Monday, 21 November 2016

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3 - Bits and Pieces

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3
Bits and Pieces

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

We're back and talking about three great works in one of my favourite genres! Before we conclude, here's some stray thoughts that don't fit anywhere else. Together though, they kind of do.

The supernatural

When I started playing Metro, I was briefly surprised by the prominence of an unexpected supernatural element. It doesn't jar, in fact it's enmeshed in the world extremely well, and in a manner that contributes to the plot and atmosphere. But you wouldn't normally think to go that direction in a post-apocalyptic story. You might think that the seriousness of the subject matter would funnel you towards “realism,” and Fallout, after all, didn't really have anything like th—oh, wait, Fallout had ghouls and Super Mutants.

Oddly, none of the properties is satisfied to bank on interest in the post-Apocalypse alone; all three decide to introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings.

Fragile features robots and woodland creatures as enemies, but also contains plenty of supernatural enemies, such as ethereal jellyfish. More significantly, of course, is the Glass Cage, whose entire premise is on technology unavailable in the real world. The impact of this decision is very large, given what it allows the creators to do with the story, as only a select few humans are spared, and they're located far from one another. Seto also encounters several ghosts, one of whom is his main companion throughout the adventure. Another is the main antagonist, and others impede his path in various ways. There's even an old woman who projects the residual self-image of a small child. Many more appear as weak enemies, including banshee-like foes and little kids playing hide-and-go-seek. It's unclear what causes someone to linger after death, but it wasn't the failed human instrumentality attempt per se, otherwise there would be millions of them stalking the streets of Toukyou, rather than a few dozen.

It's hard to say what's behind this interest in blending the serious and supernatural, but it may be to make technology a little more mysterious. We use it in our everyday lives, our dependence upon it increasing by the second, so we tend to assume we have a pretty good handle on it, and yet in these stories it has nearly destroyed us. By introducing unpredictable effects, the creators point out how little we really understand about our own technology, and, indeed, the world around us.

The place of technology

What's the most important piece of technology you're going to need to survive the post-Apocalypse? Your trusty gun, right? Of course not, don't be daft.

"Millions...perhaps even billions, died because science
 outpaced man's restraint!"
By far the most valuable technology is anything that can help you grow or acquire food or water. Even Fallout knows this. Tons of major characters devote their lives to seeking out powerful relics of the Old World. The Brotherhood of Steel, a neo-knightly order of technophiles, jealously hoards its knowledge, even placing the value of its retrieval over that of human life (“After all, everyone knows how to make another human, but the secrets to making a P94 Plasma Rifle are all but lost”). Despite warnings from some members, the Brotherhood gets so wrapped up in locating bombs and weapons schematics that it neglects more useful technologies like aeration or securing the safety of the populace. This difference of opinion tears apart one chapter and nearly destroys another. Plus, the whole plot of Fallout 1 is kicked off when your Vault's Water Chip fails, threatening to leave its residents without potable drinking water and forcing the Overseer to open the Vault early so that you can go look for one.

Metro takes this to a whole new level. Sure, people value weapons maybe a little more than they should, but they focus on the fundamentals of survival, tracking down or reinventing the most primitive, unsexy technologies available. We're talking water purification. Gardening. Domestication. That kind of stuff. They don't talk about it, but I imagine electric sewing machines fetch an outrageous price. And don't forget medicine! Some medical textbooks have survived in Fallout, but in Metro we only ever see two infirmaries in all of Metro, one at Polis in Last Light, and one in I forget where in 2034. I'm sure I don't have to explain why doctors would be highly valued. The gaudiest stations in the series are described as having medical facilities, hot running water, and adequate lighting.

The antagonist in Fragile believed that technology would solve the world's problems, but instead it nearly ended it. And all the everyday technology that once made life possible now sits unused and decaying. Surely the writers don't mean to suggest that we need to get some global genocide happening pronto, but they may be trying to tell us that we'd do well to get back to nature from time to time. Technology makes our lives possible, but it can also end them. A sickle can sustain life, or it can kill, depending how it is used. In these stories, we used the bounties available to us to destroy ourselves. Hell, you could even argue that we're doing that today, with problems like global warming. Some creators may even have had this is in mind when making the games. Nuclear bombs as a stand-in for global warming – well, the latter is slower and less exciting, but just as deadly. And just as avoidable.

What is the place of technology in our world – and in theirs? What technologies should these people pursue – and what should we? These stories are not necessarily anti-technology, but they do seem to warn against its misuse.

Sex and sexuality

Fahrenheit, an ass-kicking woman from F4
In Fallout, conventional racism has given way to an equally insidious prejudice towards the irradiated, nigh-immortal ghouls. Sexism, however, has all but been obliterated. Oh, you still have the odd old-fashioned gender roles type cropping up here and there, but for the most part, except as it pertains to whether or not you want to sleep with somebody, sex and gender are a bit of a non-issue. When your camp is assaulted by raiders, nobody cares what's between your legs – they only care how well you can fight. (The exception to this is Caesar's Legion, in which women are childbearers and caregivers and literally nothing else, but even this is more part of Caesar's ruthless division of labour than actual sexism – the same as how his veteran soldiers are never the first into battle not as some kind of privilege, but because it's more effective to hold them in relief until the enemy is already fatigued from fighting the grunts.)

