Deep Listens is a gaming podcast series I'm recording with a few of my friends. Every two weeks we pick and play a new game and then discuss it from a literary, philosophical, and game design perspective. Its kind of like a book club for videogames. We try to dig as deep as we can on an individual game every episode so check it out!
We discuss the Halo series's crazy plot, how headshots change the way you play Halo singleplayer, and how humanity has trouble understanding existential threats. We also play a game of action movie quote or Halo 3 dialog! Join us as we realize that Bungie stories always sound better on paper than they do in practice.
I beat Pajama Sam ya’ll! I beat a game designed for 6 year olds! Hurray! Considering that the puzzles were all super simple and walking through them would be super boring, I decided to mix things up and listacle this shit. So here are my top eight takeaways from Pajama Sam.
1. Piggybacking totally works despite the world being a fantastical hellscape! All of the puzzles in Pajama Sam are quite funny and psychedelic, like convincing a boat that wood floats and helping a carrot lead a food revolution (more on that later). However, they are all solved by using common objects in relatively realistic ways so they actually make sense! No chicken with a pully in the middle! No balloon animal Robert Frost! No linking books! After playing Myst, Riven, Grim Fandango, Monkey Island, and Broken Age it was very nice to play an adventure game that just made sense. Even better, the world felt cohesive despite the mundane items.
2. The game has jokes for kids and for adults playing with kids! Just about every conversation has a joke that would clearly go over the head of a kid, from a bust of Beethoven that spells Ludvig like a spelling bee contestant, to a gang of trees that call themselves a customs department. The secret to creating great children’s entertainment is to remember that there are usually adults there too, and the adults are the people who pay for everything. If you can keep the adults at least mildly entertained, then the kids get to bond while they play and the adults buy more of your stuff. That’s the secret recipe that’s kept Cartoon Network afloat all of these years as other kids channels have migrated away from animation.
3. The animators had a really good time making this game! All of the sight gags are surprisingly involved and well animated. It’s clear how much the dedication to sight gags shaped the layout of every screen. If there was a weird tree or rock, you could be sure that it had 2-3 unique animations. Even blades of grass would spring to life every once and a while. All of that extra work really made the Land of Darkness pop. I had a nice time trying to get as much nonsense on the screen as possible. The award for best random gag goes to a bun chasing a hotdog like a serial killer might, only to have the hotdog then turn the tables if you keep clicking.
4. The game randomly shuffles puzzles on every new playthrough! To beat Pajama Sam, you need to help Sam recover the three parts of his Pajama Sam costume: a mask, a flashlight, and a lunchbox. Each of these objects can be in multiple places depending on what random seed you get when you start the game. This means that you can’t see all of the puzzles in one playthrough! Just beating the game once doesn’t show you every character interaction or every joke, so there is actually a good reason to replay the game. It’s kind of crazy that a kid’s game is doing something that I haven’t seen in any other adventure game (this could be because of my relative ignorance of the genre).
5. The game lets you skip every animation! If you press the escape button when an animation is playing, it skips to the end. This includes screen transitions. What a freaking amazing feature. It saved me so much time clicking around and it makes playing the game multiple times easy. It also makes backtracking a breeze.
6. This game has a quiz show and it’s excellent! At one point you need to get through a pair of sentient doors who force you to play a game show called the Brain Tickler. The doors/ hosts have a perfect balance of enthusiasm and smarm. The questions are simple, but still feature at least one joke answer for an adult to laugh at. I also love that, after you win, the doors bicker about who gets to read the questions every time you walk by.
7. This game has a musical talking carrot who takes no prisoners! A carrot is my favorite character in this game. You find the carrot wearing Sam’s mask and when you ask for the mask it replies with, “ownership is theft.” That’s right, the carrot is a communist. It is the leader of the “Salad Liberation Front” and its goal is to raise the status of salad. No longer will salad be a mere appetizer, it shall be the main course! In order to get Sam’s mask back you have to take the carrot to a refrigerator in Darkness’s mansion, at which point there is a musical interlude between the refrigerator, Sam, the carrot leader, and the captive carrots. This game is only $7. You should see the majesty of the “Salad Liberation Front.”
8. The game ends with Sam befriending Darkness instead of capturing him! When you finally encounter Darkness, he is locked in his own closet hiding from Sam. He basically tells you that trying to banish him into a luchbox is a pretty crappy thing to do and all he really wants is a friend. So he challenges you to a game on cheese and crackers (tic-tac-toe). The game ends with Sam playing cheese and crackers with a shadow. The game isn't resolved with violence or contrivances, it's resolved by playing games with a stranger. What a fucking good kid’s game!
I’m happy to report that the first Pajama Sam game is even better than I remember. One down and 3 more to go!
