He Took An (Existential) Arrow To The Knee (Soul)

I’m not going to lead with my usual narrative build-up. The seed of this post is so well-known as to be a cultural artifact for anyone below the age of 40 and over the age of 10. Indeed, no sooner will someone within this demographic hear the words “I used to be an adventurer like you…” before automatically filling “…then I took an arrow to the knee.” It’s mnemonic in that way. But why? The reasons are many. The line’s meme potential defies calculation, which is obvious by the longevity and proliferation of same. It’s also very distinct and even when heard in passing remains an earworm as one continues to gallivant around Skyrim. Instantly the phrase recalls fond memories of Whiterun and Stormcloaks and Imperials and endless, endless Draugr. There is also the obvious color that hearing the line again and again undoubtedly adds to the game world. However, in my view, the value of the phrase is none of these, save perhaps a deeper aspect of the latter. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s consider a separate type of depth beyond physical and immediate exploration.

Many, many entertainment experiences–cinematic, literary or of the gaming variety–celebrate the sheer wealth and breadth of the work on offer. Brilliant, unique characters populate fantastic (or decidedly unfantastic) settings and contain endless narrative threads for the enjoyment of the enterprising consumer. The Open-World Game–emphasis intended–was once a novelty, especially on consoles, limited by the processing power of the then-current generation of technology. Each one to drop was an event, a herald of the coming sea-change in gaming. Fable, Spiderman 2, any Elder Scrolls game, and (of course) Ever(crack)quest and World of War(crack)craft. Iconic releases that defined an era in gaming and iconic specifically for the massive sandboxes to explore and manipulate. And there is much indeed to explore and manipulate. The experience feels expansive in each case. One may plunge deep into the content and wheresoever one chooses. Few of these games suffer from the adage “a mile wide and an inch deep”, if any. That’s their claim to fame after all: depth. Indeed, what they’re lacking has little to do with depth or lack thereof, but rather age. Which is the essence of having once been an adventurer until taking an arrow to the knee. Having once been. Until.

What I’m describing is more than a plenitude of spatial distance. Rather, what brings this phrase to the forefront of Skyrim like no other part of Skyrim is its suggestion that there is a before and consequently after to the narrative. That in itself suggests that you, the player, are merely a mote passing along the diode of time. In simpler terms, the guard saying for the umpteenth number of times that he used to be an adventurer like you before taking an arrow to the knee takes the vast three-dimensional world that Bethesda has become so expert at developing and stretches all its manifold components and narratives across a fourth dimension: time.

The implication that there exists a before to your journey in any narrative likewise suggests an after, both together suggesting linear time, and that implication performs an immense amount of labor in creating a living world. Indeed, there is a wide gulf that exists between a living world and an expansive world. An expansive world, if unalive, is simply static. You are the only moving object within the world. In a sense, time does not exist in that world or at least not in a linear sense, for events (and so time) only progress whensoever you choose. Living worlds operate like this too. We have not truly found a way (no marketable way at any rate) to create a persistent world in which the player is literally merely a factor (as opposed to the mere suggestion that they are a factor). Rather it is the dimension of time that helps to bring alive an expansive world, to engender a sense of progression and movement outside and notwithstanding the actions of the player. For there is no way that the player can stop that arrow from sinking into that guard’s knee. There is no way to prevent his hobbling and thus allow for the rise of his adventuring career. The player has no control over this scenario. This derailing of his life persists with or without them.

And of course all of this is to the benefit of the player.

The respect paid to time–as to the cultures, the locales and characters–crosses a threshold for the expansive open world game that would not be crossed otherwise. Ambient time–that is, suggestions of the before and after along a linear path that are come across in the course of things–seeps in around the player like a ghost. Whispers that there was a world here before and will be a world long after. A memento mori, if you will, that the struggle of the player is perhaps not in vain but certainly not singular. This is a staggering concept, with sobering implications. What are we but the shadows of dust thrown against the wall by the light of the fire of life, briefly present and hardly remembered? Who are we; where are we going; do the matters of our lives matter in the scheme of time? The answers to those questions have occupied some of the best minds of our species for millennia and continue to do so.

