Retrogamer: The Fallout
Michael B. Tager
Love is hard. Some folks fall in and out of love easily. Some take a little longer. I’m the longer and I don’t always maintain the love. I’m quite fond of quite a bit, but love? I love my wife (hi Leigh!), I love my family, I love my cats. I love a few friends. But otherwise? I love Thai Drunken Noodles and there’s this vegetarian buffalo “chicken” place in Portland that I dream about. And when it comes to pop culture? The love comes hard.
I haven’t fallen “in love” with too much pop culture. Sure, I like all kinds of culture because culture, if it’s anything, is what individuals do. What we are. We are social herd animals, made to disseminate information and to share thoughts and feelings. Culture is the communion of one person and another person and their friends and their family until tendrils spread Cthulhu-like. Culture is cool, ever since that first caveman was like, “yo, look at these dope paintings” and another caveman was like, “meh. I’ve seen better.”
From Harry Potter to Dokken; from amusement parks and Everybody Hates Chris to Thelonious Monk and X-Men, I like a ton. But love? Love, again, is hard. I haven’t found too much to love. I love reading, I love swimming, and I love video games. Sometimes, anyway.
I don’t remember not playing video games. I had an older brother and he had an Atari. I played Adventure and Space Invaders and Frogger. My favorite was Asteroids, but I wouldn’t say I loved it. I thought it was cool, but I also liked the Soul Train/Brady Bunch block on Nickelodeon. I liked playing with Legos and Tonka trucks. I was a child and to a child, the world is infinite. But while I liked video games and television, reading was really my jam. I read constantly, from Berenstain Bears to The Black Cauldron to The Hobbit. Video games were a distant third, behind reading and running around outside. Maybe even fourth, if you count the aforementioned Soul Train/Brady Bunch.
Even when my brother leveled up and got a Nintendo, it wasn’t yet the come-to-Jesus moment. I didn’t thirst to play video games. Sure, I rocked Contra and The Legend of Zelda and all the other shitty and/or super difficult games on the Nintendo that I scarcely remember: Legendary Wings and Kid Icarus and Goonies II. They were great or they were terrible and when it was time to go outside and have acorn wars, well, that was fine. I even broke off gaming for homework.
It wasn’t until 1990 that I fell in love. Or became obsessed (depends upon your definition, I suppose). I’d always been into fantasy and sci-fi, ever since my dad played me Star Wars when I was too young to remember, and time strengthened that bond. I read The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Prydain before I was a tween. I knew more about Loki and Anansi than was healthy for any red-blooded American boy who didn’t want his ass kicked.
It was fated, perhaps, that I would find Final Fantasy*.
*Note: this essay is not about Final Fantasy. I’m getting there. I might be burying the lede, but there’s a reason for everything. Trust the process, nameless reader.
FF was everything I didn’t know I wanted. It allowed me everything I didn’t have. I could be strong and wise, explore brave new worlds, seek out new life…and kill it. I could save princesses and grow into a stronger, better version of me. I’d find dragons and elves and whilst interacting with them, be a hero. Save the day. God knows I didn’t have much of that in my day-to-day life. I was a kid, with a high-need older brother and busy, overworked parents.
Final Fantasy was my first video game love and one of my first pop culture loves, joining with Star Wars as one of the sacrosanct. Eventually others would join: I’d discover Nirvana in junior high, weed (and weed culture) in high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer in college. But Final Fantasy, and from it, Role Playing Games in general, became my raison d’être. I couldn’t get enough of that shit.
Chrono Trigger. Breath of Fire. Dragon Warrior. Final Fantasy IV & VI. Paladin’s Quest. Secret of Mana. A Link to the Past. Super Mario RPG. Ogre Battle. I played them all and I played the ever loving bejeebus out of them.
And then I played the next generation of RPGs: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden & Suikoden II, Vandal Hearts, Tactics Ogre, Ogre Battle 64, Disagea, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Jade Empire, Dragon Force, Chrono Cross, Grandia I & II, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
I played every role playing game I could get my hand on and I loved them. Maybe not equally, but enough. There was something about them that never stopped pressing my endorphin buttons. I could sit and stare and play all day, all night. Sure, I stopped when my friends called or my girlfriends wanted to hang out or if I had a really good book (actually, books usually won). But I skipped life to role play.
