The Museum in Post-Apocalyptica (with Some Notes on Gaming)

Gaming is weird and seems to have only gotten weirder. It used to be my life as a kid with many a Saturday spent in Hull’s old Gamestation shop — a little goth cave off the high street, tiny, blackened walls, no windows, full of metal heads, games for every console in existence everywhere you looked, somehow smellier than the Games Workshop down the road but also always populated with Mums trying to understand their children’s obsession, looking mighty intimidated by the crowd of towering, burly regulars. I never thought I’d have such Proustian memories over that particular early 00s flavour of teen BO…

Gamestation got bought out by Game in 2007 and I don’t remember spending time in any other gaming shop so it’s safe to say that that’s about the time I stopped following gaming as an industry quite so religiously and got priced out of keeping up with all the new developments. To be honest, it didn’t even feel like an industry then. It had managed to avoid the cringeworthy, performative professionalism of a medium trying desperately to be taken seriously.

I think I bought an Xbox 360 around that time and the last game I bought for it was Skyrim… I have remained more or less in an out-of-date timewarp since that time, sticking by my Bethesda games, Half Life 2, my N64 and GameCube also getting the occasional outing, and not much else… So I’ve mostly been watching the weird controversies of the last few years from the sidelines, totally bemused by the hills that gaming culture has chosen to die on: its general defence of mental health politics coupled with a violent rejection of feminist input feeling like the central kernel of evermore convoluted displays of cognitive dissonance.

Not to hate on contemporary gaming culture too much. It’s extremely bone-headed reputation is not mirrored in the games it has to offer. It’s a weird, fucked-up but nonetheless beautiful subculture, if you’re looking in the right places.

Just like everything else, those who shout loudest are the ones everyone with sense wants to tie in a bag and throw in a river…

Anyway… I’ve evidently not been entirely disconnected. I’ve instead moved into a sort of child’s wide-eyed but broke engagement with the culture, having no money to spend on it and instead watching Let’s Play videos on YouTube and pushing my 2015 laptop to its absolute limits for the past few years. (Dying Light was the limit of what it could handle and the only new-ish game I’ve spent a lot of time with although now it weirdly triggers my anxiety, having perhaps spent too much time with it during one too many a depression.) A few months ago, however, my girlfriend’s brother lent me his Nintendo Switch with Breath of the Wild in it and that got me itching to catch up and see what I’ve been missing behind the headlines.

Because, subcultural fuckery aside, gaming is a fascinating medium and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the current generation of console gaming has raised the quality in games to happily rival film and television — an opinion long held by fans but now with more than enough evidence to back it up, even if those who seemed to miss the initial boat in their teens or childhoods remain stuck in a mire of indifference.

I write about books, films, TV and music fairly frequently on this blog, folding observations around these mediums into all kinds of posts on the regular, and the only reason gaming has been omitted from this so far is down to my access to what’s new in games. Commenting on stuff via Let’s Plays alone feels like cheating. If I’m to write anything, it needs to come from my own player experiences.

That being said…

As recently tweeted, the office where I spend a few days a week here in London has entered a week-long summer shutdown — not sure what for but I’m not complaining. It’s a week off I’ve started strong, buying a battered second-hand PS4 for about as cheap as I’ve ever seen it with Fallout 4 secondhand and The Last Of Us Remastered — the former I failed to get to run on my laptop (I really love Bethesda RPGs for all their buggy flaws) and the latter is a game I’ve wanted to play ever since bingewatching a surprisingly affecting Let’s Play series of it when it first came out.

I’ve largely binge-played The Last Of Us so far this week. It’s a beautiful if relentless game that tells the story of one man’s journey through a post-ecozombie apocalypse where most of the population has become infected by cordyceps.

It’s an inspired idea. The spectacle of nature taking back the world from human civilisation is a common and now ubiquitous trope within zombie movies, but here this trope is folded back into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style flora-infecting-fauna twist.

Wandering around the game’s beautifully rendered natural environments, there is a distinct unease that this beauty is both the result and cause of the world we’re currently existing in. Whether in the inner city or the outskirts, buildings and nature itself seem to — somewhat unnaturally — tower over you, far bigger than you would otherwise expect, with nature’s ruthless drive towards reclamation making even the man-made feel newly intimidating.

Fallout 4‘s version of post-apocalyptia is very different to this. Nothing seems out of reach. Rather than being in constant peril at the bottom of some new food chain, in Fallout 4 it seems that, instead, the playing field has been completely levelled — the most notable difference to existence being that everything is still there for the taking.

This is very much a part of the franchise’s parody of capitalism, to an extent, although here the sense of parody feels like it is waning somewhat… Or perhaps it has intensified… I’m on the fence.

Fallout 4 takes the franchise back to its beginnings. We begin in pre-apocalyptia, in an alternative universe where the USA has fully — even excessively — embraced nuclear technology, using it to rapidly advance technology in general and power absolutely everything from the automobile industry to the superhuman armour of the army’s foot soldiers. There is a Metal Gear-esque narrative here, but one that (again) places the nuclear on a level with the human rather than looming precariously above it. It is not just a gateway to technological monstrosities but rather remains accessible to the everyman, powering his desires.

The world of the game has, notably, not advanced aesthetically past the 1950s. When I say that literally everything is nuclear-powered, that seems to include a newly robust American Dream as well. Social consciousness runs on the power of the atom. It’s a marvellous demonstration and parody of the extent to which nothing is beyond the reach of capitalism, particularly a capitalism run on the fundamental but also radical power of nuclear fusion — an atomic capitalism, in every sense of the word.

Even the game’s currency of used bottlecaps feels like a hilarious example of the way capitalism might smuggle its own longevity into its own suicidal detritus. Capital continues to run, albeit at limited capacity, on its own death drive.

