War. Good God, y’all. Etc. Have had many fine adventures this summer, only some of which involve David Icke or Donald Trump. Regardless of that, here is the speech I gave at New York City’s Liberty Fest on September 10.
Spoilers for the game Fallout 3, ahoy:
The internet suggests that a lot of people knew they were hooked on Fallout 3 the moment the tutorial is over, and you leave Vault 101 to see the (irradiated) sun for the first time. For me, the opening credits in which “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots* plays, and then the camera (as it were) pulls back to show a world of desolation and ruin confirmed that Rogert Ebert, may he rest in peace, was wrong about video games not being art.
I have happy memories of Sonic, Super Mario (or rather, watching my brother and cousins play them much of the time) and of playing Mariokart 64 and Super Smash Brothers (and failing atrociously at Goldeneye) after homeschool group was over on Fridays.
I would never have insulted video games as a medium. But for more than a decade, I was stuck firmly in the N64 and the Sega Genesis era of games. I have been amused in passing by the violence of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but only enough to steal a few cars, then drive off a cliff with the cops on my tail. Not enough to really want to get anywhere in the game.
And though I don’t dislike fantasy, it rarely really gets me, so video games never grabbed me as much from that angle. I’ve beaten Shining Force 1, but I have never played Final Fantasy, Warcraft, or Elder Scrolls or anything like that.
My video game knowledge completely stalled out. Games were a bit base with me. They were about a ticcy sort of entertainment, or an itch to scratch when you want to do something with your hands. They were not about simply wanting to see what happened next.
And then I saw Boyfriend play Fallout: New Vegas and said “oooh, pretty backgrounds” and then I got very interested in the nuclear side of the apocalypse via On The Beach, and a few months ago I said, hell, Boyfriend, hook up that Xbox 360, and let’s play Fallout 3.
I was confused for weeks about basic movement, and I missed a few choice things like captions for months. It took me more than six months to play for about 130 hours. Hell, this game is seven years old already. But this game taught me (rather dangerously) that there is a whole ‘nother medium that I could fall into. It was like pretending and like watching a movie that never ended — like an emotionally effective Choose Your Own Adventure book. It was a revelation.
Everything I would gush about in respect to this game would sound obvious to people who play them. And to people who don’t (like my mother, who sticks with Myst and The Neverhood-style puzzle games without violence) it’s hard to describe the mixture of violence, frustration, curiosity, amusement and joy, within this post-apocalyptic Washington, DC.
I never played a game with emotion before, not really. I took joy in the claymation in the aforementioned Neverhood. I know the frustration and the satisfaction red shells can bring in Mario Kart. I even enjoyed the semi-tedious RPG fantasy of Shining Force. But it didn’t fully click until Fallout 3.
Basically, nuclear war happened 200 years before (which is weird, because the terrain makes it feel more recent). You were raised in Vault 101, and your dad (Liam Neeson!) raised you up, and then one day mysteriously left the vault. All else — as in, you and a thousand side quests before you find him again– follows. The outside is a Mad Max-ian wasteland, except there are ghouls, supermutants, and warring human factions. It’s a first-person shooter, except that it’s also a sprinkle of RPG, and also you can gather objects, and wander around, and talk to characters, and read things, and basically choose a great many things including the order in which you do almost everything.
Oh, and it’s DC. It’s familiar enough DC to give me the creeps (though not as much of the creeps as when you go to Pittsburgh in the expansion!). The metros are the grimmest part. They’re depressing, dank, and easy to get lost in. This was a world in which their reality and ours diverged somewhere after WWII, and it’s a parody of the ’50s (or the World Of Tomorrow ’50s) turned into dust and radiation. (Though the old world lingers, albeit sometimes in chunks of rubble, garbage, and dead people form. And in clouds.)
Since my thoughts are not easy to organize, let me just offer a few scattered impressions of the most memorable bits, starting with the myriad sad ones:
-Night and day. I have never played a game where there is night before. The fact that a video game can actually provoke that feeling of being stuck somewhere where you should not be, with no ride, when it’s getting dark and you’re in trouble, amazes me. Night brings about fear, even if daylight is also dangerous in these times.
-The violence. The extent of my experience with even slightly realistic violence in games is Grand Theft Auto, where I mostly just ran over a few people while fleeing, and Wolfenstein 3D, which is so old I played it in MS dos. Fallout 3 gives you head-exploding bloodshed often. It’s cartoony in its way, but can be unsettlingly graphic when you are the one causing it to happen.
