A Throne of Games – Volume 3 – A Storm of “S” Words.

When last we left the historie of the consoleflict, King Atari had perished in madness and the kingdom of console gaming fell into chaos and disarray.

It was a wasteland. No one purchased new consoles, and merchants refused to sell them. For all intents and purposes, the idea of video gaming as a central activity was dying.

In this time of desperation and blight, an Arcade Clan of the East rode in. One that would attempt to seize Atari’s now empty throne for itself. It was a clan of great ambition and long lineage that saw the fallen crown, and realized it only had but to reach out in order to claim it.

Fallen Crown of King Atari

I mean, it’s a pretty nice crown. A bit bloody, but that comes out with some club soda.

But the greater problem still stood. In this barren land devoid of life, any potential ruler would have to either be extremely powerful or extremely lucky in order to restore faith and renew the potential of gaming in the eyes of the populace.

It was fortunate then, that this Clan’s words were to “leave luck to the heavens”, for it only dealt in power.

What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.
(But it helps if you bring Robot Buddies)

Even as the first king fell, Clans Nintendo and Sega – both having found success in the Arcadean Wilds – entered into the conflict of consoles in their native land, a place where the sun rose red. In Japan, Clan Nintendo’s Family Computer and Clan Sega’s SG-1000 arrived to do battle with their hosts on exactly the same day. Battle commenced immediately between the two and an early setback for Nintendo’s “Famicom” (as it would be known), poorly shod steeds, caused their hosts to crash into the mud even as they could begin their charge.

Clan Sega gained precious ground as Clan Nintendo ordered a full retreat and a costly re-shoeing. The battle was far from over though, and with their great beast Donkey Kong at the front of the legion and the might of their Cross Technique, Clan Nintendo soon claimed victory in its small island home. With the success of this victory Nintendo, now Lords of the East, set their sights on further conquest.

Not wanting to anger the King of the West, Nintendo first sought to work under King Atari, not yet realizing the mad monarch’s ill turn. However, their prior work with House Coleco was cited as a betrayal and the King refused the foreign House and any aid they might have brought to their flagging fortunes. Undaunted, the Lords of Nintendo began planning their own invasion of Western shores.

THE EMPEROR, THE FOOL, AND THE VIZIER (Sakaguchi, Miyamoto and Yokoi)

Setting Fallout 4 Pt. 2 (of 2) – On The Road Again!

. . . with apologies to Cormac McCarthy.

Recently, rumors started circulating that Bethesda may be considering the city of Boston, Massachusetts, as the primary setting for the next Fallout game, theoretically the 4th numbered sequel. Though this rumor hasn’t been confirmed, and is contrary to earlier statements, but it seems plausible. Not only was The City on a Hill obliquely referenced in Fallout 3 via the mysterious civilization known as The Commonwealth (and “The Institute”, theoretically a scientific society emerging from MIT), but considering Bethesda’s familiarity with the Eastern seaboard, it makes sense for them to set the game in a location that’s within their geographic wheelhouse.

Last week I proffered an editorial argument about the aspects of the Fallout series that are uniquely Western, my conclusion being that setting games on the East Coast carries with it a loss of identity for what makes Fallout so refreshing in a genre quickly becoming inundated with rivals, rehashes, and pretenders.

It seemed a rather fruitful topic, and I was delighted to see so much feedback from Fallout Fans. After all, this is “The Dialogue Tree”, not “The Screed Reeds” or the “Mahogany Monologues”, and in the end I like to get a conversation going above all else!

NMA Logo

Big shout out to No Mutants Allowed, by the way. I’ve teased them in the past, but honestly, that site is still the BEST (and longest running) place to get Fallout news, features, and intelligent discussion for Fallout fans.

But to make my opinion clear, I did like Fallout 3, especially at first.

Like many longtime fans of the series, that initial gameplay trailer gave me withdrawal symptoms I didn’t even know I had; when I popped that disc into my tray late 2008, I went through an almost Jet-induced Fallout frenzy, playing it at all hours of the night for two weeks straight while losing plenty of sleep in the process.

But as with my eyelids on the subsequent workdays, the magic of the game didn’t hold up over time. Or at least not like it had with the originals. Hence my prior diatribe was as much a search for what exactly it was that made them (and in my opinion, New Vegas) superior as it was a pronouncement of the Western influences I think may be the cause.

Also, I admit a main beef I have with Boston specifically is, as a “cradle of American history” there’s an almost certain chance we’ll see the Enclave again. After defeating them twice (thrice if you count Broken Steel separately), it’s past time to let the faction die already.

However, just because Fallout 3 has tarnished, doesn’t make it terrible. It has plenty of material worth exploring in future sequels, I just don’t think this means the Western stories must die out to make way for them. If anything, I’m of the mind that there are now two different Fallout series at this point; one focused on the East, one the West, both equally valid . . . but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For what I’m discussing today is nothing short of pure, unadulterated (but hopefully still informed) speculation! The time-honored tradition of fans everywhere! Looking at something we enjoy far too much and saying, “What if this were to happen next?”

So in this spirit, I’m going to hop into my rebuilt Chrysalis Highwayman here, and take a virtual road trip through a post-nuclear America!

Remember: Nothing can stop a Highwayman! via

We’re searching for spots that not only could be viable venues for the series, but should be. Locations that for whatever reason, call it fate, call it karma, but for whatever reason (Ray), are places where setting the next Fallout just makes sense.

I’ve got plenty of energy cells in the tank, some Sugar Bombs to munch on, and the radio’s picking up songs from the 1950’s for some reason. Well, the motor’s running- so hop in and Away. We. Go!

First stop . . .

New York City?!
(Get a rope!)

Yes, yes, I know. I just spent a whole article saying western states are the heart of Fallout. But aside from the plot considerations I alluded to, there’s a major reason why the Boston rumor has as much credibility as it does.

Not only is the Northeast mostly untapped in the Fallout world, but considering the popularity of the game (and the supposed “lackluster” success of New Vegas) a direct, linear progression from Fallout 3 makes so much sense from a sales perspective that Bethesda would have to be pretty dumb to not follow up with Fallout: New Fan Service. Say what you will about their abilities as game designers – lord knows I have – they’re damn smart businessmen.

It seems that’s what happens when you dump all your points into Barter and Luck!

My argument for New York as opposed to Boston is simple: why settle for the opening act, when you’re really waiting for the headlining band? Like John Lennon said, New York City IS the Rome of the modern world, and there’s little reason this status would’ve changed by the time the bombs fell, so it seems inevitable that a Fallout game will get here eventually. If there’s going to be (ideally) alternating locations for the Fallout series, some in the East and some in the West, let’s just get to the Manhattan Project everyone’s expecting!

Without Kurt Russell on your side, there’s really no way to escape from New York. So why fight it?

Plus, there’s a solid (and practical, as I’m sure it saved available memory) level design concept of Fallout 3‘s D.C. ruins – the collapsed architecture meant much of the area had to be navigated through Metro tunnels – which could be used again in the Big Apple’s vast network of subways and sewers. Not to mention the potential for local flavor and the film references certain to be involved. Off the top of my head you’ve got: Ghoulish remnants of the Mafia, a Raider occupied Wall Street, riffs on The Warriors, King Kong, among various movies, and those giant mutated sewer gators we keep hearing about!

There is a serious issue though. A demolished New York is simply overdone, not just in pop culture, but specifically in gaming. Post-apocalyptic (or near enough for government work) versions of the city that never sleeps are EVERYWHERE. Crysis 2, Spider-Man Web of Shadows, [PROTOTYPE](both 1 and 2), Infamous, and even early levels in Modern Warfare 3; I’ve seen the crumbling skyscrapers of Manhattan so many times that I could tell the level modelers where to place the rubble.

Right there, next to where Will Smith is standing in that movie that’s basically Fallout: New York, but with Vamp- er, nocturnal Super Mutants.

On the other hand, this familiarity could be a strength. That sense of loss that came from watching American history so thoroughly wiped out in Fallout 3, well, we’ve seen New York suffer from so many Godzilla Threshold attacks over the years that the fictional concept is as redundant as putting a blindfold on Helen Keller; the emotional baggage might be lessened, is my point. But then, after that thing with the DC Metro ads, Bethesda might be more cautious making a game featuring a virtual New York filled with collapsed skyscrapers (for what should be obvious reasons).

So, to mitigate that PR damage, let’s just take everything I said about New York, drive across a tottering G.W. Bridge and settle for New Jersey, shall we? It’s not like this is the first time anyone’s done so.

Actually, if the plot centers on a G.E.C.K. gone wrong, where a “Garden of Eden” in the Garden State mutates out of control? That’s not too bad; it could even steal some of the thunder from The Last of Us. You also get literal Jersey Devils of course, and we get to see the cast of The Jersey Shore mutate further thanks to radiation . . .

And that's BEFORE the FEV!

Are we sure they haven’t already been exposed to a strain of FEV that turns their skin orange instead of green?

Heck, if the world map were large enough you could easily do both, with Manhattan being a central “D.C. Ruins Rubble-zone” to a surrounding “Capital Wasteland” consisting of Newark and the other Four Burroughs. Meanwhile the DLC gets set in Atlantic City for a Sierra Madre-like gambling den, Albany for some upstate action, and if you head up the coastline, oh hey, look at that! Boston.

New York City
New Jersey!
Neo New Knickerbockerton?

The combined New York/New Jersey region is still missing the “Western” aspect – you could crash that Freighter from Fallout 2 into Staten Island to transplant some of it, *cough*lost-plot-thread-just-waiting-to-be-used*cough* – but the same goes for Boston. Similarly, both locales have roughly equivalent amounts of history to draw plot seeds from. New York is just bigger, and could be better as a result, especially if you tied in Boston as DLC, covering both.

Besides, setting Fallout 4 in the city The Dodgers ditched would allow for Fallouts 3 and 4 to mirror Fallouts 1 and 2 in terms of geographic relocation trends (just heading north and a bit east). And if the next game IS set in Boston, do you honestly think there won’t be DLC in NYC? I’m just advocating for a reversal of the inexorable progression, really.

Anyway, we’ve dallied in the Gotham long enough. We’re not trying to be Batman here.