On a related topic, homosexuality in the world of Fallout is a-ok. There's only one instance where I can remember it being frowned upon, and only because it was among a group of isolationists who felt that it was their peoples' duty to procreate lest they all die out, so it was more of a practical issue than actual bigotry. Basically you're free to bang whoever you want; I always play a woman and try to be as slutty as possible, and everybody's fine with it, and they give equally few fucks if you're a blushing virgin. Which is partly down to freedom of player choice, but there are plenty of non-hetero relationships between NPCs as well. It makes total sense that people would have more pressing issues on their minds than who's sleeping with whom, but there's also the fact that danger is a powerful aphrodesiac, and Post-Apocalyptia is nothing if not dangerous. Biology drives them to panic procreate, and perhaps they also realise that every chance at a good hard pounding may be their last, so they pretty much just take whatever they can get, whenever they can get it.

Also, Fragile features a totally out of nowhere boy-on-boy kiss, in a game from a country not exactly noted for its social progressivism, so wrap your head around that one.


As described above in the section on economics, both Fallout and Metro feature interesting substitutes for money. Metro uses pre-War AK-47 casings, now impossible to counterfeit. The underground inhabitants still make bullets, but they are vastly inferior to the industrial products manufactured for use by the actual military back when there was one.

Similarly, the people of Fallout use Nuka-Cola bottle caps as currency, as their veracity and scarcity are guaranteed because no one knows how to make them anymore. However, as soon as people started cobbling together a semblance of society once again, one of the first things they relearned how to make was high-quality weapons and ammunition. I think that says a lot.

(And by the way – in Mad Max, people don't ever figure out how to mass-produce ammunition, leading to the emphasis on melee combat.)

Glad you could join me for today's session! I've got one more point to make, so I hope I'll see you again next time.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Star Wars vs Gundam: An unprofessional comparison

You probably haven't noticed since it hasn't really been mentioned in the news or on social media, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently hit theatres. Plenty have been showing Star Wars and only Star Wars for several weeks running. They are going to make a lot of money. Meanwhile, I, a longtime Gundam fan, am currently watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam for the first time. For its age, it's an incredible show; the quality of the animation is astounding, and the story is pretty timeless. Still, I can't help but notice that it came out in 1979. Know what else came out just two years earlier? The original Star Wars.

Creating the “space” genre, or merely repackaging it?

A lot of the Star Wars pre-game analyses I saw in the weeks leading up to the new film's release claim that Star Wars launched the space genre. Before Star Wars, commercially viable, intellectually accessible science fiction simply did not exist.


I'm not just saying that because of Gundam. Gundam launched after, not before. I just explained that like two paragraphs ago. Jesus, please try to pay attention. No, I'm alluding to something interesting I read in a recent Cracked article:

George Lucas, hot off the enormously successful American Graffititried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon to turn it into a big-budget film franchise. They couldn't come to terms on a deal, so Lucas just decided to just write his own version. That's all it was. ... The rough draft of Star Wars was an incoherent rambling mess, borrowing entire scenes from other movies, mostly Akira Kurosawa samurai films (then again, Kurosawa had borrowed his from American Westerns). ... For the space dogfight that would mark the climactic battle at the end of the film, Lucas literally stitched together footage from war movies and documentaries, then just re-filmed them with spaceship models, shot for shot. In other words, Santa Claus isn't real."

Space Captain Harlock
Flash Gordon, "Buck Rodgers, Kurosawa, Westerns (Tattooine!), old WW2 footage. Sounds like Lucas had a lot of good material to draw on. But don't think that Japan was devoid of material at this point, either! It had its own “swashbuckling space adventure,” the 1970s anime Space Captain Harlock. It was popular enough to merit a revival a couple of years ago. And there's plenty more where that came from. 2001: A Space Odyssey, both book and movie. Or how about The War of the Worlds, an HG Wells story from fucking 1897. The decade preceding Star Wars even saw the rise of another space-themed series of TV shows and movies, an obscure property called “Star Trek.”

Metal Gear REX
Everything new steals from everything old. Harry Potter draws on centuries of mythology. Divergent mashes up Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which in turn probably took ideas from Battle Royale. Metal Gear is a mixture of old movies, whatever is currently on Kojima's mind, and, inevitably, Gundam, because you can't tell me the series that launched the mecha subgenre did not in some way influence the eponymous war machines. Hell, even Gundam itself mercilessly cannibalizes its own plotlines to new purpose. Gundam Seed is just a repackaged Mobile Suit Gundam; 00 is just Wing for a post-9/11 audience.

Neither franchise “created” the space adventure. That door had already been slowly dilating open for decades. What they did was put an interesting spin on established conventions and make their own contributions to the cultural landscape. Which, given the flood of boring, derivative fluff we're inundated with every day of every year, is a huge accomplishment anyway.


A steam-powered Oobu machine from Sakura Taisen. This one
in particular is piloted by the character Sakura.
Supposedly, less than 1% of people (English speakers?) have never seen any of the Star Wars movies. I was actually surprised it was that high! That's the power that these movies have. And besides Dragonball Z and Pokemon (in that order), I can't think of any other cultural treasure that has had a stronger or more enduring impact on the modern Japanese popular consciousness than Gundam. Final Fantasy? In Japan, Dragon Quest is bigger. Dragon Quest? Nice try, you sarcastic twit, because Dragon Quest is kind of only for nerds, while the other three are widely known by everyone. Sakura Taisen? You know what, now you're just annoying me.

