So I tried Fallout 4 recently. By which I mean I mostly sat on a coach and watched someone else play it. It’s not relevant to any of this, but i’m still navigating just how much truth is a virtue in blog-posting. Anyway.
I was mostly apathetic about the game’s release; while New Vegas had basically identical gameplay as Fallout 3 (and yet still managed to be twice as bug riddled), it at least had a different tone and story. In brief:
Fallout 3 seemed to follow the Campbellian monomyth devoutly, with the usual slur of psycho-sexual garnishing: You’re thrust from the comforting womb of the Vault into a dangerous antagonistic world, on a quest to reclaim the-absent-father, which leads you into a virtual world -an imaginary, liminal realm passed into via another metal womb- that only after burning to the ground, do you find yourself reunited with the patriarch, this time on more equal terms, allied through the trauma of primordial separation. (he is even a dog in your hallucinatory rite-of-passage, providing perhaps a narrative of adolescent disenchantment; the parents can no longer be seem as symbolic of an omnipotent reassuring security, but are instead revealed as impotent, animalistic washouts; i.e. as actually existing human beings.) After, you join with him in purifying the water and genociding the hostile super mutants; a sort of pre-oedipal fantasy ending, with the act of reunification purging all the hostility of the world.
By contrast, New Vegas feels more marxist and materialist in tone; it is the story of the struggle of institutionalized power structures to survive through a time where the modes of production that established them are locked in permanent upheaval. You can either support the world as-is; reifying exchange value into an absurd -albeit stable- form, mythologized through the neon-phallic monstrosity of the techno-casino empire squatting in the middle of the post-apocalyptic desert, surrounded by peasant farmer communes, or you can support the Legion in their goal to accelerate the dialectical decay; to burn through every historical contradiction via a Kurtz-esque torch of self-identified barbarism, of pure unrelenting violence, in the hopes of generating a dominant ideology consistent with the world as is (hegemony, after all, can only operate when power is shrouded under other names), from which a new world could possibly finally grow unfettered.
The plot of Fallout 4, meanwhile, just seems like an arbitrary permutation of 3. Same structure, same objects, different places. The gameplay does seem genuinely polished, however. Combat is actually enjoyable, there’s a run mode, action points now have use outside of the Vats orientated turn based play style, and there’s a whole heap of added depth to crafting. You can mod weapons in various ways, fitting in new scopes, handles, etc, rather than just adding on preset upgrades to specific items. There’s also new building mechanics, where you can break down the useless things in the world for raw materials. From toothbrushes to coffee pots to antifreeze, all these (previously) junk items now have purpose.
Its this last feature I want to focus on here. As much as this sounded like it would be a vast improvement in the abstract, (I’d spent way to many hours going through filing cabinets marked non-empty in Fallout 3 only to find a clipboard and an ashtray,) actually watching it implemented was a very different experience. I sat and watched a family member play for a few hours, not exploring the wasteland as an apocalyptic nomad, but now only as a gaping maw; a black hole of accumulation. Small town inhabitants would stare vacantly as fallen power lines, old post boxes, etc, would just disappear in front of them. ‘I’ve got wares for sale’ a man chimes enthusiastically as a chiseled figure in a blue jumpsuit eats a car. The world was no longer a place of independent objects, -of random shite as indifferent to the player as the player was to it,- but a kind of libidinal marxist-capitalist utopia; things only exist as an expression of the subjects productive labour power. Things only exist in so far as they can be converted into something else. You are a disembodied hand, in a supreme vat of jelly. You reach in. sticky. You sculpt. But your hand is also the jelly. Always was. You sculpt yourself, and in doing so, extend yourself, till you cover the whole world, and there is nothing but a wobbling tower cradling its own baselessness.
Of course, really Fallout 4 is just assimilating other successes, cashing in on popular tropes. It’s got the unique drops of Diablo, the world crafting of Minecraft, with tower defense elements thrown in as raiders raid up your morph space. But something feels out of sync here. Minecraft openly advertises itself on its imaginary plasticity, but Fallout comes with a pre-established world, grounded in 50’s americana and cold war apocalyptic tensions and fears, that the player is meant to be situated within / in dialogue with.
The ideal game is often presented as one that offers the player unlimited agency. Other games have critiqued and deconstructed this. Spec Ops confronts the all-powerful hero with their own barbarism, while, of course, forcing the player into that confrontation. The Stanley Parable similarly offers the player the chance to rebel against the established narrative, but the fact that the axis of rebellion is always already scripted denies such rebellion’s very possibility of success; you go through the door the game instructs, one path opens up, you open the other door, and another path opens up. Either way you only progress by re-acting in a way that fits the game’s pre-rooted choice trees. But, perhaps here, the game that best inverts the terror of the totally assimilable world present in Fallout 4, is the Fullbright Company’s Gone Home.
In Gone Home, you open doors. You pick up objects, and examine them. You draw them close to your vision, rotate them, and then throw them away. Always the same throw, cast at arm’s length. When you pick up the right object, an audio clip plays, and then you move onto the next area, where you can pick up more objects. Always moving through the house at the same irritatingly slow pace. Largely critiqued by audiences as barely even counting as a game, more a haphazard (quasi-)interactive narrative at best, Gone Home‘s gameplay it both brilliantly subversive, and powerfully complementary to the game’s themes.
