October 30, 2007

Fallout (1997)

1997! I'm catching up fast.

First of all, I would like to note that Fallout is one of my favourite games. Secondly, it hasn't aged very well. Literally every mechanic dealing with your party is so outdated as to be embarrassing. I know the SMG-burst issue is so infamous at this point as to have become part of the game's charm, but it's really awful. Anyway: Fallout!

Fallout's ending -- spoiler alert!! -- is often mentioned as one of those "can a video game make you cry?" moments, or more specifically, "well, this didn't make me cry exactly, but it was kind of sad." Unfortunately the ending isn't on YouTube, so I guess you'll have to conjure up the memory while you read the rest of this post. Try not to choke up.

Essentially, you, the hero, get exiled from the vault because, having spent the length of the game out on the strange, dangerous surface, you're tainted. Cue the Ink Spots and "Maybe" as the hero marches, forlorn, back to the wastes. It's a laudable enough twist in a genre that (even today, but more so circa 1997) is mostly about jerking you off every five minutes to reassure you that you are the most important character in this particular power fantasy. This is significant. Even though Fallout grants you typically massive influence over the settlements and people you encounter, you're denied your final accolade.

This ending doesn't work. The entire game is about discovery: for the first time, you're seeing the world outside of the vault. Nobody from the vault's ever been out there. You assume it's going to be this anarchic wasteland, a total nightmare. It even sort of is. But although in all the entropy you don't find as many pockets of sympathetic or pitiable humanity as you do in a Deus Ex or a Planescape: Torment... they're still there! The whole game has you outside your comfort zone, and I think that while, yes, there are scorpions and raiders and mutants, it is still a really interesting place, the place you should have been all along. It is better than the vault. While you're less likely to get murdered, there's absolutely nothing interesting there. It's conservative, repressed and closed-minded, a point well made by their iconography so evoking the 1950s, not to mention their casting you out. Who played Fallout and was saying to themselves, you know, this is really great and all, but what I really want for Fallout 2 is to stay in the fucking vault?

The game experience is not about making you homesick (you've never been home) by making you trawl through some horrorscape. It's kind of like that ER episode where those Amish kids go through that rite of leaving home at 18 to check if the outside world's for them before going back to their Amish ways. Maybe that happens in real life too. I'm not an expert. I did see Witness, and now that I think about it, I'm really embarrassed to admit that I saw a late-period ER episode.

Fallout doesn't create even a perfunctory emotional connection between the player and the vault. It's not "home". Even if it was, who cares? The outside world is by far more attractive. Yeah, it's a risk, but that's life. I don't even feel bad on behalf of my character, because he's the typical RPG blank slate. Dude feels bad when I tell him to feel bad. (Side note: Fallout 3 is apparently rectifying this by starting you in the vault proper and then having your dad get kidnapped. For more, see the excellent Shacknews preview written by the famous Chris Remo, a.k.a. the most successful ex-Idle Thumbs staffer. So far.)

This is why I was fully on board with Fallout until that ending. Pathos was completely the wrong note to play. You did me a fucking favour. And because during this game I did so much good for so many people, they're practically obligated now to set me up for life.

I wish she didn't have her eyes closed in this shot.

I'm perfectly willing to admit my interpretation of the game is the wrong one. But it's the better one.

Finally, having majored in international relations, I can tell you that war actually does change.

Next up -- a game from this century!

October 25, 2007

Thief: The Dark Project (1998)

A list of the best cutscenes of all time might be the least inspired post I could possibly make. I think I'll save that, as well as a meta discussion about the whole concept of cutscene storytelling for when I'm really desperate. That's when you'll know it's time to stop reading.

This post is about Thief, the game from nine years ago. I've really keyed in on all the relevant contemporary touchstones. Wait until you see the next post. It's only because I accidentally deleted my essay on BioShock. You know, I have a life.

Here's a cutscene from Thief, which, startlingly, is on YouTube. Don't watch it unless you've played the game. Or read any further in this post. Why am I even bothering.

There is so much that's right about this scene. When you reached this point in the game you'd be totally forgiven for underestimating the storytelling prowess of Thief: The Dark Project. It is a video game after all. The first few seconds of this scene would confirm that the characters Constantine and Viktoria are in fact the villains of the piece -- which you probably were pretty sure of as early as their introduction. They're pretty much the only characters you know, and they talk in sinister tones. It's a reveal the game did a really bad job of hiding.

It helps that Garrett is typically so sardonic. No kidding they're the villains. They were manipulating me all along? In a video game? Well I never. This is no shock. This is an eye-roll. What's kind of a shock, though, is when they mutate into fucking monsters. Constantine looks like the devil. Viktoria is a tree woman. This was a little harder to see coming. And while you're processing that, then -- then! -- Viktoria rips your eye out with a branch! Your fucking eye! Where did that come from?

Thief's lulled you into a false overconfidence -- oh, they're the bad guys? oh, wow -- then immediately throws at you the two craziest things to happen in this game so far. Three twists in rapid succession and you're actually missing an eye, how often does that happen in a game? (A brief digression regarding the merits of cutscenes -- sorry -- here, because of video game storytelling conventions, you know this is permanent and not the avoidable result of you screwing up.)

Then Viktoria and Constantine pontificate very theatrically to themselves. It's not so important exactly what they're saying: I'm not paying attention because my eye is missing from its socket. But it's great, because it's not like "oh no, eye out" --> Mission complete! The horror of this scene is sustained so adeptly; it doesn't even matter what Viktoria and Constantine are talking about, what it's established is that this game clearly took a very bizarre and irreversible turn.

Thief is a very subtle game, both in gameplay, obviously, and in storytelling. It has a slight irreverence to it in Garrett's wry observations. Given that, it's so laudable that Looking Glass commits to going all the way with this completely insane moment and don't pull their punches at all. It's one of the best moments in the game and it's executed flawlessly. It sets you up going in, thinking you know what's up and throws so much crazy shit at you you don't even know where to respond. The whole tenor of the game changes in a minute. It's really quite remarkable.

If Thief II had a moment of that caliber I would have liked it more. Thief II had an absurdly inferior villain. I hope that guy's not on YouTube.

Shiftless When Idle

First post.

I used to write for a site called Idle Thumbs, and unfortunately if you're reading this right now you probably know exactly what Idle Thumbs was. Idle Thumbs was a gaming site that was very good for a very brief period of time. I started writing for it in 2005, when it was just "good", and stayed with it through 2006, when it was "frustrating and painful". I'm only even mentioning it because it was the best thing I ever did on the internet, not that my self-worth is measured by what I do on the internet or anything. The whole thing doesn't come up much anymore, except for talking about it right now and referencing it in the title of this blog post. That's kind of like John Fogerty calling his new album "Revival" except that more than one person gives a shit about that. Let's hope that's it for the Idle Thumbs references, though.

Idle Thumbs (whoops!) fell apart mostly because it was a volunteer project that eventually ran out of steam -- much like this will! I promise the second I lose interest in this thing, it's getting shut down. Not many blogs would guarantee you inevitable failure like that. I did write four posts before publishing, though. Guess how many posts this will run.

For the next four weeks, this is going to be all about examples of writing in games. It's like my own lecture series, meaning that I get to mouth off like an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. I chose writing because I don't know shit about anything else -- possibly not even that.

There'll be an exciting post up in a day or two.

Does this layout suck? I think it might.