Tuesday, 18 August 2015

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

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

Part 2

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.

Decay/Atmosphere

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.

Source
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.

Ulysses
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.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

56 Flowers: China tries to AKB

Here's an Asahi Shinbun article from a couple days ago:
“An idol group composed of 56 Chinese women has been born. It is called '56 Flowers.' One can't help but think that it is meant to compete directly with Japan's AKB48. That said, the sense of propaganda in songs like their fervently performed 'China is the most Beautiful,' embodying Chinese head of state Xi Jinping's 'Chinese Dream,' is quite strong. Will they really be popular?
“56 is the number of officially recognized Chinese ethnicities. It seems that 56 Flowers is attempting to appeal to a sense of ethnic unity and patriotism. The particulars of the group's formation are unknown, it is supposed that Chinese authorities were involved.
“According to local media, it is formed of various ethnicities of girls, aged 16-23, with skill in singing and dancing. At Beijing Park in June, they stood onstage in front of the Chinese flage and images of Mao Zedong, wearing white blouses and black miniskirts. Staff apparently said, 'Unlike groups from Japan or China, 56 Flowers is not selling sex or looks.'
“There have been comments on the Internet in the vein of, 'They seem like a North Korean group,' and 'It smells like the Cultural Revolution.' (Shanghai)”

Here's another article, this one in English, with a little more information. For good measure, here's a video.

So you get 56 girls between the ages of 16 and 23, dress them up in cotton blouses and short skirts, and have them sing and dance for our entertainment. Totally not selling sex though!

This “various ethnicities” thing is nice, especially given China's historical...struggles with that issue. It only really works, though, if each member is actually a representative of that group. Please let me know if I'm wrong, but something tells me this super isn't the case. At least Team 8 really did go out and recruit a girl from each prefecture. And while I totally understand concerns regarding propaganda, I'm interested to see where this might go.

Anytime I think about the China Century theory, I suspect that it will not really equal the influence of America during the American Century unless it occupies the same cultural space. I mean, setting aside the possibility that we may have entered a period in history in which globalization is so prevalent that no one country can possibly dominate – you could draw some parallels. A rising economic star. Flirting with imperialism. That kind of stuff.

But what made America into America in the eyes of the rest of the world was, I think, its popular culture. The average American on the street cared about Tom Cruise, not Ronald Reagan. I guess the same is true of a lot of countries – probably most non-Japanese people you know can picture Goku, but not Abe Shinzou – so maybe this is a shallow point, but what I'm getting at is that I've always wanted to see what China could give us for soft culture. I can name a couple dozen Korean pop music groups despite having never even been there, but I can only think of two Chinese groups, and one of them is SNH48.

We've got wuxia – that's identifiably Chinese. And that's cool. Wuxia is cool! Can't wait for Iron Knight, Silver Vase! “Hong Kong action movie” is basically a genre, and Sleeping Dogs rocked (that's if we're counting Hong Kong as culturally part of China, but let's not get into that). What else though? By and large I'm gonna go ahead and say that Chinese pop culture doesn't really get much play outside of China, at least not in the English-speaking world. Isn't that odd? China is kind of really big, you guys. This seems to mark a deliberate step towards changing that, and I'm excited! I'd love people to step more Chinese songs for In the Groove. Maybe not “China is the most Beautiful,” but you know.

I'm also not totally convinced that this won't be like the forced hallyu of the mid-2000s up to recent years, where Korean artists started recording songs in Japanese, SNSD appeared on Letterman and there was even talk of getting Americans into K-dramas. This publicity campaign was the subject of much derision by K-bloggers, and the “movement,” such as it is, tends to be regarded as a bit of a failure. This could easily go the same way. It's still interesting, though, and it will likely have a very different character, if only because of the Chinese government and all that it represents.


To close the circle: Does 56 Flowers have a credible chance of competing against AKB 48? Uh, no. They're completely different products. AKB sing about first love, and hair scrunchies, and teenage prostitution. These are very relatable, easily digestible topics that transcend differences in lifestyle and cultural boundaries. The glory of the People's Republic of China is not. To be fair, I don't think it actually says anywhere that they want 56 Flowers to spread its influence beyond China; maybe it represents more of a pep rally for Chinese citizens. If so, they've got work ahead of them, because sadly, nobody cares about politics anymore. Also, they may be a state-driven propaganda machine.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

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

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

Part 1
Part 2

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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Saturday, 2 May 2015

Wired: "There will never another Kojima"

Yesterday Wired published an opinion piece on the state of the Japanese videogames industry, or as it used to be known, the video games industry. Primarily it's a reaction to the impending departure of Kojima Hideo, father of the beloved, decades-running Metal Gear series, from his patrons at Konami. The divorce has been in progress for a while so it's not new news, but the editorial is about Kojima's stepping down possibly signalling the end of an era in which Japanese video games were dominated by uninhibited auteurs whose vision dictated every new product. It's also wrong.

