years that it’s been refined since, the Moral Sense Test might be a lot different than I remember, but its objective was to place the test-taker in situations of increasingly complex ethical obligations, for the sake of studying their reactions.

For instance, in one situation you’d see a train about to crash into a boulder on the track. You’re operating the switchbox, and can throw to lever to cause the train to change tracks, missing the boulder and saving the lives of everyone on board.

Do you throw the switch?

Well, yes. Clearly you do. Ethically, that is your obligation.

So the test ramps up the complexity from there. Let’s say that if you throw that switch, the train will hit a cow on the other track. The lives of everyone on the train will be saved, but the cow will die.

Maybe the solution is still easy, so let’s say it’s not a cow, but a human child whose foot is caught in the tracks. Now do you throw the switch?

Let’s say it’s not a boulder, but it’s a group of 20 people. Throwing the switch saves them, but at the cost of the lives of the 10 people who are standing on the other track. Sure, 10 is fewer than 20, but can you ethically kill 10 people who would have been safe otherwise to save 20 who were naturally in danger?

…and things got even hazier from there. It was a great test. If you enjoy being driven insane, take it. (Oh, and you’d also be helping the researchers out a great deal, as well.)

Fallout 4, through a quirk, plopped me in the middle of a small-scale Moral Sense Test. And I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

At one point in the story, you discover an organization known as The Institute. Up until this point you’ve heard horror stories about them. You’ve seen the damage their technology has done. You’ve seen the fear in the faces of the people you meet. You’ve heard the rumors of The Institute’s enemies disappearing…and innocent people being replaced by robotic substitutes. Deliberately or not, The Institute has become emblematic of everything the residents of the Wasteland fear.

Then you find The Institute yourself, and you can hear them out. Their methods are flawed, certainly, but you may conclude that they’re also necessary. Many friends of mine played the game and chose to side with them, deciding that the ends justified the means, with The Institute being a terrible force that was still humanity’s best hope.

I didn’t decide that. I threw my hat in with The Railroad, a small, underground (literally) group of agents working to take The Institute down.

No real ethical issues here; just a choice. Do you think The Institute is humanity’s best hope? Side with them. Do you think it’s not? Side with The Railroad. Simple.*

I sided with The Railroad. And since I had visited The Institute and lived to talk about it, they had a great asset in me: I could work undercover. Whatever they needed done within Institute walls, I could come and go as I pleased. It was a win all around, so I kept doing quests on behalf of The Railroad, bringing The Institute down piece by piece. All I had to do was follow Railroad instructions while paying Institute lip service.

Again, a choice; not a dilemma.

Then, all at once, The Railroad had nothing for me to do. Or, to be more clear, they had plenty for me to do, but they had to bide their time. It was important that I stay in the good graces of The Institute, so they told me to keep working with it. That was my only mission; keep helping The Institute until I received further instructions.

It had to seem like I was siding with The Institute, which raised, gradually, the question of how long you can pretend to be something without becoming that something…a question of well-intentioned infiltration that Kurt Vonnegut explored beautifully in Mother Night.**

How thoroughly can you aid the Axis without becoming a villain yourself, even if you’re doing so in the name of the Allies? How is leaking intelligence to the good guys more important than the fact that you’re gathering it for the bad guys?

It’s a deep and impossible question to answer, even though it’s a fascinating one to explore.

My ethical dilemma came when The Institute asked me to track down a scientist it wished to draft for their cause. Easy enough, except that when I got there, there was a standoff in progress. The scientist was holed up in the destroyed shack you see above. Institute troops were there, ready to drag him off kicking and screaming.

Ethics check: is it worth forcing this innocent man into the hands of the enemy in order to stay in the enemy’s good graces? Is his happiness — and potentially his life — worth my chance to win this war?

To my mind, yes. It was worth it.

Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.

Another group known as The Minutemen showed up to protect the man from The Institute. The Minutemen were a small militia that existed because I helped it to exist. I built it. It was a defunct organization that I resurrected; a loose group of armed survivors who traveled the Wasteland, responding to calls of distress, and helping those who needed it the most.