Here is the latest Baby Deep Look! My usual Deep Look videos focus in on a cool gameplay mechanic or story element from a game I have played the heck out of, in the hopes that I can share what makes that mechanic so cool. This Baby Deep Look is just as deep as a normal video, but I focus on a mechanic or ability that is so small that the video is much shorter than usual. I aim to keep Baby Deep Looks around 5 minutes long. These videos should be small little observational nuggets that hopefully give you some useful insight into a game's design that you might not have noticed otherwise.
In this Baby Deep Look I take a look at Lost Odyssey and examine the unique way that characters level and gain skills. I talk about the different ways the mortal and immortal characters aquire new skills. I also explain how these different skill systems serve to define the lives of the two groups and their relationship to one another. Turns out there are some more cool things to learn from this old game.
I did it. I finally escaped the Myst. I crossed the Riven. I’ve earned a rest. It’s time to calm down, slip on some pajamas, and unwind.
That’s right. I’m playing the Pajama Sam games. I bought the Pajama Sam pack on steam and now I’m going to play all of the main-line games in the series. I played the first two games as a kid, and I have vague, yet fond memories of them. So I figured, what better way to detox after a month of high-concept adventure games, than a restorative jaunt through some of the games of my youth. It’s time to find out just how rosy my rose tinted glasses are.
The first thing that jumped out at me in the game’s opening cutscene is that Pajama Sam sounds a lot like Bobby Hill. After some googleing I found out that Sam is voiced by Pamela Adlon, the same woman who voices Bobby Hill. It’s always great when you find out that an actor you respect now, unbeknownst to you, worked on something you loved in the past. I love following the careers of voice actors since the scope of their work can vary so wildly when compared to the stars of stage and screen. You’d never catch Brad Pitt staring in a Cartoon Network show, but John DiMaggio could go from Futurama to FFX to Adventure Time without anyone batting an eye.
With the opening cutscene out of the way it was time for some good old fashioned adventuring. Time to click on everything! I can’t tell you how happy I was to have a mouse cursor that actually indicated what was clickable. It’s such a tiny thing, but it cut my random clicking down by so much. Speaking of random clicking, Pajama Sam might already win my personal award for best use of random clicking as a core mechanic. You see, almost every object in Pajama Sam is interactable in some way. Most objects just play some adorable animation when you click on them, but all of the sight gags add up in a way that is really endearing. While Riven and Myst were dense with symbolism and meaning, Pajama Sam is dense with charm. Since the game is designed for kids, it doesn’t have much in the way of complex puzzles. Yet, it feeds off of a child’s need to touch everything to see what it does, and then rewards them by making Sam’s mundane bedroom spring to life.
In the bedroom I had to find the three parts of Sam’s Pajama Man costume, a mask, flashlight, and luchbox. I also managed to find one of the socks that Sam’s mom asked him to pick up in the opening cutsene. Look at this game, gamifying chores in 1996! Way to go Humungous Entertainment, you were ahead of your time! Once I had the components of Sam’s costume, I entered his closet and fell down the rabbit hole.
Sam’s closet is full of psychedelic nightmares! Look at this stuff! Look at it! Everywhere I click something else grows a face and starts talking! I think I made a tree eat a fly at one point. Also there was a bowling ball that juggled tiny bowlers. This explains so many recurring nightmares.
After I regained my sanity, I wandered a bit further into off-brand-Neverland. On my way to a forested trail, I found a board floating in a river that I couldn’t reach and a Freddy Fish Easter egg. Once I entered the forest, Sam was snared in an ankle trap and suspended in front of a bunch of talking trees that called themselves the customs department of the Land of Darkness. Sam was then robbed by horrifying trees with weird accents. I mean look at this one’s eye!
I was able to climb down from the snare, but only after my brutal mugging. Thankfully I did get a rope out of the experience. I used the rope to fetch the board from the previous screen and then continued on my way. It was at this point that I found one of the main hubs in Pajama Sam. I was really appreciated that Sam would read the three signs out loud if you clicked on them. Though some kids playing the game might be able to read, the developers didn’t take that for granted and as a result the game largely communicates via symbols and narration. The quit button is even represented by a stop sign with a hand in place of text. Nice touch there dev team.
I decided to go right first and by the boat dock I found Otto, the talking boat. Unfortunately Otto refused to go in the water because he believed that wood sinks (his dentist once knew a guy who had some wood, and that guy’s wood sank when he placed it in water). So I used my newly acquired piece of wood to demonstrate that wood, in fact, floats. I’m learning so much today! Otto proceeded to jump into the water and find his true, boatly calling: moving around on the top of water. So I hopped aboard my anthropomorphic buddy and set off (since he technically doesn’t have a sail).
I again went right when faced with a fork in the road. That lead to a set of geysers full of what appeared to be multicolored paint. I clicked on one and it erupted. What followed was a 2-3 minute lecture on the physics and history of geysers.
