Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Death of Sydney

In defense of the assertion that video games can be art, I offer the game Fallout 3, and in particular, one story element in the game that hit me unexpectedly:

In my trip through the world of Fallout 3, I found myself on a quest to rescue the Declaration of Independence from the ruins of the National Archives.  I stalked my way through the streets of post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. slipped into the shadowy building, and started prowling around the wreckage.

I ran into a character named Sydney who had fortified one particular room and was holding it against an assault of hulking Super Mutants.  We fended off the siege together, and afterwards I asked her what she was doing here.  She informed me that she was a treasure hunter, also looking for the Declaration, and offered to pool efforts with me for mutual safety.

Together we descended into the maintenance corridors under the Archives.  We dodged robots and security systems, and she offered suggestions about which way to go and where danger might be lurking.  She was capable, confident, and strong-willed.  I started to wonder whether or not she was going to continue in the story after the raid, and whether she might become a companion of my character, and whether they would stomp around the wastelands together, recovering the treasures of the old world from amidst its wreckage.

And then we got pinned down in a narrow room, with lethal automatic turrets in front of us and a pair of fairly determined robots coming up from behind.  It was a frantic, graceless firefight, and I spent most of it huddled in a corner, blasting away at nerveless metal monstrosities, praying I wasn't about to run out of ammunition.

Finally, the robots toppled, and the echoes of gunshots died in my ears.  I stood up and took a quick inventory of myself.  I'd survived, somehow, but barely.

And then I saw Sydney's body draped over a railing.

Out in the real world, I stared at the screen.  I couldn't believe it.  We'd worked our way down here together, and in the end, she'd been killed by a couple of machines, over nothing more important than a scrap of paper. And it was probably my fault.  I'd offered to go with her down into the tunnels.  I'd claimed to be competent enough to handle myself in a dangerous situation.  I was supposed to be watching her back.  And here she was, in a forgotten subterranean tunnel, her treasure-hunting career cut tragically short.

From the beginning of the game, I'd set myself a "no reload" policy - I wasn't going to reload the game and try again for anything short of getting myself killed.  I was going to take the good with the bad and experience the story more as a roleplaying game than as a shoot-em-up exercise.  I almost broke that rule right then or there.

Eventually I was able to talk myself into moving on.  I blasted through a couple more robots, and got to the room where the Declaration was.  I found that there was a master robot in charge of the whole operation, a robot with some level of intelligence, who had come to believe that it (he?) was one of the Founding Fathers and was defending the Declaration against the British.

This is why Sydney had died.  Because some ancient piece of machinery had delusions of grandeur.  My finger hovered over the trigger of my rifle for several seconds.

In the end, I played along with the robot's delusions, and eventually got the Declaration.  I could have blasted it to scrap.  It had a few automated gun turrets in the room with itself, and probably would have given me a good fight.  But I had enough firepower to turn the entire room to slag.  I could have destroyed it.  But Sydney would still have been dead.

She had a custom submachine gun with her, a particularly potent weapon.  She'd told me she was good with fixing weapons, that it was a talent she'd learned from her dad.  I took the weapon from her body and found that, yes, it was pretty damn effective.  And I still feel dirty every time I pull its trigger.  Because it's Sydney's gun.  And she deserved better than to have her favorite SMG taken from her by the man who'd led her to her death in some utility tunnel.

Plenty of people have played this game.  There's probably players who were able to finish this mission without getting Sydney killed.  There's players who probably put two rounds into her head the moment she appeared, stripped her weapons from her and moved on without a thought.  There's players who never even ran into her, never knew she existed.

But in my game, Sydney is dead, and it sucks.