Ok, not completely. The cowboy era of video games has been over for a long time now, because it was the 1980s. Back then we weren't even sure of what a video game was, so experimentation wasn't just encouraged, it was unavoidable. The gradual transformation into a business model of high-budget, low-risk repeats, with a slew of barely distinguishable annual releases (looking at you, Call of Duty and Battlefield), has been thoroughly discussed, and in light of similar developments in other art forms, shouldn't have taken us so off guard. The parallels with, say, the film industry are pretty clear; you could make a case for both Citizen Kane and Ocarina of Time being titles that codified significant innovations that we now regard simply as fundamentals of the craft, with each occupying, on the macro scale, a similar spot in the timeline of the industry's maturation. So it follows that video games might echo film's trends towards the lowest common denominator.

This shift, of course, is precisely what has led to many big-name developers feeling creatively stifled. Most gamers' thinking seems to be that creativity is simply incompatible with corporations who care about nothing but the bottom line (as though corporations should be focussed on making charitable donations to struggling artists instead). To some extent maybe this is true, because business is about selling a lot of product, not birthing a high-quality product. Do you think the producers of Furious 7 are hanging their heads in shame because they made the horrifying mistake of greenlighting a movie in which Vin Diesel drives a supercar through a penthouse window, blasts through the sky and crashes into an adjacent building? No, they're congratulating themselves on an awesome job, because Furious 7 made 147 million dollars on opening weekend.

On the other hand, I don't think it has to be this way, either. I think a business is much stronger when its employees are proud to be a part of it, and when management truly believes in the company's mission and the product or service it offers. Plus, if we're trying to move as many units as possible, it makes sense to develop a high-quality product (especially with a video game; unlike quality parts in a machine, which cost more to manufacture, an engaging story or interesting art direction need not affect retail price).

Trouble is – every single time a developer tries something new, gamers ignore it. Every single goddamn time. People complain about how samey games are nowadays, and then when something different comes out they're not interested because it's too different. This is what has led to the current state of the industry, and it's really no surprise that many of its pioneers are striking out on their own. The editorial says, “Capcom's powerhouse producers Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) and Keiji Inafune (Mega Man) are long gone. Tomonobu Itagaki (Ninja Gaiden) is no longer with Koei Tecmo.Castlevania chief Koji Igarashi left Konami last year.”

The article wants to point to this as a sign that the age of the Japanese auteur is over – but uh, no it's not. If anything this demonstrates that the age of the Japanese auteur refuses to die. When the creative types find themselves in an environment no longer conducive to what they want to do, instead of rolling over and churning out soulless remixes of last year's work just to cash a paycheque, they're changing the game...so to speak. One guy not mentioned is Sonic co-creator Naka Yuuji, who left Sega to form a studio called Prope. Its first game was a Wii title controlled solely by placing the Wii remote on a table and tapping it. The second one was about playing catch with strangers. These projects would never have seen the light of day at a big company, but by breaking off, Naka was able to dispense with the business management that had come to dominate his day-to-day, and get back to actually making games – and making the games he wanted to make.

We're walked through the recent director shuffle for Final Fantasy XV, which “previously was the domain of Square Enix's last remaining Big Name Director, Tetsuya Nomura. But after years of development hell, he quit (or was asked to quit) the project and replaced by upstart director Hajime Tabata.” It goes on to describe the tentative, almost crowdsourced development path he took, asking fans to review the demo and responding to their feedback.

