Retrogamer: Rinse, Repeat, Reload
Michael B. Tager
Hour 1: Springtime, a Saturday. Just went running. Leigh says, no, shower first. I say, But no. The game takes precedence. I got a laptop for this. I learned Steam. Leigh says, fine. I load Fallout and choose the woman. I choose traits. I will be an unarmed specialist. I will be fine.
Hour 1.5: Fallout opens. What would it have been like to play this in ‘97, when it debuted? Nearly two decades in the future, I have too much knowledge of its future for the same experience. Post-apocalypse. Hidden underground Vaults of humanity. The broken spine of the Western United States. An isometric, top-down role-playing experience. Violence and sex and crude language. Horror. Morality. I try to wipe my mind clean of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, even Shelter. Blank slates. I have a mission from the Overseer: find a water chip, save the Vault. I exit the Vault and see a bunch of rats. I’m not afraid.
Hour 2: Rats kill me for the third time. I haven’t saved and have to restart the game each time. It’s harder than I thought. I keep on expecting to live and beat rats but the rats are no joke. Video games aren’t hard. Leigh says, You’ve been cursing a lot. She’s looking at me with her big green eyes. She can’t enjoy House Hunters because of my shits and fucks and asshole-goddamnit. I apologize and click out of the game. I need to shower anyway.
Hour 1b: A few days later, a writing day. Rain outside. Leigh is at work. I load Fallout again. I spend time on the controls this time, reading the Help file, trying to understand the point-and-click interface of a mouse. I miss a controller. I’ve never not used a controller.
Though I’ve been playing video games for thirty years, computers were never my venue of choice. I had an Atari, then an NES, then a SNES and then PS, PS2 and PS3. I’ve played Xbox and GameCube and Wii. Computers were never the venue for games for me (with the exception of Civilization); computers were for email and writing and internet dating.
When I’m satisfied with the help file, I press play.
Hour 2b: Outside of the Vault, there’s a corpse on the ground. This time, I right-click with the mouse and realize I can loot a body. There’s weapons, stimpacks. I see I have equipment that I can load. I click around on the screen before the rats attack. I’m already learning.
Hour 3b: I’ve triumphed over the rats and I make a save file. I don’t name it. Who needs naming conventions? When Leigh is on her way home, I’ll tell her of my glorious victory. I’m no longer concerned about the challenge.
Hour 4b: Later that night. Leigh is unimpressed with my success and asks about dinner. I tell her it will be ready when she gets home. We hang up and I get back to it. I’m supposed to find another Vault and get a water chip. It’s to the west on the simple map. 1997 was a more modesttime, graphically speaking. I click on the far west and the map slowly opens up as my little icon moves. Nothing happens as I travel by a location and keep on going. This is not what I intended, but I don’t know how to stop it. But maybe everything’s fine. I uncover a new location. But I’m ambushed before I reach it. The screen flickers and I’m on a map. There are bandits. They move first and blow my head off. That was quick.
Hour 5b: Reload. I go to the other location. It’s a town full of desert sand and buildings and bookshelves. I click around. I discover a side quest and accept it. I have beaten rats, what are radscorpions? I have a gun. I have confidence. I save.
Hour 6b: So much failure. Reload. Die. Reload. Die. Reload. Die.
1x: In kindergarten, you have a spelling test. You’ve forgotten about it. You’ve never been good with remembering specific dates. Now you write everything down; as a 5-year old, you did not have that ability. But while discussing the problem with a classmate, you say, Oh. The teacher gave us the list, I’ll use that and you pull it from your backpack. The classmate shakes his head but you don’t notice and you happily copy the lessons. You remember it well. You had long blond hair that hung past your eyes and you had to brush it away. The blond hair disappeared when you hit puberty. This memory never did and never will. The teacher comes to you and takes the paper away. She says you’re cheating. I don’t know what cheating is. She says I’m being bad and that copying is against the rules. you say I didn’t know. She doesn’t believe you. You say I won’t do it again. She gives you a 0 for the quiz and you cry, but you remember that copying is wrong.
Hour 1c: I restart again. It’s a rainy night and Leigh is in the other room poring over taxes. I’m on the couch. I hear her mumbling, occasionally cursing. I don’t let it bother me. I choose different starting traits to give me an advantage. I’ve since gone to message boards and deduced what I’ve done wrong. Fallout is malleable. I can be what I want to be. Some choices are worse than others, but none are game-breaking.
Hour 2c: I get to the desert town, Shady Sands. I find a friend in a leather jacket. I convince him to join. Ian makes all the difference and the radscorpions go byebye.
Hour 3c: We go to the Vault. It seems easier. I’m happy. The companion makes all the different. This game isn’t hard. I’ve learned lessons.
Hour 4c: I return to Shady Sands. I want to buy things. I’m told a woman is kidnapped by bandits. Will I help? Of course I will. Ian and I travel to the bandits, the Khans. We will rescue the woman.
