Fallout 4 and the Art of Fort Building

Craig Lupienski

Building a childhood clubhouse is, if not an ubiquitous experience, it’s certainly an ubiquitous theme. Bart Simpson had a treehouse, and it was kind of a nice treehouse. Treehouses are a pain in the ass to build (as I so learned in middle school). When I was a kid, we built forts. A fort was raw, it was primal. It wasn’t treated wood purchased from Home Depot and nailed neatly together. It was cobbled together junk I found, and after a Saturday of building, I could stand back with my hands on my hips and take pride in my work.

Just past the woods line in my backyard, nestled against a sheer rock drop, I built my first fort in a thicket a friend and I cleared out. It was the summer of 1991 and I was eight years old. The air was thick and moist, and smelled of the hot wild grapes growing in the woods. Frankie and I stacked heavy rocks on one side for a wall and used the remaining tangled brush as a barrier on the opposite side. Deep in the woods, we had discovered an old Volkswagen Beetle wreck, far from any road. Scattered around the car were various tools and a cache of sheet metal. Frankie and I scavenged and lugged what we could back to the fort, including the bucket seats from the Beetle, and outfitted our hideout.

A tree in the corner of the fort served as a lookout nest, and its hefty vines a means of escape –a lookout for whom and an escape from what, we never really figured that out. Home Alone was a recent favorite movie of mine, so we devised booby traps of falling rocks and buckets of water; the only real safe way into the fort was to lower oneself from the rock drop on a ladder we had made from an old cargo net. Even still, the traps were only ever sprung when we intentionally triggered them on one and other.

The key to building a good fort is uselessness, and building forts in Fallout 4 is the crowning champ of uselessness. It’s a whole fiddly system of extraneous bullshit busywork. And I loved it.

Sanctuary

In Fallout 4, the player can build settlements by throwing a bunch of garbage together scavenged from the ruins of Boston. The denizens only have a few basic requirements to consider the settlement home, but the piles of pilfered paraphernalia can be used to build toilets for people who don’t use the bathroom, dumpsters for trash that never comes, and pool tables that are never played. Even the required defenses, much like my own traps and lookout towers, are for foes that never come.

Settlement residents pantomime lives, creating routines that seemingly give the appearance of a functioning establishment, but it’s not much more convincing than a couple of eight year olds trying to build stuff from looted sheet metal. I think Frankie and I assumed we needed to do something in the fort we built, but I don’t think we ever really bothered to ask why we built a fort in the first place. Building settlements has no bearing on the progression or the resolution in Fallout 4, they don’t matter either.

There is a sense of pride, though, in scraping together disparate junk and carving out a space of your own with what feels like no help at all. I didn’t receive any guidance from my dad or anything like that as a kid, and I certainly didn’t receive any guidance from Fallout 4; its building system barely fucking works. But when it all finally comes together, there’s nothing like standing back with all the satisfaction of an accomplished eight year old on a Saturday summer afternoon.

Metal Gear Solid’s Terrible Child


Craig Lupienski

Lightly crumpled at the top of the bathroom trash can was a child support check stub. It was for me. I was the supported child. I plucked it from the trash and just inadvertently discovered that my father was not my real father.

I had long suspected something wasn’t quite right, that my parents weren’t exactly honest about my genetics. I initially thought I was adopted, thinking situations like these were binary: either both my parents were my parents, or they were not. When I was 10, I asked about it and my mother was furious at the insinuation that she wasn’t my real mother. But the anger was a deflection. She knew I was on to something, but refused to admit it. Finding out from the garbage was maybe a better way in her mind.

At the end of the first Metal Gear Solid game, it is revealed to the hero, Solid Snake, by his genetic brother, Liquid Snake, that they are clones of Solid’s nemesis, Big Boss. Products of the Les Enfants Terrible program, they are the terrible children, engineered to be super soldiers. Liquid laments his role in the program, his belief that he was born of Big Boss’s recessive genes so that Solid may inherit all of his dominant genes. Then, the two battle and Solid is forced to kill his brother.

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Before the Metal Gear Solid series delved into Byzantine stories of shadow governments and private miltaries, it was a story about genetic legacy and identity. Or, that’s how I took it anyway, having just discovered my own genetics were in question.

Metal Gear Solid is known for its dramatic and overwrought stories, ripe for a depressed teenager to latch onto and cherry pick. But I believe, as someone who is no longer a teenager, that there’s still humanity under the melodrama. Liquid’s anguish over being the lesser sibling shook me; my biological father had a number of other sons, those he kept and took care of, and I, the lesser son he did not.

It’s later revealed that Solid, the triumphant sibling, is actually the recessive twin. I did not know how to parse this. Liquid only believed that he was the lesser sibling, like I did, but I, like anyone, wanted to be the hero of my own story. If I were the hero, would I actually be the lesser sibling? Would I ever actually be the hero?

