January 20, 2009

The Sisters

[As of yesterday, I have a regular biweekly column on GameSetWatch. I don't know exactly how this is going to work yet, but for now what follows is a partial reprint of the first column. The full thing is available on GameSetWatch, but only on Hit Self-Destruct do you get access to the bonus behind-the-scenes liner notes on the column. This is a new and recurring feature -- short interviews with game industry professionals -- which has nothing to do with the column I wrote.

Duncan Fyfe: Right now, you're working as a programmer on the indie game Plain Sight at the six-person studio Beatnik Games, although I like to think that you are more famous for writing about the Austin GDC and video dames. What's your greatest regret about working in the games industry?

Alex Ashby: I think it's that I spent so much of my life believing that the success of my career hung solely on my ability to get a job with a big AAA company. From the age of 16 when I decided that I wanted to make games, I've had dreams of working with the huge company, being on the technical cutting edge, and making epic blockbusters that everyone would know about. There was no way that I could realise my grand visions single-handed, they would be only pale imitations of the kind of games I could make if I were at the helm of a huge lumbering giant of a studio.

So I made it my mission in life to climb the ladder, take the shitty jobs, moan about them and work up and up through the status quo, instead of actually doing anything. It was fun and I met a lot of super people, but at 25 that's nearly a decade of any creative potential I might have, wasted. Since then, every job I've taken has been with a smaller and smaller scale company, I've enjoyed the job more and more. I've slowly and stubbornly discovered that actually, I could have been doing this for years if I'd pulled my finger out. But I didn't.

Working for indie companies has changed my perspective so radically, that if I lost my job tomorrow, I honestly don't know if I'd take a job at a big dev studio again. If I couldn't find a small company or work for myself, I might just quit and do something else entirely.

Duncan Fyfe: You told me once that one of the first indie games you ever worked on was something called "Test Your Mettle", and that title was a pun because the character was a robot.

Alex Ashby: It wasn't called "Test Your Mettle"! It was just "Mettle", I added the "Test Your" for irony.]

The Sisters: an excerpt

The protagonist of Bethesda's Fallout 3 is a cipher, a window through which to view the gameworld, so if he had a LiveJournal he would not be writing about his feelings. He'd write about the post-nuclear Wasteland, about the slaves who rallied around the Lincoln Memorial, the android who wanted to live like a human, free elections in a one-man republic, the day the ghouls crashed the gated community.

He'd write about the young girl who fell in love with a priest, the father who took shelter with his injured son in a storm drain, the downfall of Vault 106 and the rangers trapped on the hotel roof. Fallout 3 is like any other RPG insofar as the player collects experience points, gear and currency, but it's essential to the experience that they collect stories, too.

Fallout 3 is easily cross-referenced and classifiable in the modern video gaming canon. The game grew up in an Elder Scrolls household where it aspired to be Fallout, it has all the trappings of a Western RPG and the unbroken camera of Half-Life, and gameplay buzzwords cling to it: non-linear, open world, emergent. Its least likely structural resemblance, though, as per the above paragraph, is to a book of short stories. Essentially, it's Dubliners with guns.

Holding forth on Irish municipal politics in a drunken stagger, this thought probably never even crossed James Joyce's mind. There was nothing to suggest the eventual similarity in the video games of Joyce's day (older games, they would have been in black and white). Dubliners and Fallout 3 compile isolated tales about unrelated people to establish the character of a city in decline: Dublin and a fictional future Washington, respectively.

They abstain from a central unifying plot (more on Fallout's exception later): Dubliners relies on its 13 vignettes, Fallout 3 on an array of sidequests, text and environmental tableaus for players who skip all the dialogue.

Joyce presents 13 drunks, writers, schoolboys and stage mothers whose collective epiphanies on themes of religion, nationalism and masculinity inform the artist's portrait of a city. The book is less a chronicle of individuals but of the social, religious and economic constitution of early 20th century Dublin. Fallout 3, obviously, is not nearly the literary equivalent of Dubliners: they are analogues in form, not in depth.

This is, in part, because Fallout 3 is collaboratively written and designed, and so lacks a prominent auteur as its figurehead. While critics can analyze Dubliners in the context of Joyce's personal history, Fallout 3 players don't know as much about the troubled Roman Catholic upbringing of Todd Howard or the trenchant alcoholism of Emil Pagliarulo, and so instead of subtle and deeply-encoded meaning we see plainness.

[Read the rest on GameSetWatch.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You honestly cannot be serious. Yes, there are similarities between The Dubliners and Fallout 3, much as there are similarities between Fallout 3 and any narrative, but they certainly aren't truly analogous in form, content, structure, or purpose. Your auteur theory is wrong-headed - films are collaborative, plays are collaborative, and yet, great examples of them are single-minded in purpose - and you in no way ever argue your point convincingly, if, indeed, Fallout 3 and The Dubliners being similar is your point; it's never very clear if it is.
Don't try so hard to be intellectual.