With that I saved, set down my controller, and gazed in awe of a joke in a children’s game. I think I still love this game people.
When I left off my last blog post I had every intention of continuing the blow by blow of my playthrough of Riven. I thought I would continue narrating my revelations and frustrations with the game; however, in the intervening days I beat the game. I really wanted to see the ending so I powered through and I’m afraid some of the intermediate steps were lost in the shuffle. Also some of the intermediate steps are super convoluted and boring so let’s skip to the good stuff: the takeaways.
1. Riven has a great story, but it can be really poorly paced if you get stuck on any puzzles. Riven tells its story through both journal entries and environmental cues; and, thanks to the obtuseness of its puzzles, each form of storytelling is undercut. Though things like the Moiety knives, the five pointed star, and the hangman toy, Riven’s environment conveys a lot of information about Gehn’s rule over the islands and the resistance that rose up against him. That environmental storytelling is oftentimes reinforced and expanded upon by journals that you find later in the game.
It’s unfortunate that the bulk of the locations in the game are hidden behind puzzles that can range from run-of-the-mill unintuitive to Rube Goldberg-ian unintuative. Even worse, the journals are all quite long. After beating any of the large puzzles that dot the story, you often have to spend 10-20 minutes reading and carefully scribbling notes about what you could possibly do next. If I had no other games to play or other commitments, I might feel differently about the pacing. I’m finding that I have less and less time to play games nowadays and spending days beating my head against puzzles, only to be rewarded with a text log, just does did not do it for me, so I used a guide for some puzzles.
Now once you get to the story, it touches on ideas and themes that games rarely cover. The story of Riven is largely about designing, creating, and writing; and as a writer I love a good story about the power/danger of the pen. I really enjoyed the game’s explanation for why the world of Riven is as flawed and obsessed with the number five as it is: it is an age that was written by Ghen, a man who is a flawed writer and is obsessed with the number five. Ghen essentially wrote an escapist fantasy where he ruled as a god over a disempowered populous using book-based technologies and giant fish monsters that they could not oppose. It is incredible that the game features a clear critique of power fantasies, couched in a story of an indigenous uprising overthrowing a narcissistic colonizer. Ghen’s lack of self-awareness and complete belief in his own intelligence is believable and terrifying. I enjoyed that he thought that he could convince the main character to trust him, despite the monstrous aloofness he displays in all of his journals and artifices. I also really enjoyed Catherine’s struggle with being the messiah in her own society’s religious dogma. Her journal, full of self-doubt mixed with belief in her ultimate goal, was quite a read. I love this story despite its somewhat clunky delivery and pacing problems.
2. This game goes through tremendous pains to set up two puzzles. The animal circle puzzle and the marble puzzle are the two most elaborate puzzles I’ve ever seen in an adventure game. They both require information that is stretched across the entire game world and each piece of information is behind multiple puzzles. The sheer scale of it is impressive. However, all of that work ultimately led to an intensely frustrating experience that made me want to quit the game.
The animal circle, or Satan’s Baby Choo-Choo as I like to call it, requires you to learn the Riven numerical system, recognize the sounds of multiple fictional animals (apparently there are silhouettes you can use as well, but I couldn’t see them for 3 of the 5 animals), and select the proper animal pictures, in order, from a circle of over 20 animals (most of which you’ve never seen before). Just based on which animals I actually saw on the island, I was able to guess 4 of the 5 pictures I would ultimately have to use; however, identifying which animal made which sound was daunting. As I played through the game I took notes on each of the sounds that came out of the wooden eyes; but, it never occurred to me that they corresponded to animal sounds. Since each of them sounded like the type of abstract noises that populate much of the game world, I had no idea how they lined up with the animals in that circle. I could imagine that those unfamiliar sounds could come from any of the animals in that circle. As a result, I looked up the answer for this puzzle because wandering the island clicking on every eye and trying to track down the relationships did not seem like a good time.
Now that I actually know the solution, the logic makes a lot more sense and it seems like a brilliant puzzle. Now I understand why the weird water-dinosaurs keep respawning in the cove, the frogs are infinitely catchable, the Wahrk always returns to the undersea throne, and scarab beetles always flys around the forest. All of those recurring animal sounds are clues and they reoccur so that you don’t miss them. Now I understand that the eye in Ghen’s lab is the one that corresponds to the fish (not an eye that used to be in the sunner lagoon as I originally thought). Now I understand that the eyes are making animal noises, not random clicking and boat rocking noises. However, in the moment those disparate threads of information did not connect at all.
