Odyssey of the Vault Dweller

the myth of the hero is retold endlessly in infinite variations


Tue, May 24th, 2005 05:00 by Leo N. ARTICLE

For my generation of computer nerds, the biggest effect had by technology was that of computer games. I think it is important, however, to make clear what kind of games I am talking about: I don't mean Doom or Hexen, even if those games left memorable multi-player nights we still discuss. I am referring to games in which your objective was more than just go around killing the bad guys. You actually had to think, solve puzzles and find a variety of ways to reach your goal. And the story actually had an impact on you.

The story actually HAD to have an impact on you, because back in the days, games couldn't just concentrate on making you wow on the stunning graphics it generated. These days, electronic games seem to spend their entire production budget behind creating the most marvellous of graphics, and a total of thirty seconds behind story development. The Monster One video card had only recently come out in 1996 and games still had to rely on quality, not pretty-pictures, in order to be bought, replayed, recommended. Games became the adventure book that you participated in, not just tagged along.

In Homer's Odyssey (the sequel to Troy) it follows what Joseph Campbell defined as the recipe of the adventure of the mythological hero, through separation, initiation and return (1949, p. 30). The same recipe is reused for many computer games, including Doom. The most memorable, to me, were the futuristic events of a post-nuclear Odysseus travelling through the wastelands of his own odyssey: Fallout.

Fallout, a role-playing game designed by Interplay in 1996, is described by the company as a "post-nuclear adventure" (Interplay, 2005). The description seems to indicate a simple, gun toting adventure, where your sole goal is to go around, blowing up baddies to no end. Fallout can be that. And yet it is so much more.

Before the story begins, the player is given a chance to pick a character. There are three options in total, each one having different pre-determined characteristics and traits that offer some advantages and disadvantages. While one character may be surprisingly strong, he may have the language skill of a four-year-old, while another may be very intelligent and skilled, but lacking the necessary strength to carry equipment or heavy weapons. Surprisingly, playing a complete moron whose sentence options ranged from "duh" to "huh" turned out to be fun but more challenging, despite the heavy amounts of fire he could lay. Sometimes a little cunning and intelligence went a long way.

Alternatively, the player is given the option to create their own character, if they so desire. This gives the possibility for the player to customize his virtual personae from physical and mental attributes, down to the name, to the point where the character in the game becomes the player. Or perhaps the other way around, so absorbed the player becomes in deciding how the story will unfold.

Ultimately, the interaction of the character in the virtual world visible on the computer screen, becomes the way the player would really interact with others in the real world. Whether this may be in the pursuit of good or for complete and utter evil. Nobody but ourselves will be the judge of our behaviour, which in the end has absolutely no effect or consequences in the real world.

I should point out that while playing a character bent on evil can be particularly satisfying--especially if you have the firepower to back you up--playing the good one was more challenging. On top of that, there was a feature that seems to lack in the real world: the people in the world of Fallout actually remembered what good you had done. In the real world, good deeds are quickly forgotten and often punished.

After the character has been created, the player is introduced to the world he or she will be living in through a computer-animated movie. The character's home is Vault 13, a deep, underground city, secluded from the outside world, where he or she and his people, have been living-and hiding-for the last eighty years. The Vault is a womb that feeds and protects them from the outside. The Vaults were designed and built to house the special, the elite and the important in order to survive the inevitable nuclear holocaust that ended civilization. This war was fought by all the nations of the earth over the last remaining resources of the planet. Vaults were intended to house these few fortunate in order to live out the war and nuclear winter that followed, and then to emerge, in unison with other vaults, for the creation of a post-nuclear utopia (Interplay, 2005).

This introduction is important as it sets the ordinary world in which the character lives in. As Joseph Campbell explains in A Practical Guide to the Hero With a Thousand Faces, "if you're going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that ordinary environment, so as to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world" (2004, p. 5). This "new world" of broken, charred remains is in fact what is left of the "ordinary world" where the player lives in, providing a fascinating contrast.

For example, in The Odyssey, the ordinary world in which Odysseus lives in is introduced in book one, through the experiences of his son Telemakhos, as he travels looking for information about his father (Homer, p. 11, l. 303). It is through his experiences that the reader learns how his society functions, how people travel and the interaction between death-bounds (those who are mortal) and the immortal Gods. The latter becomes particularly evident during a heated conversation between Telemakhos and the goddess Pallas Athena about the whereabouts of his father (Homer, p. 10, l. 252). The reader is lead to believe that in the ordinary world of The Odyssey, speaking with the Gods is a regular, everyday event. This is still true for the lonely nutcase at your local street corner, preaching to no one in particular.

