I’m stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a post-apocalyptic ruin, watching a man called Hannibal slowly lead a handful of worn-out looking former slaves and a diseased, mutated Brahmin bull to the headless statue of the former president. On the back of the bull are some supplies and the stone head of Abraham Lincoln, lashed together with rope.
Hannibal is going to restore the memorial. I found an old photo that would help him, and killed the gang that had made it their hideout.
As I stood there for the long minutes it took for them to trudge by, I was reminded of Charlton Heston coming across the Statue of Liberty, that other great symbol of the United States, a nation reduced in both scenes to Ozymandias.
The game is Fallout 3, an RPG where you play a character that is forced to leave an underground vault, one of many built to house the survivors of a nuclear war with China, though the wasteland that’s left is only the remains of a fifties ‘retro-futurist’ version of the USA, beautiful but also clever for being so closely identified with that decade’s forward looking hopefulness after the second world war.
The player’s goal is to bring hope to the wasteland, or mayhem, the Fallout games giving the player the opportunity to shape the world of the people that have survived overground as the player sees fit, for better or worse.
It’s my interest in fiction and writing that steers me towards games with narratives, but there are so few that successfully immerse me in them.
The discrepancy between the open world RPG genre’s winners and losers is most stark in the chasm between Fallout 3 (and New Vegas) and Skyrim, which are in almost every way the same games (from the same studio!) with the same open world structure, principle narrative arcs and numerous ‘sidequests’ that distract you and equip you to better complete those main arcs.
I contend that Skyrim was a dour and boring slog with a cast of self-serving high fantasy stereotypes, while Fallout 3 was a nuanced exploration of what survived and was lost of civilisation as a backdrop to a child looking for the father that abandoned him/her. Heck, even New Vegas begins better than Skyrim, the latter beginning with a dragon attacking the player on the way to his execution while the former begins with the player already executed and buried but brought back to life by the sinister and Oz-like Mr. House to find the item that cost the player his life in the first place.
To wander the Fallout wastelands is to wander into a kaleidoscopic cast of delusional robots, Elvis impersonaters, dominatrix cowboys, a cross dressing super mutant with Alzheimers, pacifist ghouls aiming to man rockets to ascend to heaven and often poignant diary and journal entries painting lives of love and office politics among the skeletons that typed them on the computers that survived. The player comes across other vaults that did not fare so well, occupants consumed by madness or superstition or disease, their stories and legacies told on abandoned tapes and corpses. There was a boy living alone in ruins and fear of being killed, hoping you’d find out what happened to his father. There was a town terrorised by two people; one dressed as a superhero and the other a supervillain, one in command of robots, the other of giant ants. One time a man ran up to me and told me he’d won the lottery. He did nothing else but wander around shouting out his good fortune to nobody in particular. I later realised winning the lottery meant avoiding crucifixion, a fate the rest of his townsfolk suffered, and thus a high street that looked more like the final scene of Spartacus than one from a modern town in the Mojave desert.
Sadly, Skyrim seemed to be filled with little more than a bunch of auto-attacking automatons either undead or otherwise representing factions whose leaders were cardboard cutout characters with similarly unsatisfying and cliched dialogue.
As with many of these games one’s stories, one’s narrative, can be quite different to that of others, with different choices leading to different consequences. It isn’t that easy to share one’s experience of the best of these games with another person because there is so much content and choice that they have had a quite different narrative arc with different outcomes. Like any novel, the story arc you see through to the end, whether driven by you or followed obediently on the page, is entertaining or dull. It is thus the writing that sets the best of these games apart, the quality of the worldbuilding and context in which you find yourself. The mechanics after all ubiquitously involve killing people and some other simple manipulation of objects or timed button presses.
The other grande dame of the open world RPG genre is the GTA series. I played GTA IV the most, which, unlike Bethesda’s games and their character creation sequence, casts the player specifically as Nico Bellic, an immigrant drawn by the alluring lies of his cousin to a seedy life in New York (Liberty City).
Here is an open world RPG that enjoys its creators Rockstar’s stupendously grand ambition. Here is another life, an open and widely explorable city where you can aimlessly cruise about in stolen cars listening to a variety (and mockery) of radio stations, sit and drink in a bar and watch a cabaret act, or switch on the TV and watch some genuine Ricky Gervais standup; lengthy and expensive amounts of content you may never enjoy if you don’t actually bother to take your time and explore, but its there, making the world feel more real. You can instead break almost every law there is as casually as breathing, doing the usual stuff that gets the Daily Mail so irate.
While considered the dark and dour instalment in the series, I mention IV particularly to congratulate the writers on the masterful interaction between Nico and his cousin Roman, who quickly turns out to be a bumbling and awkward liar with enemies, but also manages to be innocent enough of heart that I found myself immersing into Nico’s situation and wanting to look out for my cousin for his own sake, blood being thicker than water.
It’s beautifully done, with great dialogue that filled the relationship in and provided a solid narrative within which my ‘missions’ provided the plot and the excitement, the ‘minute to minute’.
What I hadn’t expected though, over the years I’ve been gaming, was that memories of these adventures would sit, take space if you like, alongside memories of things that really happened. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, we remember the places a great book or film take us as much as we do the good times with friends and family, even if the former aren’t as intrinsically valuable. Memories do not distinguish themselves by worth.
Which brings me to Jamie Carragher.
There are games which have either limited or no narrative substance at all that are also capable of generating a trove of memories, and I cannot tell you why except that maybe the time invested and (in my case) a tendency to ‘fill in’ what’s going on combine to create the enduring memory from Championship Manager where, in a European Cup semi-final with Real Madrid, we (Liverpool) lost 3-0 at Anfield and had to go the Bernabeau in the second leg. 0-0 at half-time, I changed the formation and we raced to an aggregate draw at 3-3 with only two minutes of normal time remaining. It was a delightful enough comeback on its own, promising at the least some nailbiting extra time. But then Carragher somehow picks up the ball and heads into midfield, he goes past a player, he’s still running, nobody’s closing him down and he’s into the penalty area, this doughty defender that usually runs out of oxygen at the halfway line. “Carragher shoots….” says the text field, because there are no graphics, then Championship Manager‘s sublime half-second-but-feels-like-forever pause while it delivers the verdict: “GOAAAALLLLL” in flashing red and white text. There was no sound either, but it wasn’t needed because I provided it, out of my seat and punching the air at this most unexpected and sweetest of victories.
I’ve forgotten what happened in the final, I’ve forgotten many hundreds of hours of games in subsequent seasons and versions of this football management simulator. But I haven’t forgotten Carragher’s length-of-the-pitch run and the goal that took us to a European Cup final. It’s as clear a memory as the haunted look in Shevchenko’s eyes as he stepped up to take the final penalty in Istanbul. One European Cup private to me, one shared with History. Both real.