Father’s Day: Blood vs. Electricity
Father’s Day is often characterized by imagery of backyard barbecues, early morning fishing, and two little kids hugging their daddy from either side. Candies, golfing equipment, barcaloungers, and ties that will never, ever be worn to work make for popular gifts. Department stores slap the phrase “#1 Dad” on just about anything that can be imagined, guaranteeing that you can remind your father of his status no matter what his interests are.
I, however, did not engage in any of those things Sunday. I bought my father a card, as I do every year, but that was the extent of our activities for the day. My relationship with my father has always been very… iffy. Between his intimidating, military presence and my meek and people-pleasing childhood outlook, we never really had a strong foundation to start out on. He came off as cold, judgemental, and clearly favoring my brother. I couldn’t make him laugh when I tried to entertain him, but boy did he laugh anytime I was embarrassed. Rather than telling me he loved me, the phrase I heard at the end of every conversation was, “Keep your grades up.” As for video games, I never felt so much disapproval as when I dared to bring games to his house, and he and his wife called my decision to study game design “stupid” two days before my first class. As of an argument over a series of lies he’s been telling for the last four years, my father and I rarely speak anymore.
Which is why I chose to spend the holiday with this guy — and learned a few things about myself.
(Warning: Major spoilers ahead.)
After my success with Fallout: New Vegas, I decided to try my hand at Fallout 3, as I knew the two had similar styles but different stories. I even upped my game and decided to play as a mere mortal rather than allowing my best friend to hack my game file. It appears I learned enough in my first excursion to not get my head blown off this time around, so I’ve been doing well on my own two feet.
For those who haven’t played, Fallout 3 takes place at essentially the same time as New Vegas, but on the opposite side of the country. We enter our character’s story at the beginning — the very beginning, as in right at the moment of birth. This is the game’s clever way of determining your avatar’s appearance, as that’s when the sex is declared and a device is used to allegedly predict what you’ll look like as an adult. But then, rather than jumping ahead to that point in time, Fallout 3 takes its slow and touches on significant milestones in the player character’s life. This not only teaches us about the Fallout world, but also allows us to get to know James, the player’s father.
James and the player character share several conversations at the start of the game as she (or he) grows up. He’s clearly very invested in his child, and although he has work to do, he doesn’t let it get in the way of his parenting. He speaks wistfully about his late wife and tells the player that, although she died in childbirth, she had already loved them very much. James takes great care when talking to his child, as he doesn’t raise his voice or berate them even when they’re faking sick to skip a test. He reminds the player repeatedly how much he cares about them and wants only the best for them, yet doesn’t coddle them and allows his offspring to handle challenges on their own.
I actually took my time playing through these early childhood scenes. I was aware that they were only around for the sake of world building and exposition, but I enjoyed climbing into the shoes of my avatar and getting a feel for the life ‘I’ had in this game. Furthermore, I really enjoyed talking to James — or “My Fallout Dad,” as I quickly began to call him. Our conversations unexpectedly struck several chords with me. I found the gentle way he delivered his sentences, the intermittent terms of endearment, and the simple words of encouragement to be extraordinarily refreshing. He seemed to be filling all the gaps that I’d been lacking from my own father in reality. Despite reminding myself repeatedly that it was just a game, I had to admit that it felt really nice to have a father figure, even a fictional one, say those things to me. I quickly grew attached to James; I even joked to my bestie that I should’ve sent Liam Neeson (James’ voice actor) a Father’s Day card on a lark.
When the game truly ‘begins,’ James abruptly disappears from the vault we’ve been living in, and the Overseer is outraged over the escape — so much so that he then sends his soldiers after the player because… Actually, I never really got that. I mean, it’s clear I’m not in on it since I was left behind, but whatever I guess. The point is that the player has to escape the vault if they want to keep their blood inside their body, leaving us with the wide world of the Capital Wastes. Dad is out there somewhere, and now that there’s no going back, the player has nothing else to do but go look for him.
As I played the game, I naturally got tangled up in side quests and did a lot of grinding to increase my stats and finances. The quest of finding my Fallout Dad was always on the to-do list, but I tend to get smaller things out of the way as they come up so I don’t get backed up and lose track. Besides, I kind of liked being on the hunt for James, even if it wasn’t always my active objective. It was nice knowing that he was out there somewhere, and sooner or later I would find him. I didn’t know when or where, but I knew it was in my future. Whether I was working on it or not, I was still heading in his direction. I looked forward to seeing him again, whenever that would be.