The great Human Experiment remains incomplete and won’t be solved here. But we continue to explore that concept. And, at its core, this exploration of ambient time poses an existential question that I need not explain. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably a member of that self-selecting population who finds some twisted enjoyment in picking at the scab of their ennui. Rather the key thing is to understand how easily we might inject a little existential truth into the worlds we build for others to explore and inhabit, how easily we might deliver more than a vast material space filled with a plenitude of static entities.  Indeed, the point is no more or less complex than this: All that sobering truth, that world-shattering and world-deepening, was accomplished with this simple, little line: “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee.”

Diminishing Returns at the End of the World

I finally figured it out, and it’s embarrassing that it took me so long. I’ve recently started playing Fallout 4 for what is probably the fourth time, the previous three unsuccessful attempts at finishing it. Which is a problem in its own right. It has probably the worst plot setup of any modern game, if only because of its quality in many other respects.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Your child is kidnapped and your wife shot, and yet the game allows you the opportunity for a gleeful romp through the wasteland until you decide to finally go figure it the fuck out. Yes, it’s a facet of nearly every RPG that you can kind of waylay the main quest for however long you want. But! The start of the main quest is not usually so imperative as chasing down the kidnappers of your son and last living connection to anything approaching normality. Think about it: You wake up after 200 years, watch your wife get blown away by some mercenary dude in armor made out of tires, and your son taken away by another guy in a hazmat suit. Then you stumble through the Vault you’ve been secreted in, fighting your way through giant mutated cockroaches, and out into the vast unknown of an irradiated wasteland. A bit of a trip, right? Wrong. You’re as cheerful as ever to meet the acquaintance of Preston Garvey, cosplayer of an era he surely would have been able to piece together by listening to the recordings scattered throughout a mysteriously electrified Museum of Freedom. Even talking to your old robot butler, Codsworth, the first NPC you meet in the game, the main character has the emotional depth of a sociopath’s approximation of an appropriate response to the situation.

Which I suppose was a long winded, ranting way of finally getting me to my point. Nearly every Fallout has followed the same formula, with a notable exception being Fallout 2, which turns the genesis of the story on its head by requiring that you delve into a Vault rather than emerging from one. The Vault, in this instance, is the frightening and unfamiliar thing. A suitable followup, not at all a carbon copy. Queue Bethesda’s remakes. Each one: emerging from a Vault in some feebly different way. Fallout: New Vegas, a product of some of the original Fallout team at Obsidian? No Vault. You’re just some fuck. But tired replication isn’t even Fallout 4’s most glaring error. It’s that you have no real instigator for the plot beyond the player’s own decision. And before anyone suggests “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”, this can be implemented well and absolutely is not here.

Fallout 1–going way back, I know–had similarly dire circumstances that saw you leave your life as a Vault Dweller behind: The water purification chip on which the entirety of the Vault relies to, you guessed it, drink serviceably potable water, has malfunctioned. You, the Vault Dweller, must go out into the wasteland and find a new one before everyone fucking dies. And die they will. Take too long and run out the most gruesome “days until” counter of all? Dead. You can’t fuck around for too long. There are ways to push the counter back. You can arrange for a shipment of water to reach the Vault, although for a ton of currency. But you still need to get that chip, my boy. Does failing this quest end the game? Yes. It’s a game after all. But conceivably you’re still out there wandering the wasteland in the wake of your failure. Game logic aside, you don’t *need* to get the chip. It would just be very helpful and good-hearted of you to do so.

In Fallout 4, you do need, however, to get your fucking kid back. Unless you are indeed a total sociopath, as mentioned above. But herein lies another problem, Fallout 4 breaks from tradition in one of only two significant ways, and it’s a disaster for the plot. You are an Actual Guy With An Actual Life. Do you get to choose his name, his appearance, whether it’s a ‘he’ at all? Yes. But that’s it. You still operate within the certain parameters that you’re a decorated war hero with a nice family and warm, loving home. Which sets the stage for the next departure. All previous incarnations, especially those developed by the original team, pretty well convey that the era before the Day the Bombs Fell deeply rooted in 1950’s America on steroids. The cheery veneer of everyday life was played up to extravagant ends and the extravagance of everyday life was such that even your average car was nuclear powered. This last item is perhaps the only characteristic that Bethesda carried over with Fallout 4. The wrecked, junked cars are indeed nuclear powered and will explode in a bright, fiery display when shot enough. But beyond this bright enamel of normality, everything was a totalitarian nightmare. Constant war, summary executions, political persecutions. Not a *nice* atmosphere in which you’re only concern is prepping to give a speech at the local veterans’ club. It’s absurd! It drives me insane!