The game doesn’t even meet you half way by using real animals and recognizable animal sounds. Like so much in Riven, the game believes that its fiction and its environment are more important than your ability to progress in the game. This might make sense if all there was to the game was puzzles, if the story of Riven wasn’t worth a damn or didn’t exist. But, I was drawn in by the story! After hours of tromping around that fucking island, I finally found the end of a story thread and it was behind a puzzle that would take hours of wandering to solve. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the developers as to how people could enjoy their game. They put their puzzles and their environment on a pedestal and their core narrative paid the price since it seems like most people either dropped the game around this point or looked up a guide. I’m of the opinion that if a large portion of your audience has to look outside of your game for guidance just to finish the game, you’ve made a design mistake. Fuck Satan’s Baby Choo-Choo.
The Marble puzzle, or the devil’s tiddlywinks as I like to call it, is just as obtuse as the animal circle, but it also commits a different and more annoying sin. The devil’s tiddlywinks requires you to graph out all five of the islands of Riven and identify where the spinning domes are on each island. You also need to go to each island to figure out which colored marble corresponds to which dome (except the small island, you need to guess that one). But, the precision of the graphing machine on the weird island full of multicolored pools of water isn’t as granular as the precision of the marble graph, so you could easily have to rearrange the damn marbles multiple times. The only way to check if the machine worked is to run down to a dome and see if the book inside actually works. That is a few minutes’ worth of clicking and gifs each way. This could easily lead to backtracking and fiddling for hours. Oh, and once you “solve” the puzzle, you need to hit a white button on the marble machine that totally looks like an indicator and not a switch. So there’s one more bit of backtracking for you. I understood how to solve that puzzle, I just looked up the answer because fuck doing the tedious back and forth.
Seeing these two puzzles really made me think about why puzzles are fun and how to communicate information. These two puzzles are largely about recognizing and translating symbols back and forth between multiple “languages;” however, they both seem better designed after you know the answer than they do during the discovery. These puzzles are like solving a bizzaro world Where’s Waldo book where the book has no title or cover to help you find Waldo. Instead, the book is full of barely perceptible scratch and sniff areas that smell of candy-cane so you can figure out Waldo’s coloration, a pair of broken glasses to figure out his glasses, and a blank page that you have view in black-light to see what his face looks like. Sure you can find Waldo, and once you do it will seem clever, but damn does it seem infuriatingly opaque in the moment.
In short, I really enjoyed most of Riven. Those two puzzles now seem really cool since I’ll never have to solve them again. In the moment they were the worst fucking puzzles I’ve ever seen. Fuck Riven. I love Riven.
P.S. Since I can't continue the Myst series due to Myst 3 and 4 being unavailable on any download services, I'm going to be transitioning to a new adventure game series to keep pace with @zombiepie. I think you'll all really appreciate our choice.
Deep Listens is a gaming podcast series I'm recording with a few of my friends. Every two weeks we pick and play a new game and then discuss it from a literary, philosophical, and game design perspective. Its kind of like a book club for videogames. We try to dig as deep as we can on an individual game every episode so check it out!
In this episode of Deep Listens we talk about To The Moon and its amazing, sobering story. We talk about the game's use of pop culture, comedy, memory, realationships, and mental illness to tell a story that moved half of us to tears.
Here is a Deepish Look! My usual Deep Look videos focus in on a cool gameplay mechanic or story element from a game I have played the heck out of, in the hopes that I can share what makes that mechanic so cool. This Deepish Look is a bit less critical and a bit more review-y or Quick Look-y. I still try to give some good insight into the game I'm playing, but this video is geared a little bit towards people who may not have played the game in question. Also I aim to keep the videos under 20 minutes.
In this Deepish Look I meander through Riven for 14 minutes as I slowly lose my sanity. I explain some of the cool level and puzzle design in Riven that makes it great. Then I veer into ranting about why some of the puzzles are terrible and poorly designed. I try to make some actual progress only to find myself lost, wandering aimlessly. I finish up by wondering why I am playing this game at all. In short, its the full Riven experience in 14 minutes. Let me play it so you don't have to.
When we last left off I had hope. I thought that simply exploring and finding clues would be enough to progress in Riven. I thought that some major revelation was around the corner. I thought I would keep stumbling upon puzzles by following the beaten path. There were no pixel hunts in Myst so I thought the same would be true of Riven. I was wrong… so very wrong.
I continued my underwater mine-carting and I managed to find a house. In that house was a toy with two hanging figures and a monstrous head underneath them. On the base of the toy was a symbol that I recognized from one of the wooden eyes I’d seen during my exploration. I played with the toy and quickly noticed that the hanging figures would descend a set number of times based on which symbol came up. So those symbols are numbers! I kept playing the game until I had every number from 1-9. I also noticed that the number system is base 5. There are only 5 unique characters from what I’ve seen, and the symbols 6-9 are made by combining the symbol for 1-4 with the symbol for 5. Looks like I’ll have a number puzzle at some point!
