Games

'Fallout', the “To Do” List Simulator

My well-honed Puritan work ethic is my own worst nightmare in a game like this.

A few weeks ago I extolled the virtue of the Fallout series as a “scrounging simulator” ("Fallout, the Scrounging Simulator”, PopMatters, 27 October 2010). A weird pleasure can be derived from these games just in poking through the ruins of a wasteland, finding material and evaluating its worth, locating junk to cobble together into useful weapons and apparel, and then bartering with other wasteland inhabitants to get what you really need.

While this odd “game within the games” measures your efficiency and encourages frugality and “traveling light”, it also, of course, strongly parallels the genre interests of the series as an experience of a post-apocalyptic world. It successfully weds mechanics that promote what I experience as a strangely pleasurable activity with the story of a wasteland traveler. However, while I enjoy this simulation of a conservative and frugal economics, there are other elements of simulation that Fallout provides that, while perhaps as seemingly authentic as a scrounging simulator, I derive far less pleasure from.

Notably it is the nearly too authentic quality of the way that sidequests, the “work” of Fallout, are handled that make me completely crazy. While New Vegas, for instance, has a central story arc, the story of a wasteland courier whose delivery is stolen from him in the Mojave desert and his effort to ascertain that delivery's importance and how to get it back, the bulk of the game finds the player and the protagonist lost in a miasma of unrelated business in the wasteland. Traveling to the New Vegas strip from a little town called Goodsprings, the protagonist tracks his attackers but also finds himself enmeshed in the business of any number of citizens in this post-apocalyptic American landscape.

Everyone is looking for a favor or to hire the protagonist out as a gun or messenger, and these sidequests are important from the perspective of the successful role playing game player, as they provide opportunities for gaining experience points and finding new weapons and armor. Such development of attributes and weapons are essential for making sure that the protagonist is sufficiently powerful once he gets back on track in the central story to survive the encounters at the close of the game, nothing that unique in role playing game.

While such efforts often refer to the notion of the necessity of “grinding” in an RPG, seemingly that these additional quests exist within a narrative context (mini-tales concerning the people and places of the Mojave wasteland) is intended to mitigate their grind-like quality. However, what they tend to result in from my perspective is an unintended simulation of a “to do” list. These quests, like grinding, feel like work, but specifically because of the way that they are presented seem even more like real life work than a lot of games with fantastic settings usually do.

What I mean by this relates to the way that quests are structured and then spread across Fallout's wasteland. Almost all sidequests have multiple components. Say that the player encounters a Boomer (a member of a reclusive group of survivors with an isolationist bent supported by their propensity for using high explosives to discourage visitors) who is in love with a citizen of New Vegas that serves as a member of a group of caravaners. He has seen the woman from afar and wants to meet her and enlists the protagonist to do so. On the player's Pip-boy, the device used as a menu and mapping system in the game, the quest is listed with an unmarked checkbox next to it along with a description of what one needs to do to get the quest started: basically, go talk to the girl at her place of business, the Crimson Caravan Company.

Great. Traveling back to New Vegas for this conversation can consist of a trek across the Mojave wastes, but if the player has visited the strip, it might be a simple enough thing to do to fast travel to the location to talk to the girl. Following that (and assuming the player is convincing enough in a plea for introducing her to the isolated Boomer), the quest will go on. The next step, talking to the caravaner's boss about getting the woman's wages paid despite the leave of absence she is about to take, will then be listed as the next step in the development of the sidequest. Thus, this is how most sidequests work in the Fallout games, each is made up of a host of minor goals (sometimes active minor goals are simple and straightforward, though sometimes they might include two or three active steps) that each unlock the next step until the full arc of the sidequest is complete.

This is all well and good except that as you complete steps like the ones mentioned above, you might run into another wastelander while on the way to completing a step of a sidequest that introduces the beginning of a new quest. Or, as is frequently the case, one might find that a few steps into a quest that whomever one is talking to as a part of the sidequest that they themselves have yet another task that they want you to accomplish that is wholly unrelated to the sidequest in progress. Soon your Pip-boy is overflowing with odds and ends, bits of requests that are only partially finished, half complete, or barely started. And every time you accomplish a fragment of one, there is another person tugging at your elbow to add yet another note to your constantly mounting pile of unfinished business.

Of course, this is a video game and an open world video game at that, boasting the freedom to take on whatever it is that you want to accomplish. However, as an adult with a fair degree of responsibilities, there is a fair amount of resemblance between the mountain of unfinished business piling up on “your desk top” (in this case, the Pip-boy) and the kind of work that the contemporary American worker faces on a daily basis.

The idea that a few steps into a job that a cellphone will ring or an incoming e-mail will arrive or someone will stop by your desk, all of these things in a work environment are frequently “requests” or “little favors”, really more things to file in the inbox. These interruptions, like responding to that question in the e-mail, also frequently result in, you guessed it, another request for your help, your time, your resources. As a well trained American worker, I feel compelled to take one job after another; every interruption must be dealt with, since every “request” is really a responsibility, my responsibility. This “training” makes it nearly impossible for me to just push a request aside in Fallout. I must “help out.” My well-honed Puritan work ethic is my own worst nightmare in a game like this.

Contrast this kind of sidequest structure with the structure of a game like Red Dead Redemption and there is some subtle, but notable differences. In Rockstar games, there are certainly sidequests to undertake, and they populate the map alongside markers for regular quests, but once I embark on such a sidequest, there are no interruptions (or at least not quite the same kind). I can complete that small sidequest in a largely encapsulated form from beginning to end, no stopping in the middle. Sure, I might run into an ambush in the desert while running a fetch quest for some stranded traveler in New Austin, but there is no one who is going to show up in the middle of the quest and sprinkle three new requests across my map. As a matter of fact, the map will “erase” all other unfinished business markers until I complete whatever sidequest I have decided to undertake. The game provides me with something that real life does not, blissful focus, as opposed to the tyranny of interruption, which seems the basis of American white collar work.

Now I realize that my perception of this “simulation” is a somewhat subjective one. It is my experience of work as a constant pressure to multitask that frames my view of why Fallout's mission structure is so decidedly unpleasant, but maybe I am speaking of this merely as a cautionary tale to others like myself. If you were instilled with a Puritanical vision of work as one of obligation to every request, a duty to get everything done that you are assigned, then, the Fallout series is one that may not provide escape from reality for you. It may be far too devilishly close to your own experience of work to ever feel much like play at all.

However, I have to cut this discussion short. I need to see the King's robo-dog to the vet, hire a sexbot for a New Vegas brothel, and maybe clear some rats out of a Boomer facility real quick. I'm sure the wastelanders will have something else for me to do soon enough.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.