But it’s to be expected, isn’t it? Across all forms of media these days–whether video games, movies, TV, or music–we’re getting soulless resurrection after soulless resurrection. Endless repeats of franchises that should have stayed dead. The sequel to the remake of the prequel to the original. It never ends. What can Bethesda do, but serve up an experience for the player? And only an experience, its approximation of what a Fallout game is *supposed* to be. The aim is not to create art. Just to replicate it. And more than this, the end result is a defanged and peppy knockoff. Nothing is permitted to be grim or carry any reminder that there is a world outside which is less than bright and shiny. Which is to be expected when everything is turned into a commodity, nothing left sacred. All they can hope to do is create a vast amusement park ride with enough attractions to distract from the fact you’re paying $7 for a bottle of soda. And, to their credit, they have. Fallout 4 is pretty fun to play. For a while. Then, eventually, after you’ve ridden enough of the rides, you realize just how much the soda costs and how long the drive home will be after you’ve wasted probably your entire day on something that wasn’t near as fun as you imagined–all just to make up for how utterly meaningless it was to begin with.

The New Metric

Increasingly I feel like the only number that matters in game reviews is not the Metacritic score, but the amount of hours the player can sink into the game. There are as many AAA heavy-hitters in this category as there are indie games. A game can have the most beautiful environments, the most intuitive gameplay, or the most thought-provoking story and a chorus of Dorito-scented wails will decry it as trash if the length is less than 20 hours. Conversely, a game can employ sprawling empty environments or horrible and unskippable dialogue if only it stretches the gameplay out enough to accommodate players who would grind out in the real world if their ass still fit through the door. I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2.

There was a time when the words ‘online’ or ‘open world’ sparked joy in my then-young gaming mind. I’d freak if it was both. But, more and more, this is sliding into strange territory. The industry is offering less experiences and more simulations. Unlimited, recurring play is creating frenetic lifetime customers. In any other game, especially if there’s voice chat, you would regard these people with the same type of wariness and separation from reality as you would the guy screaming at random people in the street. Maybe they were strange to begin with, but the ability to stay inside all day with an endlessly recycled slot machine experience is probably not helping. For instance, just let this sink in: There were players lobbying for Bungie to remove whatever feeble controls they’d put in place for Destiny 2 to prevent people from playing all day, every day. The idea of playing another game just never occurred to them, a fact that is pretty easy to track these days with the deployment of player profiles and playtime counters.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. You can come at this from so many different angles that your head will literally start to vibrate like a tuning fork. I don’t want to delve into the impending societal collapse making people want to stay indoors with fake realities or depriving them of the opportunities to do much else. Walk that road if you must. I encourage it. Neither do I want to get too deep into the idea that this manner of play creates a cycle of disassociation that feeds into itself and creates hostile, if not fatal, levels of community toxicity. I truly believe there is something emotionally wrong with a fair few of online/hardcore gamers, especially those who settle into one game for thousands of hours (yes, they exist); but there’s quite a lot to unpack there.

No, the simple thrust of my argument is this: length and scope, for the sake of themselves, do not a good game make. If you’ve substituted your real life for a digital one, I guess it makes sense to rate a game according to how long you can divorce yourself from life by playing it. I say divorce and not ‘immerse’ or (the always favorite) ‘get lost in’ because that’s not what these games do and not what these gamers are after. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I got immersed or lost in these experiences. Games like RDR2 and Kingdom Come: Deliverance are profoundly boring art projects. This only becomes apparent, of course, if you’re A) not paid to say otherwise or B) don’t have such a wealth of unallocated free time available that you can afford to ride a horse across a mostly empty landscape for thirty minutes. These games don’t provide immersive experiences; they provide expansive simulations that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Armed with narratives tacked on to make use of the environments and that would put an angsty teen to shame with their quality and emotional resonance, these games certainly don’t offer anything in the way of compelling plots or characters. And don’t get me started on the gameplay. If it isn’t so stilted and clunky that you’ll die from hitting a tree going slightly faster than a snail, they present beautifully designed combat systems that you will literally never use. Outside the tutorial and first hours of the game, I can count on one hand how many people I’ve fought in RDR2 and Kingdom Come that I did not deliberately seek out and pick fights with. “You always have to do this”, you might say. And I’d call you a sad, pedantic fuck.