This societal love of all things nuclear further defines the landscapes in which human influence continues to permeated far beyond the reaches of the human. In the game’s back story, China attacks and invades the USA, blasting most of the country with nuclear weapons and so, as with every game in the series, you begin your journey into post-apocalyptia in a numbered Vault, used to (nefariously) house future generations who emerge on a new world very much full of life but mutated beyond previous recognition.

Other plants and animals might have been “advanced” and made more dangerous by nuclear fallout but the position of humans within the world seems largely unchanged. There is little embarrassment about the ruinous effect of human civilisation on the world. Everything is taken in the stride of the American psyche which permeates all and so society seems to continue advancing undeterred by even the most violent of events. Infrastructure has broken down but the will of the individual, the true backbone of American society, is stronger than ever!

As such, these two games offer a fascinating contrast when played back to back. In The Last of Us, nature fights back and is our downfall, humiliating us, curtailing desires to their absolute minimum.

For example, children are central to the story of The Last of Us and when our protagonists — old man Joel and teen Ellie — meet another man and his ward, their relationship for the viewer is defined by the way that the boy in is care is not allowed to be the kid that he nonetheless inherently is. Ellie, on the other hand, the game’s young, female co-protagonist, is a symbol of hope and retains a child-like wonder and enthusiasm for all of life, as fascinated by this new Nature as she is by comic books and other remnants of pop culture found strewn throughout the landscape. Her new friend, Sam, however, also her age, when caught picking up a toy in a toy store, is told firmly to put it back. The number one rule of “taking stuff” in this universe is “take only what you need”.

This is reflected in the gameplay itself, where collectable items are completely lacking in variety. There are only five or six types, each used for crafting a specific tool or weapon. Ellie’s role as loveably rambunctious little gobshite is to be a new seed for desire, for the libidinal, for a paternal hope in the future. In other words, she is a new hope for the overturning of an endemic post-apocalyptic austerity, both emotional and material.

In this way, it feels like it is deeply inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a ubiquitous influence on pop cultural post-apocalyptia and one likewise cited by Fallout 3‘s dev team — an influence increasingly absent from the series as it has progressed. The inescapable Grey of Fallout 3, often derided as aesthetic mud but something I think worked brilliantly, is now far more vibrant with the neon glow of nuclear fallout.

In Fallout 4, in contrast to the austerity of The Last of Us, every piece of detritus can be picked up and utilised, no matter what it is. This is common to Bethesda games but seems to have been overhauled here. If it exists, it can go in your inventory. It can likewise all be used in crafting weapons and tools but the world is very much your own personal post-apocalyptic toy store. Take what you want and play,

What has interested me most about both of these examples — explicitly related to these dynamics, I think — is the (re)presentation of our own historic sense of ourselves as a species and as a civilisation, despite what we have done to the world we’re now inhabiting.

Halfway through The Last of Us, I find myself fighting hordes zombies and cannibalistic non-infected humans called “hunters”, running through a destroyed museum that is littered with mannequins, paintings and the unrecognisable detritus of a history now largely forgotten — or, at the very least, put out of mind as just another reminder of all that has been lost. The detail presented to the player here is scarce. It remains a beautiful and complex environment in terms of its textures but the signs of the old world are otherwise basic and distant. Pictures on the walls seem to be the most telling sign of what the building was previously used for, but beyond that they are simply wallpaper. History is ever-present but unimportant. Human (but also the specificity of American) culture is diluted, still traumatic.

Fallout 4, again in contrast, presents us with a museum as the first “outside” environment that we are able to explore. Having emerged from the vault and wandered around our desolated former home, the first quest takes you to the nearby town of Concord, surprisingly in tact after the bombs, all wooden frontages and dirt roads. We come across a battle between a group of raiders and a band of survivors who have holed themselves up in a museum and they are the first group of “settlers” you are given the opportunity to help.

Straight away, with this introductory quest, the franchise’s previous retro-futuristic aesthetic is injected with a huge dose of recursive frontierism (reminding me of my previous run of Westworld posts: here, here and here).

American history has always languished in the background of these games but previously as a similarly forgotten discipline and interest, now just a hobby for the concerned few. I’m reminded, in particular, of a quest in Fallout 3 in which you have to break into a museum, now home to a troop of mutants, in order to steal the Declaration of Independence for a jobbing historian. The indifference with which you pick up the document as a now largely unimportant object is funny but distinctly in contrast to the new wild west tone of Fallout 4. Here, this “Museum of Freedom”, complete with decrepit animatronic displays detailing a piecemeal and fractured vision of the American revolution, is transformed into a new Alamo for the 23rd century. This is less a civilisation built from the ashes and rather one which remains very much in touch with its past.

(This seems to be a twist the franchise is now going to run with, with Fallout 76 out in a couple of months, the marketing campaign of which has already played a lot with a theme of America’s tricentennial anniversary — 1776 to 2076.)

There is a somewhat twisted message here, explicitly connecting the threads of capitalist realism and nationalist realism, previously explored on this blog at length: the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of the United States. Bethesda makes great use of this future-proof nationalism to great comic effect but there is a sense that the joke might be lost on some within the fanbase…

As I keep playing, I suspect I’ll have much more to say so watch this space. In perusing the world of games now open to me, I’m likewise aware that post-apocalyptia dominates this market. (Horizon Zero Dawn is next on my to-play list.) The easiest thing to observe is that these post-apocalyptic RPGs and shooters are a symptom of contemporary unease and uncertainty but, as Fallout 4 comically demonstrates, there is nonetheless a belief that much will survive our seemingly inevitable demise. Each game seems to offer a different vision of just what those surviving elements may be and the nuances of those visions are far more interesting than making some analogy based on Trump terror.

To be continued…


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