My precious Railroad — my ethical compass — was far away in a basement somewhere. It was a choice only I could make, and I had to make it now. I could side with The Institute and not only drag this guy away but make enemies of The Minutemen, or I could side with The Minutemen, protect this guy, and make premature enemies of The Institute.

The game offered me a peaceful solution. It almost always does, if you can pass a speech challenge. Fortunately I’d built a character who was great at weaseling his way out of things, so I tried to convince the scientist to go peacefully with The Institute.

The speech challenge failed. He was terrified. He didn’t want to go, and The Minutemen were there to help him.

Then I tried to convince The Minutemen to stand down.

That speech challenge failed, too. My silver tongue meant nothing to them when compared to the terrified scientist’s screams for help.

There wasn’t another way out. I could fight The Institute’s troops, or I could fight The Minutemen. If I fought The Institute I’d kill a bunch of bad guys, but lose the chance to defeat them for good. If I fought The Minutemen I’d kill a bunch of good guys — the exact same good guys I’d inspired to become good guys — just to keep up appearances.

I had a robotic companion with me. Codsworth; one of only two characters in the game that remembers you from before the war. From before the world changed. From when you used to be another person entirely.

I tried everything to find another way out.

There was no other way out.

It was a standoff. There was going to be gunfire. I had to choose a side.

I pulled out my pistol and killed The Minutemen. They weren’t even hostile to me. Their names were in green, signifying that they were friendly. They saw me as an ally. And why wouldn’t they? I’d inspired them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way…and then I killed them because I had to keep up a lie.

A little notification appeared on the screen. “Codsworth hated that.”

I hated it, too, Codsworth. I still do.

The Institute dragged their scientist away to his new fate. At my feet were the bodies of good and brave men who died at my hand, for doing what I told them it was right to do.

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, but never before had one made me feel so alone.

—–
* There are other factions to choose from, so I’m deliberately simplifying things here, but, ultimately, the choice is to side with or against The Institute. The other factions all take an oppositional role.

** Read it if you haven’t. It’s Vonnegut’s best, and one of my favorites.

Game Art, Matt SainsburyReleasing next week, Game Art is a directly-titled look at one of the most indirect forms of art out there. In fact, if I wanted to take issue with the book, that’s where I’d point; the title’s simplicity almost seems to do a disservice to the depths plumbed within.

To put it as succinctly as I can: I very much enjoyed this book. So much so that it took me several weeks to write this review. It’s easy to get drawn into, and when you manage to pull yourself away there’s so little that it feels like one can add to it. It’s a perfect study of a traditionally unstudied medium, and it’s hard to put any of this better than the author — or his interviewees — already did.

I received a review copy from Matt Sainsbury himself. I mention that by way of dual disclaimer. Firstly, I got the thing for free, which is always good to know…but by this point I hope you realize how much I hate all things, generosity included, so that wasn’t about to shape my opinion. Secondly, I know Matt. But I know Matt, primarily, as a writer. As a critic. As someone who has been doing exactly what he does in this book for the past several years. If my opinion of Game Art is enhanced in any way by my knowledge of Matt, it’s because his body of work has earned that respect.

Game Art feels like the culmination of a passionate lifetime of independent study and appreciation. It’s an oddly magical journey that gives respectful, gallery treatment to the kind of art that so frequently flits along in the background while somebody tries to survive a gauntlet or solve a puzzle. And it’s pretty incredible stuff.

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Quite why game art (lowercase) gets the short shrift, I’ll never know. It’s in the same boat game music was in a few decades ago; creations by talented people that were not perceived as legitimate works. In the case of game music, the rise of OverClocked ReMix did much to grant retroactive legitimacy to these compositions. It provided a platform for other artists to pay homage to and develop upon the source material, and it opened a path to reappraisal and rediscovery.

