Retrogamer: The Ruins of Old Olney
Michael B. Tager
Welcome to Retrogamer, where author and gamer Michael B. Tager experiences classic games for the very first time. Every month he will feature a “new” game and take you along for the journey, from old school to the newest of the new. Enjoy the ride.
My wife, Leigh, looks up from her phone as I’m unloading The Terrible Shotgun into a Deathclaw. It explodes; she shudders. “What are you doing now?” she asks.
“I’m heading to those buildings there.” I aim the camera so that my avatar (Vanessa Rutledge, never just Vanessa) is pointed at ruins in the near distance. She’s got on shiny new Enclave Armor and is still rocking Button’s wig; she looks like a steampunk George Washington (only female, and black.) At this point she’s disarmed an atomic bomb, rescued all of the slaves, liberated Pittsburgh, rescued half-a-dozen cowering captives and given lots of water to dehydrated bums. If this were a different game, she’d have a shiny halo above her head.
She frowns, turns off her phone, and hikes the blanket closer to her chin. I’ve been playing Fallout 3 for two hours while she’s browsed the Internet. This is as close as we’ve come to her watching me play in the past month. The counter says 100 hours. This does not include death time, reloads, freezes, and the time I copied the game to another account, played until dawn and then realized I couldn’t save.
“This is a weird game,” she says. “It’s creepy. This isn’t like those skinny things, is it?” She’s referring to the tunnels and the ghouls popping out of shadows. She closes her eyes whenever they’re on screen. She’s also not a fan of any of the raiders’ dens. The mutilated remains of torture do not appeal to her. To be honest, they don’t appeal much to me, either. I’ve avoided the subway tunnels for several in-game days.
I continue toward the ruins. I’m in the middle of the streets now, Star Paladin Cross and Dogmeat flanking me. I like Dogmeat just fine; he’s been with me a long time. Cross, on the other hand, has a tendency to die a lot, despite her fancy new Power Armor.
I miss Charon. He was dope.
“So, what is this place?” Leigh asks. I flick the map on and see what it’s called. The map—mostly explored now—indicates that I’m just northwest of the ruins of DC. “Um, honey,” she says, “why is it called Old Olney?”
“Because it’s based on Olney,” I say. We’re in Baltimore, fifty minutes north of DC and 30 minutes north of Olney. Leigh is from Olney. Her parents live in Olney. I might be grinning.
“Ew. Are you kidding me? Why’s it all destroyed?” Her eyes are wide as a pair of Deathclaws attacks us. “Ew! Why are those monster-things in Olney? Kill them!”
I kill them hard and leave the screen, but then get a message: Star Paladin Cross has died. I reload. I have a thing about my companions dying. Soon, I’m facing Old Olney again. I turn to Leigh and lift an eyebrow.
She shakes her head. “Can you not go back there?”
I nod, turn, and pad away. Soon, I hit the Montgomery County Reservoir. Leigh throws a pillow at me. “What the hell are you even playing? This game is the worst. I used to swim there!”
Laughing, I turn and continue to search the Capital Wasteland.
I got my first PlayStation 2 in 2002. I got my first Xbox in 2010. My PS3 came to me last January, when my nephew upgraded to a PS4. It sat in my basement for quite some time before I bothered turning it on. After all, I was still knee-deep in Ogre Battle, Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, and Knights of the Old Republic. What did I need with a new system? When I finally pressed power, I just played whatever was already in there. It was The Show and I played for ten minutes as the Orioles before shutting it down. But I did not forget it was there.
A week before Christmas last year, Leigh asked me for some stocking stuffer suggestions—nothing over $20. I thought for a few minutes and came up with nothing. “Well, what about a PS3 game?” She rolled her eyes. Leigh thinks video games should have ended at Super Mario.
“That’d be dope.” Leigh stared without blinking. After 7 years, I knew what she was asking: if I want a game, I better speak up. I remember a game my friend raved about years ago. I was in school at the time, working three jobs and going on OKCupid dates. When I did play video games, it was in 30-minute spurts of Dynasty Warriors.
“Um. Fallout 3,” I said. Leigh made no comment, just wrote it down. A week later, I opened a gift from her brother: Fallout 3.
“Did you want the Game of the Year Edition?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, though I didn’t know one existed. “Thanks. Can’t wait to play it.” I put it aside and opened my next present, forgetting Fallout. It won’t be until New Year’s Day that I think to look at it again. I will log ten hours and regret nothing.
That week, before I go back to work (I have fourteen consecutive days off since I work for the government), I play every single day. I do not look at message boards. I do not look at FAQs. I simply play Fallout. It’s been a long time since I’ve been into a game. I need to tell someone.
Here’s a test. Find a classic movie—maybe two—that everyone else has seen and that you haven’t. Then watch it. For me, it was The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I somehow missed them in the late 80s/early 90s and didn’t get around to seeing them until I was 20. They were good. Matthew Broderick was a cute kid, if smarmy, and Jude Nelson in TBC was badass. Afterwards, I wanted to discuss it with some buddies.
