Telling Stories in Games: Rewriting the Narrative of Fallout 4

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I’ve played many, many hours of the post-apocalyptic adventure game Fallout 4.  I’ve finished the over-arching main quest and hundreds of side quests.  I’ve saved the bombed-out Commonwealth around a destroyed Boston and become powerful.  Although games like this give you the feeling (sometimes the illusion) of being open-ended where you can do whatever you want, I thought the main quest of Fallout 4 was ultimately quite controlled, cliched, and disappointing.  It was certainly the least rewarding part of the time I spent with the game.

After some time away, I got the itch to return to Fallout 4, but knew I didn’t want to jump through the same hoops with a new character.  So I decided to use player-created mods (scripts you can add to the game to change parts of it) to make a new way.  To ignore the badly written main-quest and just enjoy the game mechanics, side quests, and fun of running around in an interesting and compelling world.

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One of the things I also wanted to do was make the game narrative more LGBT-friendly.  The company that makes the Fallout series, Bethesda, has a mixed history of creating inclusive and diverse games.  Their handling of non-heterosexual sexuality has always been clumsy, and their handling of gender often ridiculous.  I hope to use mods and other tools to overcome the many limitations Fallout 4 imposes upon the player character regarding identity and sexuality.

With this return to the radioactive Commonwealth of Fallout 4, I began to think about how I could create my own narrative in the game.  Freed from the overarching narrative imposed by the company that made the game, how would I anchor my character’s decisions and actions?  Games like this encourage exploration.  Going out and finding your own adventure.  How would I tell my story?

I decided to record my play through and provide narrative commentary.  I’m still quite new to this, so the first couple episodes I’ve recorded are a bit more about the game mechanics than building a narrative, but I’ll hopefully hit my stride soon.  I’m looking forward to using the game to tell short stories– to use my character as a protagonist and explore narrative through game mechanics (and the language of video editing).

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How to Watch:  If you would like to watch what I’ve done so far, you can find the videos on this YouTube Playlist.  I’ve given the series the title “Carousing Through the Commonwealth.”  I’ll post more as I embark upon a new (for me) way of creating narrative.

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The penultimate scene of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a far better piece of cinema than anything associated with Mel Gibson.  If you don’t know it, learn it.

In the 19th century, photography brought the carnage of the American Civil War home to the civilian population.  Photographers captured the torn and twisted bodies of anonymous soldiers strewn across battlefields, and those images were published in newspapers and journals to show the cost of a war that would go on to kill 2% of the entire population of the country.  The barbaric violence was put on full display and changed our national perception of death.

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During the brutal trench warfare of WWI, photography, and also increasingly the moving image, documented horrible new forms of mass death men inflicted upon men.  Poison gas and the machine gun rendered killing impersonal.  The brutal slaughter, the bloody sundering of bodies without discrimination, horrified a generation of European men.

Now such graphic violence is masturbatory fodder for men (almost always men) playing a gory video game or watching a violent movie.  Especially a fucking Mel Gibson movie.

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Anonymous men in uniform get torn apart let and right in Gibson’s new film– and most of the time in “cool” graphic ways bordering on both the sadistic and acrobatic.  Unnamed soldiers are “disposable people” and their cinematic suffering is presented without any real thought or comment other than a voyeuristic pleasure inversely proportional to any audience’s sense of compassion.  These torn-apart bodies are dehumanized on the screen (especially the non-Christian Japanese).  They are background meat-scenery.  They are not protagonists.  They are not actual humans with thoughts and emotions, or anything the camera is willing to linger on except their blood, viscera, and gore.  These men are mute but for their screams.  In the larger narrative, they don’t matter because the camera only objectifies their anguish.  The film perversely revels in their messy deaths.  Their only role is to convey whatever pious, cruel, muddled message Gibson’s harping on now (jonesing for some sort of professional comeback without, you know, actually doing any real contrition to deserve it).