The toy also made sense of a wooden complex that was also accessible via the underwater mine-cart. The wooden structure contained one pull-rope that caused a device that looked like a set of handcuffs to descend from the ceiling and dangle for a few moments above the water, before winding back to the ceiling. This device seems to be the life-size version of the toy and, if that’s the case, the bad guy has been sacrificing people to a giant fish monster. More importantly, that means that the wooden structure is there for story reasons and not puzzles! One less thing to worry about, yay!
With that thread followed as much as I could surmise, I doubled back and found another mine-cart near the forested area of the island. This mine-cart took me through several rings of fire and dumped me down an excavation chute. Once I regained my footing, I found a huge boiler and a lake with a switch in the middle. I was able to drain the boiler and inside I found a secret tunnel that lead me to the top of a nearby hill. Halfway down the hill I found a balcony with a manhole and a doorway leading into the cliff. I opened the manhole to create a shortcut back to the boiler and then went inside the cliff. Inside I found a device that looked like a colander with a bear-trap trigger inside and a cup full of rocks. I put one of the rocks in the colander and closed it… nothing happened. Then I noticed a handle to the left of the colander, but I found it did nothing. However, I did figure out that the switch in the middle of the lake powered some of the other machines; so I returned to that switch and diverted power to the cliff-lab. With power restored, I found that I could lower the colander into the dark abyss inside of the hill. After pulling it back up, I realized that it was probably a trap of some kind. So I opened it and sent it back down into the abyss. I heard a snap after a few moments. Upon pulling the colander back up I found what appeared to be a poison dart frog in the colander. It croaked at me and hopped away. I caught a few more frogs before losing spirit and leaving.
I then proceeded to wander aimlessly for another half hour. None of the information I found seemed to lead anywhere. I couldn’t find any more wooden eyes with numbers on them. The underwater mine-cart held no new secrets. The main island didn’t seem to have anything either. I had no indication on how to proceed and my notes gave me nothing. Myst used real world objects and symbols to communicate possible puzzles, but Riven’s original fantasy world has, so far, given me almost nothing to cling to beyond a number system. It was at this point that I asked @zombiepie if I could use a guide or get a hint. I want to go through this game as purely as possible, but at a certain point I really don’t care how clever the developers thought their puzzles were. I don’t enjoy running around through a huge world with no clue how to proceed for hours on end. I have a lot of things going on in my life and being able to say “I beat Riven without any help” is really not high on my list of goals. So @zombiepie tried to help me with the boiler puzzle and throughout our conversation he kept mentioning locations that I frankly didn’t see. He explained all of the steps to catch a frog and empty the boiler, but I already had those handled. He mentioned a switch on a catwalk, but I didn’t see any switches on any of the visible catwalks. He mentioned a spinning dome and a device, but I didn’t see anything like that. After trying the frog puzzle 2 more times, he told me to close the doors to the cliff-side lab from the inside… which revealed two doors .
Fuck everything. I mean really, fuck that design decision. There is no fucking reason you would want to shut those doors other than it’s an adventure game and that’s the type of unintuitive shit that adventure game developers did in the 90s. Getting to those doors was a puzzle. Figuring out how to catch frogs was a puzzle. Shutting the doors to a fucking pitch-black lab because two doors were hidden behind a perspective trick is not a puzzle. It’s just a fucking gotcha. The locked door at the beginning of the game had a similar “click everywhere until you find the door isn’t really locked” brand of design, but the nearby knife was a hint there. The hint to shutting the doors of that lab was that the doors were shut-able at all. However, there are tons of fucking interact-able objects in this game that do nothing. You can close the door behind you in other areas too and they didn’t matter. The game gives you no reason to look in that direction, only to slap you in the face with a gotcha. Even worse, this bullshit is either completely forgettable because you stumble on the answer quickly or its infuriating because you don't even know that there is a secret at all. This “puzzle” was worse than the control panel on top of the elevator in the Mechanical Age. This is the type of shit that killed adventure games. At the bottom of one of the sets of stairs the same “puzzle” was repeated again with another door hiding a pathway. At least this time I had the prior experience of dealing with that particular brand of bullshit to help me. That second door “puzzle” made me quit for the night.
After I took a break, I came back and stopped the rotating dome. I then unlocked another shortcut, this time back to the main island and its central dome. I also found the catwalk switch that @zombiepie mentioned. With that switch thrown, a fan above the frog catching station stopped spinning. I climbed up into the duct work and made my way into a lab. On one of the tables in the lab I found the book that got me back onboard.
If you’ve been following the ridiculous contest that @zombiepie and I have been having, you’ll note that I beat Myst last week. My part of the original bargain is done. However, in the spirit of fairness I agreed to add more games from the Myst series to my burden. And so here I am playing Riven: The Sequel to Myst. This should be fun and informative…funformative.