Time to drive on south, visit our friends in Megaton for a spell – looks like Moira opened up a coffee shop, it’s called Grind Zero (bah-dum-psh!) – and keep on rambling on.

Continuing southerly down the I-95, we turn west before we hit Ghoul infested Florida (and that’s what is was before the war). After a spending the night in a decaying Nuka-Cola factory in Atlanta, we continue west along the I-20 for a spell, turning south once more as we hit that curvy, ladylike river, Missus Ippi.

This eventually brings us to . . .

New Orleans!

Photo by Jan Kronsell, 2004

Original photo by Jan Kronsell. Found here.

Picking a particular point in The South to use is tricky. While Fallout 3 was set in Washington, D.C., meaning it was on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line, Columbia isn’t really representative of what most conceive of as “The South”. To differentiate it further, you have to make like Inception and go deeper. So, like in Live and Let Die, we go from one “New” to another, from the York to the Orleans!

Unlike other parts of “The South”, the outsider’s (read: Northerner’s) image of Louisiana isn’t all racism and hillbillies in a bog filled with as much Southern animosity as moonshine. Thanks to N’awlins, it’s also wild parties, delicious spicy food, Dixieland Jazz, and outrageously revealing costumes on loose women enjoying the aforementioned. There’s plenty of potential for diverse locations – deep marshes filled irradiated swamp water juxtaposed against the flaring laser-lights of a neo french quarter – new monsters – giant, exploding, mutant craw fish, (and Gators again) – and even a new currency – Mardi Gras beads of course!

Cajun and Creole culture would make fine replacements for that “unique personality” of the Southwest I mentioned last time, while the Voodoo traditions supply the requisite “kooky mysticism”. Voodoo in Fallout would be especially interesting, thanks to all the “zombies” walking around in the form of Ghouls. Of course, there’s the touchy issue of post-Katrina New Orleans being used as virtual site of total devastation, but A) it was done already in Infamous 2, and B) Fallout 3 showed a completely destroyed Washington D.C. – once you do that, what more you could do to offend people, I mean seriously.

The major problem is Point Lookout, which already covered much of this ground (er, marsh), right down to the steamboats and inbred antagonists. While setting a complete game here and embracing the entirety of the region’s diversity would offset this, it still seems like more time should pass before people would regard a Fallout: Swamp Thing as anything other than a greatly expanded side story. However, that seems to be the popular opinion of New Vegas, so I guess it really comes down to how it’s handled. It would just have to have one hell of a plot to convince Bethesda, methinks.

Curses Point Lookout

Curse you Point Lookout! You’ve ruining my dreams of a Nuclear powered airboat chase with my Witch Doctor Ghoul sidekick! Again!

So with the chances of a swampland mystery dashed against the hard reality of marketable differentiation, it’s time to Go West My Boy! Go west!

Driving along in the Highwayman, we continue out of the deltas and the marshes along the I-10, dodging gunfire from drunken ghouls after skipping out on a bar tab.

It isn’t long before we head right in to where the stars at night, are big and bright . . .

Deep in the (Big) Heart of Texas!

Yeah, Texas. Where the West meets the South. The home of all George Strait’s exes would make a perfect setting for Fallout. You not only get the intensely independent (often aggressive) patriotism of the state, but also keep the Western desert culture, too. However it comes with a unique Texan twang mixed in to it all.

I’m imagining Raider sniper fire from abandoned oil derricks while I herd Brahmin in a Ten Gallon hat here. Bighorner (or hell, Super Mutant) rodeos. Former Caesar’s Legion members putting their Big-5 Armor to use and actually playing football! Still to the death of course – this is Texas, they take football seriously.

Besides, the place just feels right, you know?

Plus, any game set here could reestablish the Desert Rangers, the coolest faction from New Vegas (originally from Fallout‘s progenitor, Wasteland), as an independent burgeoning power thanks to Tycho, a ranger from the original Fallout, having been this way before.

Restyle the helmet to have more cowboy, and you’re pretty much done on design for what would become the iconic armor for the game.

In fact, the Lone Star State makes so MUCH inherent sense for a Fallout that it’s been done! The best left forgotten Brotherhood of Steel was in Texas, exploring the cities of Carbon and Los Ybanez. However, even considering the game is non-canon (due to non-quality), a revisit to the area without heading into the panhandle would prevent crossover conflict.

Even ignoring BoS, there are still a couple concerns that give me pause. First, as the saying goes, everything’s bigger here, and I’m primarily referring to the landscape. To do any Texan game properly, you’d either need an immense overworld map, which would certainly cause memory usage concerns, or you’d have to pick a core city to center it around, which would lose the appeal of such a large expanse. If you go with the logical latter option though, which single city do you pick when they all have excellent concepts imbedded into them?

San Antonio works if for no reason than having the Alamo (probably a Brotherhood base), you could easily spin the “Keep Austin Weird” ad campaign into a literal plot involving mad genetic science, and Dallas/Fort Worth could work as it has the largest metropolitan infrastructure. But if I had to choose one city, it’s Houston. Not only does nearby Trinity Bay allows for pleasantly warm radioactive swimming, but because (as many point out) of the NASA connection – a plot centered around the nascent space program of the Old World has so many possibilities that it would be a shame to skip it.

A bunch of whacked out cultists were able get this thing up and running (or they just stole it from the Enclave), what happens when a dictator finds a fleet of them?

Still, the bigger issue I see with Texas is one of long term storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a proponent of endings – definitive conclusions create potency – and this goes for Fallout as well. Somewhere down the long and lonesome road, the journeys of our Chosen Vault Dwelling Wanderers should end.

But how? And more importantly for this article, where?

Well, consider the (as of New Vegas) continuing Eastward expansion of the NCR and the theoretical Westward expansion of the Lyon-led East Coast Brotherhood of Steel; you have the perfect setup for an ultimate conclusion between the two factions – or three if you factor in Walking Texan Desert Rangers. THAT conflict sure would make for an interesting ultimate battle now wouldn’t it? Especially since they’re all (pretty much) “good” factions, creating a maximum moral quandary factor rather than an obvious choice of siding between the “flawed, but mostly decent guys” and the “indisputably not-nice puppy kickers”.

The logical site of this theoretical end war to determine the fate of Fallout forever would be in the middle of the slowly rebuilding nation, and the natural spot considering all of the other factors would be . . . ring-a-ding-ding, baby! Texas.

If you’re like me, you just popped a huge nerd boner thinking about this.

So while I DO want to see a game in the state of Big Hair and Bigger Guns, I also don’t want it to be just yet, since it doesn’t just make sense for a Fallout game, so much as it does for the Last Fallout Game.

Until then, it’s probably best to heed Will Ferrel’s advice, and not mess with Texas.

With grandiose dreams still fresh in the mind, let’s hop back into the Highwayman and head due north.

After putting some down some miles while munching on some Gecko meat we bagged near Witchtown, Kansas, where they’ve been burning folks at the stake, one of those giant, hundred-mile wide cyclones I’ve heard so much about heads our way out of ‘braska (is it carrying a farm house with it?)

Looks like we have to head west yet again, slowly chugging along steep hills on the I-70 (come on baby, hold together!) until the hills stop having eyes and become damned mountains, and we arrive at . . .

Rocky Mountain High! Colorado!
(and its subsequent Springs)

Walkin’ in a Nuclear Winter Wonderland!

Colorado as a setting for the next Fallout is all about practicality, really.

If there’s a spot that assuredly survived World War 3 intact, it’s the NORAD base built under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. The installation is ripe for a different take on what happens when old-world government endures (as opposed to The Enclave’s turn to genocide), and when you mull over the fact that they could still have access to a nuclear arsenal, well, that’s a whole plot right there! Also, Nikola Tesla once had a lab in Colorado Springs. Who’s to say you can’t find an old Deathray design but actually build it now that the tech has caught up to his vision?

But wait, there’s more!

Most of the other major cities and sites of Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Boulder and Denver, have quite a bit of the design work done already! The state was to have been heavily featured in the original Fallout 3, otherwise known by the codename Van Buren, after all, and much of the pre-production work was finished by Black Isle Studios before its untimely cancellation.

While many major ideas ended up in New Vegas (including Caesar’s Legion), there’s still quite a lot of interesting stuff yet to be culled from both Van Buren and even Tactics (which is non-canon) – including Vault Zero, the center for the Vault-Tec Corporation – that can be given a fair shake now.

Additionally, there’s the behemoth in the room: setting Fallout 4 in Colorado would not only allow for a visual change of pace – other than Operation Anchorage we’ve yet to see serious snowfall, radioactive or otherwise – but presumably the next game Bethesda makes uses Skyrim‘s engine, so why not use its assets? They could save a lot of time and effort (read: money) in the art department by cobbling together another mountainous wintery region out of the one they just made! Thus leaving them more time to focus on more important stuff, like game balance, bugs, and good endings!

Troll Sasquatch Fallout 4

“No, it’s not a Frost troll. It’s totally, erhm, a Sasquatch. Yeah that’s it. The nuclear bombs woke up the sasquatches.” – They can be as lazy as my ‘shopping skills!

As with Louisiana, the problem with Colorado is contrast from previous games. While buffeting the player with blizzards would be (mostly) unique to Fallout, it’s not like anyone’s forgetting Skyrim any time soon. On top of that, many of the better concepts that could be used – a pristine military installation with access to gobs of the Pre-War tech, and active nuclear missiles silos – were touched upon in Old World Blues and The Lonesome Road respectively.

So unfortunately, despite the practicality, we’re going to have to head on out of the Centennial State. If only we can get the danged engine to turn on this blasted Highwayman!

Come on, ignite. You can do it. You can do it. . . there it goes!

Uh-oh. Even though I got the damn thing to start, it looks like we’re running out of fuel. We’ll never make it to Seattle in this situation!

With the mutagenic coffee supply turning all the bohemians into Bone-Hooligans, it’s fascinating layout next to Puget Sound, and it’s native tribe, “Hawks by the Sea”, Seattle would have been a perfect spot to end this road trip!

Considering our dire straits though – we’re going to have to try to coast down the mountains while dodging leftover NCR landmines in the road – I’m heading toward someplace closer.

