Monday, January 19, 2009

I have to be quick - I think the maid is drinking again

When I was a child I read an anthology of science fiction stories from a book published in 1980 called Constellations. Almost all of the stories were really good and I can recall a lot of them now - there was one about a futuristic holiday agency who runs tours to the Crucifixon of Jesus (Let's Go to Golgotha), another one about a little boy with Godlike powers and the frightened adults who live with him (It's a Good Life), another set on a hideously over-populated Earth (Billenium), and another about windows that can record images and then play them back a year later (Light of Other Days). The story which spooked me the most though was one called The Store of The Worlds, written by Robert Sheckley. It's about a man who goes into a shop which sells some sort of drug or device which lets you live for a year in your ideal world (although in reality only a few moments pass in the real world). The catch is that the process takes 10 years from your life.

(Don't read on if you don't want to know what happens).

So the guy isn't sure about whether to do it or not and he goes away to think about it - as the story progresses he's getting on with his life, there are all sorts of things going on - his wife thinks the maid might be drinking again, the children get measles or something, there's a financial crisis on Wall Street, his boat needs a new coat of paint and he keeps getting distracted and still can't make his mind up about having the process done. Then, he wakes up - and it turns out that he's just experienced a perfect year - for him it was just an ordinary American 1950s life, with a wife and family and job. The real world he lives in has been wrecked by nuclear war and everyone is dying, starving and diseased. As he makes his way over the ruined buildings to his home, he can't wait to amass enough potatoes to pay to have the process again.

This story has come to mind a lot lately as I've been playing a game called Fallout 3 - which is set in the Washington DC area about 100 years after a nuclear war. In this alternate universe, society hasn't culturally progressed from the 1950s, although scientific development happened much faster, and once all the oil ran out the countries of the world decided to blow each other up. You've spent the first 18 years of your life in a massive underground Fallout shelter, but at the start of the game you're forced to leave - and have to get used to the realities of post-nuclear society - mutants, ghouls, giant radioactive ants, a lack of law and order - with sadistic raiders capturing people, radiation sickness and people living in shanty towns made out of corrugated iron.

In the game you spend a lot of time climbing over rubble - and although it's depressing wandering around vast areas of wasteland which is rather too lovingly depicted (abandoned children's playgrounds and many recognisable areas), the game has a stark beauty to it. It's also massive - both in terms of the amount of space in it - you could just wander for days, and in terms of the "story". There are various quests to go on - and each one has multiple routes - you can become the Hero of the Wastelands, or you can sell children into slavery, blow up cities and generally be a villain. The game even contains a part where you have to go into a virtual simulation of what the world was like before the nuclear war - I don't know if the game's creators read The Store of The Worlds - but it's an interesting nod to the short story.

The game will take hours or more likely days to complete. It's not suprising that people are eschewing DVDs in favour of games - they allow the player to construct their own narrative and tend to be much more involving - my fella laughs at me because I've literally jumped when I've been lost in the subway network and something nasty has come round the corner. And they can be as involving as you want - if you want to just go around and shoot things, then that's fine. If you want to try and complete quests you can, or you can try to develop a unique character for yourself, or just explore and admire the scenery. Perhaps what's most ironic about the game though - is that people would choose to spend hours at a time playing in this horrible alternative reality. Sheckley died in 2005, but I wonder if he would have found it amusing that people are choosing to live in the exact opposite of what he envisaged in his short story - we are paying to experience life after nuclear war rather than the perfect and mundane world of reality.

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