I've heard that when making Sonic 2, Naka Yuuji wanted to pay tribute to the most popular things in America and Japan at the time, which he determined were Star Wars and Dragonball Z, respectively. Hence why Sonic collects seven Chaos Emeralds to transform into a golden, super-powered state, and why Eggman/Robotnik's latest creation is the planet-like Death Egg. I'm not completely sure if that's a true story, but it sounds credible.

The point is that both series have had such a – what? Oh, you think Gundam's not that important because Dragonball Z beat it out for a reference in Sonic 2? Go plan a day trip to Odaiba, tell me if you see anything interesting.

Close to 40 years later, both Gundam and Star Wars are huge, at least in their own countries. In case you forgot, The Force Awakens has just dropped. 2015 saw the beginning of a new Gundam continuity, the Iron-Blooded Orphans, which I haven't watched yet but is most likely far less silly than the English title makes it sound. Both have been the mother of sprawling franchises encompassing everything from physical toys, books, comic books, video games, all kinds of shit.


 “Lucas,” notes the Cracked article, “knew that he was, in part, making a series of toy commercials.” Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Why are there so many variations of Stormtrooper? Because then you can make a separate action figure for each of them. Ayla Secura gets an action figure. Lando's co-pilot gets an action figure. You can buy a goddamn Lego Death Star. The Expanded Universe is/was so successful because it explores intersting, in-depth stories within a compelling universe, but also because it allows for a nearly limitless number of concurrently developed products, with a huge install base, across every creative medium known to man. They had these novels about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan pre-Phantom Menace, I thought they were just about the pinnacle of literature when I was a little kid. RIP Expanded Universe.

GAT-X131 Calamity Gundam
Now Gundam is an interesting case, it wasn't designed with the possibility of merchandise in mind, rather the プラモデル plastic models were designed first, and then Tomino was called in to create the anime in order to market the toys. When I first found out that Calamity from Seed was originally supposed to be 1.5 times the size of a regular Gundam, but this was changed because it would mean the scale model would have to be bigger and thus more expensive, it absolutely blew my mind that something so seemingly trivial could actually affect, no, constrict the creator's vision. Of course, back then I also didn't know that a lot of the best moments in movies were born from blind chance, that the stories and settings of video games are crafted in response to the gameplay mechanics and not the other way around, etc. Well, I was a child.

Which, while I'm on the topic, is why it always amuses/frustrates me when people complain that in making the prequels, George Lucas took Star Wars and “made it for children.” Uh, have you fucking seen the first three movies? THEY ARE FOR CHILDREN. Look at Luke – he is a hero made for children. His robot buddies are hand-made for children. And I'm sorry for treading well-trodden ground, but come the fuck on:

Star Wars is for children and always has been. And actually, so is Gundam. It's sophisticated enough that you can see it for the first time as an adult and still appreciate it, but let's be realistic, here, we're talking about giant robots fighting each other. It's only that Japan is a little less moralistic about its entertainment and coddles its youth a little less. (Broad strokes. Obviously.)


Char Aznable, fan favourite and one of the key characters of
Gundam's "Universal Century" continunity
 Psych! The two couldn't be farther apart. Gundam tells a nuanced anti-war tale in which there are no clear good guys and bad guys; the antagonists in the first series, the Principality of Zeon, want nothing more than independence from the oppressive Earth Federation (and I spent much of the series trying to figure out why the Federation didn't just give it to them). Later series continue the story from their perspective. As things develop, Mobile Suit Gundam scratches topics such as ecology (decades before An Inconvenient Truth) and transhumanism. Star Wars, meanwhile, is about how war is awesome, violence solves every problem, the good guys not only always win but always survive, and your enemies are all irredeemably evil.

Hero's Journey?

You could say that both Luke Skywalker and Amuro Rei follow a fairly typical Hero's Journey, one of the recognized plot structures in literature. Luke has humble beginnings (a moisture farm), gradually comes into his abilities, and finally destroys the Death Star in the climactic action sequence. It works even better on a trilogy-wide scale, with blind luck leading the way to victory in A New Hope, Luke screwing up and battling his inner demons in The Empire Strikes Back, and emerging in Return of the Jedi as a confident, skilled combatant.


Similarly, civilian teenager Amuro Rei is thrust into a combat role by circumstances, and initially depends heavily on the capabilities of his machine to achieve victory. Understandably, he develops (a fairly believable depiction of) PTSD after a few battles, stops eating and sleeping properly, and lashes out at the people trying to help him, including his closest friend. At one point he even deserts his ship, White Base, and absconds with the Gundam, which is military property in the first place. Eventually he comes to terms with his fear, achieves his potential, and becomes a truly skilled pilot bent on protecting White Base and its inhabitants.

Of course, I'm not sure this actually says anything substantial about these two series. It probably just indicates that the Hero's Journey is a good fit for a space opera. Which I guess is interesting in itself, actually.

Accidental retro-futurism

This is a common pitfall of science fiction: By the time the real world has caught up chronologically with the one you've created, it may have actually surpassed the technology you were envisioning, or gone off in a completely different direction. Early cyberpunk had conceived of the Internet before the Internet was the Internet, but it didn't occur to people back in the 80's that we would eventually be able to access it wirelessly.