Someplace even better.

Where it all Began.

This is a test. This is only a test. Of the end of the world as we know it.
Original Photograph by Jack Aeby and found Here

Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Without any hyperbole (but with bold text) – if there’s one location a Fallout game absolutely needs to be set in, it’s here.

Not already including Los Alamos, and the greater Santa Fe region it’s within proximity of, is such a massive oversight to this series that it’s mind-boggling that it hasn’t already been done!

Except it almost was. In Van Buren. Oh.

Yup, the one location that makes all the sense in the world for Fallout, a place that would fit the Southwestern themes established by the first two games in the series because it’s in the Southwest . . . just had to be in the numbered game that got cancelled!

As with Colorado, this means a lot of salvageable ideas can still be used. Stuff like the The Reservation, home to a Ghoulish breeding program. Like Mesa Verde. Like Tribal “Goddess” Hecate and her deathly daughters.

The blonde’s not one of those ladies, I just thought there should be a break in the text. And a blonde.

Aside from being the perfect location for poetic license and for getting to cherry pick the best of the rest from Van Buren, the region has caravans loads of creative potential!

The “even-before-the-war” radiation could justify all sorts of highly “evolved” mutant monsters. A little ways south lies Albuquerque, home to catchy Weird Al songs and a minor league team, The Isotopes, just waiting to be turned into a roving raider gang. There’s also the Navajo presence – did they reclaim their ancestral lands when the American Empire fell?

When you toss DLC into the mix, the ideas get richer than Tenpenny. Colorado’s near enough to take the best ideas from that location, and enjoy them here. Further south lies Mexico proper, specifically Ciudad Juárez, a wretched hive of scum and villainy even today, a perfect New New Reno tomorrow. Lest we forget, there’s Roswell, along with the ever mysterious Area 51 and the possibility of delving into the extraterrestrial elements of the Fallout universe without needing to be a joke.

Then there’s the fact that New Mexico allows for definite continuity from New Vegas, which had a much more open ending than Fallout 3. Who won the War for Vegas? House? The NCR? The Legion? Did the Courier usurp Ulysses’ (himself a member of Hecate’s original tribe) control and nuke everybody? All of those questions can be resolved, expanded upon, or rewritten – but only if the next game is set relatively close by, like in Santa Fe.

Caesar's Legion Camp Fallout NV

Inquiring minds want to know! What happened to these militaristic jerkwads? Right now, we have to ask King Dork himself on his Tumblr.

At the end of the day though, it’s only fitting that Fallout, a twisted bit of Americana based on 1940’s and 50’s conceptions of atomic science still naive to the horror they were building, should go to the exact place where this terrible discovery began.

There’s symmetry in that. Beauty, even.

But then, these are all just my speculative hopes and wishes for a series I obviously love like the desert that was my home. Sure, New Mexico lets the Western tradition of Fallout continue, while also progressing along an ambling eastward trail, but it does make sense to set other games in the East. If only so they can slowly amble West.

While I still insist New York is the better choice, Boston won’t be awful if (and when) it happens. I’m not too keen on the Institute’s miniaturized robotics technology so much more advanced than what the rest of the games’ universe exhibits – it’s more cyber punk than atom punk – maybe Bethesda can even make it work. Unlikely perhaps, but there’s still bound to be some good to come out of it too.

Synthetic citizens dressed as tribals throwing Nuka-Cola off the deck of USS Constitution, maybe?

As for me? Well, the Highwayman’s now a scrap heap ditched into a bomb crater. The fuel cells ran dry while I was coasting my way to Santa Fe, and the steering locked up while I headed toward the radioactive pit. Had to bail fast. Twas quite the explosion though.

Looks like I’ll be walking back home now.

I’ll need some traveling music to pass the time while I pass the miles though. There’s a long road ahead of me, even longer than this article.

If I’m to be shot by some raiders while on it, I’d rather it be while I’m whistling.

YouTube Preview Image

Imagery and Tune provided by Jonathan Van Belle.

Until next time fellow Vault Dwellers. Whenever that might be.

Setting Fallout 4 Part 1 (of 2) – How the West Was Fun

I know I promised to write about sex last time, but if there’s anything I’ve been forced to learn through the most lovely of tortures we like to call dating, it’s that teasing things out can build up the excitement, and hopefully lead to a bigger payoff in the end. Besides, sex in gaming, like a Texan, is such a large and loaded concept that it’s been tough how best to tackle it without turning it into a small novel or getting shot in the process.

So with an interest in (relative) brevity in mind, I’m going to talk about something completely different, and that’s going to be Fallout.

Fallout 1 Cover

Please stand by.

A couple months ago I took the train up to Portland, Oregon, in a desperate attempt to find . . . something.

While ostensibly the trip was about joining my sister on her summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest to get some family bonding in before adulthood separated us yet again, I also needed to remove the despairing Los Angeles smog from my lungs and clear my head. All while enjoying some of the fine company and coffee the region has to offer, of course.

So I’m bouncing north along the rails of a Starlight Express coach car when I find myself falling in love. Not with any of my fellow passengers, charming as they were. No, I’m falling head over heels in love with the countryside that hurtles slowly past my window.

The train moves quickly of course. But the grand majesty of the seemingly endless mountains, hairy with pines and redwoods, the sheer size of them causes the pastoral beauty to linger; the ant looks long at the man when he trundles past. Yet, as humbled and awed by the rolling, endless ranges as I am, and despite this being my first northerly wander past the meridian of San Francisco, everything is strangely familiar.

I was here once before, just not really.

Klamath Falls, Modoc, Redding; I passed through or near all these cities, and I know the names by heart. Despite the fact that I’d never been to them and for the vast majority of the American populace, they’re inconsequential points on a map rarely examined. Why? Because of Fallout 2 of course. This patchwork of peaks I passed through, it’s the setting for what many still consider to be the great American CRPG (other than perhaps Planescape Torment, though I’d argue that it works best as a complicated adventure game).

Yup, that’s the map screen I remember.

It’s a happy disillusionment to see that these places are real and alive and beautiful, instead of being the bombed out shells of a desolate post-nuclear ruin that was my only prior envisioning. A silly thought, I know. But my initial impressions of these places was so linked to the game and the truth so disparate it was something of a shock.

I’ve been through most of the Southwestern states and seen most of the major sites – the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners – and having crisscrossed the Mojave more than a few times, I’m more accustomed to the vast expanses of the desert with their scattered brush than looming mountains and lush green trees. Wide ranges of near lifelessness baked and bleached by the sun, this was my backyard. On some level, that’s what I must have thought this place would resemble as well.

Isn’t that truly what the wastes of Fallout are? Desert rampant? Desert overgrown? Desert unleashed by nuclear fire upon all the green we take for granted?

Not so different from a Nevada dusk.

Promo art for Fallout 3 set in future Virginia. Or a forgotten Arizona rest stop today.

The next thought hits me like a plasma rifle critical to my brain’s combat inhibitor. These particular wheres of the games, these cyclopean deserts wrought from annihilation, are so inseparable as to be fundamental. At its core, Fallout isn’t so much science fiction as it is a Western.

Sure, on the surface Fallout seems like sci-fi and is thus defined by its unique technology. Technology derived from the McCarthy-era fifties, a time of atomic science that barely understood the effects of radiation. Of computer science that couldn’t fathom miniaturization. Of the unchecked optimism of The Jetsons dashed against the Cold War thermonuclear horror of The Day After and Them!

If taken at face value, the physical setting of any particular game wouldn’t seem to matter so much as the retro robots, archaically advanced laser pistols, or giant fire-breathing mutant ants. You could theoretically put a Fallout game in England, Tokyo, or Brazil if that’s all that mattered. I’ve heard such arguments before.

But to do so would be to miss the point more than your Facebook friend who thinks articles by The Onion are real.

All the hallmarks of the Western are there. Thirstily wandering along at a calculated pace in the waste, sleeping under the stars in the wilderness, taking the role of the unknown gunman who wanders into town to solves everyone’s problems with a hail of gunfire before drifting out like a tumbleweed, the reintroduction of tribal culture set apart from homesteaders on the fringes of societies where law is thin and it’s best to travel with a gun on your belt even if you’d prefer never to use it. Arguably (and that’s exactly what I’m doing) this gameplay is as important, if not more important than the tools used or enemies fought.

More than most games, Fallout captures the nature of rugged individualism idolized in the Westerns of old. It’s a tale of the frontier. Only it’s a new frontier built atop a forgotten history.

American history.

Let’s be frank as Horrigan. This was made rather explicit in Fallout 3. If you missed this, you missed the point.

Not only is every Fallout set in the U.S., but 3 of the 5 officially recognized Fallout games (no one cares about BoS [Brotherhood of Steel], as it was a PoS) take place in familiar Western settings. The first was set in Southern California, with some bleed through into Mexico and Arizona. The second, as my travels reminded me, in the Northern California region bleeding through to Southern Oregon and Western Nevada. New Vegas, well that one should be obvious.

The two that weren’t, Fallout 3 and Tactics, are also the two most controversial amongst hardcore Fallout fans, and I think it’s because (aside from the fact that they marked major gameplay departures) they lacked a bit of this Western magic.

Because the wild west isn’t just about big open spaces and lawlessness. You can do that anywhere thanks to the atomic fire provided by Fallout‘s backstory. No, it’s also about the culture of unique spirituality and quirky insanity that thrives in the Southwest of the U.S. like nowhere else.

The type of insanity that makes bringing a golf club to a gunfight seem like a good idea.

The desert is a hard place, and it breeds hardy people. For the folks who live in the Southwest, a place already closer to the end of the world out there than most of America, what would the nuclear war that kicks off the Fallout series truly change, culturally?

Moreover, deserts (in general) create an understanding of existential emptiness not found elsewhere down the other back roads and dirt trails of the United States. Separating yourself from society in the woods or the swamps and you’re still surrounded by life and nature and all the noise they bring. Do so in Sonora and, well, there’s simply less. You connect to the stars in the sky and to the immense enveloping darkness without end upon nightfall, and little else (hope you brought a blanket by the way, it gets cold fast).

There’s an ineffable quality to this region where Native traditions still have sway. A sense of the mystic, of being closer to earth. It often attracts a type that’s a breed apart.

