Friday, 31 December 2010

Wider Reading | Further Thoughts on 'Are Games Art'? - Fallout: New Vegas

Black Isle Studios. Responsible, back in the distant mists of the late 90s, for some of the best-loved, geekiest and most unequivocally acclaimed video games of all time, and directly involved with quite a few others. One of their products, Torment, an offbeat, strangely epic game concerned with mortality and man’s ability to change, with a near-novelistic amount of writing, has been one of the pro-game primary witnesses in the on-going ‘are games art/destructive to our nation’s youth?’ debate.

And then there was Fallout (which itself stole much of its concept from an earlier game called Wasteland), which posited the idea of an America struggling to pick up the pieces some years after a Cold War-style nuclear holocaust. So instead of just having the usual Mad Max guys in leather with mohawks, you had societies and factions trying to create themselves in the image of former empires, sometimes comically. You had some quite clever ideas about how mankind would rebuild itself with a ‘fresh start’ that was in fact saturated with the cultural debris of a lost age. And you had a goofy, straight-faced spoof of 50s science fiction, an entire world built on the idea that ‘radiation makes things big and monstrous!’ is biological fact.

Real nuclear explosions are rarely quirky and fun.

Bethesda Softworks (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it either. Neither am I convinced that ‘Softworks’ is a real thing). Primarily known for ‘open world’ fantasy games that aspired to be as enormous and apparently endless as a virtual reality could be. Having acquired the rights to the Fallout series, they set about creating an ‘open world’ post-apocalyptic game. Enter Fallout 3, a critically acclaimed, massive grey blancmange of a title. Not too intelligent a blancmange either, sadly; the plot depended on the player chasing their father, a blandly benevolent Liam Neeson, about the (again, grey) wastelands near Washington DC, and getting caught up in the fight between some goodies and baddies. Just so we understand how bad the baddies are – their leader’s voiced by Malcolm McDowell.

Fallout 3 was exactly the sort of game that would make Roger Ebert shudder; a thoroughly detailed, dumb virtual reality world for nerds to vanish into and shoot the heads off things in slow motion, with great production values and star wattage, but without a great deal of character. It developed a huge following amongst a new generation of game-players.

Obsidian Entertainment. Much like a society from Fallout, this developer was formed from the remnants of the original Black Isle Studios after its dissolution and they’ve been living under the weight of that past ever since, turning out a mixture of obvious attempts to break into the mainstream and more ‘alternative’, thoughtful games. All of these, to date, have been heavily criticised for their bugs and technical issues. And, earlier this year, they were allowed to bring out New Vegas, the most recent Fallout title, which uses Fallout 3’s engine, which marketed itself on Bethesda's earlier game, to the extent that it was bloody hard for me to find decent pictures of it that didn't involve gratuituous, Borderlands-style violence or ridiculously big guns. With me so far?

It really is a political story with just as much emphasis on morality, diplomacy and smarts as adolescent shooting of monsters. No, honestly!

Good. Because, if you haven’t given up in confusion, I’d like to put New Vegas forward as another example of art. Not ‘Art’ with a capital A, but…y’know, just ‘art’. The main reason being that it takes that attention to detail, Bethesda’s effective imitation of a real world, and uses it to create a setting with the same level of detail, the same nuances and the same character as the best of our speculative fiction.

The game takes place in the territories around the partially rebuilt Las Vegas. To the east, you’ve got an occupying force of Ancient Rome-loving fanatics who keep order through slavery. Holding them off from the spectacular Hoover Dam are a kind of rag-tag peoples’ army, who any other game would be heroic. (Here, mostly due to being rag-tag and made up of ordinary people, they’re inefficient, disorganised and corrupt, in spite of their leaders' good intentions.) ‘New Vegas’ itself is kept independent by a wealthy autocrat, while the various casinos have become, effectively, noble houses, and the streets are kept safe by a benevolent gangster 'King' who continues the fine Las Vegas tradition of Elvis impersonation.

