Thursday, 23 July 2015

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 1 - Introduction

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 1
Introduction

What would you do if the world ended tomorrow?

What can you make? What skills do you have? Can you sew? Are you trained in first aid? Good at hunting? Can you fill out document requisitions in tripli – oh, wait, no.

To whom would you offer those skills? Your friends and family? A hardened corps of survivalists? Go it alone? Settle down in a frontier boomtown where you can trade meat for a new shirt or sex for some potatoes?

Would you lie to survive? Steal? Kill? Betray a friend or benefactor? Are some things more important than survival? Would you rather debase yourself and survive like a rat, or die with a shred of dignity? Would your moral code change to reflect your new circumstances, or is morality immutable? What should you try to accomplish? And what should humanity?

I love post-Apocalyptic fiction. Like cyberpunk, it combines high-pitched action with compelling philosophy. For whatever reason, three that stand out to me are the Fallout series, the Metro series, and the game Fragile (known as Fragile Dreams in the English translation). I was reading, playing and thinking about all of them around roughly the same time, and suddenly it all came together. Maybe it's a little strange that of all the post-Apocalyptic fiction in the entire world, I should draw a connection between these three in particular, but it somehow makes sense in my mind. The clincher is that each has a different country of origin, and appears to be among the best that country has to offer, so we can imagine that they represent each country's perspective on the genre. And since one of those countries is Japan, it luckily fits with my Japan-themed blog.

This series will explore some of the issues these works raise, comparing and contrasting their responses. If the fact that we're 308 words in and still doing the introduction hasn't given it away, I'll warn you now that this is going to be a dense, lengthy treatise. I'm still going to try to make it fun though, so if I haven't lost you yet, I think it's going to be a great ride.

Spoilers are unavoidable, but I will do my best to avoid major ones.

I hope this topic is as exciting for you as it is for me! Let's get started. In this first post, we will introduce the three franchises we'll be discussing.

Plot and Backstory

A Veteran Ranger of the New California Republic
Fallout takes place in the future, but not our future; history diverged directly after World War II. Instead of computers, science turned most of its attention towards the nuclear. Though weaponry was the obvious point, nuclear power made rapid strides, soon bound in reactors small enough to power a car, a suit of power armour, or even a rifle. This was all very nice until 2077, when, for reasons lost to history, the United States and China unloaded their missiles on each other. In a matter of hours, the two greatest civilizations on earth were destroyed, and possibly so too was the rest of the world; there's no way to know. The immediate damage was catastrophic and the long-term effects just as deadly, but pockets of humanity persisted through quick thinking or flukes of geography. Others took shelter in massive Vaults, supposedly designed to house a thousand residents until it was safe to emerge (though their true purpose was very different). Some Vaults re-opened just a few years later, others remained locked for a century or more, at which point Vault dwellers emerged into an unrecognizable world. The technology is a combination of Used Future and whatever can be cobbled together from any random materials at hand. In the new order, it's hard to say which is more dangerous: The environment, the mutated wildlife...or the survivors.

A heavy assault squad from the Fourth Reich braces
 for an attack by the communist Red Line faction
The world of Metro suffered a similar nuclear event in 2013, only this time people took shelter in the Moscow Metro, either fleeing there when they heard the sirens or having the good fortune to be commuting when it happened. The world above is now uninhabitable, the pollution making it impossible to traverse without a gas mask, and the monsters making it inadvisable to do so without heavy weaponry. By 2033, outside threats are legion, resources are drying up, and yet all we want to do is fight and kill each other. On top of this, inexplicable supernatural forces run through the length and breadth of the Metro, and we are fast approaching a pivotal point in history that may decide whether the human race continues to scrabble onward or is extinguished once and for all.

The mysterious girl gazes at the moon
Fragile's apocalypse is a little more fantastical. Intriguingly, it came about from efforts to end war and misunderstanding. Using an invention called the Glass Cage, a mad scientist planned to form a psychic link between all human beings – similar to the “human instrumentality” concept in Evangelion. In this case, a single young girl, imprisoned in the Glass Cage, was to act as the conduit for all human thought and emotion, disseminated instantly across the world. Language, the scientist claimed, is insufficient for true understanding (an interesting point, and one that I also touched on in the Evangelion post), so this was the only true solution. But the results didn't mete out the theory, as instead of ushering in a golden age, the activation of the Glass Cage instantly killed nearly every human on earth. The plot concerns a handful of survivors and their need for human contact.

In exactly 10 words

Fallout: Wander the wastes and kill everyone – or don't.

Metro: Life underground, the cost of hubris, and agony of survival.

Fragile: The haunting beauty of what's left behind. Also, hitting things.

The coolest part

Fragile – The art direction. The small number of other characters to interact with forces the game to show, not tell.

Fallout – Besides the oddly appropriate mix of camp and dead seriousness, the ability to take sides. Nearly every major mission allows you to do the total opposite of what you're asked to do; if contracted to kill someone in a typical mission, you could instead warn them off, extract a bribe in exchange for letting them go, or even join forces against their enemy.