Game art, oddly, has not had the same opportunity. As graphics improve massively year over year — and as games are often derided for not looking good enough — there’s a stunning lack of appreciation for those images as art. They’re a box to be checked, and then the world moves on to judging the next one against some cold, arbitrary scale.

Matt opens the conversation for reappraisal with Game Art, quite literally. Because in addition to presenting some stunning imagery, he gets in touch with the artists and game designers that put these visuals together, and does something unthinkable: he asks them to talk about it.

The result is a guided tour through underappreciated works by those who labored to create them, and there’s an overriding and charming sense of humility in the words of just about every interviewee. These aren’t artists who demand to be noticed or even understood. These are creators speaking about their processes of creation, and it’s a beautiful read.

In fact, the book could have functioned perfectly well in either of two ways. It could have been a big, glossy, quiet showcase of in-game and concept art worthy of a second look. It could also have been a collection of interviews with the unsung artists behind the games we love and a few we’ve forgotten.

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Instead it’s both, which is why it’s so hard to put down. Read a few interviews, and get lost for minutes on end in the companion visuals. Find an image that draws you in, and dive immediately into the words of the artist who created it. It’s not just a great way to understand and experience game art; it’s a companion to itself.

Most importantly, familiarity with the games themselves isn’t necessary to appreciate the book. While I’ve played a few of the games covered here, I can safely say that I missed out on the majority. The conversations, though, are about larger topics. Like these comments from Michael Samyn, who has five games featured in the collection, regarding the somewhat limiting interplay between his role and the programmers’ in putting a game together:

If you want to get really creative, you’re up against a wall all the time thanks to the rigidity of the programming. Artists have very complex logic of their own; it’s just that their minds work differently than a programmer’s. I do think that’s perhaps another reason there aren’t as many interesting games from an artistic point of view.

He then goes on to discuss a — potentially exciting — aspect of artistic design that’s very specific to an interactive medium like video games:

The player not only has the imagination to complete the work, as they would with a movie or book, but they can actively change the narrative itself. We also like to make our games rich so players can express themselves and do things depending on how they feel. That means we can’t really finish a game like you would finish a book or a movie.

These aren’t conversations that require a specific frame of knowledge to understand; these are unique and valuable insights into the nature, obstacles, and experiences of the creative mind.

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Game Art is at once an easy read and deceptively dense. It’s difficult to speak concretely about it, because much of what the book does is get your own mind working. When, as above, a question of leaving room for audience interplay is raised, it’s conducive to independent thought. It gets your mind working as a reader, if only because these are concepts that haven’t been explored in the public consciousness before. These are considerations that are familiar to those creating within the industry, and regularly glossed over by those enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Matt’s bridging of this disconnect feels long overdue, and the fact that it’s handled in such an appealing, gorgeously visual tome is, frankly, more than we deserve. It’s the sort of book that’s impossible to read without being at least mildly envious of the author for identifying such a massive gap and paving over it so perfectly.

I’ll remind you again that Matt’s my friend. He’s a great guy. And I’ve interviewed him here before in the early stages of the project. But none of that shapes my opinion of the final product. It doesn’t make me like it so much as it makes me appreciate all of the time and the effort that I know has gone into this. It’s a book that very much succeeds on its own merits, and absolutely lives up to its ambition.

If you have any interest in games, visual arts, interactive arts, or the creative process in general, Game Art is very much worth your time. It’s also a handsome enough volume that it makes for a great gift.

It’s available on Amazon and from No Starch Press directly. The latter offers it as an ebook for an outright psychotic $32, though, so, seriously, pitch in the extra few dollars for the physical version.

Here’s hoping Game Art is able to elevate the levels of appreciation and discourse when it comes to…well, game art. It’s a welcoming, inspirational, and by no means exhaustive way to open the conversation. It’s our job to keep it going.

The First Fallout

August 17th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal | video games - (1 Comments)

Not the First FalloutTo date, only three games have ever sold me a console. The first was Metroid Prime, which convinced me the moment I played it on a store’s display that I absolutely needed a Game Cube. The most recent was the announcement of Persona 5 a couple of months ago, which resulted in me breaking down and buying a PS4.

