The Human vs. The Gamer, part II: This time it’s personal

Falling out with Fallout 4.

So last time I talked about ludo-narrative dissonance. Or the inner struggle between the human and the gamer.

For me this was most obvious and jarring in Fallout 4. (Warning, spoiler territory up ahead. Nothing major, but still).

The game starts out well enough – on paper, at least. You get to spend some time with your allotted spouse (in my mind, it was an arranged marriage because at no point did this “role-playing” game ask me if I wanted to play the role of a dutiful 50s wife, but whatever). Then there’s the kid. Now, I don’t know what it is with children called Shaun in videogames, but oh blimey do they get kidnapped. Fair warning to all prospective videogame parents, if you don’t want your kid to get abducted, don’t call him Shaun.

And while I’m at it, let me just… Shaun! SHAUN! SHAAAAUUUN! (You don’t even need to have played Heavy Rain to know what I’m talking about.)

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Then hey ho, the bombs drop, the wifey/hubby gets offed and the Shaun (SHAUN!) gets David Caged off the stage in a rage, but without Ellen Page. I’ll stop now. The problem is, it all happened too fast and felt a bit rote. Even the scene where the spouse dies. There’s a bit of a running gag in the games industry, that the only way to elicit an emotional response out of gamers is to kill off a character – or a dog. That’s part of the reason I never took Dogmeat with me… I know what happened in Fallout 1, you ain’t doing that to me again, game. Well, in this case, your randomly assigned 50s spouse (in my case, the husband… was it John? Jack? Nathan? I never loved him anyway), gets the axe, or the .45 round to the head. To be fair to the game, the scene (locked to first person), was harrowing and emotional. But here’s the general problem with this scene and other times the game tries to engage the player at an emotional level… it hasn’t earned it.

One can draw a good parallel with Heavy Rain. For those of you who don’t know, David Cage, the French Kojima, released Heavy Rain, an “interactive drama” type videogame where a boy called Shaun (SHAUN!) gets abducted and you play an ensemble of characters, including the father, the cop, the private dick and the token female journalist (don’t get me started), to try and uncover the mystery and recover the Shaun (SHAUN!). Both games start with a scene in a completely different colour palette – bright, vibrant, happy colours in the intro. You get to play the part of the happy family. But whereas Fallout breezes through the whole shtick, with Heavy Rain you get to actually, properly play the part of the father – you play with the kids, you get nagged by the wife, you do a bit of work. Heavy Rain let me be the character, I grew attached to the kids (but not the wife… again, don’t get me started), in Fallout the interaction is limited to “press X to coo the baby or comment on the Nuka Cola in the fridge”. For the first 15 minutes of the game (after the two hours of designing her look), my character was a walking billboard for all things 50s America loved. It was so odd, I had this theory that she had been brainwashed as well. Then the bombs drop, the drama happens, Shaun (SHAUN!) get whisked away and you’re thrown into post-apocalyptic Boston and an open world.

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White picket fence and everything.

And then you craft settlements, pick tomatoes, save people, fight Deathclaws and Raiders, there’s a thing called the Institute and they’re bad, there’s the Brotherhood of Steel and they’re cool, the Railroad are interesting and the Minutemen… fuck the Minutemen. Fuck Preston Garvey and the defenceless settlements of Boston. The fighting Irish my clover-shaped… ahem, anyway. Ah, wait, there’s something I’m missing here. I know I didn’t come to the Wasteland to paint my power armour pink, there was a different…

Oh, right… the kid. Who cares about the kid anymore? Eventually (spoilers!), you find him. I won’t go into details, but my character was in tears. She was in tears because I chose the dialogue options that I knew would lead to that. Because it’s what my character would have done. But the person behind the controller wanted to mash the “Sarcastic” dialogue option and tell Shaun (SHAUN!) to git gud and stop being such a baby. Even though he was a baby the last time I saw him.

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My character in Fallout 4. She’s having another moment of “Why the fuck do I care, again?”

But that’s the problem. The story, on its surface, should be emotionally engaging. It’s an abducted child, for crying literally out loud. You play the mother (oh, and videogame mothers… alright, I said I’d stop, but seriously, this needs to be talked about), or father if you prefer. But I played the kid’s mother. In the game world, that ungrateful little rugrat came out of my womb (it feels so weird to write that), I gave his polygoned arse life and yet… I’d rather go talk to Preston Shit-eating Garvey about another clucking settlement that’s been raided.

There’s nothing, no feeling, no tug on the ol’ heart strings. Nada.

And don’t tell me Fallout doesn’t do emotions or that the game format won’t allow it. To Fallout fans, all I have to say are a choice few words: Boone, Bitter Springs, Veronica and the Chains that Bind (that went S&M really quick, didn’t it?). Those were engaging stories, they made me feel for the characters involved. It made me want to reach through the screen and hug Boone and Veronica. Arcade, Raul, all of them needed a hug, come to think of it. Except Benny, he needed a bullet. And he got it.

I won’t say Bethesda don’t do good writing. They do fantastic writing. And you can’t say that open-world games don’t lend themselves to great stories either. The best example of this to me is Fallout 3 and Liam Neeson as your character’s father. Oh, did that get me right in the feels.