Riven picks up immediately after the good ending from Myst, and I admire Cyan’s dedication to the cold-open. Riven doesn’t bother explaining what happened in Myst, or even the basic building blocks of the world, like where you are, book transportation, or Ages. Heck, if you didn’t get the best ending in Myst, the cold-open doesn’t even make sense! The game opens with an FMV of Atrus (who you easily could have missed) giving you two books and telling you to find Catherine (who you never even meet in the first game) on Riven (a world that doesn’t exist in the first game). He also tells you to capture Gehn (a character that doesn’t exist in the first game). There is an endearing brazenness to making a sequel that openly alienates new players this intensely, this immediately. Yet, like Myst before it, Riven quickly plants you in a completely foreign world where your prior knowledge doesn’t matter.
Riven continues its predecessor’s amazing use of FMV in its opening cutscene. Once I entered the world of Riven, I found myself locked in a cage with a strange man speaking a strange language gawking at me. He stole my entrapment book, opened it, spontaneously seized, died, and was dragged off screen by some kind of low-rent ninja. Low-rent ninja then freed me and absconded with my book. With no other context, I wandered out into the world and began clicking on things.
I was warned that Riven would be less intuitive than Myst and that was clear from the first screen. Unlike Myst, with it’s small island full of somewhat recognizable architecture and devices, Riven take place in a giant, original world full of unintuitive puzzles. The rotating tower unlocked all of the puzzles in Myst, but Riven doesn’t seem to have any clear knowledge hub. So with no clear guidance I wandered around the first few screens for about 20 minutes. I found a room full of scarabs with Riven’s version of the Stations of the Cross inside of them. It looks like there is some kind of church, likely created by Gehn, that worships people who control books. It also looks like this church clear-cut a bunch of forests to make more books. I suppose that this is the destabilization that Atrus mentioned in the opening cutscene. The stained glass art inside of mechanical scarabs might be one of the more aesthetically interesting storytelling devices I’ve seen in a while. It evokes Egyptian and Christian theologies, and in combining the two it manages to both show a familiar theology’s iconography co-opted by (likely) the main antagonist and provide this temple with a sense of ancient, romanticized mysticism. It reminds me of the opening of Bioshock Infinite in the way it combines recognizable artstyles and influences to create something awe-inspiring and perverted.
I fumbled around the opening screens a bit more before I noticed a dagger buried in the sand next to a locked door. The Costco ninja jammed a similar knife into the controls that freed me from my initial prison, so I figured that this second knife was a clue. Sure enough, clicking on the knife caused the camera to pan down and reveal a large gap below the locked door. I was able to climb under the locked door, effectively making the lock an annoying Red Herring. Beyond the door I found another odd temple with some snake-like idols, a chair surrounded by a spider-leg looking cage, and dead end. At first I didn’t see any way to proceed, but after circling a few times I noticed that I could rotate the scarab room. Rotating the room opened up a few other passageways and I found some switches that seemed to connect to a rail system running throughout the area. I followed the rotating room thread as far as I could before I noticed a switch in the spider-leg chair room. The switch opened a door in the snake-idol room – I sound like I'm writing about “The Legend of the Hidden Temple” or something – and so I checked out that new door.
Behind the snake-temple door was a cart contraption; I climbed in and set off. At the end of the ride, I found another set of obtuse puzzles and directionless screens. At this point I’m not really sure where to go. I found some people, but they all ran away as soon as I showed up. I found some aquatic dinosaur-like things, but they ran away from me as well. I found a dragonfly-looking tree totem, but it doesn’t do anything. I found a village, but it seems to be abandoned or the citizens won’t open their doors. I found some eyes embedded in walls with symbols on their back sides, but I don’t know where to use the symbols. I found a pool and partially filled it with water, but I don’t know why. In my flailing I did manage to move and enter a submersible mine-cart.
I rode the mine cart for a few stops and found another room with switches and no clear indication on how to proceed. At this point I decided to step away from the game. It’s clear that I have a lot more aimless wandering to do. Unlike Myst, I have absolutely no idea how to proceed with any of the multitude of puzzles I’ve found. Playing Myst, I could continue to ruminate on puzzles after I shut the game off since I felt like I had or could easily get all of the information I needed to solve a puzzle. In Riven I can’t even begin to speculate on how to progress since so much of the game world is abstract. I could recognize star-charts and numbers, but eye symbols and runic text are completely foreign to me. This game could have really used some piggybacking. I can see why @zombiepie says this game helped kill PC adventure games. Till next time, I’m lost, but not broken.
