How to read Fallout 4

The first thing to note about Fallout 4 is that it is not a story. It is rather a collection of stories, all contained within one single overarching frame. In order to read these stories as they are, in their manifold, it is important to acknowledge them as such: many.

There is an argument to be made that this multitude of stories gets in the way of the main story. Ostensibly, the protagonist is on an emotionally intense quest to recover their kidnapped child. In terms of gameplay, the player spends weeks and months of gametime doing absolutely everything but searching for that kid. After having become a raider boss who deliberately and systematically enslaved vast swathes of the countryside, the sudden emotional intensity of finally being reunited with the prodigal son is, to understate it, sudden. There is a main story, to be sure, but there are also so very many other stories going on that it becomes something of a sidequest. As it were.

That is a possible avenue of critique. But it is also a sidetrack from the assertion that you can read Fallout 4. Which is a more interesting assertion. Not least because it implies that the game is readable, and that it somewhere along the line had authors, who made choices as to what went where.

A first thing to note is that (almost) nothing is where it is by accident. This tells us something important. This tells us that if we pay attention, we can glean information as to what happened to the places we visit as we explore them. The placement of corpses, the layout of buildings, the textual residues on terminals (which, as an aside, are a nice return of the epistolary genre), the kinds of enemies encountered, and the various missions which brings you to these places in the first place. All of these things tell us something, if we but pay attention. It is environmental storytelling, and it is a lot of it.

The corpses, especially, tell many tales. They speak, ever so silently, about what happened before you found them. Some of them are from before the war, and suggest at the social processes taking place on the day the bombs fell. Other corpses are more recent, and subsequently tell of more recent events. Pay attention to where you find them, how many of them there are, and if there are items nearby which suggest particular courses of events. There is a suggested grammar to the corpses you find, in that skeletal remains are implied to be prewar, while meaty (to use a word) ones are recent. It is also implied that teddy bears represent the younger pre-war generations, but this is not universally applied.

At this point, you probably have questions, such as: why are the terminals still working after all this time without an apparent power source? How come no one has removed the corpses in the hundreds of years between the bombs falling and you finding them? Why are you apparently the first person to visit some of these places, when there are evidently people moving about mere hundreds of meters away?

These are good questions, and rather than answer them, you will have to either suspend your disbelief, or see the game as a written artifact. Everything is where it is because you are meant to find it there, and you are meant to see it as it is presented to you. The ghoul you find in the director’s office is in fact the director, and he has been in his office all these years, waiting. The nearby terminal that tells his story is indeed telling the story of the feral creature you just witnessed. A story that you, the player, is the endpoint of, and that you, the reader, is a witness to.

Fallout 4 is many things, and one of them is a balancing act between player and reader. It is possible to blast through the game without paying too much attention to detail, and still have a good time. Reading is not a requisite for playing. But a lot of effort went into making a great many places readable, both in themselves and in reference to the earlier iterations in the Fallout series. Should you effort to acquire a literacy in reading the results of these efforts, you will find yourself back at the start of this text: with the realization that there is not a story, but many stories. In this game and in life both.

How to read Fallout 4

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Every attempt to evaluate a particular work eventually bumps into the question as to what difference it makes. The particular work, that is. What difference does it make as an object in the world, what discussions did it spark, what statements have been made possible that were not possible before? What, through the mediation performed by the work at hand, has been accomplished by it being in the world?

On many occasions, this leads the critic to make statements which are vague in nature. A particular work might be described as flawed, unfinished or problematic – words which suggest a general direction of opinion, but which do very little to answer the more direct question of whether something is good or bad. The vagueness of these statements is not a bug, but a feature. Rarely is it the intention of a critic to come to a definite conclusion with regards to the goodness (or badness) of a particular work – rather, they seek to explore other aspects, which will prove more interesting upon further reflection upon the work at hand.

The word ‘problematic’ is a particularly useful word for such discussions. A work might be problematic in that it makes possible discussions upon a topic that were not possible without it, but in such a way that the emphasis of these discussions tilts in an unfortunate (or unwanted) direction. The fact that the issue is now on the table can be attributed to the work at hand, but so too can the fact that any further discussion of the topic now has to navigate around the implications introduced by the work as it exists. On the one hand, a good; on the other hand, a bad. If presented together, they constitute an interesting discussion and a useful critique.

I suspect many upcoming (and, to be sure, already existing) pieces of writing upon the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation will focus more on the good and the bad rather than on the interesting. They will perhaps mention that it is (in their opinion) bad that the actors speak English rather than Japanese, and that the movie is bad by virtue of this. They might also venture further by pointing out how this is underscored by the one actor who speaks Japanese throughout; imagine how much better it would be if the movie went all the way, they’d say. Which may or may not be true, for any definition of true. But – and this is a big but – it would neither be useful nor interesting to conclude that the movie is bad based on this one thing alone.

Ghost in the Shell is flawed. It does some things well, and other things leaves you questioning its life choices. Enumerating the members of each category could fill blog posts and articles beyond any one person’s capacity to read, and probably will. The interesting thing, though, is that it messes with your frame of reference for how to interpret or evaluate what it accomplishes. And discussing how it does this is definitely useful.

On the one hand, it is a good Hollywood production. It does Hollywood very well, with all that goes with it. If what you seek is something that conforms to the norms and standards (implicit or explicit) of modern Hollywood, then this movie will do just that. Whatever else is to be said about it, the technical mastery and levels of production have to be acknowledged.

On the other hand. If you go into it expecting something that is not Hollywood, you will be disappointed. And it would be reasonable to expect something that is not Hollywood, given its anime origins. There is a very established, very elaborate framework from which to evaluate this new iteration of the series, and this framework jars with the work as it actually exists before us.

The dissonance between these two frames of reference makes watching the movie a very strange experience. On the one hand, the visuals are stunning; on the other hand, the things they do with these visuals makes very little sense, or is brutally underutilized. We know who Togusa is, and what he (significant for the setting) is not; we also see him for about fifteen seconds, and then only as a person who wears a suit. To be sure, that one suit more than likely has more thought put into it than most wardrobes, but this does not help its limited screen time.

The same dissonance can be found in most aspects of the movie. Even in the scenes that stick very close to the anime original, the difference between what is and what could be sneaks up on you and clouds the moment. The fact that they managed to nail almost every little detail in these recreated scenes perfectly, (to the point where you wonder if the depicted places have an objective existence outside the movies and people can just go there) – still does not erase this difference between what is and what could be.

Ghost in the Shell could be something different. But it is not. And it is not with such a degree of polish and perfection that it hurts. And that is a discursive anomaly more interesting than whether the movie is, for any definitions of the words, good or bad. –

Ghost in the Shell (2017)