This lack of compassion, or at least the failure to apply it uniformly, is a tiresome hallmark of Gibson’s directorial work.  It is also a theme in the novel I just finished.  I’ve written a murder mystery set in the ancient Roman world– a brutal world Gibson would have felt at home in.  But I didn’t want to just present corpses for my detective, already cold MacGuffins simply representing puzzles to be deciphered.  I wanted to explore what it meant to be a compassionate man in that time who understood on a deep level that there really are no “disposable people,” and only our immature selfishness deems them so.  My main character, Gaius Pedius, learns every life has value.  He realizes that every man who dies on a battlefield (or is cut down by a murderer) is the subject of his own tragedy, his own subjectified reality.  Pedius’ investigations are not just a search for justice, but a forceful rejection of men like Gibson (who exist in every age) and their bloodthirsty nihilism.

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I’m assembling the final draft now and getting ready to begin the protracted process of querying agents to shepherd it toward publication.  Along with hopefully being an enjoyable, amusing mystery novel, I hope A Murder of Crows on the Wall can also be, in its small way, a compassionate, Humanistic counter to our modern American trend toward dehumanization and cruelty.  And anything else Gibson puts up on the screen.

 

Ready Player Re-Done

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A brief twitter thread chat between @RandomiseUser, @Endo_Chick, and myself got me thinking about character appearance in games.  I set out to put some ideas down as to how games structure this, and why I’m so drawn to character appearance in the games I enjoy.

Cool games that force me into the skin of a pre-made, pre-packaged protagonist, quite frankly, annoy me.  Those set player characters rarely interest me deeply, and have never been close to any real concept of who I would prefer to be.  So the experience often becomes one of merely driving around an avatar designed by someone else, and ultimately enacting someone else’s story (no matter how many narrative ‘options’ the game design gives me).  In the end, I really don’t come to care about those characters.

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But of course, this mirrors real life.  We don’t choose to have the skin, complexion, sex, hair, eyes, shape, or attributes we’re born with.  We have some control over some aspects (increasingly even those once thought immutable), but we all learn to deal with the design we’ve been given.  Or we seek to tweak.  There’s a role for games that purposefully inject you in another sex, body, or race as part of a larger narrative or moral goal, but I’m speaking purely about games that pre-design the protagonist primarily as your vehicle for experiencing the game world.

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Playing modded Skyrim in Roman armor

In the triple experience of gameplay, narrative, and character, I usually gravitate to character the most.  I can forgive a lot of crappy gameplay in good faith (too much grind, clunky mechanics, repetition, etc.).  As a writer, sloppy or clichéd narrative bugs the shit out of me, but to be honest, we don’t turn to games for well-written stories with nuance and depth (although there are some exceptions, such as Bioshock Infinite).  But if a developer puts genuine thought and effort put into customizable player creation, I come back to that game again and again.  It holds meaning for me.

Games I enjoy make this work in a few different ways, both single-player and MMORPGs.

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Guild Wars 2 (Human, Norn, and Silvari)

Some have a limited template of designs (hair, faces, shapes, etc.) that you can mix and match in various combinations.  It’s the bare minimum of customizing your player character, and sometimes causes the unfortunate circumstance of running into your twin in the world as you encounter someone with the same look as you.  I suspect some rendering limitations in that game’s engine are the probable technical reasons behind this choice.  Often, good games will help temper this with providing a wealth of outfits for your character, usually in the in-game store.  MMORPG Guild Wars 2 has innovative but limited physical forms for your avatar, but a huge range of expanding options for clothes, weapon types, and accessories.  It has a consumables system that allows you to apply any unlocked look to any armor or weapon you use, so you don’t need to surrender your look when you upgrade your gear.

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The Secret World MMORPG

Similarly, The Secret World (the best MMORPG you’ve probably never heard of or played) has hidden “combat armor” and allows you to present your avatar dressed however you want given a wide palette of options, reward clothing, and purchased looks.   Weapon customization is not as flexible as Guild Wars 2, but it exists.  As a serious game that uses a modern, real-world setting (albeit one infused with Lovecraftian monsters, aliens, and secret societies), you might think it would skew toward prioritizing modern, Western fashion.  But no, it’s quite common to see people dressed like Roman soldiers, future robots, death’s-head demons, and killer squirrels running through the world hubs.  Players in The Secret World often wear the dream cosplay outfits you expect they would wear in real-life if they could.