Not just in the types of folks who want to sing Kumbaya with coyotes on a vision quest, but also often the types who live off the grid, and ones who might be bit odd or off their rockers. Essentially, the types who make up most of the supporting cast in the Fallout games.

But again, there’s a desert difference. These folks are often more willing to connect to a stranger, to listen and nod rather than rave. The paranoia and bonkers bred in the desert is simply more Art Bell than Glenn Beck.

The Tribals of Fallout 2 and the New Vegas expansion Honest Hearts highlighted a slowly resurrecting kooky mysticism in the Fallout games pretty directly. Something that’s based again, primarily on local culture in the Southwest

This is a primary reason, apart from mere physical location, that Fallout 3 and Tactics are so different from the other three Western games.

They lack a certain sincerity. A light touch of affection to the often cynical portrayals of the small town wasteland oddballs that the series derives a lot of its humor from. A sense of humor that I add, is as vital to the series as the decaying Atom Punk decorum, the retro-future tech or the gunslinging gameplay. It’s an irreverent silliness that’s incredibly necessary, as it prevents the sheer weight of the dying world the games exist in from becoming completely overbearing.

It’s not that the Eastern Fallouts weren’t funny or that they were bad, it’s just that they were missing this certain extra . . . something. In the case of Tactics, it was probably because most of the RPG was stripped out of it. But for Fallout 3, it really truly comes down to location, location, location.

Climbing through the ruins of Los Angeles in Fallout 1, it’s difficult to feel too bad. L.A.’s a city of impermanence that centers around vacuous cults of personality and vanity, and The Boneyard, a settlement replacing it, features a religious order that worships an unseen “Master” who attempts to create “physical perfection” with the Super Mutants while having no singular identity of his own. The joke is obvious – nothing has really changed.

Climbing through the ruins of Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 on the other hand, it’s difficult not get depressed. As you sift through a sacked Smithsonian and notice that the Lincoln Memorial’s head has been decapitated by slave traders? Seeing the loss of all this American History, the loss of our cultural identity – it hurts.

Oh, but we did get a giant robot parody of Optimus Prime! Who ruined any challenge the ending sequence might have had. Eh . . . fair trade?

This then, is why the setting of a Fallout matters most of all. Attachment and cultural significance. When you have too much history attached, it becomes horrible to see it dashed to pieces.

The two genres most dominant in Fallout – Post-Apocalypse and Western – are rather the same thing in a lot of ways. The frontier life is almost indistinguishable from living in a shattered civilization, apart from the technology available. Fallout is simply a Western epic but with lasers, and a well made one at that (unlike certain Favreau helmed projects).

But while the Frontier Westerns are about the freedom of new lands and the promise of a new life found within wild borders, post-apocalyptic tales most often dwell in the anarchy of old lands and the slow death of the last among them. Fallout, in attempting to be the post-apocalypse with a sense of humor, had to find a way to coexist between these two extremes. It’s through the Southwestern setting, and all that came with it, that I feel Fallout found its true identity, it’s true balance.

The heart of the desert, a place centered on the nothingness of empty space and the total freedom the player has to choose in this void. There is no major history to decay, for the place is timeless; there is no culture to lose, for the people are ongoing.

Because again, Fallout isn’t simply about being sad about an apocalypse, it’s also about reveling in it. Laughing at it. Screwing with it. Not actually feeling at all bad that the world ended up dead-ending.

It was Zombieland before there was Zombieland. Only it also had lasers, giant mutant lizards, nuclear explosions and a Doctor Who cameo (and even zombies, sort of). Way before that was cool.

It’s badass. It’s American. It’s a Western.

So basically, if you thought Fallout 3 was better than New Vegas, you’re categorically wrong about what this series is.

But of course, Bethesda Game Studios is based in well, Bethesda, Maryland. With their East Coast perspective there’s a good chance they’ll do something dumb like set the next Fallout in Boston or something.

Westerns don’t work in Beantown Bethesda! Who ever heard of such a thing? (Ok, there’s Copper I guess, but that’s it, right?)

*sigh*

In the off chance there is justice in the universe, they’ll realize that aside from diction coaches and anyone who hates the New England Patriots, few would really want to see a decimated downtown Boston. As with Washington D.C., it’s one of the centers of American history. Watching that get wiped out isn’t particularly conducive to having a good time.

If that happens, they’re going to need alternates. Which I’ll be more than happy to provide. Maybe.

Until then, this is Mr. New Vegas, and each and every one of you is wonderful in your own special way.

NEXT: 5 Places to Set Fallout 4 that are better than Boston
CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE TO PART 2

Farcry 3, Fight Club, and Ultra-Violence: Or Why Gaming Needs to Gain Weight!

Of the many previews that emerged from this year’s E3 to generate hype, one that didn’t inspire much outrage or concern was the one for the upcoming Farcry 3.

In just under two minutes, this (decidedly NSFW) trailer promises an adventure that will play out as Apocalypse Now if it were directed by Rob Zombie. A harrowing, but thrilling escapade through the island jungles of the South Pacific that will sate your blood lust, your wanderlust, and perhaps just your lust; a woman riding our male protagonist in vicious ecstasy from his perspective is one of the first images in its scant running time.

It’s a glorious incitement to mayhem, madness and murder. Almost (but not quite) subliminal commands of “EAT”, “KILL”, “HUNT”, and “F&CK”, flash across the screen. The woman who our hero has been sleeping with insists that “. . . every man you fight deserves to have his life taken from him” and a deranged loon with a mohawk yells at you to shoot him in the heart.

You know, just another violent video game. Just another ad for one. Nothing special.

Of the many comments to be uttered by industry insiders during this year’s E3, Warren Spector’s seem to be the most appropriate when addressing the particular brand of gladiatorial spectacle the Farcry 3 trailer advocates.

The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble.

A guy who looks like everyone’s dad offering almost paternal advice? I’ll play mom in this situation and insist that maybe we should listen to him for once.

Spector said a lot of other wise things (read ’em here) but on the point of violence, I couldn’t agree more.

As I pontificated at length the other day, gaming revels in the obvious and the blunt. The “Ultra-violence” Spector’s alluding to is simply the primary expression of this bluntness. He eloquently nails the point better than I could have – gaming is in love with far too much violence, and it’s becoming sickening.

It would be simple enough to leave the issue at that. But merely stating that there is problem without an attempt at providing a possible solution seems a bit pointless, so let’s delve!

How has gaming come to this point? How is it that no one sees a problem other than a minority of folks like Spector? More importantly, how do you reverse the trend?

Calibrating the Scales

In the real world, violent acts have a weight. When a soldier, police officer, or even gang member is killed, it causes others to react. We mourn, we weep, we rage. Revenge is taken; sometimes justly, and all too often wrongfully.

Violence in our day to day reality is heavy. It has mass. Gravity. It leaves a lasting impression on all it touches and is one of the great human ills that we bemoan as much as we adhere to it. Yet it is also core to our understanding of reality; it defines us as much as romance, creativity, and achievement, and holds our interest hostage when it occurs around us as much as anything.

There was never an epic written that wasn’t filled with the atrocities of war and deftly courageous strikes against the monstrous.

Odyssey Blinding of the Cyclops

The Cyclops blinded – Violence in antiquity.

While real-world rage is impactful, the weight given to fictitious portrayals of violence spans quite a wide spectrum. Often it is as weighty as it is in reality; when Oedipus pulls out his eyes it is a major moment that changes not only himself, but everyone in the play with him. Other times it is as light as a feather; when Arnold and company mow down fifty men at the start of Predator, the violence is over the top and filled with jest.

Unlike all other media though, video game violence has mostly stuck to this latter measure. Video game violence, as a whole, is consistently light. Svelte even.

The reason this has come to pass is actually pretty easy to identify. It has to do with the process of games themselves.

Even the most placid video games are about action. From a literary sense, they are about verbs – the doing of things – and they enable and empower players to commit verb actions great and small. You run, you jump, you fly, you shoot, you talk, you die.

The Secret of Monkey Island 2 Guybrush at the X

Video games and verbing – Adventure games made this nature obvious.

Naturally, these actions lead to outcomes – reactions. Standard cause and effect, really. It’s simply thanks to our morbid curiosity that the violent verbs and their similar outcomes are continually the most compelling and gratifying, and it’s quite natural that game developers give their audience what they want.

It’s for this reason I think, that most don’t see a problem at all. Gamers want to play at war and death, and so the developers provide them war and death; there’s a demand, the developers supply it. The issue here isn’t that developers are providing a bunch of bloodletting verbs to gamers. I’m certainly not advocating that we need to stop them.

No, the issue is that the weight given the violence is simply too light, too often. That when you make violence too unsubstantial in a medium that uses it almost exclusively, the medium itself begins to lack substance.

The Weight of Violence in Gaming only makes sense on the Moon.

Playing through the recent Max Payne 3, I was struck at just how ludicrously high the kill count was. Over the course of the game you kill roughly a thousand foes – a number so high that Max would be considered a war criminal by any reasonable legal definition – and it doesn’t seem unnatural at all except upon reflection. Actually, the game itself comments on this a few times; Max points out more than once that he expected only to find a couple dozen thugs in a given situation, not armies.

Slaying so many people doesn’t feel weird in the moment though, primarily because Max uses modern weapons (various firearms) and killing any individual with our current weaponry is unnervingly efficient. If any single thug could absorb a thousand bullets without enough body armor to stop a tank shell, it would feel unrealistic in a completely different direction. Since the game is constantly trying to present a challenge to the player, the primary method to accomplish this is to increase the number of opponents, and thus the weight of any individual act of violence is quite light.

Max Payne 3 Featherweight Violence

Max Payne shooting six gangsters in as many seconds – Featherweight Violence in modern times.

Such airy acts of aggression are problematic only because the rest of the story is trying to be taken seriously. Max’s world is supposed to be realistic depiction of our own, yet the incredible number of kills creates something those who like fancy five-dollar words call a ludonarrative dissonance, or essentially, the gap between our reality and a game’s reality that we must jump to stay immersed in the game. Again, this is mitigated somewhat in Max Payne 3 by the fact that at least the world reacts as you’d think it would – both the world and Max himself think him a monster, and it’s a key point of the game that is explored, though perhaps not explored enough.