In Fallout the player is quickly introduced to the problem that will become his quest. The Vault's water purification chip, a piece of technobabble, which provides the Vault Dwellers with fresh water, has broken. Due to a mishap during the early construction days, there are no spare parts available and, unless something is done in less than 150 days, the Vault citizens will die of thirst. The Vault leaders decide that someone must venture beyond the safety that is the Vault and find a replacement--possibly at nearby Vault 15. Naturally, the main character of the game is picked to perform this quest, due to his extraordinary skills and abilities.

It is at this point that the player meets the Overseer, the person that controls and commands everything about life in the Vault. He explains the quest to the hero and warns him about the world he is going to face. Campbell defines the Overseer, as the Supernatural Aid, who is a "protective figure (often portrayed as a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass" (1949, p. 69).

The "amulets" in this case turn out to be a semi-automatic Glock-9 pistol, several rounds of ammunition and a few stimpacks, futuristic Band-Aids of the future that can cure almost anything. Because in the player's ordinary world, a Glock-9 pistol would be sufficient to fend off some of the baddies, games seem to lull you in this false sense of security with what they start you with. If you're starting a game and are given a Super Ray Gun of Mighty Ass Kicking, it will prove to be useless by about the second creature you'll encounter. This is the "here is a toothpick and a napkin, now go stop the German army" mentality usually found in adventure games.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus has his own Supernatural Aid, who comes in the form of the goddess Pallas Athena. Albeit she does not provide him with amulets, she does provide him with wisdom when he first returns to Ithaca where he doesn't rush immediately home (Homer, p. 193, l. 330). She provides protection when he arrives as a shipwreck victim to Phaikhian country (Homer, p. 81, l. 490). She also disguises him as an old man, when he is finally on Ithaca, so that he can perceive the situation with the suitors, as well as figure out who can and can not be trusted (Homer, p. 194, l. 392).

It is at this point that the Fallout hero must depart from his ordinary world, the Vault, and step into the first threshold, the Wastelands, or what Joseph Campbell would define as the "darkness, the unknown, and danger" (1949, p. 77).

The Wastelands are a place of darkness because they are unknown. Just as Marlow says, in Heart of Darkness, "and this also[...] has been one of the dark places of the earth," (p. 7) referring to what ancient England must have looked like for the first time to a RomanNavy Commander:

"`I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago-the other day... [...] But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feeling of a commander on a fine-what d'ye call'em?-trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft [...] Imagine him here-the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina-and going up this river with stores or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, -precious little to eat fit for a civilized man' ( pp. 8-9)."

With that said, I wouldn't recommend reading Heart of Darkness. Joseph Konrad was a sick bastard who wrote books filled with extremely long-winded sentences, as pleasurable to read as drinking a glass of molasses to satisfy one's thirst. Most English Majors will probably disagree with that statement, if they could only manage to write a semi-literate response.

As the Vault dweller exits the home he has known, the door between the two worlds could be a representation of a vagina. As he leaves the womb and the vagina-door closes behind him, he is born anew and inexperienced to what he faces, alone in the darkness of the unknown, venturing further in the wastelands.

Why vaginas? Because Critical Thinking professors eat that stuff up and love you for it. If you just look hard enough in just about anything you'll read, listen to or watch, you can find some references to penises and vaginas. Just watch me.

(Which brings to question, what important socio-political and cultural events is pornography trying to bring forward?)

Albeit Odysseus is not alone at first (he has his shipmates), there is a resemblance between his experiences after leaving Troy and those of the Vault dweller entering the unknown.

Odysseus begins to tell his tale to Lordly Alkinoos--the King who hosts him after the last shipwreck he had to endure--of how he and his shipmates are blown off-course by "stormcloud gathering Zeus" (Homer, p. 119, l. 67) and from that point on, of all the misadventures he has had to endure for the last ten years. It is no wonder he starts to cry at this point. I'd be somewhat bitter about it, myself.

In Fallout, as the Vault dweller travels through the wastelands, he or she encounters a variety of difficulties. This is what Joseph Campbell defines as The Road of Trials. On this road, the character, "moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a successions of trials" (1949, p. 97). In Fallout, this was a variety of tasks and quests that required intelligence, wit and cunning strategies. In Doom, this was a variety of rooms, filled with an ever-increasing number of imps and devilish creatures you pumped shell after shell into.

