I’ve got strangeness that jingle jingle jangles…

Strangeness of the week. I find the song, and now this video, absolutely compelling.

Unfortunately it’s a trailer for a game…and as games go it appears to be fairly predictable: it involves killing; it involves a desecrated future earth, it involves levels. There is a sense of achievement, of having satisfaction withheld…etc. I haven’t seen the game, and I don’t really want to. I am not yet at the point that I want to leave the current narrative I inhabit for a virtual one, though I can imagine why one might want to. On the other hand, I find this video compelling and I would like to visit this world the way I would like to visit a world in a book…except this is not the world of a book, it’s a world I’ll have to inhabit in a completely different way…but what way is that? How is it different from living in Zuckerberg’s Facebook world? So far…

I spoke to Darren Zenko, a very cool Alberta writer who writes pretty exclusively about games and gaming. He explains:

The video uses scenes and models from “Fallout 3” and the signature song of its sequel, “Fallout: New Vegas”, both published by Bethesda Softworks. They’re the latest in a longrunning series of post-apocalyptic role-playing games. To get an idea of the flavor of the setting, imagine the Year 2000 as envisioned by science-fiction and popular-science magazine covers of the 40s and 50s… then subject that world to a nuclear war and go forward 200 years

Where “Fallout 3” was set in the ruins of Washington, D.C. and surrounding suburbs, “New Vegas” takes place in the deserts surrounding Las Vegas, which avoided the worst of the atomic devastation — the House bet against a nuclear strike, and the House never loses.

I’ve written about “New Vegas” and its predecessor several times: here, here, here, and here.

And I thought poetry was bleak… But this is the world so many teenage boys retreat to. And they spend hours there, making their way through these desecrated landscapes… Zenko again:

This particular video contains very little footage of actual in-game play, rather it was composed with a third-party (fan-made) tool to place character models etc. from the game into various of the game’s locations, and then to make them dance, etc. It’s a pretty good little example of the new folk-art form called “machinima” — computer-generated animated film that exploits and recombines the high-quality models and assets created for video games. While “(I’ve Got Spurs That) Jingle Jangle” is the signature New Vegas song, the piece was composed using “Fallout 3” assets (which F:NV largely shares).

I had more questions…so here’s a brief conversation with Zenko:

I found this video haunting, Darren. I have had my share of interest in video games–from Pong, to Galaga, to Mario Brothers, etc, but I stopped somewhere at the NFL football scene and didn’t venture into XBox, or Sim, or any of these more virtual worlds. Or real worlds. Too real? I found this video while looking for an original of the song (which will never be the same, thank you), otherwise I would never have found it. But once I did, I felt compelled to go further. I kind of want to own this game and this disturbs me. I don’t think I have enough time in my life to be a reader and a gamer at the level of immersion the new gaming reality requires…am I wrong?DZ: Well, not exactly wrong… but you might find that the required “level of immersion” isn’t the all-consuming lifestyle choice it’s sometimes made out to be. I think a lot of that idea comes from the way multiplayer games, with their complex (and often rewarding) social natures, can and do absorb players in ways single-player games don’t.

But the “Fallout” games are resolutely single-player — an increasingly rare position in the top (commercail) tier of the medium. Though it can certainly eat up time if you want it to and let it, it is very much built to support non-marathon (TV episode or feature film-length) play sessions. The hundreds of storylines, minor and major, in the wasteland are broken into manageable chapters, and you can save and walk off anytime…

Whether you will walk off is another question… both “Fallout 3” and “New Vegas” offer a lot to explore, and the compulsion to see what’s just over the next ridge, or inside the next ruin is pretty strong. On the other hands…

A) …it *is* still fundamentally a combat game, and I don’t know how you feel about hours of chopping off heads, blowing off limbs, and sneaking up to bandits to put live grenades in their pants. How *do* you feel?

B) …while it is top-notch within the context of the games medium, the writing isn’t going to win any literary awards… and while the vocal performances are quite good (I think I wet my pants a little when I realized I was speaking to Kris-freakin’-Kristofferson) the digital puppets through which they are delivered, and the unchanging straight-on headshot in which they are framed, make for underwhelming cinema.

SQ: Again, I haven’t seen the game, but you put your finger on something here “in bringing their half-dead world to life, Bethesda’s designers have made every corner of the space resonate with human presence…” This is another way in which the video haunts…it’s like the strange optimism of post war America in this futuristic landscape. Oddly disconcerting. One feels a kind of kick in the gut for enjoying it…or wanting to. I’m hesitating…

DZ: You ought to explore it a little, if only to satisfy your curiosity and/or give yourself something of a foothold in a medium whose canons, conventions and critical culture are still very much in the formative stages despite a multiple-tens-of-billions-of-dollars presence in the cultural marketplace…”

It’s the literary quality, or the potential literariness that bothers me about this game. The realism taps into a historical and future apocalyptic narrative–it gets you both ways, looking back at a dazzled post-war entertainment industry and forging of new identity and forward to a bleak world where the cowboy, by virtue of his or her resourcefulness, can once again reign.

Worse, it seems to be taking direct aim at the novel…don’t read it, experience it, create your own devastating narrative… I asked new Concordia professor and poet Darren Wershler about Fallout, which I thought he might have, or know about, and yes, he does. He confirmed my suspicions:

The Fallout experience is really, really bleak. It’s partly due to the detailed mise en scene, and partly due to the way the narrative is structured. There are no right answers to the problem it presents you with, and few easy ones. So it’s a writerly game, in Barthes’ sense. We need more of those.

Okay, but why? Why are we spending so much time in worlds that are created to distract and amuse? We need to fold this into our discussion of the future of the book also–it seems we have another, billion dollar threat…possibly more lethal than movies. Certainly another bit of competition for the old fashioned book…and your reading time. And perhaps the generative capability of your imagination…

I’ll let you know. I don’t have a play date exactly, but I am going to give it a shot when the semester ends.
–Sina Queyras