“The more you read, the better you’re going to become as a storyteller.”
It’s been a while since I shared an inspiring quote. Who better to quote today than the irreplaceable Stan Lee? You can read my thoughts on his passing over here.
“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
A few years ago I helped back a beautiful little documentary on Le Guin’s life. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to seek it out. Le Guin was a fantastic writer and remains an inspiration not only to me but to a thousand other writers. You can view the trailer below.
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
So, I am a big fan of this quote for obvious reasons. However, among scholars, there is some doubt that Ibn Battuta actually said or wrote this. He didn’t take notes on his travels, and much of his work was dictated long afterward to Ibn Juzayy (who plagiarized.) If you want a synopsis of the controversy, I recommend checking out the “Works” subsection of Ibn Battuta’s Wikipedia page as it does a decent job summarizing.
Plagiarization or not, a great many travel blogs still attribute this to Ibn Battuta without so much of a note of doubt. Due diligence is necessary even for quotes, and often the story behind the quote can be more interesting than the quote itself.
Okay, all of that said: controversy-schmontroversy! The quotes still rad and travel is enriching. Get out there. Breath the air. Immerse yourself in worlds beyond your own. You’ll never know what you find.
[!] Note: The following will contain minor spoilers for Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4. Consider yourself warned.
Last August I wrote an article exploring the masterful worldbuilding within George Miller’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Mad Max: Fury Road. [You can read it here.] It was easily my favorite film of 2015. There was a lot to love, both subtlety and nuance was scattered throughout the movie despite the fact that it was a two-hour action-packed car chase through a wasteland.
Well, this last fall the post-apocalyptic gods smiled on us twofold with the release of Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic role-playing game. I’ve long been a fan of the series ever since I played the first Fallout on my PC as a kid. So I was excited. Heck, I even went out and bought a PS4 specifically to check it out. Now, before I start nitpicking, I need to preface that Fallout 4 is not a bad game. It’s a game I have been enjoying. It’s a game I would recommend. But, I think just like films, music, books, and art we can cast a critical eye at specific elements of a video game while still enjoying the game as a whole.
I was initially going to entitle this piece Fallout 4 and the Failures of Worldbuilding, but I retracted a bit. Mainly because that is both overly dramatic and clickbait garbage. Also, because in a lot of ways and in many places Fallout 4 has great worldbuilding, it’s just inconsistent. As a result, Fallout 4 continually pulls me out of the moment. Despite wanting you to engage with the world on a personal level, it doesn’t allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to lose ourselves in its world. This makes it feel manufactured—it’s a post-apocalyptic Disneyland that is trying to be something more. A lot of that is because it falls short in one of the most important and fundamental principles of worldbuilding: it tells you one thing and then shows you something else.
First, some backstory: Fallout 4 takes place in an alternate reality two-hundred years after a thermonuclear war nearly wipes out humanity, your character—a survivor who awakened from a state of suspended animation in an underground vault—is thrust into an unforgiving and often violent world in the search for a kidnapped child. Now, missing child aside, remember that established time frame: two-hundred years. It’s important.
The discrepancy between that origin story and the world I was playing in first hit me ten minutes into the game. Up until then, I assumed maybe forty to fifty years had passed. The world certainly seemed like it was emerging from disaster, but when your Mr. Handy unit, Codsworth, introduced the timespan a lot of the following worldbuilding began to fall apart.
“A bit over 210 actually, sir. Give or take a little for the Earth’s rotation and some minor dings to the ole’ chronometer.”
When the player first emerges from the Vault, you come across the remnants of people who didn’t survive. Piles of skeletons lay outside the gate to the Vault, skeletons still wearing the clothes they died in, which didn’t make much sense. Here they are exposed to the elements, and a corpse’s dress is still recognizable as a dress? This is seen in other things as well. Many structures still stand despite little or no maintenance. Some still have power. Often these sorts of niggling details are explained away using Ragnarok-Proofing, the concept that objects in the world (buildings, robots, heck, even clothes) are just made better. So metal doesn’t rust in the same way, clothing doesn’t wear regularly, and power sources last much longer, etc. And, some of that exists, the nuclear cells powering the Commonwealth’s robots are a good example, and if that was all I’d accept it and move on. But that isn’t all, it cascades from there.
Two-hundred years is a long time. Two-hundred years ago my home city, Seattle, didn’t exist. My state, Washington, hadn’t even been conceived. Most of America lived on the East Coast and had no idea that in fifty years they were going to be in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, in Fallout 4’s world that two-hundred years doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. If fact, it barely looks like any time has passed. Most of the world remains a burnt husk. Nothing “new” feels permanent. Most settlements are hastily constructed shantytowns, cobbled together from the remnants. What civilization does exist, happens to be a loose collection of scraped-together tribes with little or no regard for one another. Compare this to Mad Max: Fury Road, in the first ten minutes of the movie we saw societies, hierarchies, and civilization, we saw cities, small and large, and even trade routes.
We’ve been told it’s two-hundred years after a terrible event but we’re not shown that, or what we’re shown doesn’t line up to support that. Not in any conceivable fashion. These sort of inconsistencies with the details continue to appear throughout the game. We read terminal entries about daily struggles of survival, only to be shown the corpses of those who entered the logs were sitting on an arsenal. For whatever reason the citizens of Goodneighbor have the means to make custom and complex neon signs, but asking them to clean up two-hundred years worth of rubble around their residences is below their pay grade. We meet a girl with a strangely thick Irish accent, and together we stumbled across the remains of people who apparently died together during the middle of their twelve-step meeting despite being in a protected shelter. We read concerns over a raider’s kidnapped sister and an antagonistic raider band, but we never get to explore that narrative. Instead, we get to fight the raiders. The results of this action? Slightly different terminal entries and a [Cleared] tag. These sort of scenes happens frequently, and as I kept playing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was such unrealized potential. Minor discrepancies are noticeable, and because of this, the world of Fallout 4 often falls flat, it lacks the heart and soul that would make it feel alive.