Metro – Daily life in the Metro. Fallout lets you visit shantytowns and whatnot, but Metro does a far better job of depicting the desperation, boredom, and sheer ingenuity that would really be in the offing in a situation like this.

A brief release history

This section is going to feel a little like filler, but I think it's important to do a quick rundown of the franchises we'll be dealing with, just to make sure we all know what the hell we're talking about.

Fallout 2 cover art
Fallout is a series of mainly PC games going back to 1997, when the first installment came out. Next year, Interplay published the sequel, Fallout 2. Fallout 3, however, did not come out until 2008, after Bethesda purchased the rights. Bethesda subsidiary Obsidian developed a sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, released in 2010, and Fallout 4 was released in 2015. These five games comprise the U-canon of the Fallout franchise, but there are two others considered to be “broad strokes canon.” The first is the original version of Fallout 3 developed around 2000 by Black Isle Studios, known coloquially by its working title, Van Buren; if you hear people talking about the “real” Fallout 3, this is what they mean. There is also a game called Fallout Tactics that lies in this same category, as well as a couple of other titles that are non-canon and which we won't be taking into consideration. Many of the games take place decades apart, with a 116-year difference between Fallout 1 and Fallout: New Vegas, so the world's history has developed along with the franchise's.

Metro: Last Light cover art
Russian author Dmitri Glukhovsky first published the novel Metro 2033 in 2005. In 2009, he released a sequel, Metro 2034, which takes place in the same universe but features mostly different characters. Metro 2033 was adapted into a video game a year later, published by THQ and developed by Ukrainian studio 4A Games; a direct sequel to that game, Metro: Last Light, was released in 2013. Glukhovsky wrote the story for Last Light, and in the process found he had more ideas than could be contained in a game, so he took the plot, added to it, and wrote Metro 2035 for 2015. So, yes, 2035 is a direct sequel to 2033, but it's also a book based on a game that was a sequel to a game based on a book. Brilliantly, it was also first serialized in a newspaper that is only sold within the Moscow Metro.

Fragile cover art
Fragile is a video game developed by tri-Crescendo and published by Bandai Namco, released in 2009 for the Wii. So that one's easy.

(This information accurate to 2015. More stuff may have been released depending when you're reading this. I'm sure not updating the post every single time something new comes out.)

Gameplay

Fragile is arguably the simplest game we're looking at here, but only because the focus is on exploration above all else. Actually, the main mechanic is just stalking around the ruins of train stations and hotels, waving your flashlight at things (in a nice touch, the Wii remote is your flashlight, so you just point where you want to look, allowing you to survey your surroundings on the fly). There is some amount of combat, rather more than I would have liked, actually, but it's pretty crude. Your character carries a weapon in his left hand at all times, and it can be either a melee or distance weapon, and is basically anything he can find on the ground, like a stick, or a slingshot, or a bug-catching net. They have various properties, such as power and durability, and you can perform a Spin Attack-like charged strike, but it boils down to running up to something and whacking it. It's hardly a deep combat system, but perhaps that was intentional, as it's also rather easy, allowing the player to focus on the visual experience.

Fallout is notable for its extreme open-endedness in regards to problem-solving. If called upon to get past a guard in order to enter a building, you could simply murder him, but you could also bribe him, intimidate him, trick him into thinking you're his boss's boss, pickpocket his key, or find an alternate entrance, to name one example. The RPG elements aren't terribly robust, but they're strong enough to add some interest, as you gain new skills, equipment, and selectable “Perks” (for example, one Perk improves your shooting and another makes you more popular with the opposite sex...or, if you prefer, the same sex, or both!)

Metro is a first-person shooter. There is a heavy emphasis on stealth; although you can attempt to outgun your enemies, you are liable to become overwhelmed, and sneaking through an area without leaving any sign that you were ever there is far more satisfying. From time to time you'll holster your weapon to scurry around a town, interacting with the townsfolk and buying supplies for the next leg of your journey.

Characters

Seto and his companion Sai
Fragile casts you in the role of a 15-year-old boy named Seto. He was born into the post-Apocalypse and has lived his entire life with his grandfather in a stellar observatory, but when his grandfather passes away he is forced out into the world. Though understandably rather naiive, he is also both friendly and brave.

Artyom
Metro puts you in the shoes of Artyom, who lives in a small backwater station of zero interest to outsiders. Although Artyom's character arc is fairly simple, it is kind of fun to observe through the course of the two games. About 21 in 2033, he is sheltered and inexperienced, and can see no resolution with the dark ones except violence. In the sequel, however, he has become a skilled soldier for a major faction, and ends up on something of a quest to rectify his mistakes of the previous story.

Fallout 4's character creation
Fallout is, um...it's a little more complicated, because there are so many installments. Plus, your thinking and behaviour are thoroughly up to you, so it's hard to say what is or isn't true about the Fallout protagonists. However, each one has a definite overarching goal. It'll quickly recede into the background in the face of the reams of other plotlines and assorted distractions, but you never quite forget it's there.


That about wraps it up for the introduction. Next time we'll actually dig into the meat of the subject, as we discuss some of the major themes of these works.

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