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A Solstice of Broken Worlds

I'll say it up front: I am no fan of winter, despite the fact that some media I enjoy features it prominently enough to call it a central character. It's probably no coincidence that these are harsh and violent stories of twisted motivations, revenge, and betrayal where the weather is a monster to be feared. I'm no fan of the cold, the lightlessness, the monotony... sometimes, I think being born in California might have affected me more than I realize. Recently, I discussed choosing games to match your mood and situation, and mentioned that the change in weather and real-world frustrations had led me to return to a few games I had taken breaks from: Fallout 3 and Demon's Souls. With the winter solstice just around the corner, I thought I'd explore why these games are speaking to me at this particular moment, and what I (consciously or not) am looking to gain from them.

Both these games could be described as "post-apocalyptic," but a more appropriate term, I think, would be one I've heard used to describe the Souls series in general: "post-historic." The clock, the calendar, and the sundial have all stopped. Fallout may give you the current date and time, but these simply determine what's available at any given moment - there is no change or progress, every day is exactly the same. Demon's Souls presents the concept more literally - each of the different realms you visit is stuck at a certain time of day. Regardless of how much time you spend in Stonefang Tunnel, it will always be dusk outside. While other games have certainly used similar approaches, particularly before systems were able to track and portray day/night cycles, here, the effect is particularly unnerving as the setting's timeline is intentionally vague and confusing. How long has it been since the cataclysmic events took place? In some locales, it appears that only days or weeks have passed. In others, it could be years or even centuries. Fallout is more playful with its anachronisms - the "retro future" aesthetic has been a hallmark of the series since its first installment in 1997, the conceit of nuclear Armageddon happening amidst a revival of 1950s styles allowing for a mix of Cold War imagery and futuristic technology. And while you can work out exactly how long it's been since the war, the world itself seems less sure, with some places where time and erosion have completely erased all marks of humanity and others remaining eerily intact, as if the bombs fell only a few days earlier. The inhabitants, too, are an odd mix: some seem to be dealing with the realities of their world for the first time, and others carrying generations worth of survivors' experience.

All of this contextualizes the feelings I get at this time of year, even if the circumstances are (admittedly) more extreme than my own. Of course, this isn't really only about the discomfort of the seasons changing, but the introspection this time of year brings and the frustration, sorrow, and grief we all accrue in the time we spend on this planet. Had they existed when I was young and first discovering gaming, I doubt these titles would have clicked with me in any way. Sure, games like the original Bard's Tale took place after the Big Bad had driven everyone out of the region and left it empty save the places I would need to visit (the weapons shop, the tavern, etc.) - conveniently diminishing the number of elements the system would need to handle in the process. But while the game offered an entire town's worth of empty houses to barge into, the world never felt devoid so much as temporarily uninhabited. (To be fair, the third Bard's Tale did revisit the setting of the first after a cataclysmic event, but the differences were largely aesthetic.) I got a little closer to it with Starflight, which drops the player into a scenario millennia after the collapse of a galaxy-spanning civilization and tasks you with, amongst other things, piecing together what really happened. Throughout the whole game, there's a sense of something huge and beautiful having been lost. I'd been skirting this feeling in books for a few years by that point (J.R.R. Tolkien springs instantly to mind), but experiencing it firsthand via a gaming medium at the age where this kind of imagery is just starting to resonate is something of a revelation... if a gradual one.

There's also a long-standing love of abandoned spaces that I took from my father, who would bring me along on photographic excursions to all sorts of places, including some of the last industrial sections of Washington, DC that were about to be torn down. There was an inherent quality in something being old that deepened with the passage of time and the absence of people. The stories of these spaces stand raw and distinct, away from the distractions and frustrations of daily life. So, for me, visiting empty and broken worlds in games offers a kind of comfort, a peace even amidst the the threats and monsters... all without having to actually go out in the cold.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of these stories and their settings is that they are transitory. Plenty of "post-apocalyptic" games across the history of the medium have been more about players engaging in their basest impulses in the absence of societal norms. Not that there's nothing to be gained in battling hordes of zombies (although there are frequently some... problematic overtones), but these stories are about people trying to move forward, despite their bleak settings. One of the recurring phrases in Demon's Souls is "help the world be mended," and that carries through everything you're doing. Fallout, even at its most nihilistic, is about communities rebuilding out of what they have. It will never resemble the old world, but it will be something new and unique. Like the sudden growth of spring, the process will be chaotic, inconsistent, and messy, and that expectation runs through every moment of these games. So, in a very real way, I play these games to remind me that the winter, the hard times, will end. There will be light and warmth again, and the places they will be felt are built here, by us, in the cold and silent ruins. 

- B

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