But the moral questions are there, even if they are inconsistently applied. I feel no regret killing the soulless human raiders. But the feral ghouls who were once humans give me the creeps. In the game, you pick belongings off of bodies for loot, and the ghouls seem to invariably be carrying a pitiful collection of a few caps (currency) and maybe a single fork, or worst of all, something like a teddy bear.
Even supermutants, who are entirely unsympathetic until you meet a sane one, can creep you out to kill sometimes. After slaying ten of them one evening, I started to feel all too I Am Legend about the whole thing.
I always feel a pang of regret in killing robots as well. Hostile robots were programmed that way. Raiders and such have made their choice!
-Truly horrible easter eggs abound. Fallout’s mascot is the in-game mascot of the Vault-tec corporation known as Vault Boy. He’s a smiling cartoon fellow who represents the game’s one foot in pure retro-future, ’50s kitsch, in which smiling housewives tout their brand new robots. The other foot is a grim future that (obviously) cannot realistically portray nuclear war, but is intending to disturb you all the same.
Somewhere in Georgetown is a house in which the robot will read a poem if you ask him to. It’s a nod to “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, in which the dogged automatic house keeps functioning long after everyone is dead. The Fallout 3 house contains what is obviously intended to be a child’s room, with a child’s skeleton on the bed. This kind of thing leads to coping habits. I collected a few useless items in-game, such as teddy bears. I did not take them from that house, or from what appeared to be a child’s grave in another area. I have standards.
There are lots of bits of data you can pick up along the way that also add to the picture of this destroyed world. There are diaries by a nurse trying to help people right after the bombs fall. There’s a log from a scientist slowly going mad in a vault after his child dies (yep). There are so many touches that make the world feel too big to even get to. I know I missed important characters, and whole quests, because there was just too much to do.
-Ghouls and their rights. The game more or less gives you the option of if you want to be prejudiced against ghouls, some of whom are perfectly normal non-player characters (NPCs) with which you can speak. One of them in the ghoul town is named Carol. Since ghouls are old, she remembers the day the bombs fell. She can tell you about it if you ask, and it’s as eerie as any cold war sci-fi classic.
When you get to a place called Tenpenny Tower, you find a snobby population of humans warring with a cranky ghoul named Roy Phillips and his followers who want to be able to move in. One of the many skills you can hone in the game is speech, and you can choose to try to resolve the situation peacefully. You can speak to some of the bigots (and they aren’t all bigots) in the tower and convince them to let the ghouls move in.
You feel good and righteous when you do that successfully. Until you come back a few game days later and find that the ghouls have killed everyone, including the endearing NPC Herbert “Daring” Dashwood. The choice to commit horrible revenge upon the killers is yours to make, and it seems to be a popular one. (Myself, I killed Phillips and let the others live.) I was furious with that ending when I found out about it, but I appreciate the gut-punch it delivers all the same.
-Dad and other companions. No game that gives your dad the voice of Liam Neeson, and gives him a habit of calling you “sweetheart” is going to let things be okay in the end. Of course still I thought things would be okay in the end.
The game gives me such an irrational attachment to NPCs. You can pick up followers, including a dog called Dogmeat, a supermutant called Fawkes, and various other short-term followers you must protect on one quest or another. You have so many choices in Fallout 3 — including ones to be downright evil, such as when you can NUKE THE ENTIRE TOWN OF MEGATON — but I mostly stuck with playing myself, with a later character drinking problem. That meant I was not leaving any computer people behind, and I was constantly afraid my stupid dog would get himself killed while attacking a giant radscorpion or something.
But, oh. I had a moment with the dad character that killed me. You are supposed to escort your father and some other unhelpfully helpless scientists characters across the wasteland. A supermutant attacked, and I — forgetting that there are essential characters who cannot die — was worried about my father and his mere pistol. I lost track of him in the heat of battle, and then he appeared with some kind of laser gun he had taken off of a supermutant. It was a Hollywood moment of “fuck yeah, dad!” and a game full of uncanny valley-faced pixel dudes delivered it.
And then dad had to sacrifice himself. And it was upsetting. Like a story. So I added to the story, and I I went to the expansion pack area of the creepy swamp, and I killed bizarrely-strong hillbillies and drank game alcohol until I felt I could go on with the business of living in the wastes.
-This game starts with you losing your home in Vault 101, you find and you lose friends and safety over the course of the game. It took me a while, but I began decorating my house in Megaton with teddy bears, with souvenirs I couldn’t bare to sell, and with memories of dear old dad. It felt like home. You start to relish safety and downtime on some days, and the next you wander recklessly, itching for a fight.