Hour 5c: The bandits are south. We travel, ambushed on the way by bandits. We fight and win. I loot their bodies. I am very good at this game.
Hour 6c: The Khans are the bandits. They live in a shanty town and an old building. They have sex slaves. There are many bandits. We’re told to holster our weapons. I talk to their leader. He gives me guff and I tell him to shove it. He shoots my face off in one attack. I realize I forgot to save. I curse, loudly, and shut off the computer. Shhhh, Leigh says. She’s doing taxes.
Hour 7c: Reload. I repeat all my steps. It goes quicker every time. I find the Khans. I attack outside, starting in the shantytown. I kill many Khans. My companion is hurt and starts to run away. I continue shooting. I die shooting. I forgot to save again.
Hour 8c: Reload. SAVE. Repeat. Die. Shut off the computer. Still grumpy, but at least I saved.
2x: You’re in 5th grade. You’ve just watched Jungle Fever because your parents left it in the VCR. There is a new curse word. You like curse words; you’re a very awkward kid. you read too much, you play chess, you play video games. Your classmates don’t have much to talk to you about. But you know curse words that they don’t. Your father, when he doesn’t know you’re around, is free with his mouth. You try out the words when you take baths, speaking them under water: bitch, fuck, ass, cunt. At school, whenever you learn a new one, you share with your friends. Most of your friends in elementary school are black. It’s a mostly black school. You decide to share this new one that you learned from Jungle Fever. It’s a Spike Lee movie, though that means little to you at the time. You try out the new word. My black friend, Mark, reacts. He has a high top fade that his hand goes to in shock. His eyes are wide. He grabs your arm and says, what did you just call me? You shake your head and deny everything. You learn that there are words not to use.
Hour 1d: I start over. It’s the weekend. Still rainy. It’s rained for a week. Leigh is still doing taxes. Last year I offered to help. The year before I offered to help. This year I haven’t and don’t plan on it, but I’m there, available. She talks to me occasionally as I fly through the rats (how much did you make writing? she asks). I fly through Shady Sands (did you keep receipts of your business lunches?). I fly through the Vault (did you edit that novel this year or last?). I skip the Khans (aren’t you done playing?). I save.
Hour 5d: Leigh wants to take a break from taxes. I’m much further in. I’m attacked by a mob boss of some kind when I’m trying to get a confession. I have to fight him. My companion fires and before I can move, a dog attacks. But not me. Where did the dog come from? I don’t remember getting him. The mob boss dies and I click on the dog. “The dog appears to be following you,” is all the game says. I scroll up in the text box and see that the dog is named Dogmeat. Welcome aboard, I mutter. I save. I tell Leigh that I can take a break.
3x: Middle school is difficult. You do not know what to say. You never know what to say. You’re in Spanish class and everyone names music they like en Espanol. Yo quiero Guns and Roses. Yo quiero Salt-n-Pepa. Yo quiero Public Enemy. You are terrified. People have already said the only stuff you know. You don’t listen to music. Your mother has the Top Gun soundtrack. Your brother listens to Biohazard. Are either of those cool? You don’t know. When it’s your turn and you say, without thinking or planning, Yo quiero Debbie Gibson. Everyone laughs. Cheeks burning, you hide behind a strained grin. You think, no, no, no, that was the wrong answer. Months later, someone asks you what you listen to and you say, Guns and Roses and Public Enemy. That summer, you buy tapes of bands you’ve heard of. You will learn.
Hour 6d: I continue traveling the board. I find the Necropolis and the Boneyard. I discover the Cathedral. I see the Brotherhood. I travel to some of these places. I die frequently. I find locked doors I can’t pass. I leave and travel more. There is a timer that is ticking and sometimes when I travel too many days for no reason, I reload.
Hour 10d: I reload after an enormous monster eats me in a cave. It’s a Deathclaw. I’m not ready to be there. I save right before trying again, this time in a new save slot. There’s reasons there are 10. The designers must have known they were making a difficult game. They gave us options. When I die again, I don’t panic.
Hour 11d: I reload. I don’t try to kill the Deathclaw. I go elsewhere. It’s a big world. I’ll check out the Boneyard. I’ll level up. There are other ways.
4x. You’re in high school. Junior year. There’s a girl you like. She’s short and a troublemaker. She was kicked out of her school for drugs, but not the bad ones. You start to talk. Eventually she asks about sex. You lie and tell her you’re a virgin. She tells you she’s one too. She tells you she wants to have sex, but she wants to wait and that she hates oral sex. You tell her you really want oral sex. She asks if that’s a deal breaker and you say that you don’t know, maybe? She stops talking to you. You realize that you lied about the wrong things.
5x: You’re in high school. Senior year. There’s a girl you think is gay. She says she’s not and she flirts with you. You start going out, only for a week. You hold hands a lot and kiss. You tell her you like her a lot. She tells you she thinks she’s gay. You think, there’s a lesson to be learned from this.