Much like Odysseus, he travels from location to location, meeting his or her own versions of tribulations. One such encounter is a battle with Deathclaws, children of the radioactive landscape, which has turned regular sized iguanas, into monsters twice the size of a regular human being. These creatures are the dweller's version of Kuklops, which are Homer's equivalent to a giant penis, being the one eyed monster and all. This is probably to signify that Odysseus and his crew should stop thinking like men eager only to satisfy their savage needs, fight this desire (hence the giant penis) and become more feminine by thinking intelligently. I told you I'd find a penis in here, somewhere.

But I digress.

The Mother Deathclaw, from which the species originates, is a comparison to the Kuklop Poluphemos. Since by strength alone it cannot be stopped, it is through cunning that the dweller defeats her, similarly to Odysseus, when he blinds and escapes the Kuklop that held him and his friends captive, really pissing the giant off (Homer, p. 129, l. 390).

Eventually the Vault dweller finds the water chip ("Oh, here it is.") and returns home. While the safety of his "tribe" is therefore ensured, a new, bigger problem arises which the hero must face: the danger posed by the super-mutant army. Looked down upon as an abomination by those who live in the wastelands, they are also feared, much like the "deviations" found in The Chrysalids (p. 58).

I would seriously recommend reading this book, especially if you're a post-nuclear world aficionado--and really, who isn't? It definitely appears as one of the starting points that got the creators of Fallout going. Even on its own, it is a really captivating read of a post-cold war world gone very "hot."

The goal of the super-mutant army, led by a brilliant but evil mastermind is to conquer the wastelands and destroy the vault, seen as a threat to his diabolic plan of conquests. The player must not only stop them, but also destroy them to prevent them from causing further troubles to the poor dwellers of the lunar landscape they still call earth.

Odysseus faces a similar challenge. While first his quest was to return home to Ithaca, a new quest takes shape once he does get there: to rid his home of the threat of the suitors. Albeit both outnumbered by the incredible odds of defeating a stronger opponent, both Odysseus and the hero of Fallout are no longer the people they originally were. The trials and tribulations they experienced have changed them, made them stronger, (particularly at level 20, packing some serious heat) less merciful and more determined in protecting their respective "tribes," even if the cost is taking the life of others.

This is a difficult but important choice that both must make, similarly to Lewis in Deliverance, when he shoots and kills one of the mountain men busy sodomizing Bobby, in the famous "you got a purty mouth boy" scene:

"I knew something awful was happening to Bobby. I could see you tied to the tree. I'm sorry I couldn't do anything for Bobby, but at least I didn't make a mismove and get his head blown off. [...] I just had to wait till that time came. I was pretty sure they'd swap the gun, eventually. When I saw they were getting ready to do that, I pulled down on this one and when I got a clear shot, I turned loose. I knew I was right on him. I knew I had him when I let go" (p. 69).

At the end of the final quest, Odysseus is recognized and welcomed home much like a hero. In the case of the Vault dweller, however, his outcome is different. Albeit praised and cheered by the other citizens of the underground city and by the Overseer, he is not welcome back to his home. The hero has changed too much from who he originally was and his presence in the Vault may inspire others to follow his steps and leave at once. The Overseer does not desire this for it will mean that his control over the citizens will be lost. Not only that, but it made for a seriously amazing sequel in Fallout 2, something Homer never realized when he wrapped up the Odyssey.

The first time the hero steps out from the Vault's vagina-door, it is almost foreshadowing what will happen at the end of his adventure. Once out of the womb, one can never return. When the Vault dweller steps out of those doors again, the doors close behind him one last time, never to open again, to signify not only his change into a different person, but also to the severing of the connections that the hero had with the womb. He has grown and leaves the mother, his initiation complete, never to return again.

Just as Campbell explained, the myth of the hero is practically the same story, retold endlessly "in infinite variations" (2004, p. 2) whether these variations are recalling the events of The Odyssey taking place thousands of years ago or they give a chance to someone to play the part of the Vault Dweller in a not-so-distant future. Evolving from just being a spectator in a book, television or radio, down to actually participating (and maybe becoming) the hero in an interactive computer game, ultimately these stories represent not just the struggle of life, but the story and meaning of the human race itself.



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