Who killed the world? That is the knowingly unanswered question that the women of Mad Max: Fury Road ask the violent, patriarchal despot who enslaved them for years. No one answers that question explicitly; however, given the state of the world in Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d venture to guess that it was men with bombs who turned the land to ash and the water sour. It certainly seems to be men with cars, explosives, and spray-on chrome that keep the land hopeless and mad at the movie’s outset. The film is centered on a group of women who look at a society built on testosterone, blood, and grease, and choose to find another way. They see no acceptable future in birthing future tyrants and suckling the lumbering oafs who will unsuccessfully and brutally rule them. In choosing to reject the homicidal status quo, the women of Mad Max inspired me to take a fresh look at a post-apocalyptic game where the water is sour and the land is ash: Fallout 3.
Given the 1950s-inspired dystopian future depicted in Fallout 3, it’s almost certain that men killed the world there as well. And as with the world of Mad Max, the wastelands of Fallout 3 are also populated with a few fiefdoms governed by egomaniacal, patriarchal rulers. I decided that for this playthrough of Fallout 3, I would follow in the footsteps of Imperator Furiosa and overthrow the most patriarchal society in the wasteland. That meant the Republic of Dave had to feel the might of the Vuvalini of Many Mothers. And so, with that mission in mind, I created my character, Lady Johannesburg III, and set out into the Capitol Wasteland.
Nestled in the far northeast of the Capitol Wasteland, getting to the Republic of Dave was quite a trek, and the picture upon arrival was far from stunning. The Republic looked like a small farm from outside, with a young girl standing guard at the gates. The girl’s name was Rachael, and she was quick to take me to “President Daddy”. Upon entering the facility I quickly scanned the micro-republic: a pair of gender-assigned living quarters to the right, a “museum” to the left dedicated to the greatness of Dave, and in the center, the Capitol. Scampering between these ramshackle buildings were children; there were 3 or 4 of them and they couldn’t have been older than 13. At a firing range to the left, a young man was dumping rounds into a series of trashcan dummies. Once I made my way inside the Capitol building, I met Dave and his wife Jessica. I quickly stated that I was an “ambassador of the wastelands” in the hopes that I could talk the president into letting me stay (so that I could engineer his downfall). Unfortunately, my speech check failed and so I was forced to pay an “unwanted immigrant tax” of one good hunting rifle. And with that, I became a refuge in the Republic of Dave.
After talking to the president about his many Dave-related branches of government, I asked him if I could help run the elections for the next president. Luckily, I arrived at just the right time for the elections. Isn’t that always the way in Bethesda games? All of the good digital actors moving in their own pre-determined routines until the player shows up and an invisible director yells, “Places, people! We have an important event to portray!” Dave played his part in this morality play perfectly, and so my heretofore unknown refugee, who had been in the country for only a matter of minutes, was entrusted with the entire presidential election of this egomaniacal commonwealth.
I was tasked with reminding all citizens of legal voting age to vote. It turned out that no one had ever run against Dave, despite the Republic of Dave’s position as a liberated democracy after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Tom. I knew in that moment how I would topple this democratically elected patriarchy: I would find a willing competitor amongst the women of the Republic and sway people to elect her. After all, I did have a fairly high speech stat and I was wearing my persuasive Naughty Nightwear (+10 to speech!).
The first potential presidential candidate I talked to was Jessica, but she made it very clear very quickly that she had no interest in running for president. It turned out that Jessica was a bit preoccupied with fawning over Dave and disparaging Rosie…Dave’s first wife (no dystopic patriarchy is complete without polygamy). Unfortunately, the women of the Republic were a bit more accepting of this arrangement than Immortan Joe’s wives, and understandably so. Dave isn’t the monster that Immortan Joe is, and dealing with him and his ego is a great deal better than fending for yourself in the wasteland. However, Dave’s form of dominance is still crippling to the other people who live in his republic. All of his wives and children are taught to revere Dave above all things, and to look to him for protection and sustenance, despite the fact that the world of Fallout 3 punishes those who cannot survive on their own. Dave’s policies also relegate his wives to the roles of teacher and mother, despite the fact that Rosie is capable of far more.
I learned of Rosie’s past after my unsuccessful conversation with Jessica. Rosie spoke tepidly of her ongoing marriage with Dave, their past together as raiders in the wasteland, and her displeasure about her position in the republic. She was just the woman I was looking for, and just the candidate that the Republic of Dave needed. After a little speech check persuasion, I was able to convince Rosie to run for president, and she was quick to vote for herself. With Rosie in place, I simply needed to persuade a few other people to vote for her. She was a clearly superior option to Dave’s complacent condescension, so I figured it would be easy.
It turned out that it wasn’t even an option. Despite the fact that you can convince Rosie and Bob, Dave’s oldest son, to run for president, you cannot convince anyone to vote for them. There is literally no option to convince other voters to select a non-Dave candidate. You can tell people that Rosie and Bob are running, but none of them will even entertain the idea of voting for someone other than Dave. Yet, one ever-present dialog option you do have is to declare, “Your republic is forfeit, prepare to be reclaimed by the wasteland!” You always have the option to declare war on the Republic of Dave via a dialog option or by opening fire on the citizens of the Republic. But, no matter what I tried, I could not use any of the compelling information about Rosie’s past nor her policy ideas to persuade anyone to vote for her. This speaks to a discrepancy in how Fallout 3 treats diplomacy and violence.