This sounds like he's listening to his audience, but really it's a hesitance to take decisive action. I submit that this lack of a strong voice is something that has plagued the franchise for years, and it's a big part of why recent entries have been poorly received. Ok, yes, Final Fantasy fans are implacable hipsters who believe that the only “true” Final Fantasies are the ones they happened to play as a kid, but you kind of have to admit that the recent games are kind of a homogenized mess. They're so wrapped up in trying to recapture the spark of the old days that they verge on ripping themselves off. Ironically, Final Fantasy XIII seems to have been so polarizing because it did have a strong voice, owing to Toriyama's puppy love of protagnist Lightning. You could love it or hate it, but other recent Final Fantasies have tried to cater to the old fans and created only bland, sanitized imitations of the real deal. The editorial is absolutely correct in the claim that Final Fantasy is throwing away its top-down approach, I'm just not sure that's indicative of a trend. The only way for the franchise to survive, creatively, is to start taking a stronger stance again, even if some people won't like it.

But it's not just all that, though. The main thrust of the article is patently ridiculous. “It may not be a stretch,” it says, “to say that there will never be another Kojima, no one creator who holds such sway over a massive big-budget gaming enterprise. It's too expensive, too risky a business to be left up to the creative whims of a single auteur.” What? No. It is definitely too much of a stretch to say that, and for one very, very big reason. I'll get to him in a minute, but before I explain why the Japanese auteur is not financially dead, I'll give you an example of why he isn't spiritually dead, either.

That example is Suda51, not only one of my favourite creators of all time, but possibly the most auteur auteur, ever. His breakout hit, kil – well actually breakout isn't such a great word for it, because it was a commercial disaster. But the game that first brought him significant attention was killer7, in which you play as a disabled old man who physically transforms into his seven alternate personalities, all of whom are assassins. You get a new weapon from an angel, witness a lethal game of Mahjong, and fight a mutated cult leader whose weak point is his afro.

That was in 2005, and he's still making games. Actually, if you ask me his fame has worked against him – I couldn't possibly explain killer7 adequately, and if you're interested then you should play it blind anyway, but I'm trying to make it clear here that it was just an absolute peyote safari through the anime halls of government. Anyway, killer7 was known for being both weird and difficult to understand, and while he hasn't yet made something as complex, Suda51 has carried on with the weird. If you take a look back at his older projects, even the ones over which he had free reign, you can see that they were much more restrained. You could see this as him coming into his own and slowly overcoming a latent fear of breaking boundaries, but I'm not so sure.

I have a feeling that it may be a response to an expectation for weirdness, and that he couldn't make something more normal again even if he wanted to, because it would compromise his Suda signature. I'm still loving his work, I just fear he's accidentally typecast himself. Which is exactly the opposite that a creator known for breaking boundaries should be. John Grisham writes legal thrillers, and then one time he wrote a novel about a guy who goes to Italy to play American football. That's the kind of move I'd love to see from Suda51 – peculiar has become the norm for him. I'm not saying that he now needs to do a “normal” game just for balance, but it would be awesome to see him do something truly unexpected once again. Either way, even for the more standardish Suda titles, you can still hear his voice in every detail. The instant I boot up a new Suda game, I know it's a Suda game, and I feel as if we are having a conversation, as if, somehow, I have the slightest idea of what's on his mind or what he's like outside of interviews. That is an auteur.

So as to the claim that nobody can entrust the success of a product line to one single person?

The piece concludes: “To the extent [that third-party publishers] produce massive blockbusters at all, expect them to be designed by committee, crafted to alienate as few people as possible. If you want to be an auteur, you can do it on your own dime.” In other words, Nintendou and Sony can take creative risks that a company like Capcom just can't afford. The editorial mentions Nintendou's new relationship type deal with Tecmo Koei, but neglects to point out that it does, in fact, have at its creative helm the undeniably greatest video game creator to ever create video games. It's Miyamoto Shigeru, the father of Mario, Zelda, a dozen other series, and arguably the entire video games industry, because he was integral to the success of the NES and the NES saved gaming when everybody else had abandoned the “fad.”

Even if you've never played one of his games (unlikely), you've played one that's been influenced by them. That's because every game owes something to the progress he made, singlehandedly, back in the 80s. This is a man who built the fortune of a massive international company on the back of a plumber saving a princess from an ape. He took his childhood memories of exploring the woods behind his house and turned it into an epic quest to explore a mystical land and vanquish evil. He was gardening one day and thought, “Know what would be great, is a game where the whole thing takes place in a garden, except you're a crash-landed astronaut, and you grow an army of aliens who help you get things done.”


Sorry. Miyamoto has shown no sign of leaving Nintendou, and Nintendou is still going strong. As long as that's the case, I'd say the age of the Japanese video game auteur is in no danger.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Canyon

During my high school exchange, I saw some people online talking about the first Iron Man movie, which had recently been released. And my first thought was, “Iron Man? I don't even remember seeing trailers for – oh, right.”

