The Harsh Reality of the Virtual World

One of my earliest articles, God is in the Details, told how the depth of Fallout 3 was not in the story itself, but rather the near-forgotten thoughts and memories of those who once dwelled within the Washington area before The Great War turned it in to what would become known as The Capital Wasteland.  It was a testament to the writing that some could look upon the game  and see a shallow grind through an expanse of nothingness while others became enthralled with the subcutaneous tapestry, twisting covertly beneath an irradiated crust.  Whether told through the intranet ramblings of a disgruntled employee, holotapes of an academic believing that a breakthrough was imminent, or scribbled notes passed by classmates unaware of their impending demise, each story became an imprint of their lives and would live on beyond the passing of their creator.  Some were comedic, others poignant, but, ultimately, none would find their Disney ending.

Some years later, fatherhood altered my perspective on the narrative within video games, and so Cats in the Cradle was penned. While the varied struggles of those within The Capital Wasteland had already left a faint stain on my soul, it wasn’t until I became responsible for the life of another that I truly understood the pain of their plights.  The young boy from the Mass Effect 3 demo at E3 became more than just a random NPC; the huddle of youngsters in Fallout 3 who created their own little metropolis at Little Lamplight and had to turn ‘playing doctor’ into genuine care; and that amazing little guy in Herzog’s Mine from the Point Lookout DLC who may still be playing hide and seek as I type this; they all transcended their origins of merely being clusters of polygons and bump maps and had me internalising, picturing my own two kids in their scenarios.  From the point that my tiny little girl grabbed my finger like Andre the Giant gripping a telegraph pole, I knew that everything would change. And it did.

Since then, I’ve played many games.  Most were disposable nonsense-fests on mobile devices, but others left a lasting impression in their fleeting moments, such as the floral tributes in GTA V, mourning the passing of someone’s brother.  Two wooden crosses, wreaths, some candles, and a teddy bear all propped up against a sign reading ‘with love, my brother‘ in Spanish.  I discovered it en route to the car lot during the Blow Up II mission for Simeon where you’re required to blow up all vehicles except the yellow Banshee.  I normally came from the opposite direction but, for some reason, this particular time I ended up taking the scenic route and my eyes registered something on the side of the road, so I reversed back to see what it was.  The teddy bear would lead you to believe that it was a younger brother, and the location suggests that they were killed.  I think I may have spent a few minutes longer than necessary wondering if my kids were resting safely upstairs.

It wasn’t until playing through The Division, however, that I was affected on a deeper level.

The phone recordings scattered throughout Massive’s depiction of New York City flit between naive nonchalance and sheer terror, with smatterings of resolute acceptance and grave concern breaking things up from time to time.  Hearing a child calling their father on the phone, explaining that someone was outside trying to break in, and hearing the father asking them to keep calm while he convinces the reluctant kid to get his gun, arm it, and be ready to use it… that wasn’t easy.

Living off the beaten track as we do here, with only a few neighbours, and surrounded by fields and woodland, it’s very easy to lose time in considering how you would protect your family.  You think about where potential weapons are located around the house, what available exit points you have, whether the kids would remain quiet and still if placed in a hidden area of the house, and even going as far as wondering if you should leave your car in the drive overnight facing the street rather than secured in the garage, just so you can get them to safety as quickly as possible.  So to hear another father having to listen to their child explain that they were about to be faced with what, in all likelihood, were cold-blooded and desperate killers, knowing that they could do nothing to protect their kid… it’s harrowing, at best.

In an effort to discover the fate of this poor kid, I spent time clearing an entire area of the map so that all phone messages were recovered.  The last I heard from them was their father telling them that they would have to protect themselves at all costs, even if it meant taking someone else’s life.  The child fought back against this idea, saying that they didn’t want to go that far.  The father reiterated.  Upon realising that there were no further messages on this particular trail, I knew that the developers left it open so that it was down to the player to decide the fate of the two, and that whether a father would come home to a dead child would depend on me allowing that to happen.  Perhaps Massive didn’t necessarily want us to make that decision; it could be that they deliberately left it open to reinforce the gravity of the situation in New York, and that sometimes you just have to deal with whatever is thrown at you.  In my universe, however, the intruders gave up, moved on, and the kid lived.