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I… sniff… I just need a moment.

I love Liam Neeson. That voice like melting butter, oh dear me… And having Oskar Schindler play your loving father, and by all accounts a fantastic father figure at that… oh, Bethesda, you plucked them heart strings right, you did. But it’s not just that. The writing is great, but the gameplay enforces it. Much like in Heavy Rain you get to spend the intro with your family. And you meaningfully interact with them. You literally take your first steps as a baby in front of Papa Liam. You get a birthday party with your friends and your adoring father. You take part in the Vault equivalent of a bar/bat mitzvah when you receive your Pip-Boy. Some criticised this as “slow” gameplay, but it was well worth it, because it paid off later. When you leave the Vault, you get a message from dear dad before he buggered off (tree, meet apple). I refused to play it… I still hated him at that point. Then, when I was in Minefield, fearful for my life, I finally decided to play Dad’s last message. And it brought me to tears. You don’t get this kind of emergent gameplay anywhere else. Eventually, the two get reunited, and in my case, he told me how proud he was of me that I had saved Megaton… Do you have any idea how wonderful it is to hear Liam Neeson say he’s proud of you? Because if you don’t, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and play Fallout 3. Do it!

I didn’t get that with Fallout 4 at all. And I can’t fault the characters. They’re some of the best written NPCs I’ve had the pleasure to engage with since… well, since New Vegas (or Mass Effect, but again, don’t get me started). Hancock, MacCready, Piper (yes, Piper, shut up), even Danse if you get to know him. Hell, all I have to say is Nick Fucking Valentine (the sound you heard there is the mic being dropped). And here’s something Bethesda did very well… they got rid of Karma (controversial, I know, but that mechanic belongs in the 90s), and instead they gave us characters who reacted to our in-game actions. I genuinely felt bad when Nick told me he hated something I’d done. And I couldn’t care less when Danse went on about blah, blah… until the tough macho guy opened up to me and I nearly cried.

But did I get that with Shaun (SHAUN!)? No. I turned off the game and went to listen to Liam Neeson’s recorded message again.

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Why am I doing this again?

The gamer had been asleep at the wheel. The gamer in me wanted to complete the story AND do all of the fun bits in-between. But when I got to the pay-off – meeting the kid – the human in me rebelled. This is bullshit. I feel nothing. I no longer have anything invested in this story. Leaving aside some of the criticism (hah, “some”) with regards to the gameplay, Fallout 4 is a great game. Fallout 4 has a great story. It’s just a shame that the two don’t mix.

I’ll see y’all on the Strip in New Vegas. You’ll find me playing Blackjack at the Tops.

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Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Feminism in Siberia: Lara Croft & Kate Walker

I love Lara Croft. I’ve always loved Lara. As a kid, I enjoyed playing the role of the intrepid adventurer – swinging from vines, solving complicated puzzles and parkouring across ancient temples before Altaïr made it look cool. She was everything a star-struck kid hoped to see in a hero: adventurous, self-reliant, unerringly cool and eminently badass in a way generations of videogame characters have been trying to capture ever since. And she had a gorgeous pair of… guns, but more on that later.

Plus, she was English. Which meant her accent was proper for a change.

Archaeology like it’s 1899

Of course, when you’re a little kid, excited about jungle temples, ancient mysteries and Lara’s amazing set of… athletics skills, you tend not to care that much about realism or the fact that you’re shooting endangered species and destroying precious relics for the fun of it. Undoubtedly, Lara went to the Indiana Jones School of Archaeology, where Nathan Drake got his degree as well. But hey, it got me interested in palaeontology (it’s more or less the same thing).

And despite all the criticism levelled at the character, from feminists and modern game critics (justifiably so), I found the character to be quite relatable. More than other characters at that time. Despite the obvious… exaggerations, Lara felt real. She was good at the parkour because she was a gymnast; she knew her way around ancient temples because she had studied archaeology (under Professors Indiana Jones, Charles Marlow and Kurtz, admittedly); and she’s good with guns because this is a videogame so of course she is. And she can afford to do all of this because her family’s rich and they live in a place called Croft Manor, for goodness’ sake! You might say this makes her hard to relate to, but she’s still about 6 black belts away from being Batman, so I call that realistic enough.

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A survivor is born.

Put on your feminist trousers.

The 2013 Lara is even more of a real character. Unlike her older incarnation, this Lara shows emotion. She’s vulnerable, but strong of will, and she’s determined. The new Lara is a step in the right direction for female game characters and for games in general.

Let’s talk about the obvious first. 2013’s Lara looks more like an actual human being. The 2016 sequel even more so. She has a normal-sized waist that looks like it can actually support her body, and she no longer looks like she’ll break her back from the weight of her double D’s and I’m not talking about the twin Desert Eagles. Everything about the new character design is great. She’s not sexualised, she looks more realistic and she’s even wearing sensible khaki trousers instead of the signature hot pants of old Lara.