They responded to my overtures with dim stares. They’d seen those movies dozens of times. It meant nothing to them anymore. I wanted to deconstruct Molly Ringwald’s skirt and how Sloan was a figment of Cameron’s imagination. They couldn’t be bothered. They’d had those talks a decade ago.
It’s January 12, 2015 and I hop on GChat. I message a buddy, The Prophit. Transcript below:
The Prophit: How was Christmas
Me: I got Fallout
TP: Good game.
Me: Yeah! I’m at Arefu. I’m trying to figure out whether or not to ally with the “vamps.” Or maybe kill ‘em all. I think there might be a way to convince them to be nice to the citizens of Arefu, though. But that seems like the way the game wants you to go.. It took me days to find it. I kept on getting lost cause I didn’t understand the map. Who knew that the empty triangle was pointing you to new locations! I didn’t! But anyway, what do you think?
TP: Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about. George W was president when I played that.
Me: Oh. So, what was your favorite part?
TP: I’d rather not. Let me tell you about my Christmas …
Later, when Leigh walks in I’m in front of the TV, our cat in my lap. I ask her how her day was. She says it was terrible. I then say, “Sorry to hear that. Want to hear about my game?”
“No,” she says.
Close to hour 120, I decide to trigger the final sequence. I’ve been wandering the map, collecting bobble heads (12/21 the first time through) and clearing out dungeons that look neat. I skipped the Dunwich building, despite the Lovecraftian overtones, ran through all the optional Vaults, cackling especially hard whenever I murdered poor simple Gary-clones and tried to overthrow Dave. But there’s a problem: I’m simply too strong.
Only once in the past twenty hours have I come close to dying (not including suicides from the top of Tenpenny Tower). I was minding my own business, collecting Nuka-Cola Quantum and murdering everyone in the slave camp of Paradise Falls when, on the way back, I encountered a trio of Radscorpions, one an Albino. It wasn’t a big deal, until Enclave soldiers joined the battle. I pulled out a flamer, took care of business and when, after everything was charred, looked at my health, was shocked to see I was at ¼ of health. Fallout had stopped being hard.
Is this normal? I wonder. Vanessa had completed all the optional quests and two of the DLCs (the boring Pitt and the surprisingly racist Point Lookout—really, black dudes in animal skins called Tribals?—come on). She had simply become too much for the suckers wandering the Wasteland. Maybe it was time to move on.
I pull out my active quests and toggle “Finding the Garden of Eden” and make my way back to Little Lamplight and the foul-mouthed little mayor who makes me giggle and traverse the tunnels capping mutants every few steps. It’s not until I get inside and actually die a few times to some Overlords and their fancy lasers that I start breathing heavily again.
Finally, I’m enjoying myself. I reload twice, fire Ms. Cross so she’ll go home and stop dying and continue into the depths of the lab. I’ll spend an hour blasting and cursing and making wrong turns. And it will be glorious.
Close enough to twenty years ago, when Final Fantasy Tactics came out, I played every day for several months. I lived, breathed, shit, and ate that game. A girl I was dating bought me the strategy guide (which was a neat thing in ’97). I played until dawn several times, sleeping the next day in high school. I was obsessed. When I finally beat the Airship Graveyard, I put the controller down and felt a weird wave of nausea.
I had made myself sick playing a video game. I didn’t play FFT again until 2014 when the visceral reaction to overplaying a game—a negative Pavlovian response—finally faded. This wouldn’t be the first time it had happened, nor the last.
Soon after beating Fallout’s main quest, I fired it up to tackle Broken Steel, the last DLC. I played for fifteen minutes and then felt a little twinge in my stomach. Recognizing the sign, I quit the game without bothering to save. I had to wait.
I turned the game off. I’d killed three Super Mutants, executed the cannibals of Andale, taught the citizens of Big Town how to use guns like a mensch. I hadn’t done everything. I hated the tunnels of DC and avoided them. I missed one quest in Underworld entirely. I hadn’t tackled Anchorage or the spaceship. But at least a wastelander saved himself from a Mole Rat using my Survival Guide. And I’d found Bryan Wilks a home with his sister. Not bad.
“Honey, I’m done with Fallout,” I call.
“Great, dear,” she yelled back. “You don’t want to talk about it, do you? I’m kind of in the middle of Dr. Mario.”
No, I think. I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to play more video games. I haven’t done that in a long time. I’m a grown man; I work two jobs; I’m finishing my MFA; I have a house; my cats are demanding. It’s tough to find time to play games.
It’s February 9. I’ve played Fallout 3 everyday for over a month. My school is ramping up again and I have to publish my thesis in four months. Valentine’s Day is in a few days and I haven’t gotten my wife anything. I don’t have time to play another game. I think.
“No, I don’t need to talk to you about it. But I’m gonna buy myself a graduation present,” I say, logging onto Amazon and quickly loading three new PS3 games onto my checkout. New Vegas is one of them. In my basement, I have stacks of un-played Xbox, DS, PSP games. I haven’t even played Dr. Mario. But I’ll get through them. After all, I really, really want to.