What Fallout Has To Say
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Today, I want to talk more explicitly about the “authorial voice [working] through the system” in games by examining Interplay's original Fallout. This title was chosen for its age (over ten years old, which demonstrates that such an authorial voice has existed in games at the very least for that long) and for the absolutely concentrated and deliberate fashion in which it delivers its message.
Player Experience as the Message
I argued in my last post that we focus so much on the narrative aspects of games when attempting to discern their message that we fail to perceive those messages which games have already succeeded in delivering. But I want to emphasize once again that narrative does indeed play a crucial role in the formulation and delivery of the authorial voice. For instance, the meeting with Ryan in Bioshock specifically colors the entire preceding experience in a significantly different light—it informs the player’s “decisions” post facto, and makes the player consider the illusion of agency in a game.
My point is that it is not so simple that we should mistake narrative to be the only aspect which produces an authorial voice in games. Again, in the example of Bioshock, the revelation towards the close would have far less meaning without the tasks of the game that comes with, and came before, it. Without the inseperable interplay of both narrative and game—without the actual experience of playing the game—objectivism’s thesis of the primacy of individual liberty would not emerge as forcefully as it does (if indeed, at all).
This emergence is forceful because the player himself has encountered the concept in a fundamentally experiential fashion. One could even argue that Bioshock delivers this idea better than Rand herself ever did—Bioshock’s presentation is, due to the very ambiguity which arises from the player’s interaction, far more intellectually nuanced than, for instance, the Fountainhead ever was (I’ll probably receive a lot of flak for that…).
Unraveling the Message in Fallout
The above is already a pretty good example of the authorial voice in games. But to drive the point home, I will go ahead and continue with the examination of Fallout.
The central message of Fallout is that “no man is an island”. Actually, the entire line by Donne referred to by this partial quote is quite useful for the purposes of this discussion, so I will reproduce it in full:
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (Donne, Meditation XVII)
Donne, here, denotes a dialectical reality. If the conclusion of the above (that losing any individual is the same as losing a part of oneself) can be termed the external attitude towards society, its opening premise contains an internally directed attitude towards the self. Accepting that one is a part, that one cannot be the entire, also means accepting that, “In order to make a real accomplishment one must sacrifice a number of other potentialities… To be something in reality one must give up being everything in potentia” (Edinger, 14). This, then, is the essential point of Fallout as well: in order to survive (quite literally), one must venture out into society and engage with it; but exposing oneself to, and thus becoming a part of, society also means giving up the illusion of omnipotence.
How the Message is Delivered in Fallout
The above ideas should be recognizable straight away in the narrative arc of Fallout: the Overseer at the end denies the Vault Dweller’s return to the vault because he is living proof that one can venture outside and actually thrive. That is, engagement with external society is entirely feasible, but an exodus from the vault would mean that the Overseer loses his omnipotence. This desire to be an island of omnipotent wholeness or “entireness” is equally reflected in the Master’s plan to literally make everything in his image and absorb the entirety of society unto himself.*
Looking beyond the narrative, however, the theme is also profoundly reflected in every aspect of the game’s mechanics, and indeed, as with the example of Bioshock, the narrative arc would lack gravitas without the player’s concurrent struggle with the mechanics.
Fallout, by many standards, is a difficult and unforgiving game which borders on being well nigh inaccessible for many players unfamiliar with its mechanics and the kinds of strategies the game requires. This is part of the message, and the difficultly serves a specific “narrative”—that is, “authorial”—function.
The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system in Fallout (which differs significantly with that in Fallout 3 due to the frequency of perks and the Intense Training perk) forces the player directly from the character creation screen to make choices which determine the efficacy of the player for the rest of the game. There is no respec option and methods by which a player might increase his base attributes are extremely limited, to the point that a bad character roll can make the game unplayable (hence the three pre-rolled characters). In other words, the difficulty of producing an effective roll requires the player to immediately surrender the illusion of omnipotence and recognize that certain types of play simply will not work.
And yet, without having played the game, there is no means for the player to know which skills are essential and which skills have no use whatsoever (besides, to limited utility, looking at the pre-rolled characters). This is compounded by the fact that there are simply not enough points to go around for the player to attempt fulfilling “everything in potentia”—one must specialize in a select set of skills and play the game to those skills. This, of course, is true of any CRPG, but the strictness of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system specifically and intentionally denies the player leeway for experimentation within a single game.
This restriction on both the player’s developmental capacity and room for experimentation is carried over into the time limits built into the game. While ostensibly the time limits (at least, the original water chip time limit) are there to prevent the player from “breaking” the plot by manually combing through the map and stumbling across locations, this task is accomplished by the fog of war and difficulty walls, not to mention random encounters, anyway. And the presence of hidden time limits dealing with game endings further indicates an ulterior purpose.
The “authorial” purpose of the time limits in Fallout, then, is to prevent the player from farming caravan runs and spamming skill books in order to maximize character stats. And even disregarding the time limits, there is still a twenty level cap which prevents further progression. These mechanics once again obligate the player to abandon potentialities for the sake of actualities.
The enforced commitment to the style of play determined at the start, the pervasive pressure of hidden and unpredictable dangers (random encounters, radiation, the time limits themselves), the "there and back again" oscillation between the unnameable dangers of the wastes and the palpably relieving safety of the settlements—all of these serve to reinforce a strong sense of mortality, limitation, and attachment which, if to a far lesser degree, must at least in character be similar to that which inspired Donne to come to his conclusions.
The last straw, then, in which it turns out the Overseer is really the same as the Master fully disabuses the player from the fantasy that there ever was an original, self-contained and isolated omnipotent wholeness to which the player could return—the player must once again submit himself to exposure to society and recognize that no man is an island.
The Archetypes, Once Again
I mentioned before the concept that the player experiences the activity of gameplay through the dual process of playing (immersion) and gaming (engagement). This was indeed why I stressed so heavily that focusing solely on the immersive aspects is losing sight of the engagement aspects—because neither can fully produce the experience of gameplay by itself. Without both, one is merely receiving a recitation on the one hand, or a conducting one on the other (hence, my use of the phrase “invested interactivity” in my last post).
At any rate, I bring up concept of the archetype once again because, if the above understanding is correct, this psychological, quintessentially experiential mechanism is quite often the means through which the message of gameplay is delivered (and for those who are interested, the archetype in question here is that of the puer aeternus**). And, as I quoted previously, “the archetype represents the ‘possibility of representation.’ The content is dependent upon the organism’s interactions with the environment,” (Gray, 46). In other words, the proper "narrative" of a game does not even emerge until the moment of interaction. There’s no story contained in a high score in Donkey Kong per se, but there certainly is one contained in the experience of pursuing that high score.
To rephrase once more, we would be making a mistake to concentrate exclusively on the subjective structure of the experience of gameplay (the “narrative”) when attempting to discern its authorial voice—a mistake akin to describing a genotype without understanding its phenotypical expression.
* This actually makes the Overseer the same as the Master (once again, the theme that one is what one hates [and thus fears] presents itself). The similarity of titles and the obsession with preventing contamination from the outside or obtaining uncontaminated DNA further cements this equivalence.
** It would be interesting to conduct a comparative study on the differences in the expression of this archetype in Fallout, The Road Warrior, A Boy and this Dog, and Wasteland
Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambala, 1992.
Gray, Richard M. Archetypal Explorations. London: Routledge, 1996.