Similarly, in a once-recent post by Stupid Ugly Foreigner, he laments the disconnect from English-language popular culture he suffers while living in China. This phenomenon is exemplified in Pharrell's “Happy,” of which he was utterly unware until long after it had already become entrenched in our cultural constitution. Now that I'm back in Canada, I'm facing kind of the opposite problem, and when I get back I'm going to have to relearn everything.

An example: The first time I heard Kyari Pyamu Pyamu's seminal "Pon Pon Pon," it had already been popular for months. In fact it's almost strange to me now to think that there ever was a time when I'd never heard it – it's so clearly ingrained in the cultural landscape of its era. To not know at least that much was to have no idea what a certain type of Japanese person was listening to at the time, and that shit was important to me. I leaped aboard that particular ship as soon as I saw it, and then throughout the rest of the year I managed to catch everything new as it bubbled up into the cultural consciousness of Japanese young people. Unfortunately I've now effectively lost all knowledge of what's trending back there, and it's going to take time to get back up to speed.

I can use the Internet to keep abreast of the latest vicissitudes in television and idol gossip, but that's a poor substitute for everday immersion because it's all through my own filter - limited, not "off the street," not necessarily bearing any relation to what's actually popular. Metroid, for example, is more popular outside Japan than within it. In the Korean's account of his tour of the South by Southwest music show in Austin, I read that he saw a relatively new Japanese loli group called Starmarie, who were supposedly the most popular Japanese singers going. Except that my immediate reaction was “Who the hell are Starmarie?” Sure enough, it turns out that they are indeed a popular Japanese idol group – in America.

So what, you may say. It's just movies and music and other meaningless bullshit. You might have a point. A mild de-syncing with cultural developments that will no longer be relevant a year from now might seem like a fairly minor loss. But remember that anime and music and dramas and everything else are all things I have a certain dependency on, because they're my primary means of studying the language. I am constantly on the hunt for new material to consume, integrating its knowledge into my biomass, mining it for not only new vocabulary and grammar but cultural tidbits and talking points. Without the constant, effortless exposure you get in Japan, I am forced to subsist on what I can scavenge from YouTube or d-Addicts.

Access to this stuff also affects my studying habits. I've always been a proponent of self-motivation – that is, if you really want to learn another language, you just do it, every day, or else adjust your expectations. That means that on a day when you come home from work or school, exhausted, depressed, and without the slightest desire to study, you clench your teeth and do it anyway. So it'd be idiotic to say that lack of access to Japanese pop culture adversely affects my study regimen, but easy access to it does positively affect it. You should always be able to force yourself to study, but a spoonful of heroin makes the medicine go down.

Also, though I have no pedagogical training, I feel like all the studying I do while in this “engaged” state is more effective. Perhaps I am simply more receptive at such times, and thus better able to absorb new vocabulary and constructions. Or perhaps even more simply, I just pay closer attention when I'm interested. Or maybe it's just my imagination. Anyway I'm not going to stop.

Finally, a big part of a country's contemporary cultural identity either stems from or is resolved in its media trends. I don't think that's too grandiose a statement. The plot twists in big TV shows get people talking. Artists use their media to communicate a deeper message. People will resort to the refrain of “relax, it's just a movie” for as long as movies continue to be made, but that's utterly and obviously wrong. Our art, even our for-profit art, is both informed by our shared cultural experience, and adds to it. It's important. It's not World War II-level historical significance, but you can't just discount it.

And again, for me, soft culture is a part of how I connect with Japanese people - knowledge of what's trending in their pop music and television is often a good ice-breaker. And how many friendships are born from mutual interests? The early conversation of practically any first encounter is spent searching out common ground. Obviously don't hinge your identities on what anime you like, because if you want to be interesting you have to be interesting in and of yourself. But I can't count the number of times I've inspired shock and delight for merely having heard of something Japanese. If nothing else it shows that you're receptive.


