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.

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.

Gears of War and Unearned Emotional Impact

Craig Lupienski

In 2006, Microsoft marketed Gears of War with a CG commercial backed by Gary Jules’ melancholy Mad World cover. The ad, and its use of Mad World, was so successful that the song shot up on iTunes charts and was eventually on the Gears of War 3 soundtrack. Initially praised for conveying a more somber side of war, the spot soon was criticized because the same level of sobriety wasn’t in the game itself.

Microsoft didn’t invent appeal to emotion, and Gears certainly wasn’t the first game to market itself that way, but the Mad World ad seemed to kick off the modern use of unearned emotional impact. Marketing that exploits feelings the games themselves never, or clumsily, follow through with in order to foster a bond with the consumer before they even get the game in their hands. E3 2014 seemed to be wall-to-wall down tempo trailers filled with dudes killing other dudes.

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Hey, it’s advertising. I get it. Fib a little and make your audience feel something. I’m not against any of that necessarily, but as games have become more complicated and more profitable, one would think the stories driving them would be more sophisticated to match and they haven’t.

I’m often very critical of video game stories. I think parts of game stories sometimes work, but usually, I think video games are just awkward strings of bad dialog. After nearly 30 years of playing games, I’ve come to accept this just as I have come to accept advertising is often deceptive, but video game advertising, at least as it applies here, doesn’t have to be deceptive. Video games have the capability to at least try to earn that poignancy they so readily believe they have already attained because their 30 second TV commercial told you they have. Instead, you spend 12 hours murdering swaths of people and upgrading your boots.

To market the re-release of Gears of War for Xbox One, Microsoft produced a new trailer featuring Mad World. This one doesn’t even seem to bother to aim for the heartstrings, but rather, squarely at cheap nostalgia. “Remember this ad from nine years ago?” it seems to ask, lazily conjuring up feelings it already provoked. What seemed novel (if dishonest) then only feels cloying and obvious now. It doesn’t kindle fond memories. It only reminds me that, even though I actually enjoyed Gears quite a lot, it never made me feel anything close to that ad.

Video game ads used to be taken to task for featuring CG footage, or no footage at all. Stuff that wasn’t in the game. Now they’re being marketed with emotion that isn’t in the game. Fewer people seem upset by this than the dishonest game footage, but it’s no less disingenuous. Game ads with dishonest footage have partially fallen by the wayside as video game graphics have grown more sophisticated. In fact, a trailer using all in-game footage has become a common badge of honor. Maybe the writing will soon follow, a small bit of text at the bottom of screen proudly proclaiming “In-Game Feelings.” Slow motion violence set to Lorde can’t make up for the lack of genuine human emotion in games themselves forever.

Destiny’s Solar System of Hamster Wheels

Craig Lupienski

The most overwhelming aspect of Destiny for me, as someone who jumped in just before House of Wolves released, was the multitude of currencies, resources, and progress bars. Experience and Glimmer, that’s easy to understand. And then there’s Light, ok, I get that. But Strange Coins, Ascendant Shards, Motes of Light, Relic Iron –what is all this shit? And how the hell did they get so tangled?

Bungie once described Destiny as an ominvore’s game. This is true not only in terms of the sort of person one would need to be to want to sample all the game has to offer, but it’s also true because the different currencies and resources that you may want for one mode have to be farmed from another mode. In short, to progress in pretty much any one thing in Destiny, one will have to at least dabble in other modes. You HAVE to be an omnivore.

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This is was probably born of necessity at first. The expansions, thankfully, have ironed out some kinks and filled in the gaps, but vanilla Destiny was a sparse game. It was a wasteland that offered little incentive to keep running on the hamster wheel –until you realize you can’t get much further until you run on another wheel. And then another. And then another.

It’s easy to disparage Bungie for interconnecting its thin modes to stretch player interest, but really, it was kind of smart. I played the beta and passed on the retail game for quite a while because I couldn’t see myself investing the kind of time necessary to run on all these different wheels for all these different pieces of cheese. But after finally buying the game, I am doing just that. I’m running on all the wheels. I’m buying all the expansions. And I’m liking it.

A friend recently bought the game so we could play together and I’ve only just got a grasp on these concepts myself, but teaching him all this stuff makes it seem ridiculous. “Run a few repetitive Strikes or Prison of Elders to get Strange Coins (not Glimmer) so you can buy an Exotic weapon from Xur on the weekend so you have a better chance in the Iron Banner, a monthly Crucible event. Be sure to take some Bounties before you play. Oh, and don’t get too attached to any of this because Bungie might just change how every meaningful thing works next expansion!”

I wonder what the psychology behind this is; why juggling a few different things for interconnected rewards somehow feels more enjoyable than just pursuing one reward? It’s not as if the modes are all THAT different from one and other. Maybe because it’s cathartic to construct a sequential list of playable chores for the chance to get some new boots. I don’t know. I’m well aware Destiny has its hooks in me, but I’m not really sure how or why.

I do know that I am genuinely looking forward to The Taken King next month. I can’t wait to run on all those wheels.

Life is Strange: Soap Opera Normalcy

Craig Lupienski

Fair warning: I find it hard to discuss games without also discussing spoilers and, as such, this post contains what some people might feel are plot spoilers.

When I first started playing Pokemon Red Version when I was 16, I would abuse reloading my save file if I did not get favorable outcomes so much that I would immediately consider reloading a previous save file in real life if I had just said or done something stupid. Reloading save files, as a concept, was lodged in my head much in the same way a catchy song would be. I actually felt it was kind of a problem for a little while.

Max Caulfield, so named in what is likely a heavy handed homage, is inexplicably given the ability to rewind time –just a bit– in the first episode of Life is Strange. Much like the power I coveted at about her age, Max can discover different outcomes for immediate actions as if she were reloading a previous save file. A photography student at a prestigious school, Max is framed as shy, but “normal” in a school full of stereotypes and strong personalities. It’s a lot like a modern day John Hughes flick, which I’m actually ok with and was looking forward to, but the melodrama in Life is Strange would make any 80s teen movie blush.

Life is Strange seemingly wants to portray an average girl but a few of the events in first episode alone, which takes place over the course of a day, are so outlandish as to be unbelievable. Because the episode takes place over the course of just a day, even the more mundane encounters feel too densely packed, as if developer Dontnod is running down a checklist of cliches to nail in the span of maybe two hours of gameplay. It’s all capped off with a premonition of a Rhode Island sized tornado destroying the town and teaser for the next episode that includes Max’s best friend, Chloe, trapped on railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. The timeline of the tornado premonition suggests each episode takes place over a day. Just how many shitty situations can a “normal” teenage girl with the power to rewind time find herself in in just five days? Is she Jack Bauer?

lifeisstrange

So, yes, life is strange when everyone and everything is openly hostile and antagonistic, but whose life does this actually reflect? Life is Strange is at its best when Max uses her power to rewind time and answer a question correctly in class, or when she has to hunt down a flash drive to return to a friend, or when she is riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Chloe as the sun streaks through the trees. And even during these mundane scenes, the game reinforces that even virtuous decisions may not have the best outcome in later episodes. There is no morality meter and no clear cut path. But these aspects are not woven very well with the surreal and supernatural elements. They almost feel like two different games.

And there are plenty of games about disasters and time travel and guns and friends in peril, but not very many about a teenage girl navigating the pitfalls of everyday life, even with a superpower. It may not be the most exciting subject, but a game about Max rewinding time in everyday situations, and the impact on her as a person, would be more interesting than the unrealistic amount of tension and conflict the game already presents in the first episode. Life is Strange lacks a lot of the subtlety of real life, and that’s not strange. That’s a video game.