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Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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Sunday
Mar282010

Four Capital Cities of the United States

When I first arrived at the ruins of Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 I was too busy to pay the scenery much attention or think about what it meant. I picked my way across the rubble towards my missions and glanced only cursorily at the structures around me, more worried about patrolling Super Mutants than exactly what ground I was traversing. It was during some non-directed exploration of these ruins when it finally struck me: coming around a corner to see a skeletal Washington Monument silhouetted against a blazing orange sky, a stark reminder– or evocation– of the idea that powers rise and fall inexorably with the flow of history.

It’s not that a little has gone wrong, or that one big thing has gone wrong, but everything we can think of has gone horribly, impossibly wrong in Fallout 3. The game has its share of silliness and humor, but ultimately the weight of its utter devastation is crushing. The original Fallout was pessimistic about humanity, but still tempered by its own self-regarding goofiness. Created and taking place in Southern California, what player couldn’t sense the existential absurdity and the surreal black humor of that post-apocalyptic wasteland? Fallout took us to a place where simply striving to scrape by in a horrible, incomprehensible world could be darkly funny.

There’s plenty of irony in Fallout 3 too, but it is mostly of the fatalistic, non-slant kind. Slave traders use the Lincoln Memorial as a base of operations. Unsuspecting musicians are poisoned with sound in a scientific experiment that goes horribly awry (just like all other scientific experiments in this world). “The bomb is perfectly safe,” says a Robby-style robot upon your first visit to the town of Megaton, and you immediately know he’s wrong; if that wasn’t enough, they make extra sure to remind you he said as much when you go back after the bomb has gone off. It’s two hundred years after the war and grass still won’t grow.

* * *

Modern Warfare 2’s depiction of the American capital is more freshly destroyed. In fact, the player witnesses its undoing at the hands of the Russians, for reasons that may have been clearly explained but which have left little lasting impression upon me. We navigate through the White House as it is engulfed in flames, wounds still bloody, emotions running high. “So when are we going to Moscow,” asks one soldier angrily. “Not soon enough, man. But I know we’ll burn it down when we get there,” answers another. Intentionally or not, the scene suggests the beginning of a modern war taken to extreme, paranoiac, Dr. Strangelove heights– and the kind we experience the ultimate result of in Fallout 3.

Designers of linear shooter levels often think a lot about showmanship, and though I have heard several team-specific terms for scripted spectacle, my favorite is “‘oh shit’ moments,” meant to designate things that happen during the level that ostensibly cause the player to think or say “oh shit” when they see them. In this sense, almost any part of the Modern Warfare 2 campaign that isn’t the gameplay of attacking a position or defending one is occupied by an “‘oh shit’ moment”– with “oh shit, they bombed the capital and took over the White House!” being just one in a string so long and constant that the punches turn into a pummeling.

The problem with design by “‘oh shit’ moments” isn’t the approach itself, but a narrow view of what kinds of things make us exclaim in the first place. Watching a bridge collapse or a nuclear bomb go off might be one type of these moments, but there are other smaller, quieter, subtler realizations and incidents that can be just as powerful. As it is, though, the baffling sequence of world-changing events that the player is buffeted with in Modern Warfare 2 gives rise to a gnawing, unfocused anger. We are hurt and upset, but at whom? The planet is a messed up place, but what can we do to fix it? There is little to indicate any specific agenda, belief or “meaning” inserted into this game on the part of its developers. It is, I think, best understood as a product of its world.

* * *

The temptation to over-analyze comes into play with 2004’s Metal Wolf Chaos, too, even though it takes its cues from the opposite end of the spectrum of seriousness. Featuring the wrongest and most likeable depiction of Washington D. C. that I can recall, this practical joke of a video game from Japan tells a story where the U.S. President, channeling Bill Pullman from Independence Day, climbs into a missile-packed walking mech to combat a turncoat, villainous Vice President. The hoax-like nature of the game extended to its commercial prospects, too– only ever released in Japan, exclusive to the original Xbox (one of the region’s worst-performing platforms ever), and yet only featuring English voiceovers. Did any of its creators at From Software really think this thing had a chance?

Co-workers of mine imported a copy when it came out and we gathered around to watch President Michael Wilson activate his mech– emblazoned with the Seal of the President of the United States– and burst through the windows of the White House in an outsize explosion. “Okay! Let’s parteeeeee!” he shouts, voiced by a man obviously selected on account of his being American and living in Tokyo and not on his acting ability. We laughed for hours over those hammed, halting voices, or how Air Force One takes off from a secret runway beneath the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, or the way the White House is shown surrounded by random skyscrapers.

The problem with Metal Wolf Chaos (besides it not being that good of a game) is the way it falls into the crack between satire and camp. The premise sounds like a sure-fire comedic winner but in execution the jokes fall weirdly and uncomfortably flat. We are used to judging everything on a one-dimensional scale– a line that stretches from “serious” to “sarcastic,” such that one could be one or the other or some blend of the two (as in “I was half-joking”). But Metal Wolf Chaos exists somewhere outside of this line. It does not criticize anything enough to call it a parody– it plays its own ridiculousness totally straight. And while one could think of it as a commentary on America’s politics, especially of the time (the coup-leading Vice President is named Richard Hawk), it might also be self-centric to assume that the game is actually about the country it depicts at all.

* * *

The only time I’ve ever been to Washington D.C. myself was when I was a child. We saw the requisite sights and took the vaguely educational tours, and I remember it all being relatively peaceful– in contrast to the video game versions I would experience much later. The memorials were not being blown up or falling apart or playing host to intense firefights. Instead people sat on park benches eating lunch and watching the cold water of the Potomac. I stared at spacecraft and dinosaur skeletons in the Smithsonian museums.

I might have been naive about it then– unthinking of the fact that close by, everything negative we associate with national politics was going on– but I also think it’s worth considering how the worst decisions in the world can be made by agreeable people on a clear day in an airy building made of gleaming stone. Perhaps landmarks can be useful for more than the fantasy of seeing them maimed. Perhaps we can take our presentation of a country’s injury or decay beyond the immediately physical. With today’s technology it is easy to recreate and reinterpret how things look. But what about recreating how things are?

Reader Comments (2)

This is especially interesting to me beause I lived near DC for like 8 years and I pretty much despise the place.

Since most games resort to toggling the 2nd Circuit emotional level of human response, it's no surprise that the easiest way to represent the Capital is to blow it up.

When do we get the "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" of games?
March 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick
While it's not a representation of Washington DC specifically, I think that Defcon is a good example of "recreating how things are." In a game of nuclear war, the world is represented by clean lines and little icons, and when a bomb is dropped on a city, instead of explosions and dust we have numbers and lights.

It's actually one of the most eery things I have seen in a video game, period.
April 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClint
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