When the player character isn’t a murder-machine like Payne or Kratos, but is supposedly non-violent or a more humane “everyman” type, this dissonance gap can get wide enough to break immersion like a rabbit in the hands of Lenny Small. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves famously starts with it’s charming protagonist monologuing about how he doesn’t want to kill anybody on his quest to find treasure. Then the rest of the game consists of him killing six hundred mercs, some of whom were probably decent enough folks, and our “everyman” Nathan Drake comes off not only as a sociopath, but a hypocritical one.

Of course, many games increase the gravity of their grave-making by using less lethal arms or featuring more resilient foes. Fighting games and brawlers like my beloved Final Fight feature much heavier violence than a modern shooter primarily because most of your attacks aren’t lethal. You simply beat people up to remove them as a threat, in what I like to call “The Fight Club Effect”.

Edward Norton Destroy Something Beautiful Fight Club

The Fight Club Effect – When by taking out a scene showing violence, the violence that is implied is made stronger. Derived from a scene where David Fincher removed much of the filmed beating of Jared Leto’s character, only showing the horrified reactions of onlookers, and everyone was much more disturbed.

When someone is killed while death is at a premium as high as gasoline, it can then be made a major plot point rather than just one more body hitting the floor. The first-person brawler Xenoclash runs with this, and the recent Batman: Arkham [Insert Location Subtype] games get a lot of mileage out of it as well. When someone dies in these games, it means something; the violence is weighty.

On the other end of the spectrum are the enemies that are just damned difficult to kill, usually bosses. When you finally topple a mountain of a monster after a two hour ordeal, narrowly avoiding being swatted like a fly all the while, it’s not simply one moment surrounded by a multitude but an achievement worth taking time to consider. Shadow of the Colossus was based entirely on this premise; the only creatures you must kill are the 16 colossi (gargantuan beasts worthy of their name), and every single time you slay one of them it’s important, potent, and building towards an increasing doom as massive as the titular beasts.

Colossus stab heavy weight

Wander stabbing a Colossus – Heavyweight violence in modern gaming.

While at first it might seem the simple division lies in the arms given to the player – that light violence would be unavoidable given the context of modern weaponry and the need to keep a game’s action challenging, and heavy violence occurs only by decreasing the player’s strength or increasing their foe’s girth – that really isn’t the case. There’s another factor, far more important than the other two. One that can be used more often than it is: choice.

In the linked interview above, Spector cites himself, pointing out that his often violent Deus Ex (which used modern and futuristic weaponry) managed to keep the sensation that killing someone was a hefty act. He insists this was accomplished by making sure the result was bloody and lingering. Certainly, making sure bodies stick around to remind players of what they’ve done helps increase the sensation that the tussle and tumult was effectual, it gives an act of murder continuity if nothing else.

But that isn’t actually as important as the real reason Desus Ex‘s violence had weight. The primary reason the game was so remarkable at the time was that violence wasn’t necessary to get through the adventure. The player almost always had a way to get through the game without hurting a single living soul, at least not permanently.

Primarily this was accomplished with the use of stealth (and its cousin, the tranquilizer dart). In 1998, game developers seemed to realize what they learned playing “hide and seek” as children: that sometimes avoiding enemies could be just as exciting as conquering them. Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid, and Tenchu: Silent Assassins all came out that year, and all had different takes on how or why your characters were choosing not to slay, but to skulk.

Metal Gear Stealth Nonviolence

Snake avoiding guards – Stealth as nonviolence in gaming.

So is that the answer? That in order to increase the weight of violence in any game that allows it, in order to increase it’s importance, that these games must also include stealth, tougher enemies, and limited means to kill those set against the player? Each technique certainly adds a little bit of weight overall, so it stands to reason that all of them together would work like gangbusters!

All these factors are apparent in this gameplay trailer for Naughty Dog’s forthcoming and highly anticipated The Last of Us. The men that confront Joel and Ellie are dangerous, they use sneaky tactics to avoid and surprise them, and the very limited amount of ammunition prevents an endless slaughter from occurring. The violence seen is also quite disconcerting indeed.

The Last of Us is championing blended gameplay to give the player more choices in general, but it seems to be effective at making “heavy violence” as well. However, watching one sequence seems a bit misleading if you’re considering the overall sense of the game. The Last of Us is listed as “Survival/Action-Adventure” not Stealth, and my guess is that by the end we’ll have brutally killed rather than simply avoided so many enemy survivors and fungal zombies that it will fall into Max Payne territory again.

Repetition decreases weight – The first time you choke a man to death will be troubling. The tenth time? The twentieth? By forty, you’ll nonchalantly eat Cheetos over an enemy’s death gurgle.

This reminder, that too much repetitive violence can undo the potential impact of all the individual weight gaining elements, makes the combination strategy seem impotent by itself. It’s missing something. A real “third option” that increases the potential impact of every single slaying in a game.

Perhaps I’m going about this all wrong. Violence in games is actually an effect, a result of player actions. Maybe if we look at the cause of this effect, a true third option will appear.

For that, we have to get to the root of it all: conflict.

New Year’s Conflict Resolutions

Fiction is about conflict, and most stories are about how the characters resolve conflict in one manner or another. In video games the how, the choice, is left up to the player. If you look at gaming verbs and subsequently, violence, as a result of conflict resolution strategy choices, a distinct dichotomy begins to reveal itself.

As I see it, there are two primary factors on how to resolve conflict. You either engage with it or you disengage from it, and you do so either openly and directly – you confront it – or you try to find a non-confrontational means of resolving the situation – you don’t confront it. Engagement and confrontation are the two axes that seem the most pertinent, and so I’m going to go with them for now.

Killing foes is an aggressive, confrontational, and engaging way to resolve conflict. If you slay those who stand against you, they aren’t going to be causing anymore conflict now are they? It is also the primary method seen in video games, and is what leads to a maximum of violence. We’re going to use Kratos as our avatar of confrontational engagement as a means to resolve conflict.

Hello My name is Kratos

“Hello. My name is Kratos. I resolve conflict by killing all who would stand before me in fits of insolent rage.”

Stealth, likewise, is a way to resolve conflict. It is a non-confrontational method – you actively avoid those who would stop you – but it is also an engaging method – usually you work towards ends to resolve the conflict overall. Solid Snake will be our avatar here, mostly because I already have him pictured up above.

The other two means are far less apparent, especially in gaming, but they do exist.

The first is non-confrontational disengagement, or essentially a denial of the the conflict entirely. In actual gameplay terms this is the result that occurs when you say no to a quest offered, or more visibly, when you run away from enemies. Since that’s the case, I think we’ll use Edward the “Spoony” Bard from Final Fantasy IV, as he actually had the ability to hide from enemies in battle.

Edward The Spoony Bard Final Fantasy IV

Oh Edward! Who are you fooling? You don’t choose fight, you choose flee!

Now, just because non-confrontational disengagement seems like the coward’s way out (and it often is), doesn’t mean interesting gameplay can’t stem from it. Survival horror existed on this as a means of conflict resolution back when it emphasized the “survival” and wasn’t just another excuse to shoot scary monsters. Every time you ran away from zombies or hunters in Resident Evil, you were disengaging from conflict, and it’s a major part of what made the monsters and the situation you found yourself in so dang scary.

Likewise, in RPGs that emphasize a lot of player choice, like Skyrim, the ability to say “no” is often important in of itself. It’s a major part of what can really make a game excellent from a player empowerment perspective. Sequence breaking in games like Super Metroid is a perfect example of a powerful denial of given options, for example.

Of course, for denial to work the developers have to design a system that doesn’t require the player to always make a specific choice, either by offering other options themselves or by ensuring that the the game won’t break should this occur. In other words, it’s more work from their end. There are tons of examples of player denial simply being refused by the game developers, and making this choice non-existent.

Rambo NES No Choice in the matter

Look at the Colonel from the NES Rambo game guilt tripping the player into playing! What if I’d rather spend the game rotting in prison, eh?

Also, running away isn’t exactly heroic. It’s rare that denial is something the player wants to do, and is something that generally only exists as something they need to do in order to survive and bide time until they confront the problems facing them. I’ve heard similar complaints about stealth games too, as it seems like sneaking around is a not only slow and boring but non-confrontational.

So is it confrontation that makes the first option of engagement, the violent one, so darn appealing?

Perhaps not, as the last of the four options, confrontational disengagement – or convincing the other parties to stand down – isn’t used nearly so often. Mediation is much rarer than premeditated murder.

Aside from the general verb of “Speech”, “Mediation” seems a good descriptor of any time you can convince an NPC to stop aggression or to assist in an endeavor. In fact, for the purposes of illustration, that’s exactly what I’m going to use, the Final Fantasy Tactics Mediator class.

Final Fantasy Tactics Mediator

I’m pretty sure the silly hats distract opponents through laughter. Just long enough to let these folks get a word in edgewise.

This is the realm of diplomacy, persuasion, and conversation. Where the goal is to be present and confront the the problem directly (without stealth or cowardice) but also to try and find a peaceful means to end the tumult (without violent engagement). The Gandhi approach, essentially. It’s at least as capable of increasing the weight of violence in a game as sneaking is for exactly the same reason – it offers the choice to not be violent!

That’s really the heart of the matter. For violence to truly have weight, the option for it not to exist needs to be present, quite similarly to how the Fight Club Effect works actually. In fact I’d say on a certain level, it’s more powerful; in Metal Gear and Splinter Cell games, I find that not killing my opponents when I know I can provides a distinct assurance of my mastery of the situation.

However, while stealth (the method to allow for the nonviolence in those games) is seen as a fun, active way of accomplishing this goal, mediation and negotiation aren’t. As already mentioned, they are the least used methods of conflict resolution in gaming.

Why? Well, there are a few primary reasons. First, it’s really hard to pull off properly, requiring a lot of extra effort and a design that allows for it, just like the to denial option. Mediation and speech don’t just exist as a natural opposite reaction to a choice as denial often is though, they need to be intentionally inserted at the outset of a game’s development. Hence more planning, more time, and more budget.

