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.)


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 remember 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 (he wishes), 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.

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 literal baby the last time I saw him.

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, or 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.

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. Except your mother. Cause she’s dead. Because videogames… oy vey.

But 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.

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 give up.

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

Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Speak no evil

Charlie Chaplin in the Great Dictator – Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking about words we use and why we use them. The whole point of words – at least in my view – was to convey meaning. Of course, in today’s technologically advanced world, the means to do this have exploded: long letters or e-mails have given way to 140-character texts or tweets, or the even subtler dick pic. It’s worth a thousand words, innit? Communication is as much an art form as it is a skill and universal agreement is a myth, especially when it comes to the meaning of words. Communication in English is even more problematic considering the monstrous blob of vocabulary and influences that the language has accumulated over its many centuries of haphazard evolution. This Juggernaut of an international lingua franca continues to absorb the world’s vernaculars with all the Sturm und Drang and to grow with panache, running amok on the internet and through other means we use to convey – you guessed it- meaning. And this sometimes leads to conflict – try telling an American that you’d like to bum a fag and see how they react. Seriously, do it.

When it comes to words, without getting too technical, there are two main “meanings” to look out for. What’s called “denotation” (the literal sense) and “connotation”, that is to say things what you might refer to using this word. That could cover innuendo, figurative speech, or sarcasm, and any feelings or ideas related to that word, what have you. Essentially, it’s a complex system to navigate when trying to get your – an I keep using this word with all its connotations – “meaning” across. If you catch my drift.

I’m in the camp that advocates use of the literal sense of words (like, literally), depending on context, of course. It has become my belief that if we use something too much – be it a word or a tool, for instance a spade – without knowledge of its original use or purpose or intent, it detracts from any (forgive me for this) meaning that tool might have. I mean to say meaningful use (if it bothers you, let me know. I mean well, I promise.) So, let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Because prior knowledge grants you the unique ability of knowing exactly what the fudge you’re talking about, savvy? Again, I stress – depending on context.

I mean

Granted, it might not always do you much good to know that tampons were originally intended to keep machine guns from going damp during WWI before their more common use today. But you might learn a thing or two about the priorities of this world and, all in all, it will be a more enriching experience. And it might not make you feel any better to know that “mortgage” literally translates as “death pledge”, but then again, you may think twice about getting one. I did find it enlightening, however, to know that “macabre” comes from “maqabir” which is “cemetery” in Arabic. That explains the literal definition of the word, and shows its origin. Its connotations may be plenty, but essentially, it means “related to death”, which may be spooky, but doesn’t need to be.

While linguistics is not my main training or area of expertise, I do fancy myself a cunning linguist (hee hee). But seriously, it does seem to be increasingly important to mind what you say. To quote a poem I like: “To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.” It is, therefore important, how you say what you mean, not just in intonation, but also through your choice of words.

I have decided, therefore, to stop using certain words, idioms and phrases because, while they are common enough and their connotations may vary and even be useful, I find their denotation distasteful, wrong or just not suitable to my needs. I’m not advocating anyone do this, by the way, but if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this:

Think before you speak.

So, the main offenders are:

Gay” – with the connotation that it’s something bad, wrong or – ahem – “queer”. It bothers me whenever I hear a friend say “that’s so gay”, with the implication being negative more often than not. Occasionally, when I look upon a rainbow coloured sparkling statue with an erect male member the size of one’s own envy… sure, then I might say “that is so gay” and mean it. But with the baggage that this has right now, I feel that people should stop using the term and let the right demographic claim it for themselves, if they so wish.

Remember when gay used to just mean “happy”? Me neither.

Pussy” – as in “coward”. I nearly forgot about this one because I never use it. But really, how can you possibly use this word with that meaning and not admit that you’re sexist? Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Shame on you. Yes, you.

Cocksucker” this would be just one of the long list of expletives that, in my book, should be discontinued. It is related to the first entry, in that the implication here is that anyone who dabbles in the occasional practice of fellatio is, for that reason alone, a person with whom we do not wish to associate. Setting aside your personal feelings about sex, the male genitalia or its relationship to other people’s orifices, it really is time we stop judging people based on how they shag. Otherwise, how long before we start using “missionary” to mean “boring”? The problem I can see with this dreadful word (no, not “missionary”, the other one) is that it’s so often used that maybe to your regular cis, straight males or females, it doesn’t seem that bothersome to call someone (particularly a male) a penile aficionado – I mean, we’ve always used that word in that context, what’s the harm? If you stop to think about it, you’re implying that someone is equatable to, say, a rectum (i.e. an asshole) because of their sexual preferences. And that, quite frankly, is barbaric and stupid.

For that matter, and speaking of the missionary, let me add to this list a few words I just remembered: “pedestrian” and “prosaic” to mean “boring”. As a fan of both walking and prose, I’m offended.

Jesus”, or “oh, my god” or “for god’s sake” or any variation invoking some deity or another. Yours sincerely happens to be an atheist. I’ve even given up on calling myself agnostic, I just don’t buy it, any of the mysticism. Setting aside the benefits or pitfalls of this belief, I did find it rather silly to hear myself shouting “Jesus Christ”. Admittedly, I considered myself safe from eternal damnation, and wasn’t too nervous that I’d blasphemed. If you don’t believe, then that shouldn’t bother you. But if you don’t believe, why are you calling out the name of a deity you’re convinced doesn’t exist? What’s the point? I might as well go around screaming “Oh, great Kukulkan” or “by Odin’s beard” or “Sweet Harry Krishner!” for all the good it’ll do me. Or “Hastur, Hastur, Hast-”


The list goes on. Actually, it might do to write these all on a list – I mean, literally – but for now I’m content to just think before I speak. More research would be required and I’m fully aware of the fact that I use some words without thinking twice about their meaning. I mean, for Thor’s sake, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, by Jingo. I caught myself the other day saying something was very gauche, and despite being right-handed myself, I can’t fault someone for favouring the left (political or otherwise). And one may wonder why it would matter what this word or that meant at a different time as long as we understand what the other person is saying when they use it. Fair point, but if we use words without sparing a thought to what their original point and purpose was, then the term “meaning” loses all… well, sense (thought I’d use that other word, ha?). Then words become not the conduit for our message, the tool for communication, but merely the empty shells we throw into enemy trenches to explode like so many china pots. Or like empty chairs we try to rearrange on the deck of the Titanic.

I mean pointless.


P.S.: That poem I mentioned –