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain released this week and I probably won’t be playing it anytime soon. Funny, considering I’ve played every other Metal Gear Solid, including Ghost Babel, Portable Ops, and Peacewalker. I enjoyed most of them to some extent, but none have resonated with me like the first. Worse, many entries in the series star the player as Big Boss in a sympathetic hero cum villain role, and I didn’t want to play as the absent father. That’s probably a subject best left untouched.

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The original game hit me like a freight train, arriving at the right time (or wrong time, maybe) to speak to me with its verbose  cutscenes in a way no other game could. I find most games in the series clunky and uninteresting. But Metal Gear Solid played my pain out between two brothers, fighting each other for the right to exist. I was both of them all at once. I was the abandoned. I was the dominant and the recessive. I was the terrible child.

I first played Metal Gear Solid burned to a CD-R on a borrowed PlayStation. The console wasn’t mine and the game was just an illegitimate copy. I was a grieving, illegitimate kid. Without that sense of crisis and confusion, Metal Gear Solid would have been just a hollow, clumsy game with a silly script.

The Quiet Restrained Progress of the Game Boy Color

Craig Lupienski

I lived with my grandparents in 1998. I was 15, the carpets were rusty copper shag and my bedroom was lined with wood paneling. Puffy Disney VHS cases filled shelves in a spare bedroom, but in the office we had a pretty modern PC. It was like being stuck in a time warp with little bits of disparate eras slamming into each other.

Nintendo was in a similar position by then with their aging Game Boy hardware and its incremental follow up, the Game Boy Color. Nintendo had coasted on the Game Boy for nearly a decade with only two revisions that altered the mass or screen, but never the guts. The Game Boy Color’s Z80 processor is twice as fast as the original Game Boy’s Z80, and the GBC has three times as much memory as the GB, making it the first real update to the innards, but even then it was still only a stepping stone to the real successor, the Game Boy Advance.

Reeling from the then extravagant cost of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released the same month, I had to wait until Christmas for a Game Boy Color. I remember sitting on that shag carpeting surrounded by scraps of wrapping paper, utterly floored that I could now play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in color.

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And Link’s Awakening perfectly exemplifies the time warp the Game Boy Color was trapped in. Like many other early GBC games, Link’s Awakening was really a Game Boy game masquerading in a black cartridge and a severely limited color palette. These “dual compatible” games maybe made good business sense because of the potential to reach both legacy Game Boy owners as well as new Game Boy Color owners, but because they also work in the original system, they take no advantage of the GBC’s updated specs.

Games strictly compatible with only the Game Boy Color were housed in translucent cartridges and had been around since launch, becoming increasingly more common the longer the machine was on store shelves. Nintendo has never provided a breakdown of system sales in the Game Boy line, so it’s impossible to say for sure how well the Game Boy Color actually sold, but given there are more dedicated GBC games than dual compatible games, it either sold well or developers were extraordinarily confident that their game would succeed in a fractured market.

The Game Boy Color was only around for about two and a half years before the Game Boy Advance made its debut, but in that time, there are a number of games that really pushed the system to the limit. Not necessarily just in terms of raw processing power, but also conceptually. There are games that straight up might have just been a better fit on another platform.

Lufia: The Legend Returns, for instance, did begin life on another platform, the PlayStation. It was reworked significantly for the Game Boy Color, of course, but its battle system is exceptionally deft for a handheld title, probably owing a great deal to originally being designed for a console.

Warlocked is an excellent little known Nintendo published title for the system, probably passed over in favor of Pokemon Gold and Silver Versons which released just a few months later. Real-time strategy games are not very common on home consoles, they’re usually best left to PCs, but the fact that developer Bits Studio crafted a good one on the Game Boy Color is a remarkable feat.

I’m personally a big fan of Magi-Nation, an impressive western developed turn based Pokemon-style RPG. Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic game that borrows heavily from previous titles in the series designed for more capable hardware. Shantae’s animations are second to none. There are games with rumble feedback, motion controls, fully voiced dialog, and even games that connected to a mobile network in Japan. The Game Boy Color ushered in an explosion of often overlooked technical and creative advancement.

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It’s as if developers were desperate for something more powerful in the handheld space and almost immediately created games far richer than anyone would ever dream. But just as quickly as these games surpassed their predecessors, they just as quickly hit the Game Boy Color’s wall of limitations: Lufia struggles to communicate everything it needs to in its cluttered menu screens, Magi-Nation’s battles are sluggish, Metal Gear Solid is begging for a couple extra buttons, and Warlocked could probably use a bigger screen.

There is tremendous innovation and ambition in these games. The drive to create something new, something beyond what the original Game Boy was capable of, is clearly evident. But it was a progression of restraint, bound by the confines of the Game Boy Color’s humble specifications. A brand new computer in a home of shag carpets and wood paneling.

