Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Some thoughts on romance, monogamy and incest in Fallout Shelter

Just yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian tweeted that




As inevitably as the sun rising in the east, this led to complaints about her failing to understand the game, justifications along the lines of 'Well, yes, but it's satirising the 1950s' or 'How else would you survive a nuclear holocaust?' At this stage, Sarkeesian could tweet that 'Link typically wears green', and some people would find a way to complain (probably along the lines of 'I want to see photographic evidence from five independent sources that you have ever played a Zelda game'). But I digress.

I noticed the same thing while I was playing Fallout Shelter, but I had other issues with the 'romance' mechanics of the game as well. So let's take a look at them.

In order to increase the population in Fallout Shelter, you place two dwellers of opposite sexes in the Living Quarters, and allow them to get to know each other. At some point, based on their Charisma score, the prospective couple will start to dance together, and at shortly after that they will retire to the back of the quarters to become more intimate (it's possible that the dancing does not always occur; I couldn't say for certain). The will emerge a short time later with broad smiles, the woman already heavily pregnant. Several hours later, the woman will give birth, with a notification that looks like this:


Now, one thing to notice here is that the child takes the surname of one of the parents (either the mother or the father), but the two adults keep their surnames. You can edit the names of the dwellers, either at birth, or by finding them in the vault and clicking on their names. So the game does give you a way to make 'families', although it doesn't do so automatically, and doesn't explain that you can do so as you're playing.

The men are also frisky little devils, as I found at the very start of the game. I placed two couples in a room and let them pair off; one of the men was a rare dweller, with rather high Charisma, acquired through a lunchbox (the micro-transaction mechanic, although you don't need to buy any to play). He and a female dweller quickly decided to that they would like to get to know each other better, while the other couple in the room, with less Charisma score, took more time, exchanging compliments but not even getting to the dancing stage.

When our Casanova emerged from love-making, the woman of the other pair immediately left the man she had been romancing and sped over to him, and within seconds Casanova was getting intimate with the second woman. Once they emerged I decided that enough was enough, and sent him off into the wasteland to kill monsters and gather loot.

The romance mechanics of the game have absolutely no sense of commitment to them. The woman becomes pregnant, and can't have sex again until she gives birth; while the male partner can be as much of a womaniser (and I think the term is utterly appropriate here) as his Charisma score will let him.

There is, admittedly, a mechanic which will stop parents have sex with their children in the game, although it doesn't seem to apply to half-siblings (so a daughter and son born of the same father with different mothers). And because the names given to children can either take the name of the father or the mother, it can be difficult to keep them apart.

So: Fallout Shelter does, unquestionably, cast women as baby-making machines, and men as commitment-free studs. Furthermore, it is entirely up to you if you want to couples to form a monogamous relationship: the game itself allows dwellers to (effectively) sleep with who they want, and that is in fact the default state of play, especially for male dwellers. And incest is permitted, if not with direct siblings, at a level most people would be uncomfortable with if it wasn't packaged in a resource management mobile game.

Now, I'm not saying that monogamy is the only socially acceptable relationship, that 'open' relationships are bad, nor even necessarily that incest is categorically immoral (regardless of whether you agree with them, there are arguments concerning the issue of incest between consenting adults, for example).

But the point is that the mechanics of the game actually make it difficult for the player to have monogamous couples in the shelter, and also make a certain level of incest tolerable. And this is on top of the baby-making mechanics Sarkeesian tweeted about.

Let's return to the first of those responses to that tweet for a moment: the argument that Fallout is satirising 1950s America. That may be true; but, at best, only for one aspect of the romance mechanic. It may be true that women were largely perceived as baby machines (and homemakers) in the 1950s; but it is certainly not true that marriage was virtually impossible, nor that incest was largely acceptable, nor even that women were completely equal in the workplace when they were not pregnant (as in indeed the case in Fallout Shelter).

Here's the thing: you don't get to use an argument to support a mechanic in a game if the part(s) of the mechanic you're ignoring would completely undermine that argument. That's called cherry-picking.

Basically, the argument that Fallout Shelter is satirising 1950's America can't be used to justify the romance mechanics of the game, because a huge part of those mechanics have absolutely no connection to 1950's America.