Violence is the ultimate problem solver in the wasteland; VATS is always one click away, and you can kill almost every person between you and what you want (there are only a handful of story moments where violence is deliberately removed as an option). If the world of Fallout 3 was as brutal and mad as the world of Mad Max, I could understand why violence would be your skeleton key solution. However, Fallout 3 is a game where speech and bartering are supposedly valuable skills. There are entire societies attempting to rebuild some semblance of normalcy in the wastes, but because of how the speech and combat systems are implemented, you cannot apply persuasion as universally as you can violence. Even in the times when diplomacy is the most sensible solution, it sometimes isn’t an option. Although it makes sense that the borderline indoctrinated inhabitants of the Republic of Dave wouldn’t vote for anyone other than Dave, it is a bit incongruous that I had no ability to try and persuade them. I wore my Naughty Nightwear for a reason, and that reason wasn’t shooting and stealing.
With that unfortunate revelation over with, I prompted Bob to run for president (one less vote for Dave!) and encouraged everyone except Dave to vote. At this point, I had two means to overthrow Dave: kill him, or steal the key to the ballot box and rig the vote. I wasn't exactly equipped to fight Dave, and my stealth skills were likely too low to pull that off without alerting the entire republic. The republic needed a change of leadership, not a bloodbath. That left me thievery as my only real choice at subterfuge. I told Dave that he was the last person who needed to vote, and while he walked over to the polling box, I crouched (which is the only way to stealthily do anything) and stole the ballot box key from his pocket. After he entered his vote, but before he started counting the ballots, I opened the box and removed every vote except the lone vote for Rosie. The revolution came without one bullet fired.
The changes came swiftly after that. Dave decided to leave the Republic. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that he was less interested in living in a democratic country, and more interested in affirming his self-worth via elections. On the one hand, I found Dave’s petulance at losing the election to be fitting for his entitled paternalistic worldview; on the other, I appreciated the fact that he didn’t immediately turn to violence when he lost the election. Dave seemed like the kind of person who would lose his temper when things didn’t go his way, but when the time came he went peacefully. That was a refreshing change after the violent carnival of Mad Max. Once in power, Rosie changed the name of the country to The Democracy of Rosie and talked about some new policy changes. She even rewarded me with Dave’s gun Ol’ Painless. Regrettably, that was the extent of the changes. Other than some experience points and a few new lines of dialog, the Democracy of Rosie was indistinguishable from the Republic of Dave.
Like so many of the sidequests in Fallout 3, Election Day ends with some grand words, items, and experience, but not much else in terms of noticeable changes. Getting Dave to leave was a minor achievement I suppose, but I envisioned so much more. Maybe the Museum of Dave could become a school or other government building. Or, perhaps the settlement could allow new people in without Dave’s myopic xenophobia. Mad Max: Fury Road ended with scores of happy peasants celebrating a new ruler with uplifting music swelling in the background, not some robotic children continuing on their digital rails as though nothing happened. I suppose my hopes were unfounded, but I wanted more. Aside from some main story missions and the side-quests at Megaton and Tenpenny Tower, the world of Fallout 3 is remarkably unchanging and I wanted to see revolution. The most sweeping change you can make to most locations is to kill everyone, whereas the constructive changes generally aren’t reflected in any tangible ways after the initial conversations are over.
With the patriarchy conquered, I left the Democracy of Rosie as quickly as I arrived (though it still said The Republic of Dave on my Pipboy). Just outside of the gates, I noticed Dave walking alone through the wilderness. I tried to talk to him, but all he would say was that he was going to annex Old Olney, a nearby ruin. I decided to follow him. There was something sad about watching a dejected patriarch wander through the wastes, dead set on establishing a new micro-fiefdom. All of his followers were stripped away, and he had to rely on his wits (which weren’t worth a lot given the AI in Fallout 3) and the busted rifle I gave him. The former president was wounded by common bloatflies and wild dogs, but he would not be dissuaded. It was in this moment that a thought occurred to me: what if Dave was every bit the survivalist mastermind that he claimed to be? He was a good shot and he seemed self sufficient. Maybe he really was a superior leader and strategist. Maybe he did earn his spoils in the Republic. The thought fluttered around for a moment before Dave arrived at Old Olney and a deathclaw promptly slashed off his head. There went the wise and omnipotent President Dave. Long live President Rosie!
If you want to hear some more about Fallout 3 and how we imagine the post-apocalypse, I recorded a podcast episode with some of my friends about the game.