Tuesday, 18 August 2015

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

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

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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.


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.

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.

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.

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