That’s why I decided to play Fallout 3 last Sunday. I had been sidetracked by so many other quests that I hadn’t gone looking for James in quite a while, and Father’s Day seemed an appropriate day to do it. I fired up the 360 and got back on his trail, and it wasn’t long before I managed to locate Vault 112 and finally got my reunion. The conversation tree was a little thin, I felt, and could’ve used a lot more character study and side chat options, but I was still happy to see him again regardless.
From that point, I began following him around like a puppy, if just because I was pleased to be in his presence. I followed him to Rivet City and the Jefferson Memorial, I talked through every branch of conversation, and I happily completed the errands he asked of me. Sometimes I just lingered to see what he would do if left to his own devices. I was disappointed that my Fallout Dad hadn’t become a companion after I’d rescued him, as I’d been hoping that he could come on some adventures with me before going straight to work, but this was better than nothing. Maybe instead of traveling with him, I could just do my exploration and side quests like always and occasionally pop back in to see him. Maybe it’d open up the other conversation trees I was wanting before. I began to think that things would work out after all, even if they weren’t the way I wanted them — but then something unexpected happened.
As I was finishing up some of the favors he asked, the Enclave suddenly arrived with guns blazing and demanded that all work on Project Purity be handed over immediately. Rather than let his life’s work fall into their hands, James flooded the chamber with a lethal dose of radiation. He had just enough strength to shuffle to the glass and tell me to run before crumbling to the floor.
For a minute or two, I just stood there, waiting for something else to happen. Nothing else did. I kept trying to open doors or mess with controls. None of them worked. I briefly considered reloading from the last auto-save, thinking I must have missed something vital and needed to take action prior to that moment to save him. I looked over at my best friend, as though silently asking for help, only to find her frowning and mumbling how devastated she’d been when she played it for the first time herself. It finally hit me that this wasn’t a mistake. This was supposed to happen, per the plot of the game. It was non-negotiable. James, my Fallout Dad, was dead. And there was nothing I could do about it.
I suddenly started crying.
It wasn’t just the wet eyes or one or two tears that other games have given me during emotional moments. I was crying hard. I went through a stack of tissues and had to completely stop what I was doing to clean my glasses three times. No other game (or book or movie, for that matter) has ever given me such an intense, overwhelming reaction in my life. The moment of realization that James was gone and wouldn’t be coming back gave me the same pain in my chest that I feel when a real-life relationship is damaged or severed. I couldn’t believe it; I was honestly, legitimately mourning a fictional character. At that point I concluded that I’d officially gone off the deep end due to working an 8-hour closing shift the night before and an 8-hour opening shift that morning, turned the game off, and slumped my way to bed.
The next morning, I didn’t get up right away and stared at the ceiling for a while, mulling over what had happened. I surprised myself again when I discovered last night’s outburst wasn’t a one-time occurrence; I welled up a couple of times just thinking back over my realization, again not unlike what happens to me during real-life relationship strife. When I was able to pull myself away from the temptation to cry like a child all over again, I wondered what exactly was going on with me. For reasons I couldn’t pinpoint, I seemed to be reacting to the event as though I’d actually lost someone close. Even as I’d been weeping about it, the idea was completely absurd to me. Neverminding that this was a game character, I’d only been playing Fallout 3 for a couple of months, and James had maintained a minimal presence in that time. Was it just my latent daddy issues screwing with me, or was something else going on?
Further reflection on the subject made me realize that my affection and subsequent grief for my Fallout Dad was nothing new; I soon remembered being overly attached to the chao I’d raised in Sonic Adventure 2, going so far as to give each one a name even though the game didn’t even offer such an option. I remember being horrified when I learned that chao do eventually die, and ironically ended up spending less time with them to not “use up” their lives all at once. Prior to that, I recalled having been knee-deep in the original Tamagotchi craze back in the 90’s. I became very invested in my virtual pets each time I hatched a new one, and became distraught if one died unexpectedly. I may not have been the caretaker when it came to James, but my emotional attachment was apparently on the same level.