Similarly, there's a problem with the argument that the romance mechanics would be appropriate in the even of a nuclear holocaust. Even if women-as-baby-machines was a plausible solution (which is by no means certain: a population explosion at a time when living space and resources would be highly limited would probably be a disaster), the other consequences of the mechanics are another question altogether. Would the need to have as many babies as possible lead to the dissolution of marriage, and the encouragement of incest?

And even if you're gearing up to say that it would, the problem is that none of these things are true of the Fallout universe. Fallout is not a world in which women have become baby machines, nor incest is accepted in order to survive. Yes, individual vaults and groups developed different societies, but if anything, the majority of the population of the Fallout universe came out of the vaults with the similar morals and social ideas that they went in with.

The romance mechanics in Fallout Shelter are mechanics, nothing more and nothing less. They do not mesh particularly well with the Fallout world, and they do not mesh well with the society the game is supposedly based on. They exist solely as mechanics, as ways to achieve a goal in the game, and nothing more. And since the only justification for them to be the way they are is because that is the way they are, it is perfectly okay to ask why they are not different. As I've pointed out, an approach to romance which was more consistent with the Fallout world and 1950s America would probably involve 'marriage' to one partner in the game, and incest being strictly forbidden. In fact, if you're listening, Bethesda, that would be a great way of adding an extra level of difficulty to the game.

Also, just in case you're wondering, I don't believe the romance mechanics in this game reflect the 'view' of the creators, because quite frankly they're not well enough thought out. That doesn't stop them being "troubling", as Sarkeesian points out; if anything, it makes them more troubling, because of how easily a game like this slips into ethically suspicious ideas, let alone sexist stereotypes. It couldn't be that casual sexism is so ingrained into society that the games' creators didn't even realise how sexist they were being, could it? Heaven forbid.

Gratuitous Censorship, or Why the German Censors should be Censored.

gratuitous (adjective): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted [OED]
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied Powers (naturally enough) eliminated Nazi ideology from Germany's educational curriculum. But they went a step further: in 1949, the constitution of West Germany divided educational authority between the various federal states, to all intents and purposes abandoning a centralised system. The rationale behind this was to ensure that, should an objectionable party rise to national power again, it would be much harder for it to indoctrinate school children.

This devolution of educational responsibility has led to any number of problems for the German school system, not least that some states do not recognise the qualifications of others (meaning that, for example, someone who has trained as a teacher in one state may have to go back to university if they wish to teach in another). But for the purposes of this post that is beside the point. What's important is this: that in the matter of education, one group of elected officials acts a buffer to the potential excesses of another group of elected officials. Effectively a system of checks and balances, the constitution does not trust elected politicians to act in the best interests of the people.

So why is it that unelected German censors are able, without any opposition whatsoever, to dictate what is appropriate for me to see?

German censorship was always a bit idiosyncratic. As if uncomfortable with the farcical association of the erotic and the macabre, Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death had its title changed to The Last Night of Boris Gruschenko. Perhaps for a similar reason, Peter Jackson's 1996 film The Frighteners was awarded an 18 age rating in Germany, in contrast to its 15 in Britain (that's really the only reason I can think of here). Most ridiculously, however, is the fact that the 1963 film version of Tom Jones is still rated an 18. It is, and as far as I know always has been, a PG in Britain. The mind boggles.
But the German censors are having a field day with computer games. And no, I'm not just talking about highly controversial games like Postal or Grand Theft Auto. No. I'm talking about Portal. [Spoilers follow]

Portal
If you're not aware what Portal is about, I'd advise reading the wikipedia article I linked to, or picking it up on Steam for €9. In short, it's a physics based puzzle game in which you have to escape from an experimental complex run by a rogue AI. The player acquires a 'portal gun' which may be fired at two surfaces (floors, ceilings, and so on) in a room, thus creating an 'entrance' and an 'exit' and letting you reach otherwise unattainable areas. Falling through a portal allows the player to gather momentum and so 'throw' yourself across greater distances. The graphic on the right (taken from wikipedia) explains this mechanism a bit more.

The point is simply that this is what the game is about. It isn't about shooting old ladies or dismembering aliens. It isn't about stealing cars or fuelling gang warfare. It's a extremely well-scripted and inventive game which demands some actual thought to complete. To be sure, we're not talking about the puzzle complexity of Riven or the Rhem series, but Portal succeeds because it gradually introduces the player to a few simple mechanics and challenges him or her to combine them in interesting ways.

