I have a rule against apologizing for not updating this blog frequently. I will make an exception here because it’s been over a month and frankly, I don’t have much of an excuse for not updating. The last post I wrote was before Mass Effect 3 was released, so I had anticipated being too busy playing games to actually write about them. Having said this, I beat Mass Effect 3 almost a month ago and haven’t written anything since then. The topic of Mass Effect 3’s narrative has been beaten to death in the hobbyist press, so I won’t spend too much time on this particular topic. I’ve only got two things to say about it:
- I really disliked the ending to Mass Effect 3. In fact, the ending may have ultimately soured my entire impression of the series. To end such a brilliant narrative with deus ex machina is a horrible misstep on Bioware’s part. I don’t think I deserve a new ending, but to hide behind artistic integrity is just as lazy as the ending itself.
- Video game journalists need to understand something: very little separates them from the typical video game fan. The only difference is that they are paid to review games for the public. In the wake of the Mass Effect ending, and with a major fan uproar, journalist after journalist referred to the people who disliked the ending of the game as entitled children. Two things:
- Not everyone who disliked the ending acted like a child; for journalists to paint in broad strokes about the critics is irresponsible.
- Those “children” are your audience. They drive ad revenue to your sites. I’m no media expert (not yet anyway), but insulting your audience’s intelligence is probably not a good way to drive traffic to your site.
Whew. I’m glad I got that out of my system. Now I can write about games again!
Since I finished Mass Effect 3, I decided to play a couple of other games in my library that I like to return to when I feel like I need an escape from reality. Despite putting out games with persistent technical flaws, Bethesda is the game developer I identify as having the most interesting and engaging worlds. Their newest tour-de-force, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has gotten a ton of attention across the media, but I would like to return to a world that I find slightly more interesting: Fallout 3.
I’ve written before about wastelands in video games and how Eastern European developers are better at portraying scarcity than their Western counterparts, but I do think that Bethesda did a great job producing a thoroughly American apocalypse in Fallout 3. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in an add-on to the original Fallout 3 game, a DLC entitled, “The Pitt.”
I started a new character a few days ago to play through quests that I had avoided previously. For instance, when I originally played Fallout years ago, I never bothered with the really nasty things you could be involved in, like slavery. This time, I decided that my character had a really ambiguous sense of morality and saw no issue with helping out the slavers of Paradise Falls, run by the charismatic Eulogy Jones. At the same time, I also helped a small town defend itself against a Super Mutant attack and asked for nothing in return. Like I said, ambiguous morality.
The Pitt is a DLC that lets the player travel to a fictional recreation of Pittsburgh, a heavily irradiated city dominated by a man named Ashur and his band of slavers who force the local population to work in steel mills, slowly rebuilding the economy. In the Capital Wasteland, the player can respond to an emergency radio transmission from Wernher, a man who had escaped the Pitt and traveled to Washington D.C. to seek assistance in bringing down Ashur and to help cure a plague that transformed the slaves into psychopaths and mutants.
I agreed to help Wernher and travelled to the Pitt where I was quickly captured by the slavers and stripped of my possessions, reduced to the status of slave. The Pitt truly makes you feel sub-human. The atmosphere of the Pitt is even bleaker than that of the Capital Wasteland. In the Capital Wasteland, a dim grey color palette dominates the skyline, but at night, you can easily see the stars and the moon. In the Pitt, a yellow-red pall burns in the sky, casting the ruins of skyscrapers in stark relief against the smoky sky. Night and day are nearly indistinguishable. Here is a city built on the back of steel labor, where even before the bombs fell, the inhabitants choked on smoke and dust. It is a gothic nightmare where the human and environmental cost of progress is fully evident.
Entering the Pitt and exploring the ruins, it was easy for me to see the commentary Bethesda was making. Progress comes at a cost. You see this with the pollution. You see this with the slave workers producing weapons and tools and the price of their own lives and well-being. You even see this in a small side-story about a factory where its workers were replaced by robots before the war that brought down civilization.
Ultimately, this is the story of the Pitt and is the focal point of the main decision in the game: do you side with Wernher, who wants freedom, even if that means stealing a baby from her mother or do you side with Ashur, who wants order, even if that means slavery in the interim?
Initially, the choice seems obvious from a moral point of view; Wernher fights for individual liberty and the right to choose ones own path, but as you speak to Ashur, you discover that it isn’t that simple. The Pitt is situated at the juncture of several highly irradiated rivers, which causes mutations. These mutations can be cured because Ashur’s daughter’s DNA holds the cure to immunity from adverse mutations. In order to get the cure though, Ashur has to maintain rigid discipline within his workers, otherwise they would act without direction and ultimately succumb to the disease.
If you side with Wernher, and kill Ashur, it is revealed that Wernher isn’t a great leader and there may never be a cure for the disease that plagues his people. If you side with Ashur though, you find that no one, not even Ashur’s own private army, completely understands why there must be order in the Pitt.
In many ways, this is a conflict at the core of the United States. We all want to be free, but we must all be controlled otherwise our efforts might never be focused. This is why we cry foul when the government tries to restrict access to the internet, but also flock to Facebook or work for large corporations. Without domination, we would be lost, but without freedom (or at least the illusion of it), we would be less-than-human.
At the end of my game, I sided with Ashur. I helped suppress a slave rebellion and solidified the slaver position in the Pitt, but I did so with Ashur’s own words echoing in my brain. He argued that slaves have to give up their freedom now to earn it in the future. As I walked away from the Pitt, I wondered if I had just helped a madman or a visionary. Could he have lied to me about the cure for the disease just to remove me as a threat? Did he seek only power? Did he care for the slaves?
These are answers the player will never receive.
Then again, Fallout 3 is an open-world game with countless options for the player. In real life, redemption is hard to come by, but in video games, all I have to do is load a previous save.
That’s all for now. Again, sorry for not writing recently. Hopefully I can get back to some regular features soon.