Still, that just meant that if I was a weirdo, I’d been a weirdo all my life. Was this affection for digital beings just me?
As a matter of fact, it’s not — and not by a long shot. A psychological phenomenon known (go figure) as the Tamagotchi Effect suggests that it’s very common for people to become enamored by perceived relationships with artificial beings. Studies suggest that anyone is susceptible to this curiosity, and that the feelings of loss when a virtual relationship ‘ends’ can be very real. In retrospect, this made perfect sense; after all, I can find no other explanation for how pet rocks managed to take off in the 70’s without this particular breed of mental malleability. As for applying the principle to video games… Well, one need look no further than Aerith’s murder in Final Fantasy VII to see just how much a character death can impact players on a psychological level.
But despite the fact that this summed up what I was feeling pretty much to a T, I got the sense that the Tamagotchi Effect wasn’t the whole story here. There was something different about my exact situation this time. Specifically, I kept going back to the fact that I’d been completely blindsided by James’ death, which was a large part of why I reacted so severely. Managing to surprise me with story elements is, in my personal opinion, the mark of a story that’s written particularly well (or especially poorly, in some cases). I have a history of ‘spoiling’ a lot of stories for myself because I can never stop being a writer, and I can typically predict where a tale is going based on what I’m observing of the underlying story structure. The degree of detail to which I can see events coming will vary, but unless the writing veers all over the place for no reason, I’m usually in the ballpark.
That said, I was so far off the map with my Fallout Dad that no amount of Pip-boy navigation could’ve gotten me back on track. Even as I watched the Enclave storm the Jefferson Memorial, at no time did I ever even remotely guess that my dad was in danger. I had expected that maybe I’d need to fight my way past a series of soldiers until I could get back by my father’s side, protecting him and the rest of the team as we escaped. I thought the next major arc might be setting up a new lab and James asking me to recover various Project Purity research components from the Enclave. Even when considering a worst case scenario, I guessed they might kidnap him and force him to continue his work for them, which would then charge me with the task of defeating the Enclave and rescuing him from something more dangerous than a VR simulation. The idea that James might die in this confrontation never once entered my head.
Does this mean that sequence was poorly written? No, not by any means. In hindsight, I can now see some structure elements suggesting his death could be coming, but at the time I was completely oblivious. There was nothing wrong with the way it was constructed; if I hadn’t been so emotionally invested, I probably would’ve seen it coming, or at least known it was possible. I may have even written it the same way myself had I been on the other side of the screen. The key here is that I was so emotionally invested in the first place. There was something about James that was distinct, something that was custom-crafted to ensnare someone just like me.
I can’t say whether or not Bethesda intentionally aimed for it, but James’ character is almost a perfect fulfillment for someone with father hunger, which prompts sufferers to “seek out unactualized parts of the father archetype in the outside world.” Remember when I said that James seemed to be hitting all the beats that my own dad had missed, and that I found it endeared him to me despite reminding myself he wasn’t real? That’s father hunger at work. I came into the game as an audience member that wanted an adventure, but the game zeroed in on a much more subverted need and fulfilled it, even as other parts of my psyche protested. I connected with the character in a way that no other persona in any other media has ever even approached. The connection was so strong that my pleasure from simply spending time with him was powerful enough to override my ceaseless examination of the narrative. I consider that masterful, whether it was intended or not.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that James dies. But it does make it easier to accept what happened on Sunday, both in-game and out.
The power of fiction isn’t that it’s not real; it’s that it can be more real than reality itself if the audience is willing to go there. It can provide pieces of the puzzle that we can’t seem to find on our own, giving us insights about ourselves, each other, and the world we live in. I may have been crushed when I got to James’ death scene, but going through it taught me a lot about my own mind, my relationships, and showed me that I’m not alone.
And those are exactly the types of things a father should be teaching their child.
Obligatory Legal Crap
James, Fallout 3, and all other elements of the Capital Wastes are the property of Bethesda. They apparently also own my heart, since they took the liberty of breaking it without warning, but luckily I bought a stockpile of wonderglue from Moira in Megaton and almost have it back together again.
Posted on June 18, 2014, in About Me, Analysis, Developers, Feature Articles, Game Characters, Journalism, Portfolio, Video Games and tagged Bethesda, Fallout, Fallout 3, father hunger, Tamagotchi Effect. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.