-After losing Liam Neeson-dad, and after being depressed and frustrated during a 100 trips into the DC metro-horrors; after the no-winning at Tenpenny Tower, there is a final charge on the water filter project that dad was working on, and which has been taken over by the evil Enclave (the US government, for serious).
You are allied with the Brotherhood of Steel, who have some fascistic, racist leanings, but you kind of win their respect over the game. You have power armor, and though I kind of prefer my earlier, scrappy, Mad Max/gasmask-faced, shotgun-toting look, the armor is the classic Fallout look (seriously, it’s on every game cover). The Brotherhood has power armor. I was followed by Dogmeat and the friendly supermutant Fawkes, who you can rescue in a scary vault if you like, and then he later appears to help you out as you flee the Enclave (in another “fuck, yeah!” moment with a less flipping-you-off end result).
And then the Brotherhood mentions they finally got their giant robot working again. The one that was supposed to have been fighting the Chinese communists who took over Alaska right before the bombs fell. The one whose name is Liberty Prime, and who drops mini nukes and who speaks in robotic catch phrases about communism being a lie.
You follow the robot as you charge the water filter, taking out Enclave troops, and it makes every God damned depressing, confusing thing worthwhile during the last 130 hours. The game is such a sandbox, that I forgot I was going to be given some kind of ending. I had no idea the ending would make me giggle happily.
All of this is an incrediblye roundabout way of saying, video games; holy shit, video games. I am used to television, movies, music, and books telling me stories. To feel invested in a character who dwells in a wide-open, free format where you don’t just get to play as a wanderer, but you get to choose which way to go next is to feel like they just now invented a whole new way of telling stories.
You guys were doing this the whole time? God damn it, you should have told me about video games.**
*Way back in 1986, The Singing Detective demonstrated that The Ink Spots could be used to sinister effect. I very much appreciate that the makers of Fallout did their homework.
Also, you can listen to the radio station which reports on YOU a lot, but also plays the same eight old timey songs while you play. I usually played at night, so I couldn’t do this, but wandering in the dark while listening to a solid version of “Anything Goes” was pretty tremendous. However, too much music plus killing feels a little Apocalypse Now dissociative. I mostly keep the music at home in Megaton.
** On the other hand, video games feel a little more disconcerting than even a great movie in a dark theater. I shake it off within the half hour, but they are still weird in that they make me feel not just that I was in another world, but that in this one I have to click on “a” in order to pick something up.
- I wrote a review of Everest for The Federalist. You should read it, because that’s almost a slant rhyme.
- And I wrote some stuff at Antiwar.com. Don’t I always?
- I read Felicia Day’s book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). It was a very easy, but enjoyable read about her trials and tribulations. The strangely relatable bits for me — not having ever been on Buffy — were the part where she was homeschooled for secular reasons, and then had anxiety and a thyroid problem! (Sorry to put your thyroid problem with enthusiastic punctuation, Ms. Day, but I was excited.) The best bit really was where she writes that if she hadn’t been homeschooled (and she seems slightly less positive about it than I am, but still mixed in a real world sort of) she would not have this fearless weirdness. She might actually be better at maintaining friendships and being a normal human, but on that first day of school her desire to love whatever she loved would have been drained out of her thanks to what she calls the girls with bows in their hair. I get this. I am inclined to agree about myself. There are trade-offs in being weird and not having the obvious reference point of school. One of the perks (which in itself has trade-offs) is that it helps you become your own person (especially if your parents aren’t rigid.) Oh, and I think I am searching for my own version of The Guild. Unfortunately, my interests are not entirely unique (yes, the internet taught me that) but they are a bit more obscure than Warcraft.
- This is a pessimistic look at libertarianism and libertarian movements that doesn’t feel like a hit piece or a (total) misreading of the philosophy.
- Austin Bragg of ReasonTV kind of already made a video that includes my gun control argument. Sigh.
- It is not offensive to say that gun control is a boon for totalitarian societies. And in particular, Nazi Germany has a few examples of Jews with guns surviving and even fighting back. The Belarusian Bielski partisans are a great example of how firearms can help you survive, without even the confrontation of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (which…didn’t go that well, but it was also more of a suicide mission), much less the strawman of going up against the entire Germany Army. But Dr. Keith Ablow(hard) has written what can only be described as a victim blaming piece about the Jews under the Nazis. Additionally, he basically is letting the world that let six million Jews die off the hook because they didn’t fight back in an inspirational enough fashion.