But surely, for it to fall foul of German censorship, there must be some of the more stereotypically gratuitous elements of computer games involved? Well, there aren't. There is no nudity or swearing. The player does not have access to a weapon of any kind; to defeat enemy gun turrets (which crop up on only a handful of levels) the player must knock them over by, for example, opening a portal underneath them. The rocket launchers encountered on the last level are indestructible, but can but used to destroy obstacles (and the final boss) by forcing them to fire through portals.

So, if there is no nudity, no swearing, and no actual violence in the game, what exactly was censored?

Well, there's some blood on the walls, as can be seen in the image below:
portal03.jpg
And here is what the censored version looks like: (both images taken from schnittberichte.com)
portal02xx.jpg
Now, I played through Portal yesterday before being aware of the extent of the censorship, and you know what? I thought those marks on the walls were mud or dirt. I honestly have no idea how prevalent they are in the game, because I hardly noticed them at all.

An apologist might ask whether the blood was really necessary. After all, haven't I just been talking about how surprisingly cerebral the game is, especially for such an unexpected hit? The answer is that yes, the blood is necessary. Because there is this thing called narrative.

The blood on the wall has a purpose. As mudstains they are just ambient dirt; as bloodstains they serve to increase tension as you progress through the game. There was meant to be a contrast between the computerised voice promising to reward me with cake at the end of the test, the increasing danger, and the suspicion that not all is as it seems.

As I played, I found myself wondering when the 'story' would begin. It already had; but as the game designers had chosen to give visual hints, and because many of these hints were subsequently gutted by the censors, I didn't notice. All I saw was mud.

The irony of this whole situation is that the proponents of censorship, who would claim that computer games are just exercises in sleazy violence and sex, are cutting off the nose to spite the face. Portal is exactly the kind of game which they seem to think doesn't exist: a clever, inventive game in which there is little or no objectionable content, and yet became extremely successful. Yes, there is some blood; but it is used as a narrative device rather than as a gratuitous gimmick. Rather than neutering Portal, the censors should have used it as proof that they are not opposed to computer games in general, but only those mired in excess.

They could even have acknowledged it as having educational value, not only in the problem solving skills, but also as an illustration of there idea of 'Show, don't tell'. They could have used it to help young players to be able to recognise precisely when a game—or a film, or a song, or a book—is being gratuitous, and when it is not.

Of course, that would never happen. Computer games are the but the latest scapegoat of the narrow-minded. When it was published in 1749, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was blamed for a number of earthquakes (which helps to put Boobquake in context). We don't blame books anymore; Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete was the best selling novel in the world in March 2008, and few people even batted an eyelid. In the 1950's, Elvis was condemned for his 'black' music and 'erotic' hip gyrations; today, few people care about the pseudo soft-porn videos which usually accompany the 'songs' of the latest pop starlet. But some blood in a computer game? Too much, too much.

In the end, it would be easy to conclude that 'dumb censorship is dumb'. Yet I feel the issue goes deeper than that. Though computer games were blamed for the Erfurt massacre in 2002, the educational system of Thuringia left the perpetrator with few job prospects. The educational structure is broken in part because of the distrust of elected officials, and a constitutional safety measure to prevent them from imposing an ideological agenda. But that is exactly what these censors are doing to the population of Germany. They have decided what is good, and what is proper, and what we are allowed to see, and what we are not. By what right do they make these judgements? On whose authority? They were not elected, and they are not answerable to the public. The system does not trust publically-elected officials to do their jobs without prejudice; so why should the system allow those who are not even elected to be beyond question?

The gratuitous censors, I think, are the ones who need to be censored.

Starcraft II: A half review of disappointment

A day after release, I picked up the Starcraft II collector's edition. Last night I completed the single player campaign. These are my thoughts about the game. Spoilers indicated.

Mac Land / Performance

[No spoliers]
As usual, Blizzard remain committed to the Mac platform like no other major developer. The standard release of Starcraft II contains native versions of the game for both Windows and Mac on a single disc. Even as more stores are stocking Mac games because of increasing market share, it's still rare for a company to develop their own port and release it in the same package. Witness the two games I've played recently: The Witcher was never ported to Mac at all, and Dragon Age: Origins was fobbed off with a prompt, performance-challenged, and seemingly unsupported Cider port. But despite this, all is not well in Starcraft II Mac land.