"These days its design seems completely inadequate." Source.
 Again, even today I find Mobile Suit Gundam relevant and immensely enjoyable, but one does notice the occasioanl hiccough in technological progress. I think this is most noticeable in the viewscreens used by crewmen on White Base and in their mobile suit cockpits, which is to say they look like an old TV your father has stored in his basement because he hasn't bothered to throw it away yet, not like modern monitors and certainly not like anything we'll have by the time we're living on the moon.

Meanwhile, control panels on the shiny, just-finished Death Star look as though they're best suited for operating a Magnavox Intellivision.

Cutting-edge computer technology in the world of Fallout.
This can injure suspension of disbelief, but I actually really dig this. It's kind of like a fingerprint left on a work by the era in which it was created. You can always think of it as an alternate timeline, like in Fallout, where humanity pursued nuclear technology instead of computer technology, so that even computers manufactured circa 2077 intentionally look like they came out of 1950.


The Death Star destroying Alderaan is the cayalyst for sections of plot in A New Hope. Mobile Suit Gundam kicks off with the destruction of the protagonist's home, the space colony Side 7. Huh.

Laser swords

Lightsabre – beam sabre. Even the names are similar.

If there's one thing East and West could agree on in the 1970s, it was that laser swords are just plain cool. Or “totally radical,” I guess.

But all of this pales in comparison to...

Amateur mechanics

As a young boy, Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...

...and as a budding scientific prodigy, Amuro Rei created the purely decorative robot Haro.

Anakin, of course, becomes Darth Vader. And in some Gundam series, Amuro occupies the role of villain.


The crossover section of thinks not.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Friends come to visit

I don't remember this, but apparently a guy I met through English Club actually met me in Canada a year or so earlier. At that time I was very involved on campus doing stuff like interpretation for groups of students on month-long programmes, and I guess he was among one of those groups. Flash forward, and unbeknownst to me, he's spent the last several months living near Seattle, attending an ESL finishing school type deal. He has a month off, so he's swinging through for old times' sake.

“I don't think you went to America to eat Japanese food,” I tell him, “but there's a Japanese restaurant here I think you might find a little interesting.”

Like everybody, he likes my new ancient sports car, which will be getting its own post in due course (it's Japanese; don't worry, this blog hasn't entirely lost all focus). I take him to a Japanese-style burger joint. So like, there's teriyaki burgers, but then there's like burgers with yakisoba on them, shit like that. He's hand-rolling a cigarette with Turkish tobacco before we've even paid.

He wants to take a spin through the downtown area, after which I direct us through a green, sedate park on the river. All the way I'm monitoring his fatigue and levels of interest, mentally planning alternate routes and trying to get the timing right, and yeah now we're basically on a date. As we walk he remembers snatches of places he's been, intersections, storefronts. Phaedrus Moments, you might call them.

I ask him about his school, whose student body he says is predominantly Asian. We start to speak, as you do, of the future. His plan is to go back to Japan when he's done his Seattle thing and finally enter working life.

For me it's a little more up in the air, as we know. I've basically been working at securing Japanese employment for two years with no actual progress. President has long since departed for Koube, where she is teaching English. The distance, in the end, has only confirmed that I really, truly, want to be with this woman. He prods me, so, you think you'll marry her? Well, nobody knows the future. I mean I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it.

He's startled and even a little angry to learn that there are Japanese people who tell me that, as a foreigner, I will never understand Japan, or learn to speak Japanese. (I wrote a post about this, but can't find it.)

“But you already speak Japanese!” he fumes. “You practically are Japanese!”

When President jettisoned nearly all her physical belongings in preparation for Koube, I ended up with some items of clothing. When I accidentally moved in with her, I didn't really bring much, so I frequently wound up picking through her laundry for T-shirts and jeans to wear. (Lockup thinks this is hilarious.) I developed some favourites, including a pink Sailor Moon T-shirt, a not-pink Sailor Moon t-shirt, and a black one that simply says 「日本」 (“JAPAN”).

I'm wearing the 日本 t-shirt today, and when my friend saw me sitting there, wearing that shirt, in a Japanese restaurant, drinking a bottle of Oi Ocha, the sight struck him as so absurdly Japanese he burst out laughing and couldn't help but snap a photo.

Three weeks later, I'm strolling past the burger joint when I see my friend who works there, and stop in to say hi. She's a bit of an interesting story. She's going to my Canadian university, now, and her long-term plan is Canada. And of course, if you graduate from a Canadian university, that's a quick ticket to permanent residency. Her problem right now is money, because tuition for international students is exorbitant. I know another guy, a tourism student, whose dream is to do tourism stuff in Hawaii. It makes a lot of sense, if you know a bit about Japan and Hawaii. There's a lot of parallels between our respective dreams, a lot of commiseration – and mutual support – to be had.

Talking with the girl from the burger joint, it turns out a Japanese girl who lived here back in fall 2011 is in town for a visit. She was with a group all from the same university who were here for a semester each. Kinda weird how that worked out, but it was nice. I had them, I had Japanese Club, I had President – we were still just friends back then – and I was taking six classes (the standard being four), so I never wanted for companionship, entertainment, or purpose. And all the while of course, I was prepping for my ryuugaku the following year, so everything I did, every hour of laying groundwork or studying Japanese, took on added weight in my own mind.