It’s a disappointment because there are times where the world is rich. There are plenty of engaging characters (Valentine), and some fascinating locations (Salem, Covenant), and some interesting factions (The Railroad). Many times there are places where the game does shine. But those pieces are few and far between, and often they don’t seem to connect. Fallout 4 feels like it’s more concerned about being a first-person shooter than it is about fulfilling its pedigree of being a deep and multifaceted role-playing game. It’s more interested in creating small vignettes than a fully realized world. It wants you to strive for that next perk instead of that moment in its stories where you feel an emotional tug. It’s an amusement park ride that, while fun, still feels just like a ride.”
“…out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world world Fallout 4 is wanting to create.”
These moments introduce questions in the world’s consistency. After all, consistent worlds are largely more believable worlds. In some cases, Fallout 4 is an improvement on its predecessor, Fallout 3. [See the Shandification of Fallout video.] It answers some of those big questions (What do they eat?) that were never answered in previous games. But strange out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world Fallout 4 is wanting to create. They’re not asking open-ended questions that leave us wondering. Instead, they’re introducing concepts that pull us out of the moment.
Both Fallout and Mad Max are near and dear to me, and both have been influences in my own post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Like both, my world of the Territories also takes place generations after an epic disaster. In fact, similar to Fallout 4, it has been so long since the apocalypse that the return of the Great Old Ones has faded into historical myth.
Within The Bell Forging Cycle civilizations have come and gone. Societies, religions, and nations have risen, expanded, and sometimes fallen. The scars of the disaster are there, and they’re clear and apparent to the people that inhabit the planet, but as Roland Deschain often says in The Dark Tower series, “the world has moved on.” Change has occurred, consistent change. There are certainly nods to post-apocalyptic tropes, in some places technology’s growth has been stymied, and people still use and seek out technology from the past. That’s part of the fun. Exploring the ideas inherent in survival after a catastrophe is one of the reasons why we read post-apocalyptic fiction. But, life hasn’t frozen. People have found other ways to solve their problems; nothing has remained static. Regression can only exist for so long; life is tenacious and robust, and when it comes to post-apocalyptic worlds (or any world for that matter), that’s a good thing for creators to remember.
Happy Friday! It’s time to share a few links I’ve found over the last few days. Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…
The State Of Storytelling In The Internet Age
A quick overview covering how amazing things are to how much of the industry is in flux. It’s now so much easier to reach so many people, and the internet has opened up so many new channels for creators, but new struggles have emerged.
I am wary of the phrase “trigger warning”, and I’m glad to see Neil Gaiman is with me. I highly recommend checking out this post from his new book Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. In this excerpt Neil explores how fiction is supposed to push us, teach us things, and help us grow.
The Story You Want to Read
Fellow author and writing group pal, Michael Ripplinger, explores a specific story arc—the return of an ancient evil—that attracted him to writing. It’s always fun recognizing these sort of things in our writing.
A CthulhuCon Debriefing
Last weekend we didn’t have a Friday Link Pack because I was heading down to Portland for CthulhuCon. How did it go? Fantastic! I break it down in this post, hit the highlights, and share a few pictures.
Artist Transforms The 12 Zodiac Signs Into Terrifying Monsters
I love monsters. Who doesn’t? So I was on board when I saw Damon Hellandbrand‘s take on the familiar zodiac signs. Libra is my favorite.
Catch My Fade – Seamus Conley
So one of Kari-Lise and my favorite artists is Seamus Conley. There’s something so emotional in every one of his pieces. His latest series, Catch My Fade, currently being show at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco, California is nothing short of amazing.
Re-Covered Books Contest: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’
I really enjoy these recover contests that the Fox in Black does occasionally. They’re really handy for indie authors to get some good ideas on cover designs, plus you always find some really beautiful pieces. April’s contest for re-covering Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is no exception.
The Dezeen Guide To Brutalist Architecture
Not everyone is a fan of brutalism, but I am. There’s something so combative about the buildings, something arrogant. I love the brash unapologetic retro-future style. In this article Dezeen Magazine explores brutalism architecture, and discusses how we should preserve the legacy.
It’s Time to Retire “Boob Plate” Armor. Because It Would Kill You
I think we’re all well aware at how ridiculous (and often sexist) “boob plate” armor can be, but armor’s job is safety, and in this article for Tor.com writer Emily Asher-Perrin gives us the best reason to avoid it: it would kill the wearer. [Thanks to Spencer for sharing this.]
18 Delightfully Artistic Vintage STD Posters
These vintage PSAs from the U.S. Army shows their focus of stamping out VD. They are amusing, terrifying, and well… a bit strange. It’s interesting how it seems to point the finger at women and not the male soldiers who were the guys actually doing most of the sleeping around. Ah, good ol’ sexism solidly alive and well in postwar America.
The Wikipedia Entry For Guam, Retold As A YA Novel
The fake-wikipedia article you always wanted to read. Tropes delightfully abound. [Big thanks to Christine for sharing this one. Hilarious stuff.]
The Hyphen War
“The Hyphen War (in Czech, Pomlčková válka; in Slovak, Pomlčková vojna—literally “Dash War”) was the tongue-in-cheek name given to the conflict over what to call Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Communist government.”
The Other Gods
Barzai the Wise and his disciple Atal climb a mountain to gaze upon the gods of the earth and discover more than they bargained for.