Secondly, I think it’s because the concept ends up with often less than spectacular reactions. Developers know that gamers want to see active results for the actions they use in games. Enemies backing off or standing down is a sort of a huge anti-result in some people’s minds, basically.

But that’s really a problem with presentation. A hostage negotiator gets a big result when they’re successful; they’re congratulated on saving a whole bunch of lives along with the rest of the cops. Likewise, Gandhi toppled an empire without ever firing a bullet or sneaking into Britain’s secret military installations and blowing them up from the inside, and he’s been heralded as a hero and an inspiration throughout history for it. It’s totally possible to give the player positive feedback for this strategy with a little effort, and one easy example is to get enemies to join your cause, as seen in many “Tactics” games such as La Pucelle (though that can lead to other silliness).

Oh, and before I forget, here’s a handy dandy chart I’ve made to illustrate the whole “Square of Conflict” idea:

Conflict Resolution Chart Video Games

Behold! Six minutes of time spent in MS Paint!

The other primary reason I think mediation and negotiation aren’t used as often in video games is both simpler to explain and harder to fix: I don’t think developers know how to make it fun, or more specifically, they see it as a passive choice when an active one would be preferable. Combat is active. Stealth is active. Even fleeing is active. Talking? Well, that’s just not as sexy as the alternatives on an activity scale, right?

This gets back to what I was saying in my last article, if developers knew how to make a game about talking to folks as fun as one where you shoot them instead, they would do it a lot more often than they do currently. However, solving this problem would go a long way to adding to the variance of nuance gaming often lacks, so I see it as completely worthy challenge to attempt.

While I have some ideas on how to make speech systems better, it will require another article at least as long as this one to get into. So that will be tabled for another day. Besides, there’s another problem, another hurdle to jump over before I could even get there: how do you get foes to listen to the player?

I mean, the types of foes in a game predicate your options when dealing with them, and to even begin to talk one down, you’d have to be able to get them to listen first. That’s pretty tough to do when their first response to spotting the player is to start firing bullets isn’t it?

Oh Duke Nukem Pig Cop

So, yeah Pig Cop, I was wondering if we could both put down our guns and talk about, you know, stuff. Bands we both like. The girls that have broken our hearts. The Matrix. No? OK then. Shooting you in the face it is!

Well, for that, I also have a possible solution, and it comes from all that time I spent in Skyrim (and all the recent time I’ve been spending with Fallout: New Vegas).

Yielding to the Power of The open palm

There’s a moment in Max Payne 3, where after you slaughter about thirty enemies, one of the smarter foes towards the rear simply gives up. He puts up his hands and says, “Yeah, OK, you win guy. Please don’t shoot me.” This single moment ended up being a LOT more memorable what I had been doing just seconds prior – killing all his mates.

Similarly, in my review for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I mentioned as a minor grievance that enemies would often yield to the player when their health was low, but then if the player gave them mercy (and I often tried), would get up and attack you yet again in a suicidal exhibition of absolutely zero common sense. This was later patched so that they would flee, thankfully, but the concept of yielding still left an indelible impression on me. One that Max Payne 3 brought back to the forefront of my mind.

Because in Skyrim, the player could do it too.

In both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games put out by Bethesda, the player has the ability to simply put their weapon away and try to yield to foes. That’s great! Why, it’s exactly the kind of opening you would need to engage in conversation with hostile forces and attempt a confrontational, yet non-violent approach, right?

Wrong. It’s a really terrible choice for the player to take in either game. Mostly due to the fact that enemies either won’t attempt it at all unless you’re specifically dealing with city guards, and they won’t stop attacking to enter the speech mode until they just kill you, while you stand there, hoping that the Markarth guards would please stop stabbing me! I didn’t mean to steal that apple! I swear!

Stop right there criminal scum water ninja

I seem to recall the guards delivered warnings better in Oblivion, though they still exhibited some rather “aggressive” devotion to their upholding the law in other ways.

The problem arises in the game not being able to determine the player’s intent. Sure, you could have put away your sword or your gun in order to yield to authority, or maybe you just accidentally hit the sheathe button in your haste to bring up the inventory screen. The game doesn’t know in that single moment, so it seems Bethesda’s solution was to put you on a timer: you have to both sheathe your weapon and stand absolutely still for about twenty to thirty seconds before the guards recognize what you’re trying to do.

In that time, you’re likely dead. This issue might be the problem I think other developers have with this possibility. The only thing they’re seeing is a player being inactive, in a neutral state, and NPCs are already predisposed to act one way or another to this state (attack, talk to, ignore, etc.)

What’s needed is an active ability. Something the player has to choose to do that conveys the intent of non-aggression. Thankfully, there is one quite obvious technique, and it’s appeared in a game I missed and only recently started playing.

In Ubisoft’s I AM Alive, a post-apocalyptic survival/climbing game very much inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and which will probably be the only comparative game to The Last of Us as a result), the unnamed protagonist (well so far, I’m not finished so maybe his name comes up later) encounters many different types of other survivors of “The Event” which wiped out civilization. When these survivors are threatening him and you don’t draw your weapon, he automatically puts his hands up and utters phrases where he tries to reason with them.

Seen here with the very first enemy on your very depressing adventure.

Now, the “Open Palm Peace Technique”, as I’m calling it, doesn’t really work well for my purposes in I AM Alive. First, it’s an automatic thing, still a default neutral as opposed to an active ability. Secondly, it’s rather functionally useless. Enemies that don’t want to fight won’t do it regardless, and enemies that do, well, they’re still going to kill you unless you act violently to dissuade them. It’s just a really a nice animation polish from a functional perspective.

However, in combination with the “sheath” action functionality exhibited in the Bethesda games, I think we might have something here.

Imagine for a moment, a new open world Action-RPG. One where you build your character to be a diplomatic type. Since Fallout established this as a viable character option way back when, we’ll say it’s the next in that series.

You come across a roving gang. According to your reputation meter, they’re pissed off at you, but not so much that they should attack you on sight. You have business with their leader though, and they have quests you read about on the internet that you think are interesting. So you simply walk up to them, and you press and hold the “sheathe” button.

Your character’s hands go up, and they draw, but don’t fire. They walk toward you, suspicious, questioning. This lets you tell them your purpose, and they disarm you, but let you in. Eventually, thanks to being able to simply get in the door, you’ll do those quests, you’ll rule the gang. Currently, you’d have had to reload a save, snuck in, or simply ignored the possibility.

Vault Boy Thumbs Up

Preventing a reload on a game that takes FOREVER to load anyway gives this idea the Vault Boy Thumb of Approval.

In the gaming world I see, this technique is used in dozens of different ways. Perhaps you’ve ventured into dangerous territory unknowingly, and the enemies are simply too tough, so you yield and they let you live sans some of your cash. Perhaps you’ve got to deal with a hostage situation and you need to approach the thug pointing a gun at a girl’s head, so palms raised, you get near him just enough for his guard to drop, and you tackle him, saving her life where other actions would have failed. Perhaps you can do it with a weapon drawn and it acts as a warning, letting fearful enemies know they have a chance at living through the encounter, and their resolve breaks as they run away.

In the world I see, this “Active Yield” technique is used in different types of games, not just RPGS. It allows developers an obvious non-violent option on a very basic level. It allows for characters like Nathan Drake to actually be the decent guy he says he is.

In the world I see, the player always has a choice, for choice is always gaming’s greatest asset and a player’s greatest tool. This choice, it gives violence weight, and games can begin to try for more meaningful experiences with this weight. They can tell more nuanced tales, where a front might be false, and death need not be so ever-present all the time.

In the world I s- OK, wait. Now I’m starting to sound like Tyler Durden aren’t I?

Next I’ll be talking about leather clothes you’ll wear for the rest of your life, and other anarchistic BS.

That’s the Fight Club effect for you. It always makes you ramble on about dreams of glory.

Anyway, it’s an idea. One that I’m open and willing to negotiate on. After all, I should probably practice what I preach, right?

NEXT TIME: S-E-X! (In gaming)

Seeking Absolution Solutions

It’s raining.

Outside the Waikiki Motel the palm trees sway with the showers under a sky filled with dread. Inside, a man takes off his shirt. He’s washing the blood off his face and cleaning the bullet hole in his arm. The scars on his back are visible during the procedure. They reveal a history of violence longer than most will ever know.

One wound however, is too precise to be anything other than self-inflicted. The fresher, still healing cut on the back of his bald head. The one covered by a simple band-aid, which makes this man appear to be the most dedicated Marcellus Wallace cosplayer in the world.

As he redresses in a smart business suit and crimson tie, a superfluity of nuns slowly walks from a school bus in the storm, their habits blowing wildly like the trees. But their high-heeled boots with far too much leather and far too many laces betray their facade. As do their prison tattoos, and the high ordinance weaponry they draw from seemingly nowhere. Suddenly, the “nuns” throw away the habits to reveal leather miniskirts, lace, and catsuits you can only wish your wife would be daring enough wear on your birthday.

A heavy metal guitar riff growls in the background as the nuns open fire, launching an RPG at the 2nd floor of the motel and ruining some poor clerk’s day. Our bald business attired gentleman, Agent 47, has snuck behind his attackers though, and silently eliminates one after another. Then, for no apparent reason, he draws his two silver plated heavy caliber pistols and opens fire.

Half a melee and a half a gunfight is the result. 47 is stabbed with butterfly knives. Women are used as human shields. Hands are stomped. Faces are punched. Noses are broken.

Broken Nose Nun

And she just signed a contract with Revlon too!

All of this is depicted in loving, caring, perfect action cinematography with fits of slow motion to highlight the blood spray or silhouette the characters in cool poses. In the end, only one is left standing.

47 leaves this scene of burning wreckage and death. He closes the trunk to his car, which is now filled with enough weaponry to be the prop department for a Commando remake, and drives off. Even while that angry electric guitar groans yet again.

________________________________________________________________________

These events are what make up the now infamous Hitman: Absolution trailer.

Whether reading through it above or watching it again, it’s in many ways just your average “gritty” action scene. Nuns walk in, Hitman walks out, lots of bullets fly, etc. Everything in it is well animated and well choreographed and well done from a production standpoint. It’s slicker than an oil spill on an iceberg in that regard.