My friend told me our guest wanted to see me if she could. I told her it probably made more sense for her to tell me so rather than wait for a random encounter, she promised she'd tell her so, I looked forward to hearing from her, and then completely forgot about it until two days later, when we actually did meet in a random encounter. She's doing well. Since I last saw her, she's graduated university and become a systems engineer at a decent company in central Toukyou. But, she wonders, will she be able to keep working there when she gets married and has children?

Lately it's hard not to feel like everyone I know is both younger and more successful than me. It's discouraging. Even most of the people from English Club are now getting job offers from desirable companies. Anyone my age who is still in school has moved on to graduate studies and will be well-positioned indeed once they wrap that up. Meanwhile I've spent approximately nine decades working on a degree that will be mostly worthless when I finally complete it, at which point I will have virtually no marketable skills or experience. Painfully, President is at this very moment living the life I've always wanted, without me. I'm not jealous – really. We're a team, we share in our successes. But I want so badly to be there doing it with her.

But I have tangible, achievable goals. For the first time in a while, I can almost see things coming together. And it was invigorating to see my old friends. You take whatever victories you can seize.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Nintendou has a new captain

Kimishima Tatsumi (君島達己)
Earlier this summer, the president of Nintendou fucking died. His name was Iwata Satoru, and while he wasn't necessarily the most beloved figure in the industry it certainly came as a shock. In the wake of this tragedy, Nintendou took the opportunity to reshuffle its upper-level management while considering his successor. Yesterdayish, the company released a statement naming Kimishima Tatsumi as the new head of the company.

Additionally, Miyamoto Shigeru has been the recipient of the newly created title of “Creative Fellow.” Head of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development (formerly R&D1), ie the section of the company that actually makes the games, Miyamoto is responsible for Mario, Zelda, and other masterpieces. The new title seems to indicate more a recognition of his contributions to Nintendou than any change in his role within it. (Some fans expressed a desire for him to become president, which makes no sense. Miyamoto will never be president. Even if his creative skills were transferrable to the financial side of the company, if he became president he'd obviously no longer be making games.) Takeda Genyo, meanwhile, is now a Technology Fellow, seemingly the hardware equivalent to Miyamoto's software stuff. “Fellow” is a bit of a weird-ass ingredient to throw into a salad full of words like “Representative Director,” but oddly enough it kind of fits with Nintendou's style.

That said, Kimishima's appointment is the far more interesting and important part of the announcement. Beginning his career in banking, he joined The Pokemon Company in 2000. (Not to be confused with Game Freak, the development studio that actually makes most of the Pokemon games, The Pokemon Company is mainly concerned with marketing and licensing the franchise.) He then joined Nintendo of America for several years before coming back to Japan, where he was responsibly for various businessy aspects of Nintendou, like Human Resources and the always nebulous “General Affairs.” Clearly the experience and the skillset is there; the question now is how he will stack up to Iwata.

Iwata Satoru (岩田聡)
On the one hand, Iwata clearly had a deep and abiding love of games, believed in his company, and at one point appeared willing to take the fall for lacklustre WiiU sales. He took steps to make himself appear relatable and accessible to his company's fandom, such as through Nintendo Direct, where he “directly” addressed fans (customers) regarding current products and issues. On the other hand, this also gave some the impression that he was weak and simpering, and while “Please Understand” was a stupid, lazy meme, it did represent many people's dissatisfaction with the direction Nintendou was taking. Meanwhile, Iwata presided over one of the weakest periods in the company's history, financially and artistically. If you want to be charitable you can acknowledge that he was facing varied challenges the best way he knew how, and that shouldering the entire blame on one person is absurd, but you can't deny his responsibility for the disappointment.

In contrast to Iwata's attitude, I see one particular sentiment floating around the Internet regarding Kimishima: “He's a businessman, not a gamer.” There's a few things to unpack there. First of all, there's no doubt that Iwata was a gamer, but in the sense that he lead a huge business, how exactly was he not a businessman? I guess the answer would be that he was not a skilled businessman, or that his attitude towards the business was insufficiently businesslike. Except, the implication seems to be that having a gamer leading a games company is good and would naturally lead to high-quality products, while a businessman will bring us soulles cash-ins.

Sure, having a passion for your industry and its products can potentially be a tremendous asset. One way to put it is that as the head of a games company, you are in a position to create the kind of games that you would want to play. Individual tastes and all that, but you can be reasonably sure that a certain proportion of consumers will nod right along with you, and that whatever you make, it will at least have artistic conviction. You may also be better equipped to read the currents of popular feeling; how often have we heard the complaint about company executives being out of touch?

However, I am of the opinion that business acumen is also extremely valuable to have when conducting business. It's also wrong to say that a lack of personal interest necessarily equates to a lack of understanding. Suppose I got hired at P&G tomorrow. As it stands, I do not feel any deep emotion for household cleaning products, but if it were my job to know about them, you can bet that for the next few weeks I would be spending every waking moment learning. I would learn exactly which chemical compounds are most effective at scouring stains from carpet and the thought process that goes into Mrs MacMillan's purchasing decisions when she's at the grocery store. Naturally, games, which are art rather than science, are that much more dependent on instinct, but it's not like market analysis has never steered anybody into a bad business decision, anyway.