There were reasons for all of that, of course, reasons I’m just now digging into. I’ve recently been diagnosed with Bipolar II (I have highs and lows, but my highs aren’t that high and are outnumbered by the lows) and after many talks with shrinks, I’m coming to understand that the excessive video gaming bouts were numbing behaviors. It’s the same reason I smoked myself into oblivion for the better part of a decade. Sure I loved weed and RPGs, but I didn’t love them that much.
In my early 20s, I stepped away from video games for a few years of travel and volunteer work and discovered a taste for a lot more than I’d known. Travel, cooking, writing, working out, dancing. I was becoming a more whole person, learning and enjoying myself more. But that didn’t mean I didn’t like video games all of a sudden. It just meant my drive had dwindled and my focus was diluted, spread as it was into other, arguably healthier pursuits.
In 2015, my brother gave me his PS3. I didn’t particularly want it, but it was a nice gesture. And it tapped into a mild hankering for gaming that I hadn’t known was there. I hadn’t played much in years: none of my old games were doing it for me and I didn’t know how to find new ones. It was like when I stopped smoking weed regularly and wanted to get back into it. You can’t just saunter into high schools and start asking to buy some pot. That kind of tomfoolery ends poorly.
I took the PS3 and left it in my basement for six months before I touched it. Then, around Christmas time, Leigh asked me what I wanted so she could tell her parents. I did 5 minutes of Google searching and found this game called Fallout on a bunch of top-ten lists. I remembered vaguely hearing about it when it was all the rage. Lo and behold, on Christmas, my brother-in-law gifted me with Fallout 3.
We don’t need to go over the specifics of what happened when I touched Fallout 3*. The first essay I wrote for Cartridge Lit goes over that in quite some detail. But FO3 sparked a resurgence in my video gaming, helped clarify what I was looking for. I wanted something different, wanted to challenge myself. And it worked. I discovered a lot.
*No, this essay isn’t about that, either, but we are getting closer.
After playing FO3, I moved on a few months later to Fallout: New Vegas. And one half a year after that, with Fallout. I’ve talked about those a lot, but I haven’t really discussed the overarching “something” that twinged and came into focus with the Fallout universe.
You can’t help who you love. This cliché is usually used to absolve someone of remarkably poor choices in romantic partners. There’s a connection that occurs between people, chemical reactions and that, binding people together, sometimes inextricably. There is no conscious reason for it, no other logic beyond “this works.” Maybe it’s olfactory, maybe it’s destiny. Who knows? Smarter people than me are still stuck on the problem of love. “Shit happens” sums it up nicely.
The same can be said for pop culture. Why do people fall in love with what they do? Maybe there’s a subconscious switch. Maybe there’s a Freudian connection with oral/anal phases of development. I don’t know why I love the Fallout franchise so much. It’s dark and nihilistic, rife with gallows humor and intense hyper-violence. It’s glitchy and broken and there are so many dark places within. And still, for some reason, god I love it. Especially, Fallout 2. It builds upon its predecessor: more options, more companions, more viable builds, more locations, more factions, more accessories, more cars (just the one, but still). And it’s the first that expands the history and lore behind the world it inhabits.
It’s Fallout 2 that fleshes out the super mutants and the ghouls, that begins to talk in more detail about vaults and Vault Tec. It’s the first that gets into nitty gritty world-building, what with left-behind AI, a plethora of data discs to read, countless NPCs to mine for information. It keeps the freedom of Fallout—kill who you want, break quests, who gives a shit?—but adds context and texture. It doesn’t necessarily answer a lot of questions or connect dots (it remains to be seen if Fallout 3, NV and 4’s attention to detail in that regard is for the good or bad), but it sketches a world that is rich, vibrant, and with the illusion of life. A simulacrum of living.
Fallout 2 might be my favorite game of all time. It doesn’t have the same nostalgia factor that earlier games like Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger have, and it will never match the replay factor of the Ogre Battle series. It’s not as mind-numbing as Ken Griffey Jr. or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it doesn’t have the camaraderie associations that Tekken 3 has. But what it does have is this: perfection. It’s as perfect a game as I’ve ever played. And it’s so, so rich in the one thing I love more than anything else. Story. A world. Lore.