My Last Great Online Thrill

Craig Lupienski

I picked up Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One this week, and while playing, a friend signed on. I met him playing Gears when it originally released in 2006, huddled under blankets and drinking bottles of Sam Adams. We played a series of well-coordinated rounds in matchmaking together and had a blast, so we became “Xbox friends,” playing Gears together through the winter. We haven’t spoke, let alone played together, in years, but I paused my game and checked to see if he was also playing Ultimate Edition. He was.

Gears of War was probably the last time online gaming still felt surprising for me. In sharp contrast, my first experience in the late 80s or early 90s was lackluster and I was too young to appreciate what I was actually doing. My paternal grandfather, who was the sort of guy who bought the weird shit you never heard of in the back of a Radio Shack, showed me how to dial out and play Carmen Sandiego. It was slow and frustrating and I quickly lost interest.

Over the next decade, I lacked both the hardware and the desire to play games online. In the mid 90s, playing GoldenEye with my friends or siblings in the same room seemed more appealing than fighting with America Online and fiddling with PC games.

Everquest

That didn’t change much late in 1999 when my best friend convinced me to invest in EverQuest. I forced myself to believe I was having a good time for months before finally giving up. The unfriendly world seemed better suited for only the most dedicated and ardent players; I wished the landscape was free of other players and mobs so I could just explore. The kinds of experiences most online PC games provided at the time just were not for me.

And PCs were always prohibitively expensive for my family growing up. I had had little experience with them for much of online gaming’s infancy, so it’s little surprise my first memorable experiences were actually on consoles. As a fan of RPGs, Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast was like a wonderful dream (as opposed to the nightmares of EverQuest). I couldn’t play often because it tied up our phone line, but I played as often as I could. I remember logging in on Valentine’s Day and seeing the ship decorated with hologram hearts. I didn’t even know that was possible! I thought a dynamic environment was just the coolest thing.

A couple years later, I bought a modem for the PlayStation 2 specifically for Tony Hawk’s Underground. Although I could clear the single player goals in a Tony Hawk game with little problem, I wasn’t a very competitive player until Underground. Underground introduced a battle mode called Fire Fight, wherein creating bigger and bigger combos would launch bigger and bigger fireballs from the tip of your board with the goal of destroying the other players. I was devastating at Fire Fight. Matches would culminate with the text chat scrolling across the screen cheering on my handle, Big Mac, as I annihilated the last of the competition.

That thrill of being cheered on by strangers was new and intoxicating. I played Underground until the community dwindled and no one was left to cheer for Big Mac. I only half-heartedly dabbled in other online games until I bought an Xbox 360 with Gears of War.

Even by then, the Xbox 360 online community had earned a reputation of being filled with foul-mouthed children but I found the early Gears community was composed mostly of friendly young guys like myself. I liked the single player, but the multiplayer wouldn’t have been nearly as attractive if the other people playing weren’t so welcoming.

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I remember one match on the Fuel Depot map, standard four on four Warzone deathmatch. The opposing team, still numbering four, had killed the other three players on my team. I skulked around the map, staying in cover and out of sight. My only hope was the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that takes a few seconds to acquire its target before triggering a column of fire from the orbiting satellites. The only problem was that on Fuel Depot, the Hammer of Dawn was located in the wide open and I was severely outgunned. I made a mad dash for it, picked it up and spun around. The opposing team, huddled stupidly close together, were running toward me. I pointed the Hammer of Dawn at the group, praying the acquisition would complete before they reached me. The Hammer’s beeping slowly ramped up and just before I was sure I would be killed, all four enemy players exploded into thick, meaty chunks. My mic cut over to the post-game lobby and all I could hear was my team loudly cheering in my earpiece. I’m not very good at games, especially competitively, so the feeling of winning a match like that was incredible.

I probably won’t recapture those memories playing Gears of War. I don’t play online very often and when I do, it’s not with a headset. My friends have different schedules and different consoles. Different lives. So I don’t even intend on trying. But it’s sort of nice to play the game again, virtually side by side with someone I played it with years ago. Online gaming can be pretty great, even at its most passive.

Talking to Video Games

Craig Lupienski

“EAT MY SHORTS” the Game Boy hissed at me, as if through a tin can telephone. It was the first time I heard a video game talk to me. Bart Simpson was not happy that he was stung by bees, and he verbally made me aware of his displeasure. In the years following Bart’s cries, I heard a severely compressed “GHOSTBUSTERS!” shout on my NES and a melodic “SAAAAYYY-GAAAAHHH” sing out from my Genesis. I liked hearing my video games talk. Partly because of the sheer novelty in the 80s and early 90s, but also because speech felt like it fostered a deeper connection.

sinistarThe words and phrases were often exclamations. Communicative in both function and feeling, but rarely conversational. Gauntlet alerting frantic players that the warrior is near death is wonderfully useful and Sinistar’s proclamation “BEWARE, I LIVE!”  can still invoke a sense of anxiety. Early video game speech was novel, though not necessarily without purpose. The “Sega chant” may have consumed an eighth of Sonic the Hedgehog’s cartridge for no real apparent reason other than to impress, but I find it hard to argue that Gauntlet and Sinistar would be the same games without their little bits of speech. It’s not conversational or relevant to plot development, but it’s absolutely vital to their designs in different ways.