- First female photojournalist in Japan is 101, still kicking ass. Hat tip to photographer friend Emily.
- Cool piece on forgotten female journalist who broke the whole invasion of Poland news. Unfortunately, said piece refers to Martha Gellhorn and Clare Booth Luce in reference to their husbands. Ahem.
- Started listening to Gilmore Guys podcast a little. It feels like it’s annoying, and then it’s entrancing.
- Good Wired piece on the state of fandom, and how its pure enthusiasm (maybe) beat irony. I’ve never really been to a good, nerdy con, which is a sad thing.
- BBC behind the scenes look at the latest “Doctor Who” and the cool, deaf actress they found for the part. I just wish the plot had been a little less…something. As a watcher of Switched at Birth, I tried to see a difference between British Sign and American, but I clearly can’t. I can sign my name, “baby”, and “thank you” in ASL, though, so I am a champ.
- Oh, and via Ms. Julia, attorney at law, I found the podcast Criminal. I listened to one about a guy sent to a minimum security prison that also had a leper colony. No, really. Also it was the 1990s.
- Kitty Genovese: still much more complicated than just a metaphor for urban indifference and the bystander effect.
- Townes Van Zandt was great. Here are some of his words on songwriting. And here’s a whole bunch of people covering “White Freightliner Blues” on Austin City Limits in what can be argued is a way to upbeat manner. Still good times, if only because I cannot resist saloon pianer. Yet still an argument for diminishing returns.
If you’re ready — and only if you’re ready — you can watch Townes himself making an old man cry by singing “Waitin’ Around to Die”:
Though some prominent people like Glenn Greenwald and the writers at the leftist Jacobin magazine found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to be from distasteful to downright racist, no one is saying the French satirists deserved this monstrous assassination. There is something fundamentally (pun intended) terrifying about killing people over words and images.
Yet, there’s something frustrating about the response to the tragic murders in Paris on Wednesday. This is because the miserable muck that is the war on terror reminds us, as do all wars, that some animals are more equal than others. In the face of this disturbing crime, it would be nice to feel rallied towards civil liberties, and freedom of speech. Rallied towards not living on your knees, as the late editor Stéphane Charbonnier said he would do even after the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed in 2011. But it isn’t that simple.
The perpetrators of the Paris attack – now identified, with one in custody – should be found and brought to justice. But oh, If only one could depend on a narrowness of response – that only the terrorists responsible would be punished for every attack, and no freedoms, no domestic privacy or rights would be sacrificed; no innocent Muslims or their houses of worship assaulted or oppressed, and no civilians would be caught in any crossfire of any ensuing international effort.
Read the rest at Antiwar.com
It’s strange how often football comes up in stories about World War I. Blood-poet Jessie Pope famously and obscenely compared the conflict to a game. And to many, the most memorable part about the Truce of Christmas,1914 was the football match played between British and German soldiers.
For the centennial of this famous and cozy lesson in – arguably futile – goodwill towards men, historians are now debating the prominence of that famous football match. It may have happened on a smaller scale than popular portrayal suggests. Fine.
One wonders why the sport part has such a hold in the public imagination. Perhaps because it’s so metaphorically on the nose. A football game is the way that nationalism should look if it looks like anything at all. It is a friendly competition, like the Olympics in a world without politics. It is not the young being sacrificed for the old’s squabbles.
For all the novelty of the Truce as a moment in history, it makes sense that these men stopped fighting. After four months of war – war that was not “over by Christmas” 1914, or ‘15, ‘16, or ‘17 – some soldiers were already starting to wonder what they were fighting for. Turns out it wasn’t much like the boy’s adventure stories at all, more like mud, misery, and what was turning into months fighting over feet of earth. That’s where the Truce came in.
Read the rest at Antiwar.com
A PBS production from 1983 that ended up in theaters, and with an Oscar nomination for lead Jane Alexander, Testament came at the end of the last Cold War hot flash, along with Threads and The Day After. Those two were all big, showing every grim — television budgeted — detail of the end of the world, or at least western civilization. Threads, bizarrely, is so excruciating that a numbness — albeit a queasy type — starts to set in by the time nuclear winter rolls round.
In Testament, you wish that were the case. This sneaky, understated movie is the Platonic ideal of real horror. Most nuclear war fiction, even if it is all about one family, town, or city plunged into uncertainty, shows you some pieces of the story. Jericho, Alas, Babylon, On the Beach, they tell you how we got here, even though there is always a fog of war element. Testament is not interested in the why of anything, it just wants you to look until you can’t stand it anymore. This is just the story of a mom, her three kids, and her husband who never comes home from work in San Francisco on the day the bombs are dropped.
