Friday, September 3, 2010

Fallout and the Beauty of Play

Fallout 2 (Black Isle Studios, 1998)

Black Isle Studios, which existed from around 1996 (though formally only 1998) to the end of 2003, were more or less the Arthur Freed Unit of computer gaming: a self contained studio-within-a-studio that developed their own house style. The style: role-playing games with an isometric view of the action, notoriously wordy (the combined text of the descriptions and dialogues in Planescape: Torment amounts to about 800,000 words), with plots that incongruously wed adolescent and puckish details to what were often reverently romantic story lines.

Though Planescape: Torment was their post-modern showpiece, the masterworks of the Black Isle style are their two Fallout games (Bethesda, who'd once made the jarring and similarly dense Daggerfall, would end up developing Fallout 3 in 2008; it'd been Black Isle's main project -- code-named Van Buren, per Black Isle's policy of naming projects after US Presidents -- when the unit was laid-off en masse by Interplay in December 2003).

The two Fallouts are ironic picaresques. The player finds him or herself in a world that, like a Thomas Pynchon novel, is built entirely out of parodies, vague conspiracies, dirty jokes, genre stories, pop-culture references and, above all, bad puns. Both games start the player as a naïf who must leave a sheltered community and go out into a society of cultural cockroaches; the few things that have survived the nuclear fallout intact are gambling, class warfare (which comes into play in Fallout's famous twist ending, and gets further satirized in Fallout 2's Vault City, an impeccable environment where alcohol is prohibited but slave labor is the norm), exploitation of labor, theft, boxing promotion and prostitution. If the cars and computers don't always work, the scams do.

They are labyrinthine games that invite dicking around, goading the player into avoiding their duty (which in both cases involves finding an object that will solve all of their community's problems). If Baldur's Gate (also by Black Isle, and released the same year as Fallout 2) was a boys' adventure with ancillary quests, Fallout 2 was a game about ignoring adventure in favor of hour-long diversions. Compared to something like Half-Life 2, which merely presents the illusion of a fully-realized world in what is essentially a rigid game environment where every hallway and door serves some kind of purpose in advancing the action, it's an unwieldy monster of a game.

That is: it does the thing that games are meant to do. It doesn't merely give the player the privilege of being a participant in action (which is more or less the purpose of Half-Life 2, and to a certain extent even Deus Ex). It invites play. That's why Counter-Strike was always better than the original Half-Life, and why the Lucas Arts adventure games were superior to the Sierra franchises. The main theory behind so much game development since the mid-1990s has been to involve players in some kind of story, to essentially make the game a movie with worse camera angles and acting but with a limited degree of choice. But "play" -- the ability to navigate and combine elements at will -- is the true property that's exclusive to games, and using them as a vehicle for "plot" instead of the freedom to navigate the code (which is really a text expressing itself through sounds and pictures) is just a way to art them up while ignoring the one thing that is undoubtedly exclusive to the medium.

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