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In the future, the ‘60s never happened. Or at least, that’s what we are led to believe in the alternate history of Bethesda’s Fallout 3. While set in a post-apocalyptic America in the 23rd century following the events of a devastating war in the 21st century, curiously most of the post-war artifacts of Fallout 3 look and sound an awful lot like the artifacts of a post-World War II America, as if American culture somehow became frozen in time around 1959 and maintained a seemingly cheery and idyllic image of the ‘40s and ‘50s up until that great disaster.

Of course, this notion of creating a static image of post-World War II America is not exclusive to the Fallout universe. The underwater city of Rapture in 2K’s Bioshock literally finds its progress halted on New Year’s Eve 1959, and the similar images of a ruined society juxtaposed against the relics of a culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s also make up the bulk of 2K’s game.

Like most gamers, I have been thinking an awful lot about the switch. I think that usually such thoughts are characterized by questions like, “How do I get to the switch?” or more irritatingly, “Where’s the damn switch?” However, what I have been pondering is a more fundamental (and maybe less obvious) question, “Why do I always want to flip the switch?”

A lot of gamers complain about the overuse of the switch in games. It is a kind of cheap way of turning an action game into an adventure game. Finding the switch, figuring out what it does, and using it effectively is a way of adding a puzzle-like element to games that otherwise seem to merely be celebrations of violence and combat. Tomb Raider, in particular, seems to have made the switch a central element of gameplay, at least as important to that game as the combat, if not more.

Amnesia is an oft used (and overused) trope of video game narrative.  Certainly, one can understand the allure of introducing a character unfamiliar with the world and himself as the basis for an avatar for the player just loading up a video game.  This state is more or less the state of the player, and, thus, introducing the player to the world and the character that he will be inhabiting over the course of the game makes practical sense.  It is about as similarly useful as the old chestnut in fantasy literature of introducing main characters from another world into a fantasy landscape (a la Narnia) or the country bumpkin into the larger fantasy world (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), which likewise allows the reader to be introduced alongside such inexperienced characters to the workings of an unfamiliar world.

While Access Games’s Deadly Premonition falls back on this idea of the player being familiarized with a world through an “outsider” to that world (in this case, a reversal of the usual “country bumpkin” model, as Francis York Morgan is an experienced, urban dwelling FBI agent who finds himself on assignment in the weird world of small town America), it suggests a much more interesting way of defining the relationship between the player and this character in another way.  Rather than creating a parallel between the amnesiac and the newbie player, the schizophrenic becomes the metaphor in Deadly Premonition for the relationship between the player and the character.  That metaphor is a fairly compelling one.

In observing some fundamental patterns in stories, myth critics, like Joseph Campbell, have observed that one common element that leads to closure in epic journeys is the story of the return home.

The classic example of the story of the return home is, of course, Homer’s The Odyssey. Having participated in the war with Troy, Homer commits an entire epic poem to the story of just getting from the conflict back to the place where Odysseus started, the island of Ithaca.  Essential to this particular story (and other stories like it) seems to be the need for a hero who has spent an awful lot of time gallivanting recklessly in wild and foreign lands to get his shit together and get back where he belongs.

I’m with Tim Gunn on this one (and really in a sense anthropologists and sociologists before him, like Erving Goffman), fashion is a form of rhetoric.  What you put on tends to communicate, be your desire to align yourself with your favorite sports team or with a musical subculture, advertise your competence for a job or political office, or make clear that you are available to the opposite sex (or maybe just for sex).  What we put on is emblematic.  Even the slob who just throws on whatever is in his closet this morning is inadvertently telling us something.

Thus, as games have grown more mature and more interested in communicating messages, stories, and ideas in a more complex way, it seems to me inevitable that the virtual closets of our avatars have expanded.  In a medium where the visual plays a big role in speaking to its audience, understanding characters through their physical appearance is important.  Character customization additionally plays to the medium’s strengths as it allows the player the opportunity to participate in how a story is told and how their virtual self is supposed to be understood in the context of the virtual performance that they are taking part in.

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