So why the hell did people get so pissed off about it? Hell, why did it trigger such a despondency in myself that I wrote that whole thing the other day? What was the big deal?

Hitman Cover

I mean, it’s part of the Hitman franchise after all. What were you expecting? Hugs and chocolate covered puppies?

It’s really easy to say the problem is due to the violence portrayed. Or the fact that women are shown getting beaten to a pulp even while the camera angles to be as focused on their no-no zones as time allows. Or that showing religious figures both giving and receiving such cold furor is a bit sacrilegious and disrespectful.

Those are all the reasons most were huffing and puffing at this.

But all of them ring hollow to me. There’s something else at play here, and it’s a much bigger problem than all that noise. So let’s delve, shall we?

Sex, Guns & Lack of Soul.

First off, it’s not the violence. Neither I, nor any gamer of any duration can find fault with a violent video game. If we did, we wouldn’t play them. I loved the recent Max Payne 3 for example, and it had more gruesome head shots than a New Jersey modeling agency. Violence in video games is the norm, and every gamer accepts that, or isn’t one.

Likewise, unrepentant pubescent ideations of women and how their naughty bits are used in gaming’s bytes isn’t new either, nor the complaints about this state of affairs. Plenty of ink has been spilled talking about Lara Croft’s unrealistic proportions, the skimpy costumes of fighting femme fatales, and how Princess Peach is the face of the distressed damsel cliche and the worst woman in gaming – at least as far as role models go.

Peach's Vast Emotional Range

It’s the eyes. Those vacant, dead eyes, that haunt me.

While this trailer certainly doesn’t do anything to push gaming into a more progressive path, I can’t honestly say it’s any worse than many of the countless acts of horror I’ve experienced in the digital space. Targeting this trailer and IO Interactive (the Danish developers who made the game) seems capricious at best. What makes this particular moment of stripper-attired women getting punched in the face and murdered any worse than say, all the times gamers have actually done that exact thing in Mortal Kombat?

Has no one seen Mileena’s latest dress?

(Besides, I’m going to address both violence and sex specifically as I go on with this series, as there are far better candidates to highlight both.)

So is it the religious depiction then? Is it that this trailer shows nuns choking out a man dressed in his Sunday best with their rosaries?

Well, that doesn’t work either. Not really. Games have more than once put religion to task (see the plots of Final Fantasy Tactics, the Assassin’s Creed series, The Order in Silent Hill and many, many, more), and the Hitman series in particular has used religious themes pretty constantly since the first sequel, when Agent 47 lived in a monastery and waxed pathetic about whether or not he had a soul to damn.

Medieval: Papal War

I seem to recall using sexually deviant Bishops as weapons of influence in Medieval: Total War too. Hell, that game let you call crusades against even your Catholic enemies if you corrupted the church enough and yet, no controversy.

Nope, that really doesn’t seem too likely either. Dang. I really thought we had something there too.

Actually, I think the issue isn’t that the trailer is showing religion poorly, but that it simply lacks soul, fittingly enough.

It’s violent, sure, but not in an appealing way. The acts themselves are staid, practiced, almost mechanical. It shows women in skimpy outfits, yeah, but any lust gained dies as quickly as they do.

In fact, the segment runs a gamut of emotions within its scant span and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, its point is on an emotional level. Neither 47 or these women are good people. They’re all cold blooded assassins and this isn’t a personal fight at all; given the situation this is sort of like watching two different buskers compete for the same passerby’s dime. Yet there’s a moment where 47 seems to absolve one of the dead nuns of her sins because . . . why exactly? Does that even mean anything?

This trailer is as much defined by what it doesn’t contain as what it does. There’s no joy in it, no purpose, no message other than “our game will let you kill these people.” It’s soulless to the point of nihilism and as confused as most who promote such a philosophy.

Lebowski Nihilists

The Hitman trailer beleefs in nothink, Lebowski!

If there’s something to be bothered by, it’s probably this lack of heart. Not what’s actually depicted in the trailer, but what was in the minds of those that made it. Because whoever made this seems to think shoving a bunch of semi-sexualized violence drowning in incoherence at gamers is not only fine, but that we’re actually going to get excited by it.

It’s really not the violence or the weirdly fetishistic way it’s portrayed that’s the problem, it’s the incoherence. The mentality behind such presumptuous laziness reeks of deep cynicism. But then perhaps that’s to be expected.

This is video game marketing we’re talking about, after all.

The same types of marketers that have consistently painted gaming poorly through insane plans that everyone shakes their heads at, those of the Acclaim brood, are the types that made this nonsense. And while I understand the adman’s plight – it’s got to be tough to be the guy trying to sell Explosionfest 2013: Revenge of the Nipple Baring Harlot these days when gamers have been ripping out spines out for a couple decades – there is a point in the race to the lowest common denominator these folks are always running where the spectators have just had enough.

Maybe that’s what we’re really angry at then? Maybe we just don’t like exploitative, misleading ads in our gaming anymore?

But being angry at someone in marketing for focusing only on the sleaze or misrepresenting a product in their favor is useless. That would be like yelling at fire for being hot. They’re pretty much the cross breed of scorpions and politicians; you know they’re going to lie to you, but it’s just their nature.

Plus, this trailer isn’t really lying about anything. While the games are focused more on sneaking around than blood ballets, the Hitman franchise is about coldly murdering people for money, it does feature women wearing “slutty version of X” Halloween costumes, and as already mentioned, isn’t exactly respectful when handling religious themes. That’s pretty much the series in a nutshell, actually.

Agent 47 In Murderplicity!

Well that, and the whole “cloned killing machine who occasionally runs into copies of himself” thing. But you know, minor details.

No, it’s not that the trailer is lying to us.

If anything, it’s telling far too much truth.

The truth is, we gamers, while certainly being okay with actually playing a bunch of violent video games, don’t want to be seen as the type who want to play them. On a certain level, we know we should be ashamed for enjoying our murder-simulators that do nothing but empower our collective, rampaging id. But that’s just it, they empower our rampaging id! A very compelling form of pleasure is derived from this.

But any activity that consistently lets you get away with mass murder, even fictional mass murder, can’t be seen as socially acceptable. All gamers know this at heart, and yet games are tolerated just fine. Perhaps we just don’t want the nastier parts of our pastime so bluntly shoved back in our faces because it releases angst that our toys are going to be seen for what they often are – monstrous.

Hmm. Now we’re onto something! This feels nearly correct.

From this context, the problem is that this trailer doesn’t lie enough. It’s not justifying the headshots with heroism like Halo, it’s not pretending that these women are dressed in revealing leather for any reason other than provocation, like say, Samus’ Zero-suit. It’s ignoring all the usual fibs, handing us our darkest desires publicly and without any reassuring deceit, like a singing telegram courier delivering porno to your office.

And just like the telegram girl from Clue, gamers cried foul and shot the messenger.

Shooting the messenger

“Video games still like to indulge our basest fantasiesss- BANG!”

This seems as valid a reason as any for most to truly be outraged. The response felt a little too big, a little too defensive, for it to merely be another cry of sexist representations (especially with that Tomb Raider trailer taking that thunder). But then, why was I disturbed?

I certainly have no problem freely admitting to liking violent video games. I did it just a moment ago, and am doing it again now! And after the supreme court took the gamer’s side last year and protected gaming under the 1st Amendment, I’m certainly not afraid of another threat that games are going to get banned or anything.

No, for me it’s something else entirely.

For me, what this trailer and the others like it makes impossible to ignore is that publishers think gamers are fine with a very limited subject matter – that of adolescent spectacle – and that we’ll be perfectly fine receiving that forever (since we seem to like it so much) in an eternal feedback loop.

In part, this situation is quite accurate. Again, we do like these types of games.

As I see it though, if gamers remain gamers for a long enough time (and the stats prove that they are), they often mature in their tastes and want different things. But if that feedback loop stays constant and is the only thing publishers regard, those who want new content that explores different ideas get ignored. For myself, it’s not how this is presented, but what is getting lost in the process.

The primary reason I fear this is because I’m familiar with a similar situation, one that occurred in another medium entirely. A time when circumstances forced the artists in the field to drastically limit the spectrum of material they could present, and now the medium itself is stuck with the limited scope they’ve been caught in for a century.

I’m speaking of course, about comic books.

Next they let loose the mud.

Because comparing one medium that often caters to the adolescent desires to another one has never been done before!

In the Ghetto . . . the Cultural Ghetto

Let’s make a brief stop in the land of American comic book history!

Specifically how the American comic book fell into a very narrow mode of expression, superhero power fantasies, and how once it fell in it hasn’t been able to get out. I’ll try not to get too sidetracked here so I’m not going to get too deeply into this, but the gist of it is as follows:

Way back when, comics (and subsequently, comic books) were about everything. Sure, there were spandex wearing steroid abusing superheroes for young boys, but there were also romance comics for girls, true-life detective stories for grown ups, horror comics for teenagers, and well, pretty much a wide array of comics for a wide range of readers.

But then, mostly due to the Red Scare, a quack’s book called Seduction of the Innocent, and the original Columbine-level fear mongering over “teenage delinquency”, a vast movement was enacted.

Comic books were banned and even burned (pretty horrifying considering this occurred right after World War 2), and there was a major threat that the entire medium was about to be legislated into oblivion. So the comic book makers took their only way out: submitting to a Draconian code of censored blandness that allowed very little expression other than a few staples like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (the latter pair only after heavy revision).

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju

All of this was chronicled in The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju. If you’re interested, it’s a highly engaging read that I heartily recommend. Or, if you’re pressed for time, here’s Zach Weiner covering basically the same stuff.

Since then comic books, which used to be read by millions of Americans a year, have lived in a comparatively niche market where if a book gets a tenth of that readership, it’s a success. Thankfully the recent superhero movie explosion and the internet have given the medium much more exposure, but it’s had little effect on the demographics of comic book readers, at least for hard copies (web comics are doing pretty well). If you go into a comic book store today, who do you find there? Mostly older men who liked the tights and laser vision explosions as much now as they did when they were ten (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

When superheroes became the only acceptable norm they’re the only thing that got published; the only fans that were cultivated were those that liked said superheroes, and now the industry is drowning in them. While there certainly are comics that don’t focus on capes, cowls or exaggerated physiques – in fact, there are MANY phenomenal stories, like Sandman, Love & Rockets and anything by Brian K. Vaughn – casual readers only get introduced to these works through a chain of folks that begins with someone who loves superhero fare. The other genres that used to get published (romance, horror, crime), only exist in tiny amounts and reach limited audiences.

