Warrior of the Wasteland

Some of you — all three of you reading this 🙂 — might have noticed that I haven’t blogged in a while. Sorry, I’ve been under the weather. I’ve been suffering from “Fallout flu.”

Me and Dogmeat, together again.

That would be the sudden decline in productivity that comes from being engrossed in Bethesda’s massive RPG, Fallout 4. It came out last November, but I’m still playing it. The game world is so large that I’m still finding new areas to explore. It doesn’t seem quite as enormous as the game world in Bethesda’s earlier game Skyrim — but Skyrim, honestly, was probably pushing up against the upper limit of how large a game world can be without becoming completely overwhelming. Fallout 4 seems to have found a happy balance.

For those of y’all who don’t follow games, Fallout 4 is an RPG — a “role playing game,” where you create a character and, basically, use that character to go exploring and have adventures. It’s a genre that has its roots in tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, but obviously, the multimedia capabilities of computers have the ability to make the experience far more compelling. That’s because the “character” in an RPG is actually a statistical model of various features that would come in handy in an “adventure” scenario. The “adventure” consists in placing this model in various scenarios where the player (that’s you) then makes decisions about how to react, and then the player’s statistical profile is plugged into a simple model to determine the outcome of their chosen course of action.

In tabletop games, this traditionally involves rolling dice and doing math, which is why tabletop role playing games have come to be popularly perceived as just about the nerdiest pasttime imaginable. (This all actually arose out of the even more rarefied nerd realm of tabletop wargames — yes, the ones with the little painted metal figures — which are so stats-heavy that they cause most people’s eyes to glaze over. Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons were originally an attempt to make the stats-heavy gameplay of tabletop wargaming more fun and accessible to a general audience.)

In the nerds’ defense, this emphasis on statistical modeling does give RPGs a sense of verisimilitude that most other types of games lack. Instead of depending on luck or physical coordination — gifts that not everyone is blessed with — RPGs can successfully allow people to experience a greater sense of agency, skill and control than they might be capable of experiencing in real life.

Naturally, computers and RPGs have gone hand in hand since the beginning, since computers have the capability to automate much of the drudgery of the process. This can range from traditional tabletop role players who use computerized “aids” in an otherwise purely imaginary experience to games like Fallout, where much of the statistical mumbo-jumbo is intentionally hidden from the player in order to present a more “transparent” multimedia experience. What separates an RPG from a “regular” videogame, though, is that the character’s statistical model is still the decisive factor, as opposed to the raw hand-eye coordination required by a “classic” game like Pac-Man.

Coming later this year, and yes, I will be getting one.

At any rate, once you get into a game like Fallout 4, it can be pretty hard to disengage from it and go back to real life. One wonders how this will play out as videogames become more realistic. A recurring trope in science fiction is the social narcotic effect that might be possible if researchers are ever able to develop fully-immersive, Matrix-like virtual reality. (I’m talking about complete sensory simulation here, not just “visual” VR like the soon-to-released Oculus Rift.) It’s not hard to imagine that some folks might want to drop into the virtual world of their favorite “game” and never leave — a phenomenon which, if you’re partial to a Brave New World kind of paranoia, might be something certain powerful folks might want to encourage.

My Dad kind of rips on me for still playing videogames at the age of 40, but I really think it’s a generational thing. Certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution’s technological explosion, it seems that new generations find new forms of entertainment to latch on to and adopt as their “own.” Although it seems normal to us today to talk about films as a serious art form, I suspect for a lot of people born in the 19th century, movies were never more than a spurious novelty. And I am old enough to remember people of my grandparents’ generation grumbling about how my parents’ generation stuck with their youthful enthusiasm for “childish” rock and roll even when they were entering middle age. To guys who fought in World War II, the notion of grown-ups still listening to the Beatles even as their hair was turning gray probably seemed just as silly as my videogaming habit now seems to my old man. 🙂


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