In the mid to late 90s, I didn’t have the luxury of dividing my time and discretionary income across too many systems, so I threw my hat in with Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 providing me with the multiplayer games that were more important to me at that time. As such, I didn’t experience many of the cinematic games touting fully voiced dialog during that time period. I remember, though, playing Metal Gear Solid in 1998 for the first time and finding myself nothing less than engrossed. I loved every minute of the soap opera. I loved every line of dialog delivered by bobbling heads. I loved Metal Gear Solid, and I still do, if for nothing else than that feeling it first gave me.

Now, I suppose I feel fully voiced soap operas are the novelty. I usually find myself bored and reaching for my phone to check Twitter. Of course, this is contrary to popular thought and the current market. Soap operas are not a novelty. Cinematic games are less a subset than they are a driving force. Every AAA game talks now, and at great length, but I usually struggle to remember what anyone says. It’s not as interesting as Sinistar taunting me from afar or as useful as Gauntlet warning me of impending death. It’s just babbling. We let video games talk, and they haven’t shut up since.

heyyoupikachu

My time spent with underdog systems in the 90s did, however, expose me to experiences built on the inverse: games that invited me to them. Hey You, Pikachu! on the Nintendo 64 and Seaman on the Dreamcast both came bundled with microphones and recognized specific words and phrases. Sometimes, anyway. The technology was nascent and I’m not convinced it worked a good chunk of the time, but the idea that you could wish Pikachu a good morning was there. It’s a good idea. A valuable idea.

Sega’s Binary Domain included an optional voice recognition component in 2012. I’ve read widespread reports that the feature didn’t work very well for many people, and I had some difficulty myself, but it seemed to work for the most part in my experience. I could verbally tell my teammates to wait, to provide cover fire and I could even engage in very basic and very short yes-or-no conversations. In one instance, I accidentally fired at a teammate who quickly chastised me. Reflexively, I said “sorry” into my microphone. The teammate forgave me. I was stunned. This wasn’t exactly an emergent situation; after all, the AI was designed to recognize the word “sorry,” but I didn’t actually intend on apologizing. It just happened. And the game reacted.

fable3Video games don’t often give us much room for interaction. Death is usually how we communicate with the world. Games like Ico and Fable III incorporated a handholding mechanic (one to great acclaim, the other to some derision), and it’s still an aspect I point to when I talk about letting players interact with their world in ways other than killing. Fable III was still built on a foundation of murdering bad guys, but holding hands with my wife or child served as a welcome foil.

As much as I would like to see more of that sort of thing, it’s still an abstract representation of a real physical act. Pressing a button or pinning a shoulder trigger to hold hands isn’t quite the same as talking to a game to hold a conversation. The latter is not abstract at all. Talking is something most people do naturally, and given games can talk back, it only makes sense that verbal communication with a game could serve to further draw the player in. If only used as an ancillary component like handholding in Fable III, communicating with games can be extraordinarily valuable.

There are hurdles, of course. Voice recognition technology is still far off from feeling natural, and games can only recognize so many words or phrases and offer only so many reactions. This is not different than how a game interprets button presses, but button presses are not analogous to real life. We understand the limitations. We expect more from speech because of how it relates to the real world, and video games just aren’t up to snuff yet. Technology in general is not up to snuff. Siri on the iPhone not only doesn’t understand me from time to time, she will correctly display the words I said on the screen but “autocorrect” my speech and decide I actually meant something else. Still, when Siri accurately sets a timer I requested, I have to stop myself from thanking her. That’s the power of verbal communication done well.

I am a big fan of games toying with how we interact and how we experience attachment. Games, in general, are still not very good at experimenting with these things. You will be tasked with indiscriminately mowing down waves of bad guys for 20 minutes only to be rewarded with five minutes of incongruent dialog designed to engineer unearned emotion. You will be killing again in no time. I don’t believe we have universally bad writers in the industry, nor do I feel we have reached the limits of what video games can say to us. But we’re doing something wrong. Video games have veered too far off course from the interesting, valuable speech of Gauntlet and Sinistar into mealy-mouthed, lengthy exposition for no real apparent reason other than to impress. It’s minutes, hours, of the “Sega chant” over and over again.

Let’s scale it back and let’s open the lines of communication.

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