I’ve never not been interested in lore, in asking questions and learning answers. It’s why I fell in love with role playing genres to begin with. It’s why I played Magic: the Gathering and created histories for my invented characters in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s why I began writing.
I started writing in high school and pursued it in college. But I wasn’t driven and, more importantly, I didn’t have much to say. I wrote a few short stories and a play, and they were well received (I suppose) by my college lit mag. But everything else I wrote just seemed to be pastiche, a derivation of a derivation of a carbon copy. After graduation, I made a conscious choice to put away my writing until I knew my asshole from my elbow enough to tell stories with conviction and originality.
I put away writing for a decade. And it stayed away. But then I wrote a short story because I had an image of a snowfall, and then I took a creative writing class on a lark when I got my second undergraduate degree. And I met a professor who inspired me, whose life I envied because he could talk about books and writing all day. So I applied to grad school for writing.
But I wondered: what do I write about? That question plagued me. A few years ago, I went to a reading of a local Baltimore writer for his book on Galaga. And I was like, “Holy shit, people can write about video games?” And I realized that, yes, you can write about it. And if other people can, then I too could write about anything I want. If Michael Kimball can write about Galaga, then maybe I can write about Fallout 3 (or eventually, Galaga). Not long after, I came upon Cartridge Lit’s submission call and I thought, I just want to play old games and make up for lost time. Maybe they’ll publish me if I write about my experiences*.
*Thanks, Justin Daugherty and Joel Hans!
For some time, I thought I was conning everyone. Here I get to do something I want to anyway, and get published for it. Have people read my words and, whether or not they like them, at least take the time to appreciate my spin. A couple of times a year, I DJ at a local club in Baltimore. I play music and people dance and I get paid for it and I think, shit. I’d do this for free. I’ve thought the same of Retrogamer.
(I mean, technically, I’ve written these essays for free, but I now have a body of work. I have 60,000 words on video games, enough to compile into a book. I’ve made contacts with writers throughout the country. Again, all for something I do for fun.)
It’s been a heckuva journey. I’ve played more video games in the past two years than at any other moment of my life. I might be a grown ass man, but I’m good at time management and I know how to take care of responsibilities so I can play guilt-free. I’ve played more games than I’ve had space to write about, all the while saying “I’m working.”
But playing Fallout 2 was the pinnacle. How often does one come across “love” in their life? Yeah, falling in love with Fallout is weird, y’all. But it’s a game that fits my humor, my style; it ticks every box I have. What can I even say about it when I want to say everything? Instead of saying everything, I’ll say this: I loved it, but it also brought a certain reality to light.
Writing about video games isn’t forever. I’m kind of tapped out. I have other projects, other commitments. I’m mostly finished with a novel. I’m putting together writing retreats and panel discussions. I run an indie press that’s taking on more and more authors. This writing thing is becoming a career, a passion and a vocation and all that junk all wrapped up in one.
Video games need to become a hobby again. A hobby I really, really enjoy, but a hobby nonetheless. Retrogamer has never really been about the video game, and this essay is not really about Fallout 2 (though I recommend everyone play it who hasn’t already). It’s always been mostly about me, about my own journey, through a particular lens.
And I’ve run out of things to say about me. So instead of forcing it, I’m just going to step away from Retrogamer, like a Lone Wanderer or a Vault Dweller. Not the Chosen One, cause that sounds super-duper pretentious and self-involved (though that’s the name of the hero in Fallout 2, which would have had some nice circle-coming-back, but oh well), so maybe the Courier? Yeah, I like that. I’m the Courier, stepping away to take messages to other places*.
*Let’s run with that.
So, for now, I’m gonna say goodbye. Thanks to all those who read, and to the editors at Cartridge Lit for letting me ramble about the New York Giants and ex-girlfriends and how, holy shit do I not give a crap about Pokémon (#hottake). I dislike Pokémon as much as I love Fallout, and now I know it. I can appreciate it all a little better from outside. Because I’ve had a chance to live in the world of gaming and get caught up on so much that I missed: of video games and of writing and what’s in between. I’m happy about that. And I’m ready to move on.