But more than that, Lara starts the game by being insecure. She’s young and inexperienced. We learn that she has quite the shoes to fill, and an impressive name to live up to. Meanwhile, she’s still a young girl with a life ahead of her. That life and all hope of normalcy gets taken away when she and her crew shipwreck on a dangerous island inhabited by a Cult of Demon-worshipping White People on a Japanese Island (let that sink in for a second). Through various trials, we see Lara grow as a hardened individual and as the adventurer we remember her to be.

There is an incredibly emotional moment when Lara has to kill a deer in order to survive. Moments like this are rare in videogames these days, and the care and attention given to it say a lot about this new Lara. The moment is somewhat ruined by how she later proceeds to gleefully murder her way through the entire populace of a small island nation. Despite a certain degree of ludo-narrative dissonance, Lara’s journey to becoming a survivor is believable, emotional and relatable.

Unlike your witty cookie-cutter rogues like Nathan Drake, Lara is a character who shows a full range of emotion. She is an extraordinary human being who nevertheless feels very real, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and her journey is a beauty to behold.

I’m looking forward to playing Rise of the Tomb Raider when it finally arrives on PS4 in October, and I can’t wait to go on adventure with Lara in Siberia. The new setting and the possibility of world exploration are particularly intriguing, and it reminded me that there are a whole slew of female badasses who have explored Siberia under worse circumstances.

Which reminds me…

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Syberia with a Y

While the new instalment of the Tomb Raider’s adventures takes our teenage crush Lara to the cold reaches of Siberia in search of ancient treasures, six years after Lara’s first adventure hit consoles in 1996, another game was capturing my imagination: Syberia. With a Y. Y? Because of reasons.

At a glance, the two games have nothing to do with each other. One is a puzzle platforming adventure game with the shooty-shooty bang bang action, while the other is a point-and click with practically no violence in it. But both feature memorable female leads, and interestingly, both take place in some fictional form of the cold Siberian wastes.

Adding to the list of brave women who’ve explored the tundra is Kate Walker, an American lawyer whose law firm sends her to Steampunkville, France (the town is actually called Valadilene and I don’t think it explicitly says it’s French, because to me it feels more like Switzerland, but anyway). When Kate arrives just in time for her client’s funeral procession lead by automata, she then goes on an adventure across a Steampunk version of Europe and Soviet Russia, to locate the sole heir of the company, an eccentric recluse who is obsessed with finding mammoths, even though we all know they’re extinct. Eventually, she helps him reach the island of Syberia where (spoilers) the last living mammoths are found!

Feminists today might find the character not quite what they expected in a “strong female lead”. She often finds herself helpless in situations where Lara Croft would somersault her way out of trouble. While the Tomb Raider would dive into freezing water to retrieve her quest items, Kate has to enlist the help of small boys, old men and (I kid you not) penguins to be able to move forward. But this is more a fault of the game genre. Try getting Guybrush Threepwood to do anything physically demanding.

But Kate is intelligent. Both in the problem-solving, puzzle-breaking, moon-logic way of the old school adventure games, but also on an emotional level. She empathises with her automaton companion, and manages to relate on a deeper level with the world and the characters around her. She relies on her wits to get out of sticky situations because she did not study at the John Travolta School of Law. The game’s story is quite deep and despite the cartoonish fantasy style, it gets pretty dark at points. In other words, Kate feels like an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which makes for great storytelling.

As the main plot unfolds, we learn more about Kate and we witness as her personal life evolves. We get a front row seat to her deteriorating relationship with a jealous fiancé, and the constant arguing with her overbearing mother. Given the trend in videogames today, watching this seemingly mundane story was quite refreshing. I felt happy for Kate when she finally broke up with her fiancé. It felt cathartic, it was a big moment in her becoming an adventurer. But more importantly it showed a curious quality in the character… she was just so damn nice.

And you don’t see that in games these days.

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You’d almost be forgiven for saying the kind of look the same.

Militant feminism? Or just joining the boys club?

Just take a look at this year’s roster at E3, broken down by gender of protagonist and percentage of games that rely on violence as a game mechanic. It’s a little disheartening.

Not only are compassionate characters a rarity, especially female ones, but more and more, problem-solving in videogames revolves around unchecked violence and wanton destruction. Lara Croft is a feminist icon in her own right, but she tends to play the same role as a male character would – resolving the plot by shooting her way through it. Some would argue that feminism is about more than just doing the same things that male characters do.

Lara’s old-school sex-appeal and newfound badassery makes her a figure of female empowerment to some, but to others she is a product of the patriarchal establishment. In this sense, Kate Walker is the subversive character – the non-violent, unbelievably friendly lawyer whose only weapon is her razor-sharp wit and her unyielding empathy. In the end, it’s all about agency. Both characters have it, both survive their respective challenges in their own style. It’s up to you to decide which is right.

Syberia 3 is meant to launch December this year, after so many years of wait. And I’m definitely looking forward to it. I played the original games again recently with a friend spectating. We both found it strange and amusing, sometimes infuriating how Kate never said a mean word to anyone, she always helped people no matter who they were, she always listened and understood to all the characters. In other words, she made the world around her nicer and made the people she met feel better about themselves.

You can’t do that with guns, Lara.