In the middle there was Fallout 3, which sold me an XBox 360 based entirely on the strength of its trailer. A trailer that, as far as I’m concerned, represents a masterclass in games marketing:

Watch it if you haven’t already. It’s more than just a commercial…it’s an introduction to a universe, one hilarious and horrifying, foreign and recognizable, insane and mundane in equal measure. Was I foolish to buy a console based on a video whose centerpiece was a live action dark comedy sketch? Of course. I definitely was. But I gambled, because if the game was even a fraction as clever and interesting as I hoped it would be, it would have been worth it. (Spoiler: it was unquestionably worth it.) (Double spoiler: the animated sequences seem to presage the recent mobile game Fallout Shelter! Pretty neat!)

Now Fallout 4 is coming, and I’m thrilled. And it’s had me reflecting on my Fallout experiences past. I’ll write up some of them, maybe, at some point. And when Fallout 4 gets here I’ll probably never shut the fuck up about it.

But one of my strongest, deepest memories comes from the first Fallout game I’d ever experienced…one released long before Fallout 3.

And it wasn’t Fallout 2. Or Fallout Tactics. Or the Fallout game you see pictured above. No, this predates that as well.

Years ago, there was a game called Fallout, which was entirely text-based. You could only play it online. Indeed, that was the draw and not a limitation.

Back then (1995 or so) you were pretty limited in what you could do on the internet, and unless you wanted to wait for days on end (not an exaggeration, at least not with my connection) most of what you could do was text-based. Music and films and glorious pornography were still available for download (legally and otherwise), but you’d better hope your phone didn’t ring before Thursday if you actually wanted the file to download properly.

Fallout was a discovery I made, but I can’t remember how. I passed it on to a few of my friends, and for a while we played regularly. It was a post-apocalyptic RPG, similar to what the proper Fallout series would become in tone. In fact, the first time I saw the version of Fallout pictured above, I thought it was a cheap ripoff. I didn’t play it; I was just appalled that somebody would so directly plagiarize (right down to the title!) a game I knew so well.

Obviously it’s now clear that similarities were coincidental, even if there were more than a few of them. But at the time I felt somehow wronged, like I’d witnessed a crime I couldn’t report.

Anyway, when I introduced my friends to Fallout they’d play for a while, get bored of it, and move on. Which is what I did as well. But one of my friends, Dave, took to it more enthusiastically than the others.

I don’t know why. I couldn’t begin to explain what the appeal was for him. He was an amateur survivalist, so maybe he saw it as a chance to flex his muscles in that regard. He told me a story once of a time he ran away from home. He packed a survival guide that his parents were dumb enough to give him, took all their pots and pans, took the shower curtain, and hiked deep into the Pine Barrens. He walked for most of the night, having to shed bags and belongings as he grew more tired. Eventually he went home, but was unable to find any of the stuff he left behind on the way out. His parents needed to buy all new cookware.

He and I played Fallout a lot. There were many players online at a time, and you could communicate with each other either publicly or privately. He and I worked together to gather up good gear and get a lay of the land. It worked well. His character’s name was Superfrog, and mine was Banner. I can’t really explain either.

I seem to recall the game taking place in New York, but I could be wrong about that. I do remember that an early-game gathering point was Reagan Square, and whenever you died you’d respawn near that landmark. I saw it a lot, I think.

It was a safe area, and you could barter and talk without much worry. When you felt ready, you could venture out to other areas (including a difficult one based on Army of Darkness, which I never saw because I probably maxed out at around level 15, and one that housed an extraordinarily powerful enemy named after Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider) and hope you came back alive. I remember my weapon of choice was the Translucent Blade, which, in my imagination, looked great. I found a few weapons that were stronger, but I kept going back to the Translucent Blade, because none of the others looked as cool in my own mind. Even in a game that was entirely text-based, looks mattered.