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Dragon Age 2, pre-make Hawke (left) and my Hawke (right)

Elsewhere on the spectrum of customizable character creation is the pre-made protagonist character that you can “make over.”  In single-player Dragon Age 2, you play Hawke, who has a mostly-linear story-line that you can influence, but you also have the option to mold his appearance to better fit your imagination.  The same is true for the female Hawke option.  The Dragon Age series aims for an immersive fantasy experience, including scripted romance between your character and some of your companions, so I find it a welcome option to be able to craft your avatar’s appearance.

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Saints Row IV pre-made protagonist (left) and mine (right)

On the flip side is Saints Row IV, an amusing (in its own right), tongue-in-cheek parody of games like the Grand Theft Auto series (which have no real first-player story physical feature customization and force you play as pre-made characters).  But the generic Slab McBulkhead main protagonist of Saints Row IV can be customized as in Dragon Age 2.  This is a welcome expectation of a free-wheeling game that also allows you to fight with guns that launch toilet plungers and elastic dildo bats.

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First-person only view in Bioshock Infinite

The final category I’ll briefly mention is the first-person only games that coyly prevent us from viewing or customizing our character in third-person.  Booker in Bioshock Infinite is a fully fledged and voiced character, but his appearance remains off-camera (except for a few brief glances).  Such first-person shooters have a genre history of keeping player appearance vague, but the same mechanics are on view in the new No Man’s Sky and other exploration games.  One might think that keeping things first-person would foster greater self-identification and immersion with the player, but that’s not the case for me.  Since the action is always happening on a flat plane (my monitor), I experience such a game as I would a movie.  My life-long conditioning with this structure has been to disengage and observe.  However, when I can rotate the camera and see my avatar fully embodied in a 3D space, running around the landscape as a body and not just my gaze, my own self-identification and immersion is actually greater.  There’s still a screen between us, but that screen is not built directly into the mechanics of my gaze.

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The Sole Survivor in Fallout 4 (you may have noticed a theme or two)

Not everyone prioritizes character design.  It’s not something that matters to all (most?) players.  There’s a long list of games offering only a bland, interchangeable, and ultimately disposable character model for the player, where the developers have given only cursory thought to appearance.  However, I do give it a great deal of thought, and effort, and I’m probably seeking a mix of comfort, self-identification, wish fulfillment, creative input, and a pleasant objectified gaze when I play a game with a custom character.

A friend of mine once described the kinds of games I like as “Barbie for boys.” I love character building and appearance crafting.  Along with all the fun stuff the game lets me do (fight monsters, explore space, survive in the radioactive wasteland…), and a strong narrative journey I can help enact, I’m drawn to the creative process of character design.  It doesn’t matter if I’m just goofing around and causing vehicular havoc in downtown Los Santos with friends or slaying the great dragons of Tamriel alone, I’m happiest if I can join with the effort of the game designers who have already crafted the world and the adventure.  I’m eager to bring the main character.

(Go follow @RandomiseUser and @Endo_Chick for deeper and better game analysis than mine.  You can follow me at @gmdevore.)

 

 

 

 

20 Free Copies of Pantheon Available

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I recently published a new revision of my novel Pantheon.  Now readers can read the novel serialized over 6 separate volumes, or as the original 700 page omnibus edition (in both print and ebook form).  I can share the first volume with potential new readers, instead of foisting a huge tome on them. 🙂

To celebrate, I’ve put 20 FREE copies of the ebook version of Volume I up on Amazon.  If you’ve been interested in reading my novel but not yet picked it up, here’s a chance to sample it and see if you like it!  Or if you have friends who might be interested, you can share the link with them.  The free ebooks are first come / first serve (and ‘US only’ too for some weird Amazon reason).

You can claim your free ebook copy at https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/996ffece74b7cfbf   Click the bouncy treasure chest to claim it.  And please leave a review!

Thanks for all your support!

The Death of Giordano Bruno

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I was writing today about the Campo de’Fiori in Rome (preparing a small waking guide for a friend soon to visit the city) and happened to notice that it was the 416th anniversary of the execution of Giordano Bruno, a personal hero of mine.

Bruno was originally a Dominican monk, but left the order to roam northern Europe and England, usually one step ahead of the Catholic Church who considered him a dangerous heretic. Bruno believed that the universe was divine in itself, and that such divinity was contained within every living creature. He wrote, “Nature is simply God in things,” a beautiful statement, but one that went against Catholic theology.  He also believed in such heresies as the heliocentric model of the universe where the Earth revolved around the sun.