Essentially, there’s a McGuffin that may help to tip the balance of power in any one direction, and you play the poor schmo who’s hired to deliver it safely, and who gets shot by a petty criminal played by an extremely bored and/possibly or drugged-up Matthew Perry, then left for dead. You wake up, and the game begins. That’s the, er, ‘game’, and the ‘game for power’, as you travel the mind-bogglingly huge map, making allies or enemies of the various factions and trying to get your hands on that damned McGuffin so that, culminating in a battle for the city atop the dam. At heart, it’s a Sergio Leone-style cowboy story, and a far more characterful one than the directionless, amoral Red Dead Redemption.

It’s also flawed, in so, so many ways – aside from the aforementioned bugs, the engine itself isn’t built for heavy storytelling. All of the hundreds (thousands?) of people in the game are marvellous; they have their own daily routines, they sleep, they smoke cigarettes or type at computers when they feel like it…and then, when you try to talk to them, they stare straight at you, unmoving, and talk without any real sort of expression.

But let’s go back to that depth of detail, that personality that makes the game feel like a legitimate world. And it relates to an issue I’ve agonised over a little – Ebert’s argument that if art contains choice on the reader’s/player’s/what-have-you’s part, it cannot be art, because the choice itself is a game we want to win. New Vegas is detailed and nuanced enough – hell, if I’m going to use that dreadful word, it’s immersive enough – that in its best moments, the choice becomes an emotional or an intellectual one within the world, not a calculated one outside it.

Let me give a geeky, fangasming, spoiler-filled example; at a certain point in the plot, my character failed to kill Matthew Perry (I’m as upset as you are. But he could have died at that point, which would have altered the following section of the plot entirely) who high-tailed it off to the base of the Roman-loving ‘Legion’ to offer the McGuffin to them. Now, earlier on in the game, I’d happened to run into and make friends with a gruff sniper fellow whose wife had been made a slave by the Legion, and who had a serious, suicidal grudge against them as a result. I’d also discovered their habit of crucifying ill-doers in various bandit towns. And so, for some time, my sniper pal and I had been fighting a lonely war together against these tyrants, who saw us as their implacable enemies.

The leader of the Legion, however, decided at this point to try and bargain with my character, and sent word about a place where I could catch a ferry to his fortress to meet him. Had I done so, the two enemies could have formed a grudging alliance, with the commander offering the life of the captured Matthew Perry (the man who’d tried to kill my character, remember) and the McGuffin as a gift of friendship.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, as we reached the ferry spot, my sniper and I passed by a slave pen where ordinary people were being imprisoned for a life of servitude by these Roman nutters. Rebelling at the sight of that, we gunned down their captors and set them loose. Afterwards, we stepped into the ferry regardless to get that McGuffin back, but what could have been a genteel meeting with the leader had become a suicide-mission attack on the fort; my sniper pal told me, with a certain grim satisfaction, that we most likely wouldn’t get out alive. My character cheerfully replied that the Legion wouldn’t know what hit them, and off we went for our showdown.

I actually found my sniper friend in the mouth of this dinosaur, if you'll believe it. Good times.

All of this is in the game; none of it is LARPing or any other such nonsense. You make your choices - based largely on chance encounters - and the game, in general, responds to it with astounding depth and even emotional impact. It’s a testament to that same detail and character that New Vegas doesn’t come across simply as Civ-style ‘you have angered the Red Team! Now they attack you!’. And so, at least if you’re playing it once, you react to the storyline organically rather than, say, deciding to ‘do a bad-guy playthrough’.

This level of immersion is actually pretty scary (see how easily I kept slipping into ‘I’ instead of ‘my character’ back there?). But if games are going to continue getting bigger and more viable as an alternative to reality, we have to ask at least that they make the effort to dump us back in the world with a slightly heightened sense of ourselves, rather than giving us false-sense-of-accomplishment psychological highs for collecting all 100 crystals. Immersion with artistic responsibility, let’s call it. Which New Vegas, in its own twisted way, certainly has.

So it’s art. Maybe.

(I also have to thank New Vegas for introducing me to 'Big Iron', Marty Robbins' marvellously appropriate cowboy song that plays throughout the game, on a radio station hosted by none other than Wayne Newton, who - unlike that bastard Perry - has a ball with his voice-over. Also, here's the Verve's 'Virtual World', back from when they wrote funky, interesting psychedelic music.)

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