The movie takes its time on the family, the totally banal family living in the little California town. It’s about them and how they could be anyone. This could be happening for any reason, and whichever reason that is is bullshit. Even near the end, when Jane Alexander’s matriarch Carole falls to her knees and cries “Who did this?! God damn you!” she’s not asking about the socio-political explanation. It, in some ways, doesn’t matter. There is one tiny glimpse of television new that says nukes have been dropped, then there is a bright light. A few radio broadcasts tell us little later, but they mostly just mean a fraying connections to the outside world.
Things seem alright for a while in town, and the acting and the terrible regularness of it all confirms this. I find myself again feeling skeptical about the lack of hysteria. Hell, maybe “The Shelter” is most accurate then I thought. Why does nobody crack up? Haven’t they seen movies like this one? Jane Alexander is good, but she is mostly a little too composed.
But the everyday living facade, and the ease of watching it for the audience, starts to crack after the town puts on the school play that Carole was preparing for when the movie began. Twenty Kindergartners preform the Pied Piper, and the adults in the audience watch and cry because the see the familiarity: mistakes were made, and the children are going to pay for it. They cannot be trusted with the children. They are why they won’t get to have lives at all.
There are several more plateaus of regular living. Surviving requires working with the other people on town, and it does seem to work. Then another spike of horror comes when Carole’s friend is wandering in the rain holding a drawer that will serve as a coffin for his baby. Still, the food rations, the lines, the organization of everything sends the inevitability of thing back a few weeks. There’s the symbol of hope that is the radio, manned by a level-headed old neighbor. Carole’s oldest boy visits him, and then helps him check on the rest of the townspeople. He rides his bike, which is his talisman that reminds him of his dad, who would pester him into riding with him. Near the end, he has to ride his dad’s bike. He rides it past scenes of graves, and of graveyards filling past capacity. Eventually the bodies are burned instead.
This movie is a sneak, in the most stomach-aching fashion. The town is staying organized, until the police chief suddenly has a subtle, and entirely real nervous breakdown during a town meeting in church. The kids are bratty or earnest in turn until they are quieted by radiation sickness. The daughter is daddy’s girl, and rather dull, until the conversation she has with her mother about sex culminates in her tearfully saying that that love, and sharing, and all that will never happen for her, and she knows it. There are sentimental trimmings, including– like On the Beach — an overly intrusive soundtrack.
But the horror wins out. Fiendishly abruptly, things falls apart and the graveyards fill, the littlest boy is suddenly sick in the bathroom. After a few minutes, he’s wrapped in a sheet. That’s the progression of the movie now. It picks up speed as the family runs out of time.
Good parents are heroes in the most terrifying way. A good parent is supposed to give up their life for their child. The only thing more frightening an idea than that is the parent who can do nothing except watch their children slowly die. It’s happened, and it will always happen because of cruel accident and disease. But movies like this can’t help but remind me of what the US did to parents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It — the government that is just another word for things we choose to do together — made parents watch their children die. The power of the bombs were the way they killed slowly or in a millisecond. The latter gave us shadows on sidewalks, grim poetry and metaphor, and at least a complete lack of suffering for the victim. Radiation sickness, on the other hand, is slow agony. Nothing artful in that, just vomiting, and diarrhea, and hair loss, and nausea, and dizziness, and death. This movie, and other apocalyptic fiction, were intended to ward off what they showed on screen (though nothing is as grim as it would be, not even the ’80 dread trio). And they worked, if the tales of Reagan watching The Day After are as simple as they sound. But I can’t help but be reminded that that nightmare already was done to thousands of people. Our Cold War fiction is the horrors that were avoided. We are never as interested in the ones we caused. Too prosaic.
Testament is propelled by its characters — simple ones, who by rights should have stayed that way. We shouldn’t be watching them at all, because this shouldn’t have happened. But it’s not nihilistic. It’s not Threads, where it just pounds at you, screaming that this must never be, and if it does we’ll be brutes, and then there will be nothing left of humanity — because, seemingly, humanity is a thin skin over a pit of savagery. For a movie about the complete lack of control over saving yourself, and your loved ones, Testament highly values the idea of being good and decent as you die. It’s a feeble fading away with nothing to be done in one way. In another, you remember your loved ones who left, you help your neighbors, and you don’t become a monster. The smaller this movie gets — and it is oh, so small by the final — the more clearly it demonstrates that one family is the world, and the world is just about to end, but perhaps it ended as well as it could.
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