Emotional Fallout

One of the games that I've been playing obsessively lately is Fallout 3. Despite me having spent more than 60 hours in its post apocalyptic wasteland, I'm yet to get tired of the title's incredible narrative architecture. As Clive Thompson points out on Wired:

It's an incredibly bleak game. Critics have lauded it for its complex-but-intuitive gameplay, its intriguing story and a go-anywhere world that outdoes even the sprawling burbia of Grand Theft Auto IV. But for my money, Fallout 3's accomplishment is more subtle:

It's depressing.

Fallout 3 indeed excels in creating an environment that is filled with stories of despair, struggle, violence, crushed dreams and hopes. Exploring the environment reveals countless little stories about life in the wasteland and life how it used to be.

Two skeletons lie next two each other on a bed in a destroyed wooden house, at the end the burned leftovers of their child.

An example Thompson gives:

There's a little girl who was found under a bed, and who's now living with a guy who rescued her, trying to avoid the pedophiles in her safe zone. And there's the mission where I was rescuing children from slavers, and tried to persuade a little girl to leave her friend behind -- telling her that "friends sometimes leave you."

"Ghoulified" characters reminiscent of their former beauty or social position, now they're just social outcasts. Every time I play, I come across something that impressively demonstrates the chilling horrors of nuclear warfare. This effect is likely to be bigger if one is actually familiar with the real Washington D.C. (the last time I went was in 1995 so many of the games locales don't have a huge impact on me).

If one digs deep enough one is even able to find documents of the tensions that lead to the attacks. Computers hold records about negotiations and safety measures. Still: The final strike must have been sudden, people even felt comfortable enough to go camping (judging by the burned out trailer I found).

One of the main differences to another masterpiece of narrative architecture – Bioshock – is that the people you encounter are not to blame for the situation they're confronted with. The erection of the Rapture and its social system was a conscious decision, a deliberate turning away from the rest of the world to create a place with its own ethics. It is consequently harder to feel empathy with any of enemies one encounters, their condition is merely the last consequence of their philosophy.

In Fallout 3 a whole world is suddenly confronted with the aftermath of the apocalypse. Now everyone has to cope with radiation, dirty water, anarchy and slavery; everyone is a victim of circumstances beyond their control which certainly adds to the emotional undertone of the game.

As Thompson points out:

Fallout 3 hammers this home early, because you actually begin the game as a preverbal toddler, waddling around a gray nuclear bunker that your father -- who appears to love you quite deeply -- has tried, and failed, to make into a happy nursery. A few little red rockets hang in a mobile over your industrial steel crib, and that's it.

Fallout 3 is an incredible achievement. If one takes the time to explore the vast, bleak world of the game – and not just pursues the action-orientated main quests – it is a very rewarding game which, as Thompson puts it, triggers reflection through pain. It is violent yet inspires more empathy than any other title I played before.


Bioshock and the Australian Videogame Industry

Internet! Finally! But then again the opportunities of me contributing more to this blog remain marginally slim because I'm playing Bioshock, "the ultimate rarity: not only does it live up to its lofty promise, but exceeds it through simple, old fashioned talent and imagination - not to mention verve, style,class, wit, and sheer bloody-minded ambition. It takes the tired, worn-out FPS genre by the scruff of the neck, reinvents and bend it out of shape in such a breathtaking fashion that it's going to take something very special to top this in the months and years ahead" (Eurogamer). Well that – and it skillfully disguises its linearity. It's not only one of the best games of the year, or the last years for that matter, but also exactly what the Australian videogame industry needs. For the uninitiated: The studio responsible for the game, Irrational, is based in Boston and Canberra where the core technology team resides. One of the problems of Australia's games industry is that it's mainly a work for hire industry. While this reduces the risk for the developers and can help to build infrastructure, respectively to enhance the skills base it goes together with a smaller revenue stream for the studios – and most of the profits are going abroad – the consequence being that this procedure doesn't build value onto the business. Furthermore the question remains if this model is viable under a long term perspective. Regions in Eastern Europe skill-wise rapidly catch up but are able to deliver their work at much cheaper rates. Then there're India and Asia which already provide reliable outsourcing services albeit still suffer from a cultural barrier that make their games not too appealing to the Western markets. But maybe it's just a matter of time until this problem is overcome (which I doubt). Also: If you as a publisher are looking for a studio to work on your IP why not choose a country like Canada; it offers generous state incentives and, not matter where you're operations are based, it's closer than Australia.

The answer: Own creative IP. As Mark Fludder from Queensland Government explained to me in an interview: "We're going to need to see local IP developed and again […] Otherwise: why not move it to the Czech Republic?... We need to be saying, well, you know… Pandemic's Destroy All Humans is a really good example, it's their own make and was all developed and scripted here. It was a big hit, so when whoever owns Pandemic at any given moment on the continuum is going to say: 'Do we continue to invest in Australia? Well, hey... they're making good games'. And I think that's important, I think Australia is going to have to do that".

Tom Crago of the GDAA holds a similar view (from the newsletter): "“To have such a high profile title come out of a local studio not only shows the world what our talent here is capable of, it also draws attention to the broader Australian industry, which is an extremely positive thing… [It] shows Government and the media that we really are on the cusp of becoming a global hub for game development” adding that “Australian-made games are mixing it with the very best in the world.”

So the potential is there – and with more incentives from federal government (which until now, for some reasons solely known to Peter Costello, only generously supports the indigenous movie industry) it indeed might elevate Australia into the first league of game development.