Gone Home starts with you exploring an abandoned mansion at night. Your family has disappeared, and you are not sure why. Complete with storm outside, the tense atmosphere evokes that of a ghost-story horror narrative. However, contra the initial scene setting, what unfolds is instead a rather subdued story of human drama; you learn of your fathers failing novel career, your mothers fantasized crush on a work associate, and primarily, of your younger sister’s blossoming romance with a girl in her class.
It could be said that Gone Home is a love story, but this is not true. Sam and Lonnie’s relationship remains a narrative within the narrative. Fundamentally, Gone Home is a story about being a tourist in your own home. It’s about only understanding the people around you by picking up mugs and three ring binders, and throwing them away again. We only learn about the player character from her traces in the objects she’s left behind. As Sam’s life falls apart, navigating the minefield of teen love with no grounding or support, we also discover the shitty postcards the player-character has sent back. ‘I am in the Chunnel! London is great!’ ‘I am wearing a beret! Paris is great!’, like all tourists, her experiences aren’t really experiences, so much as utterly superficial assimilations of the places she’s been; assimilated for the sole purpose of recounting their assimilation. A prefigured list of places to be checked off before they are even discovered. The eldest daughter of a bourgeois family, you pick up Belgium, and cast it at arms length. ‘I am wearing a veil of my sisters tears! Family is great!’
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud speaks of a child not playing with his toys as intended, but rather, just repeating one, simple game with them. He would cast his toys away, exclaiming ‘Fort!’ (gone) and upon reuniting with them, exclaim ‘Da!’ (there). Indeed, it seems almost as if objects only exist to manifest this interplay. When we try to ‘possess’ something, we really are trying and give ourselves the illusion of control over the circumstances of its loss. In Gone Home, your father see’s his literary career as grounding his significance as a person, but he remains afraid to express himself within his works, instead remaining trapped in the niche of weaving pulp time-travel JFK conspiracies stories. Your mother is enraptured by cheap romance novels, and fantasizes about her handsome park-ranger subordinate, but there’s no evidence she ever acts on her fantasies. Lonnie, Sam’s best friend and lover, is the ultimate organizing signifier for Sam, the node around which Sam’s whole RadFem underground punk identity revolves. But at the same time as playing the Punk anarchist, Lonnie is contradictorily a JORTC-cadet, and actively aspiring to be a soldier. Of course, Lonnie’s crypto-fascist hypocrisy is not bad characterization; if anything it all too earnestly showcases the tension underlying Sam’s projected idealized object of affection Vs. the ambiguity and contradictory aspects inherent in an actually living human being. Lonnie will always be both less and more than the cool riotgrrl scene, guitar playing, street fighter pro senpai Sam uses to escape her loneliness. All of Sam’s cherished interpersonal signifiers traumatically rupture against Lonnie’s decision to leave and begin her life in the service. Freud’s Gone/There dialectic is very much at the heart of Gone/Home. Some objects batter against ourselves, some objects pass away. We try to take control of the process; to practice choosing which things we pick up and which we cast out, and are sometimes successful. But to an extent this empowerment is delusion; we only grasp ourselves through the traces we leave imprinted on the things and people around us; on the shitty postcards we scrawled unfeeling uninspired logs of the things we’ve done onto, in the selfish hope others will go over them at some point during the tumultuous abyss of their own lives.
Perhaps then, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Gone Home is a ghost story; a ghost is, after all, the haunt of someone lost; the spectral kernel of presence that remains in the very act of disappearing. Ultimately, Gone Home is a game about trying to draw things into you, but never quite being able to become one with them, and a game about casting them away, but never quite being free of them. It is a game about picking up objects (Da!), and throwing them away. (Fort!)
Where Gone Home tries to take the player towards the unassimilable traumatic edge of the real, Fallout 4 remains locked firmly within fantasy. Maybe then, however, the game-play changes in Fallout 4 are relevant to the plot inversion. While in Fallout 3, you hunt for the pre-oedipal father, a figure that can piss clean water and return the world into a pre-hostile organic unity, in Fallout 4 you play the mythical proto-parental figure; you play the seat of unobtainable pre-lack; that which surpasses itself through pure self-transcending autotelic mastery. A figure that can melt lamp-posts and cars and post-it notes to rend the world to its whim. That can secure territories under the ideology of its name, and smite patches of dirt with drone strikes at whim. However, to maintain this unity of dream under the banner of your own omnipotence, you need to destroy anything hostile to your agent-supremacy. You have to kill your own son. No wonder then, to break out of the prefiguring oedipal nightmare, your son in turn has to destroy you, and by extension, -as the landscape is just an extension of your character’s univocal narcissism; an unbound, amorphous, shapeless face- he has to destroy all of Boston.
And he’s right to. You’re a monster. He should win. He will win: Eventually, once you reach your level cap and the entire world is checked off as your territory, and you’ve built a big structure out of every spanner and toothpick that temporarily resisted assimilation through their radical inertness, you’ll get bored. You’ll move on to the next box of sand. And Boston will return to a static, godless realm. Your son breaks down and cries; that is, if you haven’t killed him already. But now he knows. Knows what it means to be human. God leaves. God always fucking leaves. He is abandoned, but emancipated. Free to live as inert data, in an endless, shitty, makeshift empire of sand.