Personally, I'm intrigued. I never got as down on Nintendou as a lot of people did, because Mario and Zelda are just so much fun. Still, I feel as though shaking things up like this could really reinvigorate the company. Surely the gravity of his position is not lost on Kimishima. In Shadowrun, Nintendou would be an A-ranked corporation at least, and it is no small fixture of Japanese culture both at home and internationally. Hopefully we get at least a few good games out of it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 2 - Themes

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 2

Part 2
Part 3

Post-Apocalyptia is an interesting setting for a variety of reasons. Wish fulfillment is definitely part of it. We may not really want to live off maggots and live in constant fear of violent death, but from time to time we all wish we could leave our obligations behind in exchange for something more adventurous. It's the same appeal we see in the Wild West or outlaw biker gangs. But it's also a great place to tell a story, because it pushes our characters so hard and asks so many interesting questions in the process. Does morality change in this situation? What level of depravity is acceptable in exchange for survival? To what extent are we culpable for the sins of others? And should we be trying to restore what we've lost, or build something new? These questions and others pervade a post-Apocalyptic setting, intentionally or not.


I remember doing the Fallout: New Vegas quest “That Lucky Old Sun,” named after a song from the 50's. The quest has nothing really to do with the sun – it concerns the activation of an orbital laser cannon – but the name made me stop and actually look up at the sun, shining down on my character (a hot young Chinese girl). And I remember thinking, how incredible is it that even when the world has been all but destroyed and virtually nothing looks as it once did, the sun beating down on this Mojave desert is the same one that shone on the face of human civilization 200 years ago. The sun observed humanity's self-destruction from afar - safely, and indifferently.

In Metro, much discussion is given to the ultimate fate of humanity, whether the last scraps of it subsist in the Moscow Metro or if other pockets remain elsewhere, whether we will ever be able to reclaim the surface, or if we will be forced to live down there forever, or yet again if we will simply die out within a couple of generations, once there's nothing left to scavenge and our subterranean farms go fallow. Meanwhile, for all its politics and gunfights, the underlying story of Metro is that of the dark ones, an offshoot of human beings seemingly made for our war-scorched earth. They are telepathic, unaffected by radiation or extreme temperatures, and difficult to kill. We're out, they're in. They want to help, if only we'd let them, but even if we die out completely, the earth abideth forever, and our passing from it will be only one chapter in its long, long chronicle.

Marcus, an intelligent Super Mutant
Funny enough, Fallout actually makes kind of the same point, twice over. In this case, however, it's only fringe groups who believe that the newtypes have inherited the wasteland. Ghouls are humans who have received large amounts of radiation and become zombie-like due to their symptoms. In Van Buren, there was going to be a character named Dr Willem Clark, a ghoul who claimed that, as radiation was the source of ghoulification, ghouls were the natural successors to their frail human ancestors. One day, he claimed, he and his people would strike out from their isolated fortress, the Reservation, and claim the Southwest (if not all of America) for themselves, and as ghouls can potentially live for hundreds of years, they were willing to endure slow progress. Similarly, the ultimate plot of Fallout 1 centres on the Master and his army of Super Mutants, humans who have been mutated by the Forced Evolutionary Virus. Like ghouls, they are immune to radiation (though unlike ghouls, they are not healed by it), and they are furthermore huge, fast, and incredibly strong, capable of wielding weapons such as miniguns and Super Sledges with ease. Indeed, they are already the masters of much of the American wasteland, such as the ruins of Washington DC, where they are more or less the dominant force. On the other hand, many Super Mutants have had their intellects dulled to animalistic levels, and the store-brand humans' main advantage over them is superior training and small unit tactics.

Fragile seems to be driving towards exactly the same point as Metro: We should absolutely struggle to survive, but it also wouldn't hurt to occasionally remember that we may not be as important as we think. I never felt this more strongly than when Seto saw the northern lights in Fragile. Of course, they're beautiful, a wonder of nature; but even if civilization was destroyed, wouldn't they still be beautiful, regardless of whether there was anyone there to observe that beauty? On the other hand, if there's no one there to observe something's beauty, what's the point? There's a similar scene at the end of the dam level, where the camera pulls back to reveal the nature that has grown up around the abandoned dam, which, by the way, put a stopper in a natural wonder in the first place. The dam is still fully functional, too, constantly generating power for a population that is no longer there to use it. Like if you made dinner for five, but no one was hungry. And let us not forget the moon, which, like that lucky old sun, looks on from above. This theme of nature reclamation, of course, pervades nearly every second of Fragile.

Besides that, we have the “everyday life” angle. I appreciate that in the Metro 2033 novel, the national pastime seems to be sitting around sharing stories – news from other parts of the metro, rumours embellished by each successive purveyor, or just a personal anecdote from five years back when you were living an another station and apprenticing with an ironworker. It works really well, because with little else in the way of entertainment, and most information being exchanged by word of mouth, that's how people really would spend a sizeable chunk of their time.

In your travels through the world of Fallout, you will frequently meet with communities struggling for survival, and can offer your assistance if you wish. For instance, a typical quest line might involve the breakdown of a town's water purifier, and possible solutions might be to either help fix it, or negotiate a trade relationship with a neighbour. But for the most part, you yourself do not have to contend with any such issues – you are capable of days if not months without sleep, don't have to worry about biological trivialities like food, and can repair massive internal hemorrhaging with a 200-year-old first aid kit you found in a burnt-out house. Although Metro does an excellent job of making you really feel the constant danger of sudden, violent death, if you look at similar real-world situations like impoverished nations or the Old West, a slow descent into disease and malnourishment is far more likely than a quick and dramatic end. But in Fallout, anything that doesn't kill you outright is of little concern.