Skyrim, a game that I very rarely have any cause to praise, is overflowing with enemies to fight and tasks to accomplish that aren’t boring as fuck. Sure, there’s a fair amount of ‘go to cave X and kill bandit Y’. But there’s also more than a few detailed quest lines associated with multiple dungeons at many different progress intervals in the game. The plethora of sidequests I’m currently treated to in Kingdom Come? Some shit about a wedding, courting a miller’s daughter, getting a horse for some dude, etc. I have a quest to go box some people and another to clear out a bandit camp, but I know from prior experience that this will be it for some time. There’s simply nothing to fucking do.

And why? “It’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of life in the Middle Ages/Wild West,” is a common refrain. People died all the fucking time in both time periods. The Crusades were started to get all the shithead knights out of Europe because they were killing too many peasants. Banditry was rife. The history of the American West is filled with some of our only “legends”, filled with racism and ethnic cleansing though they may be. Things happened is my point. These reproductions play as though someone designed a giant, avant-garde extrapolation of the play No Exit. And, assuming it’s an accurate portrayal to create a giant extrapolation of No Exit, what the fuck is the point? My answer: to waste as much time as humanly possible in order to distract myself from my miserable kissless virgin existence.

Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?

End the Cycle of the Saga Chronicled by the Archive

Since the reintroduction and consequent explosion of the Lord of the Rings in the United States during the 1960’s, the vaunted trilogy is something that has haunted the genres of fantasy and science fiction. It became almost a rite of passage. You weren’t a serious practicer of the craft if you hadn’t a trilogy to your name or some other long-running series. Forget duologies, tetrologies, quintologies. It was three or as many as it took for you to die of natural causes a la Robert Jordan, then someone else steps in to finish your dirty work. How many narratives were structured – naturally or purposefully – by this unspoken rule, none can say. We may say with some certainty, however, that the trend has definitely shaped the market.

Historically an affectation of the fantasy genre, the trilogy has started to parasitize science fiction as that medium starts to take on more and more of the tropes of its cousin. Indeed, the genres themselves have seemed to start blending together and not in the healthy and interesting ways that lead to crazed tales of cybernetic trolls and spell-flinging bounty hunters. More than anything else, they’ve become conventional distillations of the all the worst elements of genre writing with the simple backdrop of this or that loosely-related piece of technologic or magical fabric. That’s a topic for another time, though. Right now, we’re talking cheap gimmicks and marketing strategies.

The structure has limped along through the years, surviving on waxing nostalgia for its place as a hallmark of the genre(s) and by changing its terminology. These days, you don’t see Trilogy much anymore. And, if you do, it’s something applied after the fact by critics or the community. No, more common are its failed offspring that are much more egregious for also being overwrought: Cycle, Chronicle, Archive, Saga, etc. In addition to this being a nice and cheap ploy to map out butcher-paper knockoffs, consistent repeats of the narratives we’ve been reading for 50 years, it’s also an easy way to grab an extra $30 off a prospective buyer. Some might just grab the first volume and call it a day, choosing not to continue with the tripe. But I’d be a rich man if I received the sticker price every time I heard or read someone detailing the experience of reading this or that trilogy in such starry-eyed language as “struggled through to the end; started the journey, so I might as well finish it; skipped over the boring stuff and the good parts were pretty entertaining”, and so on. You get the idea. It isn’t hard to miss.

Is this really the standard we want to hold ourselves to as readers and, dare I say it, writers? Is our time really so cheap that we can afford to throw hours and hours away on something we feel compelled to skip through? The answers should come easy. We all deserve good entertainment for our time and money. Let’s be honest: we only stand to gain when hacks are forced out of the medium and into some other corner of the creative tent. Give them a SyFy original series to ejaculate over the airwaves, if wasting our time is the height of their achievement. Throw them the doomed run of a sideline superhero to rehabilitate. Make them come back for more, if they want more. Make them prove they deserve the keys to the city and, for the love of God, make sure they don’t know the doorman.