Worst Image Ever

If you ever read Alan Moore or Ed Brubaker and liked it, you have guys like this to thank.

When a medium, any medium, gets caught in a limited space that it can’t break out of and exists only to supplicate those that have already bought into it, for all intents and purposes it’s in a cultural ghetto. While thankfully video games aren’t going down this path due to legal restriction, the far nastier reality that this trailer and E3 in general were reinforcing is that they could end up falling into the same situation anyway, but willingly.

Video games, at least the big name games (and thus the majority of the audience), that focus on only the guns and the explosions and the breasts are reaching for the low hanging fruits of subject matter. The fear I have, and what I’m suspecting is the underlying cause of some of the angst here, is that this will never change. Primarily because these games have been proven to make money in the past, and for the big companies that make them it’s considered too great a financial risk to try anything different, which if you’re going for Call of Duty numbers, seems unfortunately true.

Often, it feels like that video games are already stuck in this exact situation, or something akin to it. The scope of subject matter that dominates the majority of “serious” gaming is broader than just one thing like superheroes, but not by much, and the demographics are almost as limited: teenage boys get “gritty” shooters featuring soldiers and gangsters, children receive shiny happy family friendly fun (mostly provided by Nintendo), competitive gamers have fighters and Starcraft. Many of the genres that targeted other demographics, as with the comic book industry, are either tiny and all but dead, or are constantly being forced to fit within the mold of more popular action game audiences; stealth, survival horror, and RPGs all come to mind on that last point.

Subtlety in Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 – shooting the fear found in horror games right in the face!

But then, I like superheroes just fine, and I like my gory action games and my bouncy Mario games just fine too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with blood and guts and boobs, and if it sells, well, it sells. Even if the majority of games are set in the limited purview of endless permutations on murder, they’re usually still fun.

If gaming is falling in, or already is in, the same limited scope as comic books, it doesn’t seem like it matters much if we enjoy it right?

Besides, potentially interesting subject material for adults or women that aren’t just interested in farming on Facebook isn’t ignored entirely. The Sims, Civilization, and simulations in general, are focused on these populations (for at least one example). While there may not be a plethora of genres that target an older set, and neither the quantity nor hype of the existing contributions here match the levels of action games, a few do exist for the folks who want alternatives.

So what’s the big problem? Why am I harshing the vibe? And how did we get here when I was talking about the Hitman trailer?

If Youth is wasted on the Young then perhaps its time to grow up?

I worry about potential, really.

Individually, a game like Hitman: Absolution isn’t a problem. Nor are it’s bizarre BDSM Nun punching ads. I’ve certainly enjoyed the Hitman games in the past, and assuming Absolution matches the quality of the last one, will probably enjoy it as well.

There’s definitely a space for games about such material in the broad spectrum of the medium, just as there’s a space for John Ringo’s PALADIN OF SHADOWS in literature.

Kildar cover

Damn, he even looks like your average video game protagonist.

If collectively, the entire gaming industry was to focus solely on stuff like Hitman – if the spectrum were totally narrowed – there would be a problem. But that’s just a paranoid fear that occasionally likes to creep up in the back of my mind. It’s not the reality.

And yet the main defense I constantly see whenever people get riled up over events such as this one is that “gaming is still in it’s infancy”. That while such and such action – in this case, Square-Enix’s marketing team’s poor foresight and cynicism – is deplorable, all we gamers need to do is wait a bit longer and we’ll see that in a few years, we’ll look back on this moment and laugh. Just like we did at early 3D gaming’s hilarious attempts to make “sexy” women with only six polygons and a blow up doll for reference.

Sarah Bryant mid 90's

Gahhh! Maybe we should be worried that someone is getting turned on by those dead nuns after all. For a moment, this was someone’s idea of a beautiful woman.

My concerns over gaming ghettoization flare up whenever I hear this argument these days, because I’m only left with one thought: How long do we keep waiting?

Popular gaming has been around since the late seventies if you count Pong and Pac-Man – that’s almost forty years! “Gaming is still in its infancy” at this point, seems an apologist’s line. One robbed of power due to the sheer amount of time the medium’s been around.

I’ve grown up with video games, but often, it seems they refuse to grow up with me. This ridiculous trailer has been yet another reminder of this fact, and it’s about the five hundredth time I’ve been reminded. I, and I assume others like me, always hoped that games were going to diversify into more thoughtful territories than where they were when I was a kid . . . but they simply aren’t doing that.

The Room Tearing me apart lisa

You are tearing me apart . . . video game industry?

Wait. Despite this article going on far too long, I don’t want to end this on a down note like that! Besides, I’m still looking for solution. Now if only I could find the question . . .

First, I’ll admit that hope can easily be found when you look around a bit. The medium is broader than the gross generalizations from before.

Being able to fund “oddball” demands like “humor” and “nuanced characterization” are partly behind the big Kickstarter Craze that’s been going on lately (even if most of the benefit is going toward reboots). Indie gaming is continuing unabated, and adventure games have seen a resurgence thanks to Telltale. These are definitely good things.

Then there’s Sony, the one big name publisher that seems to get why focusing on a limited scope is bad. Maybe it’s because they also make movies – the film industry, despite having treacle like Battleship, also produces many interesting films across a wide swath of concepts – but Sony has been funding all sorts of diverse game projects that obviously attempt to reach different audiences.

Quantic Dream’s explorations into “Interactive drama” wouldn’t work without Sony’s coffers, and thatgamecompany has been able to put out some really unique content like Flower and Journey thanks to them. Lest I forget, they also fund Team Ico, and proud we are of all their achievements. So it’s not like there aren’t some real attempts at diversification being made.

Even if there’s a glaring problem.

Namely that such attempts at differentiation are usually met chilly receptions on the sales floor. Even success stories like Heavy Rain, which pushed 2 million copies, don’t compare to action shooters like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at 5 million, and most go the way of Psychonauts – critically loved but totally forgotten by the public at large. Certainly, none approach Call of Duty‘s numbers, which to quote the Sagan, get into “billions and billions” of dollars.

And to quote the Kotick, “Papa like those numbers! You hear that Radical! Papa like THOSE numbers! Not your mere millions.”

Hmmm.

Solving this problem – figuring out how to make gamers want to buy Psychonauts over Battlefield – well that’s a billion dollar conundrum in of itself, isn’t it?

But it’s perhaps the solution I’m seeking as well. The fear that gaming will narrow its scope, the angst that we’re ashamed of playing morally bankrupt games, the lack of diversified growth; all can be abated if more well crafted, non exploitative games are produced!

Solutions may lie in the Slight and the Subtle.

However, there’s at least one Catch-22. Interesting alternative games are often made by smaller devs, but they usually can’t measure up to the production quality of the AAA action games; not everyone has the dedication or time to make Fez after all. But it’s also difficult to convince gamers who want the most out of their hardware to settle for something that looks like it was made by a first year art student, especially if the rest of the content is going to try for the unfamiliar.

And if Activision knew how to make, say, a romance game that captured the hearts of teen girls and moms everywhere, even if it was still basically as dumb as most of their games – if they could make Fifty Shades of Grey essentially – they would, wouldn’t they? The stats certainly prove that women play more games than ever before, and from a business standpoint, it sounds reasonable to pursue them. There’s lots of money to be made by appealing to demographics other than simply teenage boys, Nintendo proved that with the Wii, so why don’t they do it (or even something better)?

The obvious conclusion is that the major developers and publishers, in addition to being afraid of risking low sales in more nuanced genres like drama or romance rather than big, obvious, sure thing shooters, don’t know how to make such games. At least not in ways that remain as engaging throughout as a Modern Warfare or an Assassin’s Creed. Heck, maybe no one knows how to do this, because my bet is that if they could, they would.

No really. How?

Any game about romance, politics, comedy or any alternative focus needs to be at least as fun as the games about capping Nazi skulls if it’s going to compete, obviously.

Less obvious is the sheer how of that. It’s a bit tough to imagine the EXCITING GAMEPLAY of The Importance of Being Earnest: The Play: The Game that’s going to get Johhny Halo to pick it up at the store over Master Chief. That’s the challenge here – to make wordplay as fun as gunplay, manipulation as enthralling as strangulation, love more exciting than war.

Like a two year old smashing pots together because they’re bored, most major game developers are content to stick to the obvious ways of garnering attention – death, sex, spectacle – but maybe I’ve misjudged it as intentional when it’s simply due to inadequacy? Perhaps it’s because that’s all they know how to do. Maybe gaming really is in it’s infancy, at least in a “language development” sense.

For as I said once before in a review, “Most games are written with violence as a book is with words, and the thesaurus is getting quite thick indeed.” The corollary seems true to me now as well. Subtlety is a language games simply lack.

In order for gaming to grow up, to reach it’s full potential, it’s a language worth learning.

As Tycho of Penny Arcade said about this very same nonsense I’m covering now, “the answer is always more art”. If there’s an actionable response to the inanities brought up with this year’s E3, it will lie in making more, not less, and I suspect that the art is going to lie in the realm of the understated, the inferred, and the nuanced.

The way to prevent more Hitman Absolution debacles isn’t to decry them, to fear them or shout at them, it’s to give the alternatives just as much power and weight. The way to do that, is to make the indistinct verbs of life, the ones games don’t usually focus on, as fun as the blatant ones.

Comedy. Drama. Romance. These are the realms that get ignored in games when we focus on killsplosions, and these are the realms where a mastery of the subtle is paramount.

Because you’re never going to make the rampaging Hulk that is the gaming industry to pour vast resources at these “alternative” game genres as they are – there’s simply not enough profit in it. But if you can make them better? If you can make them more fun? Most importantly, more profitable than the latest shooter?

Well, then you find that the Hulk will stop his rampage.

He might even show up for tea.