Eventually, the Inquisition caught up with him in Venice. He was imprisoned in Rome for several years before being condemned to death. After the sentence was read, Bruno said, “You judges who condemn me make the pronouncement with much more fear than I who receive it.” Bruno was executed in the Camp de’Fiori on 17 February, 1600. He was gagged, bound naked to a stake and set on fire.

After 1600, the square was regularly used as a place of execution. Many people, criminals and heretics, met their fates here, either by being burnt or hung.  Today, the picturesque square, the only major square in Rome that does not have a church in it, is dominated by an imposing statue of Giordano Bruno.

I can recommend a good book about Bruno and his times: The Pope and the Heretic by Michael White.

Crows: A Tyrant’s Empire

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I mentioned in my last post that my new mystery novel A Murder of Crows on the Wall takes place in 209 CE. For most people in the Roman world, I suppose that year was one of relative calm and security, although they could easily remember violence and civil war. A North African military man named Septimius Severus had been their emperor for 16 years. In the beginning, he had been just one of four powerful men attempting to seize power after the assassination of the despotic Commodus (the villain from that Gladiator movie). Severus had succeeded by force of arms after a chaotic four-year civil war when Roman legions fought other Roman legions on behalf of their favored imperial candidate.

After a short respite, the question of who was finally going to be the uncontested emperor was only solved after a big, bloody battle in 197, twelve years before the opening of my story. For context, Bush’s electoral defeat of John Kerry was only 12 years ago from now. The seizure of the throne by a powerful family of upstarts and outsiders from North Africa was fresh in the Romans’ minds.

Severus was a cruel and ruthless man who valued the might of the military above all else. He began a new imperial dynasty at Rome, and his family members mostly took after him. His eldest son Caracalla would eventually be his disastrous successor, becoming what Edward Gibbon called, “the common enemy of mankind” (quite a statement given the general reputation of Roman emperors). Caracalla’s reign would also begin with great violence, including the murder of his brother Geta by his own hand in the presence of their mother. Both brothers are characters we meet in my novel.

It is no surprise that between 197 and 209, Severus conducted several large-scale military campaigns around the empire. Warfare was mostly what he knew, and he felt the most comfortable on campaign. The economy and internal politics at Rome were still relatively stable, an inheritance from the period of prosperity cultivated by the second century emperors (such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius). Severus launched offensives in the east, conquering some land from the mighty Parthian empire, and in Africa where he established a line of fortifications to protect the southern frontier of the Roman Empire.

Severus then turned his sights on the province of Britain, to do something the Romans had never quite been able to accomplish­– lay claim to the entire north of the island (modern Scotland). So for the first time in two generations, Roman troops marched into Britain and conducted a brutal war of suppression against the northern tribes. Severus led the campaign, although he was old and infirm and had to be carried around in a litter because of his painful gout. Before the end of the war, he would be dead and his son Caracalla would hurry back to Rome as the new emperor.

This northern war is the backdrop for my novel. My main character, a Romanized Greek named Gaius Pedius, is a mapmaker and surveyor sent (with a hundred others) to Britain in order to re-survey property lines in the province. It is part of the war effort, since Severus hopes to redraw the tax records in his favor and extract more funds for his expensive campaigns. While there, Pedius stumbles into a murder mystery involving a mysterious religious cult and five dead soldiers.

(More information about A Murder of Crows on the Wall can be found at garydevore.com/crows/)

 

 

 

 

209 CE – A Year of Murder

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I’ve finished the entire working draft of my next novel that is set during the year 209.  It is a historical murder mystery with a cast of Romans, Greeks, and native Britons. It is called A Murder of Crows on the Wall, a title that references both the fact it takes place along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England and involves initiates of the mystery cult of the god Mithras (who were called ‘crows’).

For the past year, my head has been in the third century CE, specifically the autumn of 209.  It’s been interesting to see what focusing upon that one period of history has brought up creatively.

Getting the novel finished has been a long process, but I’m so happy it’s finally done.  In the coming weeks I’ll post some thoughts here about the novel’s setting, characters, and theme, and also about the process of writing this historical murder mystery.  The next step is to solicit beta readers and ultimately agents and publishers.  Join me in my historical journey!

(More information about A Murder of Crows on the Wall can be found at garydevore.com/crows/)