Of course, we accept these quirks in the name of fun. New Vegas, however, introduced “Hardcore Mode,” in which you really do have to pay attention to your bodily needs. The healing system is more complex, and some injuries can be tended only by a trained doctor. You have a hunger and thirst metre, creating the interesting dynamic where you may be forced to drink irradiated toilet water and risk radiation poisoning later in order to stave off immediate death by dehydration. In the normal game ammunition is weightless, allowing you to carry hundreds of rounds for weapons you don't even have, but Hardcore Mode forces you to pack more carefully, selecting only the equipment you will need for the mission at hand. Suddenly all of your decisions take on greater weight. Certainly you can't fault anybody who just wants the freedom to explore a compelling and detailed world without worrying about finicky irritants, but the light sim aspects of Hardcore Mode really clinch the post-Apocalyptic atmosphere for a lot of players.

The other two utilise their atmosphere to great effect, but Fragile lives and dies on it. That is, if you stripped away the details, Fallout would still be a top-knotch open-ended RPG, and Metro would be an ok FPS (and the Metro novels would still be good Hero's Journeys). On the other hand, Fragile, taken at its fundamentals, really isn't much of a game. Without the ancillary trappings, you're just running around aimlessly and occasionally hitting things with sticks. The art direction and slowly building pathos take that and make it compelling.

Of course the biggest difference between Fragile and the other two is that in Fragile, nothing was destroyed – it simply began to erode in the sudden absence of humanity. Moscow's Ostankino Tower had its top blown off, but Toukyou Tower stands intact. Fragile's degradation process was much slower, and, really, almost even sadder than sudden violent erasure. For inspiration, the developers looked to photographs of 廃墟 haikyo, meaning “ruins,” but used here to refer to abandoned train stations and amusement parks that Japanese urban explorers sometimes seek out and document. Give it a Google and you'll turn up stuff like this:

Unsettling, eh? The weird part is, you actually kind of get used to it. The sight of the ruined world is arresting at first, but while you never stop noticing it, you do start accepting that this is just the way things are now.

I think it also says something that in Fragile, of the two electronic friends Seto meets – PF and Kurou – both perish by the end of the game, whereas the flesh-and-blood characters not only fight to survive, but even live on as ghosts, long after their bodies have died.

Nostalgia/The Old World

From time to time when stopping at a campfire to rest and record his progress, Seto will find some small object from when the world was whole. This is accompanied by a few lines of monologue from the person who used it, and while the process is a little forced, they do make some poignant observations, such as the cup that once held hot tea on a cold winter's day, and cold, refreshing tea on a hot summer's day. You know – the little things that we never think about, that we take for granted because we don't live in a post-nuclear apocalypse. Yet.

Likewise, Artyom remarks on what a pity it is that humanity managed to accidentally destroy almost everything it had worked for up to that point. Having been born less than a year before the bombs dropped, he remembers nothing of the old world and can evaluate it as an observer. Anytime he encounters a relic of what now seems to be the Golden Age of civilization, he mourns its passing. Encountering the burned-out hulls of train cars, he almost finds it hard to believe that these machines could carry a person across Moscow in a matter of hours, when his own journey takes weeks or months. When he looks across the shattered landscape at what remains of Ostankino Tower, his thrill of awe is immediately followed by a pang of remorse that nothing of this scale will ever be built, ever again.

Most of the inhabitants of Fallout, however, are remarkably well-adjusted to their condition, being far enough removed from the Great War and what was lost in its wake that they feel no particular attachment to it. Indeed, everything that came before it is regarded as merely another stage of history (or what's survived of it; Abraham Washington will inform you that the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Second Judgmental Congress and taken to Britain by plane). Some, however, have managed to develop a yearning for the good old days that borders on obsession. These aren't generally ghouls, either, who would at least have a reason to miss the world they once inhabited, but rather people who have never even seen it with their own eyes. The condition has come to be called “Old World Blues,” and there's a whole New Vegas DLC on that theme that goes by that very name. In most cases, the afflicted fail to even understand what they're trying to restore, and end up getting bogged down in unimportant details like the kind of technology that was being used at the time. One character, however, who gives himself the name Ulysses – after Ulysses S. Grant, not the James Joyce novel – discovers a United States flag, latches on to it, and never lets go. This is not because he is unduly fascinated with the object, however, but because he understands all too well the power of symbols, and he believes in what the United States was supposed to stand for. To him, even the Enclave (which up until its destruction claimed to be the legitimate American government in recluse) is a betrayal of the American spirit, as it has perverted the ideals on which it thrived and twisted them towards petty personal concerns. His goal, though pointless and impossible, is noble.

Society and commerce

In Metro, the people everyone looked to for guidance were not the political elite or even military commanders but the station employees. Train operators are especially sought after, because they know the territory and, in the words of the novel, do not panic the moment they have to disembark and enter a dark tunnel.