First of all, a niggling issue that bugged me. The collector's edition contains a somewhat heavy usb flash disc which replicates the dog-tags seen in the game. It come with both the original Starcraft and the Broodwar expansion pre-installed; but only for Windows. Thankfully, the registration key can be used on the battle.net site to register the game and you can then download a Mac version in whatever language you like. Unfortunately, you need to launch the Windows installer to find out what that key is.

Much more important is the performance of the game, which is terrible. My Macbook is pretty new (late 2009) even if it is not the most powerful. But it easily meets the requirements for the Starcraft II. Nevertheless, the game has to be set to the lowest possible settings to be playable; and then it looks little better than Warcraft III. On the same machine under Windows 7, I can boot the settings up on everything at least a notch, which makes a considerable difference. And it seems from the forums that this is more-or-less a universal problem for Macs of all capabilities, because of drivers and broken shaders / lighting. Hopefully this will be fixed soon (and knowing Blizzard it probably will be), but at the moment Starcraft II is only just playable on Macs, if at all.

Battle.net / DRM

[No spoliers]
Next up is battle.net integration. To register Starcraft II, you have to log on to battle.net; after that, whenever you boot up the game you'll be asked to sign on with you battle.net account. This allows a number of cool features, such as achievements and online saves. This latter is quite sweet: when I installed the game on Windows today and logged on for the first time, I was able to pick up my single player game from where I left it. However, the implementation is a little clunky: Starcraft II will remember my account name but not my password (Dragon Age remembers both), meaning I had to change my password to something a lot simpler and less secure so I could type it in every time I boot the game.

If this sounds suspiciously like a form of DRM which requires you to have an internet connection at all times, you wouldn't be far wrong. Starcraft II does have an offline mode, which means that if no internet connection is detected you should be informed and can play anyway (so long as you've registered once). Sounds fine; except for many people it isn't working, and anything you do during this offline phase will not be recorded or synced with battle.net next time you reconnect.

This is what happened to me. I was playing along, completing missions and picking up achievements, when all of a sudden all my save games had gone. It turns out that I had been disconnected from battle.net while playing, and so everything I did after this was automatically saved as a new, unidentified user. I no longer had access the the old files. But with no huge pop-up explaining the problem I had no idea what was going on and soldiered on. In fact, several hours later, I completed the game, let the credits role, and only then was notified that I'd been disconnected. The problem is that when I reconnected, all of that recent gameplay vanished – as it belonged to an unidentified user rather than my battle.net account. As far as Starcraft II was concerned, I hadn't completed any of those missions, nor the game as a whole. I'm sure that if I disconnected again, those saves and missions would be available – but none of the preceding ones the would be. And there is currently no way to merge the two sets of files.

To put it simply, this sucks. Being set back several hours because of a weak internet connection is dreadful service. And what if, for example, I want to visit my girlfriend's parent's, where I don't have access to the internet. If I'm lucky I can play, I can even continue the game, but it won't be acknowledged in anyway.

Many games require an internet connection nowadays – Dragon Age does. But not having one will not negatively affect gameplay. I remind you that this concerns the single player campaign, not multiplayer: I'm playing against the computer. The internet is not required at all for this. But Blizzard have integrated the save game system into battle.net in such a way that it is easier for me to carry on from where I left of when I install the game on a new computer, than when the internet drops out for a couple of minutes. That's crazy.

Knowing that I have to replay those final missions just to get an achievement to say that I've done so put a serious dampener on my enthusiasm for the game.

Story mode

[Minor spoilers]
On to the starship environment which forms you base of operations. Starcraft II definitely boasts a much improved 'story mode'. Where the original game simply loaded the next mission, Starcraft II allows you move to four different locations on your ship (armoury, bridge, canteen, lab) and talk to various crew members about the last mission, or buy upgrades for units. There's far more interaction with NPCs than ever before, and it looks much better than the cut-scenes in Warcraft III, for example. But improved as it is, I wanted more. The locations you can visit are static, with an occasional NPC wandering about. So you get one view of the bridge, and that's it. Interaction with NPCs and objects is just as limited: click on an object, trigger the cut-scene, move on. There's no scope for dialogue options at all.