One night I logged off after having played, I’m sure, far too long in one day. The next day I logged back in, and Superfrog was already there. He was also joined by a second character Dave created, called Holyfrog. This one was a healer. There may have been a third. Dave had essentially built his own party in several windows. And they were all something like level 50.

He’d been playing, without a break, all night.

Somewhere around that time, I said some foolish, and probably rude, thing about one of the other players. His character was named Benj. I never knew if it should be pronounced Benge or Ben Jay. But because I impugned his manhood he teleported me to his location — a restroom in one of the game’s restaurants — and pounded the crap out of me. Every time I escaped (I typed “unlock door” “open door” and “w” an awful lot in the course of those few minutes) he’d zap me right back. It was hopeless. He killed me.

I respawned at Regan Square and tried to find my corpse to regain all my gear. He was waiting, and killed me again. I wasn’t getting any of it back. And I stopped playing Fallout not long after that. (Maybe…20 seconds after that.)

But it was fun while it lasted. For Dave, it lasted the better part of a year.

He became obsessed with the game. It was all he ever talked about. He found some other high-level players and took down Pale Rider. He was so proud he emailed me the log of that session, as though it were a photo of himself standing next to the bass he just caught.

He loved Fallout. And it got to be pretty scary.

He stopped going to high school. He stopped sleeping. His younger sister emailed me or IM’d me at some point to ask me to come over and get him out of the house; he didn’t do anything but play Fallout anymore and it was driving her insane. I was in love with that girl, and I’m sure I harbored plenty of fantasies about her contacting me and inviting me over, but the circumstances were not exactly what I was hoping for.

He’d eat, but he wouldn’t talk to his family. He just wanted to finish quickly and get back to Fallout. He ran out of sick days at school, and dropped out. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Eventually he got his GED, which is good. But at the time he was exclusively studying Fallout, which was bad.

Christmas came and went. His family had to force him (physically force him) into the car to go with them to pick out a Christmas tree. He sat with his arms crossed, grumbling for the entire ride, and refused to get out of the car once they got there. He waited in the cold car with no heat, willing them to hurry up and pick a fucking tree so he could go home and play Fallout some more.

At some point, he stopped. I don’t know why. Maybe his parents had him lobotomized. I honestly don’t know, and we don’t keep in touch so there’s no way I can find out. But for such a stupid game, some text-based nonsense that was little more than an accumulation of pop-cultural debris and mindless grinding, it was the closest thing to outright obsession I’d ever witnessed.

His family hated Fallout. If they knew that I was the one who introduced him to it, they probably hated me for that, too. For them, like for me, that whole period must seem now like an odd waking nightmare. Nobody talks about Fallout — that Fallout — anymore. Hell, nobody talked about it then, either. It was some niche little curio stashed away on the fledgling internet, when word of mouth was still about the only way anyone found out about anything. Dave was singularly obsessed with something most people didn’t know — and will never know — even existed.

And it’s odd. Because every time I hear about Fallout now — the major, popular Fallout — my mind thinks back to that black text on a white screen. Reagan Square swarming with newbies. The imaginary heft of a Translucent Blade in my hands. Benj summoning me repeatedly to the bathroom for an asskicking. Being introduced to Holyfrog and Crazyfrog or whatever he was called as the earliest manifestations of Dave’s eventual madness.

I always need to recalibrate my thoughts. Someone mentions Fallout, and as much time as I’ve spent with the proper games, I don’t picture Ghouls and Super Mutants. I don’t picture Deathclaws and Radscorpions. I don’t think about Vaults or the Wasteland.

I think about a game that I’m reasonably convinced none of you knew existed before this post. I can barely find information about it online, and I couldn’t even find a screenshot to use with this article. What little space it occupied in the cultural memory has been almost completely overwritten by the far superior, true Fallout series.

But for me? That can never happen. I remember the original too much. I remember the way it affected someone I actually knew, in a world I actually occupied.

They say Fallout 4 will have around 400 hours of content.

That’s nothing. You could probably play through that game without even having to drop out of school. It’ll never be a patch on the original.

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