Both Metro and Fallout have a surprisingly good grasp of economics, as well. Personally I think it's totally possible for the local currency to remain in use, but it makes just as much sense for it to fall without the presence of government to guarantee its value. In the case of Fallout, people start using the metal caps off Nuka-Cola bottles, which seems kind of silly and indulgent but actually makes perfect sense: The technology to manufacture them has been basically lost, which not only makes them difficult to counterfeit, but insulates them against inflation as well. The denizens of the Moscow metro end up using old AK-47 bullet casings for exactly the same reason.

Unexpectedly, both settings even demonstrate a basic understanding of the principle that capitalism inevitably leads to inequality. Fallout 3 has the inexplicable Tenpenny Tower, a low-rise apartment building somehow spared bombardment and currently inhabited only by affluent, non-mutated humans. Well, the nearby population of non-feral ghouls wants in, but the titular Tenpenny doesn't trust those sometimes literally two-faced no-goodniks. There's not only an obvious racism allegory, but a classist one as well. So you have the option to side with Tenpenny and tell the ghouls to piss off, in which case, congratulations on being an asshole. Alternately, you can convince him to give them a chance. The ghouls will move in, and, despite a few rough jolts, the new and old residents will overcome their differences and start to build a future together. For a couple of weeks anyway, at which point the ghouls will prove all of Tenpenny's fears well-founded and murder everybody in the Tower on some flimsy pretext. Tenpenny was a bad man, but not all of his tenants were. So, congratluations on being an asshole.

Just gonna leave this here
Metro is quieter on this point, but it's significant that the most powerful faction in the Moscow Metro got that way by commandeering the Ring Line, which allowed them to impose tariffs and thus become a huge economic power, relatively speaking. This in turn allowed them to bolster their military, and after a stalemate war with the Red Line, they sat as the virtually unchallenged masters of the Metro. Life in the Hansa (named after some European history thingy that I'm not really familiar with) is on a totally different level from other parts of the Metro; the lights are brighter, the food is better, and everyone is happier. Yeah, they're still basically destitute by our standards, but its citizens enjoy luxuries unavailable to almost anyone else, such as reliable electricity and hot water. No other force in the Metro is as effective. Christianity is reduced to a tiny fringe religion, Communism (the Red Line) focusses on ideologically significant but impractical physical holdings, and nationalism (the Fourth Reich) gains only a tiny, insular territory of a mere three stations that is very dangerous to trespass but poses no credible threat even to its neighbours, rather like the modern DPRK. The guys who decided early on that money was the number one priority, though? Oh, boy!

In Fragile, of course, it's a moot point, because there is no society, on account of there being no people. Seto can buy stuff from a travelling merchant, but that's more of a gameplay mechanic than anything worth reading into. It is notable, however, that all the humans who meet each other both instinctively seek each other out, and are instinctively distrustful of each other. Wouldn't you? And in a way, this actually underscores the main theme of the game: Loneliness, and the “fragility” of human relationships. After all, it is human beings' limited, imperfect means of communication that led the central antagonist to search for a means to human instrumentality, and, in fact, you find out at the end that he personally felt alienated from society, which viewed his eccentricity as worthy of derision and ostracism. He sought not only to alleviate his own pain, but that of anyone who has ever experienced the torture of being misunderstood, who wants to fit in, but can't, whatever they may say about not needing anybody. (I could make a point here about how this message, borne on a very Japanese, otakuish game, might speak to Fragile's target audience, but that might be a little too close for comfort.)

Funny enough, the fact that people always come up with some form of currency backs up claims by John Locke. Or they would, if they were real. You knew what I meant. So Locke, he says, suppose we only ever relied on the barter system. A quart of milk to fix a flat tire or whatever. Well, some people would still end up having more than they need. They would start to value things with no practical purpose – majestic Hercules beetles, let's say. They'd start trading legitimately valuable items like wool for Hercules beetles just because the little guys are the only ones who understand them. But nobody else has any use for them, right? Wrong. If the rich guy has more than he needs of everything, and he'll accept Hercules beetles as payment, then there's little reason for me not to accept Hercules beetles as payment as well, because I can turn around and sell them to the rich guy. Suddenly, we're all using Hercules beetles as a unit of exchange amongst ourselves, knowing their value is backed by the rich guy who wants them so bad, and we come to see that we haven't created something like money – we have actually created money. So, Locke says, money is inevitable.

Now you may notice that the way I describe things, the emergence of money is dependent on at least one person being significantly better off than your average Joe (or Ivan, or Tarou). Well, Locke says that this is inevitable too, and so does Marx. Except that Locke says this is because some people are naturally harder workers than others, and will sooner or later reach a position where they can start paying people to work for them, while still skimming off a profit for themselves, at which point they're commanding a labour force so large that they are now managers. Whereas Marx says that it is inevitable for complicated economic reasons that boil down to employees adding value to the object they work, and the employer keeping that value for themselves, without actually working for it. Marx was a horrible idiot of a philosopher but a brilliant economist and I'd love to delve into this further but you know what, “Marxist economics in post-Apocalyptic settings” could be a whole book. Suffice to say that economic powerhouses like Tenpenny or the Hanse are not at all far-fetched.

I hope you enjoyed Part 2 of this series. It was a little heavy, but it's pretty interesting stuff. Next time, we'll clean up a few mental bits and pieces that fell out while I was writing the rest of this series.

Keep Reading