On the other hand, I guess if not being quite up on the latest moves and grooves is my greatest concern, as compared to somebody arriving with no knowledge of Japan or Japanese, maybe I'm doing all right. There'll be a brief period of adjustment, but in no time I'll be slinging timely observations and relevant pop culture references like anybody else. Now all I have to do is find a job, win the lottery, or earn the favour of the yakuza, and I'll be good to go.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

How to shower and bathe at other people's houses

I think we've all been there at some point or another. You can try to delay the deed until you're able to retreat to your own abode, but from time to time, you're gonna have to clean yourself at somebody else's house. Now if you're a foreigner in Japan, you could be spending a lot of time living off the kindness of people you know, like host families, friends, one-night stands, maybe even dinner hosts, and possibly whoever they shack you up with until they get your actual accommodation figured out.

Fortunately for you, I have a lot of experience living off others people's kindness. Here are some handy tips I've picked up over time.

Towels

You want to get this one out of the way right off the bat. Ideally, your host will think of that beforehand, but if not, you'd better ask before you shower, because afterwards you'll be naked and wet and not in any easy position to ask, especially if they're somewhere out of earshot. You have the option of just grabbing a hanging one at random if you like, depending on how close you are with the person in question and whether or not any old people live there too.

If you do forget and are left without recourse, you can use an item of clothing as a makeshift towel, especially if it's not something immediately necessary to your wardrobe, like if you've layered a couple of shirts or something. If it's winter, definitely use a shirt because you can keep it under your jacket and it won't freeze. If it's summer and you're in a dry climate, you can pretty much just put your clothes back on normally if you really want and they'll dry soon enough, but if it's humid, don't even try – you'll be sopping all day. Actually, you will be anyway, but this way it'll be even worse.

Taps

Again, preparation – remember to figure out how they work before you strip. That way, if you're absolutely baffled, at least you don't have to get dressed again before you can go ask for a demonstration. Once you've got it all worked out, you'll be ready to get naked, crank a knob until a stream of hot fluid bursts over your face and cascades down your chest, and exhale in ecstasy.

Some Japanese baths have an electronic control panel for the bath itself. You maybe shouldn't touch it. And actually it's probably set to the preferences of the owner(s), so you shouldn't touch it anyway.

Japanese bathing

As I'm sure you know, Japanese families all share a single dispensary of bathwater amongst them, which isn't emptied until everybody is done. Some people find Japanese bathing to be one of the best experiences available to humanity, but I've always been a little iffy about it, not because I have to bathe in other people's filth, but because I don't want to make them bathe in mine. You're not supposed to go in until you're spotlessly clean, and I just don't trust myself to be able to do that. Worse, as a guest you may be afforded the respect of bathing first.

Luckily, there's an easy fix: Just say that you would prefer a shower. Basically, you're just skipping the second half. You'll be clean, so it's not like you're being rude, and you can even invent a cultural explanation if you want. I've never had anybody insist I actually bathe, because that would be crazy. How would they check, anyway?

If you do decide to take the plunge, so to speak, obviously just be very thorough. Wash everything twice. Wash all the places you usually don't bother with (you have some, don't lie to me). When you're done the bath should be a basin of crystal clear water and nothing else. In practice even the Japanese sometimes accidentally shed detritus, but if you do, you just know it'll be because you're a foreigner and not because you're a human being, so scan carefully for any stray dirt or hair and scoop it out with your hand. There's a grate in the floor you can drop it down.

The bucket

You can use this to pour water over your head, or as a little stool. I like to just sit on it and douse myself with the jet.

Shampoo and soap

One abiding principle: Honestly, they're letting you use their shower. You really think they're gonna get offended if you swipe some of their shampoo?

On the other hand, if you're having trouble with the shampoo, you don't have to wash your hair, you know. And also try to be at least a little careful that you're using your friend's (or whoever's) stuff if possible, rather than their roommate's or something. That's just called respect.

However, the preceding rule can be safely ignored if there is both bar soap and liquid soap. In that case use the liquid no matter whose it is, because which would you rather be rubbing all over your body? Liquid is better for everybody. If there's only bar though, it's not a big deal, it's not going to hurt you, because, you know, it's soap. It does the opposite of that. But! If you're still not comfortable, check to see if there's a liquid hand soap you can grab off the sink. Works fine. I only ever used hand soap during my last study abroad. Cologne once said “I picked up some more hand soap for you to shower with.”

In a pinch, shampoo or conditioner can also be used as soap – it's not as effective, but it's all cleaning agent. Just make sure to wash it all off or it can dry out your skin and leave a painful rash.


These are just a few simple shower hacks to help you with your stranger showering experience. Got a tip of you own? Let us know in the comments!