An example: at one point you pick up a female scientist whose planet is under attack. You evacuate her colonists, relocate them, and kick her off the ship. All well and good. While she's on board, you have a handful of brief dialogues, and as she leaves, she kisses you on the cheek having developed some feelings for you. All well and good. But because of the limited interaction, she's utterly undeveloped as a character. Just take a look on her character profile on battle.net – obviously enough, she's got an entire life history. Can you find out any of this in the game? No. Is there any indication of any of it in the game? No. On battle.net, she's a fully fleshed out character. In the game, she's more-or-less a hitch-hiker. You pick her up and take her to her destination. That's it.

True, I may have been spoilt by games like Dragon Age, in which you can actually talk to your group of NPCs and they will either grow to like you or hate you depending on what you say to them. In the end, these starship sequences are good, but feel so much like a missed opportunity. There's only three members of the crew who have anything like realised characters, and that's Jim Raynor (your character), Tychus Findlay (more on him below), and arguably Matt Horner (ship's captain).

Part one of three

[Minor spoilers]
Now we come to the hub of the problem with Starcraft II: the story. The first thing to mention is that the game I've been calling Starcraft II is really Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. It's the first part of a trilogy of games, and single player campaign has 29 missions focussed on the Terran (human) forces. There's a brief section in which you can play Protoss, and at no point do you play as Zerg. Where the original game (and Warcraft III) had three 'chapters' – one for each race – of some 10 missions each, Blizzard decided this time to spend almost the same amount on one race at a time. We'll get round to campaigns focussed on the other races in the sequels.

I have, in principle, no problem with this. Twenty-nine missions allows greater involvement with the Terrans than before. Theoretically it allows for a more gradual build-up of the story-line; and indeed, for the first few missions you really are just bumming around raiding and pirating. But... Many of the missions are really side quests (I'm curious how many could be avoided altogether). The afore-mentioned scientist has a series of missions which have absolutely no bearing on the main 'plot'. There's a renegade wraith (an enhanced ghost) whose missions are exactly the same.

Now, the advertising for Starcraft II boasts that your actions will affect the development of the game, and indeed they do, but strictly speaking only in three cases are you actually given a choice. Once is at the end of the game, when you can choose to cripple either the ground forces or their air forces of the Zerg before the final battle. The other two cases are in the side quests mentioned above: you may choose to support the renegade wraith, or betray him; and you may choose to support or abandon the scientist when her colonists are about the be purged for Zerg infestation by the Protoss. The choices have an impact on the individual story-lines, but since these story-lines are effectively isolated from the main plot, so are the choices. In the end, the only real choices which have any effect on the campaign are the order in you complete the missions, which determines what units you have available at a given point, and what upgrades to research or purchase. That's fine, but given the extent to which recent RPG games (again taking Dragon Age and The Witcher as examples) allow you to affect scenarios, this has to be chalked up as another missed opportunity.

The Betrayal

[Major spoilers]
On to the story proper. I have to say, this was the first time I've been disappointed with a Blizzard story (I haven't played the first two Warcraft games, nor World of Warcraft). First of all, we have Tychus Findlay, an old buddy of Raynor's who's being blackmailed into betraying him. That's the plot twist. The problem is that from the very start of the game it is clear that Tychus is going to betray Raynor in some way. From the fact it's his face on the cover, to the opening cinematic, to his unwillingness to discuss his escape from prison, to hints dropped by all and sundry. The only thing we don't really know is how he'll betray Raynor, and who he's working for.

Who is obvious enough, in fact: Arcturus Mengsk, who betrayed Raynor in the first game by sacrificing an entire planet in order to take power in the region. Mengsk has been the villain since the end of the first chapter (of six, counting the expansion) of the original game. So no surprise there. What is surprising is that, while working undercover for Mengsk, Tychus enthusiastically works against Mengsk, along with Raynor. At no point is there any indication that he's trying to sabotage Raynor's operations, even when Raynor gets hold of a recording of Mengsk issuing the order to lure the Zerg to that planet in order to take control in the ensuing chaos. Needless to say, broadcasting that recording is devastating: imagine a recording of George Bush from before the Iraq War admitting he knew there were no WMDs and going ahead anyway. And multiply it by a thousand. But the mission in which you take over the UNN to broadcast the recording is the one in which Tychus in most directly involved.