A little later, an echo recording made itself available in a little alcove off a main street.  It included a JTF officer canvassing individuals for information on someone they were seeking, showing this particular gentleman a photo and pressing him for whatever info he had, despite the fact that he was bent over his friend, who lay dead next to him.  It was at that point that the gent set aside any social conformity and jumped into a mournful rant about who it was that lay next to him, what kind of person he was, and asked he be left to mourn in peace.  The echo itself wasn’t exactly the most solemn that I’d come across up until that point, but it certainly painted the perfect picture as to how, even in the face of a crippling epidemic, people will still take time out to forget about their own problems and focus on those not fortunate enough to survive.  The JTF officer, naturally, thought only about doing his job and spared no thought to the man or his deceased friend, further reinforcing the severity of the outbreak.

One particular series of echoes had me slowly resigning myself to the fact that the person who was the subject of the echoes was probably already dead.  We saw their steady decline in health play out as a cluster of broken, orange particles bathed in the under-saturated blue backdrop, and the feeling of loss began to grow to overwhelming proportions.  This was a good person, trying their best to be everything that their siblings and parents hoped for them, and yet this plague was pulling them into a state of oblivion at an increasingly alarming rate.  As the echoes grew closer to the final steps, I was sure that I’d eventually discover them lying huddled in a corner somewhere, dead from the cold or the plague itself.  I grinned like an idiot when I eventually found them, alive and well, but even though I took a snapshot of the happy scene, I don’t want to spoil anything for those who have yet to follow their trail.

Amidst the various ups and downs of the phone messages, echo recordings, and situation reports peppered across the snowy streets of New York City, many tales unfolded.  Some more tragic than others.  Being the father of both a boy and girl, it was one in particular which caught me off guard and stopped me in my tracks.  My co-op partner and I reached a clearing which looked as though it had been set up as some sort of Christmas display.  I can’t remember exactly where it was, but the buildings around it would suggest that it was in the Stuyvesant area as it appeared to be more affluent than other districts.  We cleared out the enemies, picked up whatever spoils we could lay our hands on, and then ISAC let me know that there was an echo nearby.

As the echo collected the information, it became clear that it was a young boy and girl, perhaps around five and six years old, having a snowball fight with each other.  I smiled, picturing my own kids in that scenario and thinking about how that would likely be exactly how it played out with them – the older girl getting pounded by the younger brother who thought nothing of terrorising his sister.  As it played out, I imagined my two and how she would likely get to the point where she’d had enough of his shenanigans and eventually turn on him, reducing him to tears by merely raising her voice in that tone we’ve now grown accustomed to.  I walked around them, soaking in the atmosphere, and feeling quite elated at the fact that, despite all of the misery and death around them, Shane and Nina Lewis were still enjoying just being kids.

And that’s when everything changed.  Within a moment, my happiness turned to deep and unrelenting sadness as I noticed the little status markers that tended to hover next to the individuals within the echo recordings.  In this particular echo, Nina, the little girl was now fighting the sickness but Shane, the little boy, died only a few days later.  This wasn’t easy to deal with, especially as I had already mentally replaced both of them with my own incredible kids.  In the flick of a right-stick, my carefree attitude turned to being the fear of ever having to deal with my own kids’ deaths.  How my little girl would feel faced with a life without her younger brother, or vice versa.  How we’d feel if either of our kids were to ever leave our lives.  Had I been there on my own, I imagine I’d have put the controller down and just allowed the tension to leave my body by either becoming a Gatling gun of ‘fuck you‘, or by slicing some make-believe onions.

The reason I won’t touch the follow-up to This War of Mine is because it involves kids, and I doubt I’d be able to put myself through it as this one four-second scene was bad enough.  Having to continue playing co-op while my mind kept going back to those poor kids was tough.  Every corner I turned, every wall I scaled, every wanker of an enemy that I destroyed, I could think of nothing but the sadness of those two kids.  I soldiered on, however, and got through whatever needed to be done, but the whole time I just wanted to dash upstairs and take hold of them both just to make sure they were alright.

But fuck doing that, as they’d never have got back to sleep, and we both had games to play.

Last five articles by Mark R


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