Hour 15d: Leigh is tired of me playing Fallout on the couch beside her. She’s worried about my eyes. I’m hunched over the computer, playing, staring. I tell her that I’m doing research. She says she knows. I ask her if she wants me to stop. She says no.
Hour 16d: Leigh is doing taxes on the dining room table. I ask her if she wants anything. She asks if I can hang out with her instead of playing Fallout and just sit by her. I save.
6x: You sophomore year of college, a girl with pretty blue eyes asks what you like and you tell her, I like Dragonball Z. She comes over to watch it and when it’s over, she says she’ll call in a couple days. You run into her three weeks later and she hugs you and moves on quickly.
7x: Later in the semester, you get along well with a long-haired dude in your Philosophy class. Over a cigarette, he talks about his Dungeons and Dragons campaign. He’s an orc. You nod and smile and think, god, what a tool. You sit in a different seat the next class.
8x: Oh, you mumble out loud a few days later, when you see the girl. I see the connection now. It’s too late though, for both.
Hour 20d: I have a large party. There’s Tycho and Katja, along with Dogmeat and Ian. They’re my friends. We fight monsters and raiders. I go to fight the Deathclaw Queen, now that I’m strong enough to kill it. And I do. But Tycho dies. Reload. I die. Reload. Dogmeat dies. Reload. Tycho dies. Reload.
Hour 21d: I meet Super Mutants in the wasteland. They kill Dogmeat. Reload. Deathclaw Queen. Dogmeat dies. Reload.
Hour 22d: Leigh asks me, before we go for a walk, why I’m so frustrated. Because I can’t save my friends. She shakes her head and we walk around the block. The flowers in our flowerbed are beginning to bloom. The wind is crisp.
9x: You’re in AmeriCorps, in Denver, in a Wal-Mart with half-a-dozen others. You’ve been chatting with a dude who’s amusing. He starts talking about video games. You begin to respond, but see that the other four, who are all women, are rolling their eyes. You decide to not respond, but to end the conversation.
10x: You’re almost out of AmeriCorps. You’re interviewing for a job. They ask you what your weaknesses are. You tell them that you’re insecure and that you get mad easily. You do not get the job and you think, well, I know what to say next time.
11x: The girl you’re dating goes into the hospital and you forget to call her. She tells you she doesn’t want to see you because you obviously don’t care. You apologize and she forgives you, but she ends it a week later. You promise yourself you will never forget again.
12x: You don’t call your boss when you’re not coming into work. You get fired. You know what not to do.
13x: Don’t tell your cool new friend that you live with your parents.
14x: Buy clothes that fit.
15x: Dead baby jokes are not for every audience.
16x: Don’t say you’re a writer if you’re not writing.
Hour 23d: I accidentally trigger the endgame and die and die and die. Reload and reload and reload. I can’t escape because I die. I can’t advance because I die. I have another save. Sigh and tell Leigh you won’t have dinner ready. You’re coming up on a deadline. Want me to pick up pizza? she asks.
Hour 20d: I fire Ian and Tycho and Katja. I don’t want them to keep on dying. I can’t fire Dogmeat. I try.
Hour 21d: Fight the Deathclaw Queen. Dogmeat lives.
Hour 22d: Liberate Adytum. Dogmeat lives.
Hour 23d: Encounter super mutants. Dogmeat dies. Reload. Dogmeat dies. Reload. Dogmeat dies. Reload. Dogmeat dies.
Hour 26d: Trigger the first part of the endgame. Leigh says, “It’s late. Don’t you have work?”
17x: Don’t stay up late when you have a conference the next morning.
18x: Real jobs aren’t like AmeriCorps. You can’t hug everyone.
19x: You can’t trust everyone to not break your heart.
Hour 28d: Leigh is watching House Hunters. It’s a lovely Spring day. I’ve been at three work conferences, a writing conference, an interview, a funeral, two coffee dates, the doctor’s. I’ve canceled plans with my father, with a friend. I have to fit in a run. I have to clean the house. I have to do laundry. I boot up Fallout.
Hour 29d: The Super Mutants are no match for me. I can’t figure out force fields. What do I do? I look at the time. It’s so late. I’m so tired. Tomorrow is Monday and I have so many deadlines. Leigh is tired and watching House Hunters. I google “Mariposa Military Base.” I see how to lower the force fields. It’s a small compromise.
Hour 30d: House Hunters is over. Leigh is asleep on the chaise. I travel to the Cathedral.
Hour 31d: The Master is the end boss. He kills me. I reload. He kills me. I reload. I join him and watch the ending animation. I reload. He kills me. I reload. I kill him. I watch the ending animation. I pick Leigh up and carry her to bed.
20x: You’re an adult now, or close enough anyway. When you meet someone new—which is often enough—there are hundreds of lessons to go through exhaustively. You know others do it as well, lessons they’ve internalized. You still have to remind yourself of how to speak, how to talk, how to behave. It’s not easy for you. You have most fooled into thinking you’re well-adjusted, and who’s to say you aren’t? You’ve reloaded often enough.