Okay, you might say, but any subterfuge on Tychus's part would risk giving the game away. Yet the game has already been given away to all but Raynor, who will brook no criticism of his buddy. Any villain worth his or her salt would take steps to avoid the kind of damage which Raynor causes: after all, if Tychus is there to assassinate Raynor, it should be done before Raynor manages to undermine the whole regime.

But Tychus isn't there to assassinate Raynor. He's there to assassinate the Queen of Blades, the ruler of the Zerg created from Raynor's old flame Sarah Kerrigan who was betrayed and left behind by Mengsk when the planet was sacrificed. It seems that Mengsk, in an amazing feat of premonition, knows that Raynor will ultimately succeed in battling through swarms of Zerg forces to Kerrgian in the hope that she can be deinfested and redeemed; and that Raynor's mercy will mean that Tychus will have to step in and take her out.

I don't buy this at all.

To begin with, at the start of the game when we meet Tychus for the first time, there is no indication that Kerrigan could become deinfested and so weakened to a point where she could be easily killed (other than Mengsk's fabulous skills of prediction). Secondly, everybody has been running circles around Mengsk throughout the game. Raynor has been making significant progress in his war of liberation; the disenfranchised on planets everywhere are in uproar; and even Mengsk's son Valerian has been vying for a position of strength. He's been secretly funding the recovery of an ancient artefact of immense power (which Raynor has been collecting the in fragments), and ultimately snatches away half of the imperial fleet and allies himself with Raynor for an assault on the Zerg homewold. So: the only time in the entire game in which Mengsk seems to  be on the ball is at the moment of Tychus' betrayal, and by that time it is barely plausible. In comparison, imagine it had been Valerian who was behind Tychus' betrayal. Valerian is funding the Möbius company to search for the artefact, and Tychus originally says that it was this company who paid his bail. Likewise, Valerian knows exactly what the artefact does, or at least suspects at the start of the game. He's also trying to step out from under his father's shadow, and bears no personal grudge again Raynor. It's more than plausible that he would want to achieve something big (such as defeating the Queen of Blades) and would be more than happy to use Raynor to achieve that goal, which would double as rude gesture to his father as well.

In the end, it seems to me that the decision to have Mengsk himself behind Tychus' betrayal was motivated by an awareness that Mengsk seems to be complacent to the point of incompetence throughout the game; and that does not a good arch-villain make. The fact that it makes the whole betrayal preposterous seemingly slipped under the radar.

Finally, let's talk about the artefact. It's totally a deus ex machina. It effectively comes out of nowhere and saves the world. All of a sudden, the Zerg are (seemingly) completely defeated and Raynor has his girl back, and carries her off into the sunset. The only thing which keeps me from thinking that this is completely lame is knowing that there will be two sequels: the Protoss mini-campaign hints at a cataclysmic battle to come, although to be honest it didn't seem to add anything beyond what was already hinted at in the original game. And I know that it isn't fair  to compare the end of Wings of Liberty to the end of Starcraft I (which was apparently voted the best end of a game in 2003). The artefact can't begin to compare to Tassadar's ramming a battle ship into the Zerg Overmind and (seemingly) loosing his life in the process. But if the end of this instalment brings us a third of the way through Starcraft II, then it may be fair to compare it to the end of the first chapter of the original game. Yet against Mengsk's sacrifice of an entire planet, and the betrayal of Kerrigan which sets in motion so many events to come, Tychus' betray just doesn't cut it.

Conclusion

There is plenty to like about Starcraft II. The graphics, when they work, are very good. The single player missions are well designed. The cinematics are excellent, as are the 'story-mode' animations. The variations brought into the campaign allow for interesting replays. And of course, this is no more than a half review, as I'm not touching on multiplayer at all. Ultimately, it may be no more than a quarter review, or even a sixth, if the sequels bring more to the multiplayer table. But my feelings remain the same: for the first time, I'm underwhelmed by a Blizzard game. And most surprising of all is that the story is its greatest disappointment.

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