Belated E3 Snark

Enthusiasm, eh? I don’t really follow events like E3, but I did watch Bethesda’s announcement of Fallout 4. In spite of myself — I’d thought myself very much ‘over’ that sort of game, as much as I loved Morrowind and the earlier Fallouts back in the day — I found it captivating.

What I always find striking about Bethesda’s games — and, more importantly, the idea of Bethesda’s games — is their sheer excess. They’ve been biting off more than they can chew since Daggerfall shipped sans half its impossible list of planned features back in 1996. Bethesda RPGs are all about breadth — about simulating as many monsters, caves, cities, people, factions and wildernesses, and as many things to do in a fictional world as they can get away with. They actually remind me a lot of a certain old-fashioned approach to pen and paper game design epitomised by GURPS, 2nd ed. D&D and various ‘monster’ wargames. As computer games developed back in the ’90s, a lot of people (young me included) imagined that the complex simulations which had been, frankly, unworkable as physical games were now just around the corner. ‘Cyberspace’, as imagined in the ’80s and ’90s, was always a dream of excess. It extended infinitely along every axis, and modelled everything (and other things) in fractal detail. This is as true of William Gibson’s novels as it is of The Matrix (or The Lawnmower Man), virtual reality, and Atomic Games’ V for Victory wargame series, whose manual bursts with paeans to the possibilities of computation. Our liberation from the stifling constraints of the analogue world was immanent.

Not actually V for Victory, but from the later game Stalingrad.
Not actually V for Victory, but from the later game Stalingrad.

Instead, the trend has generally been toward closure, simplicity, and control — what you might call ‘designer-ly’ games. With physical games, this has led to all kinds of interesting boardgames, as well as a slew of ‘indie’ RPGs which tend to take a very narrowly defined setting and theme and build a game around a very specific set of interactions. You can see the same thing in video games: compare the Firaxis’ rebooted XCOM with the original (or its homage, Xenonauts), and you’ll see what I mean. Imaginary soldiers no longer have a grid of space for equipment plus a weight limit, into which the player can stuff any desired combination of trinkets; they now have two or three ‘slots’ for equipment, which varies bases on the soldier’s class. It’s slick, simple, and gives the designer maximum control over outcomes. Mobile games, RPGs, and first-person-shooters all tend to take similar forms (though I have no idea where DotA fits in this schema). Even the Assasin’s Creed series, which is ostensibly an open-world game like Fallout, is such a tightly controlled experience, burdened with endless map icons, minigames and compulsory hoop-jumping, that exploring its worlds always feels like wading through molasses. To pinch a couple of terms I learned from the designers of the relentlessly simulated Combat Mission games, game designers have tended to move from ‘engineered design’ to ‘design for effect’.

Bethesda’s E3 presentation is a declaration, in case we needed one, that simulationism has never quite died. They’re not selling an ‘experience’, they’re selling a dream. Which is precisely why it’s so exiting. According to the demo, they’ve gone to the trouble of recording voice actors speak in excess of 1000 popular names so that characters can address the player by name. The limited addition comes with an actual, all-metal, retro-futurist ‘PipBoy’ wrist computer frame into which you can fit your smartphone. There’s even a companion app so that you can use it while playing the game. Even by the profligate standards of the AAA game industry, this all seems a bit Quixotic, but it’s also extremely cool. In fact, Bethesda have more than a little in common with Vault-Tec and the other long postwar boomers of the Fallout universe. The concept, like nuclear cars and robot butlers, is exiting regardless of whether or not it is practical. Bethesda, who have of course included a jet pack in this sequel, get this. Ironically (?), the E3 presentation embodies the technological fantasies which form the background of the Fallout universe. Though many old fans complained bitterly when they acquired the rights to Fallout, few studios are better suited than Bethesda to making a game about dreams becoming nightmares.

Living the dream.
Living the dream.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t actually think that Bethesda make bad games. I’ll take the rickety promise of Fallout 3 over the asphyxiating authority of Assassin’s Creed any day of the week. That said, it’s interesting the way that Bethesda’s promise — “create any kind of character you want, go where you want, and do what you want” — mirrors the failed promise of capitalism. Once again, what failed in the analogue world can be made to work in the digital — and to some extent it really does. I played the hell out of Bethesda’s earlier games, and for all their rough edges and old-fashioned design, I had a great time exploring those worlds and building unique characters. The problem is that it’s all fake. I know this fact about videogames is obvious, but it’s funny how little it is discussed. Fallout 4 will, with typical magpie maximalism, allow me to collect materials in order to build my own custom towns or fortresses as in Minecraft or Terraria. But people who build cool things in those latter games can at least share the experience with friends. It’s not just that I crave authenticity, or that the technology is still too primitive for the dream to swallow me whole; it’s that it is solipsistic, ephemeral and disconnected. The problem is that meatspace is still there, and that its demands — represented by the corporations behind E3 rather than the dreams on sale — seem to be ratcheting up rather than down. At the same time, the other half of the Fallout setting — cynical (naive) biological determinism, Hobbesian fears of violence and degeneracy coupled with a paranoid distrust of order, all the vengeful fever dreams of the industrialised world — in a word, the apocalypse — the apocalypse never changes.

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