Backstage Tales – The Toymaker

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Fallout 4 is, naturally, one of my favorite games to come out in a very long time. If you expect violence in a game about surviving a radiation-filled post-apocalyptic world, then you wouldn’t be disappointed. After all, when grenades are handed out like candy and shoulder-mounted nuclear catapults are stashed just minutes away at your local National Guard depot, there’s gonna be explosions and flying body parts in your immediate future (possibly even your own!). But that’s not the reason I play Fallout 4, or why I enjoy games made by Bethesda Softworks in general. While gameplay and the explosions are simply fantastic for a modern role-playing game, I love to analyze works of gaming by their writing and the stories represented in them.

Fallout 4 (as well as it’s previous titles) revolve around family. You, the player, take the role of a young mom and dad living in the suburbs of Boston in the year 2077, you’re currently living a quiet life. Taking walks in the park, watching your brand-new black-and-white television, and taking care of your six-month old son Shaun… You know, life as usual. The social unrest in other parts of the United States seem distant, and the ongoing war with China is half a world away.

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Ah, Codsworth. You’re so handy.

That is, until the nuclear bombs fall. No one knows whether the Chinese or the US launched the first missiles, but it hardly matters — mutually-assured destruction is the name of the game. You, your spouse, and your young son rush off to the safety of Vault 111, where you’ll be able to wait out the horrors of total nuclear annihilation. Though terrible circumstances, you become the only survivor, the Sole Survivor, of Vault 111.

That’s the story you experience as the player of Fallout 4. But there’s another story that really reached my heart further along.

In downtown Boston is a small administration building surrounded by the larger skyscrapers of the city. This building used to be the corporate headquarters of Wilson Automatoys, a pre-war company in the business of creating modern nuclear-powered toys for children. Their biggest seller is the Giddy-up Buttercup, a mechanical horse that’s perfect for any little girl — after all, there’s not a girl in the world who didn’t ask their parents at one time or another for their own pony! And it’s priced at an affordable $16,000!

The creator of these toys is a man named Arlen Glass. As a successful toymaker, he spent many years of his working life at Wilson Automatoys. The inspiration for the Giddy-up Buttercup had come from his daughter, Marlene. And although it’s not stated, I like to imagine Arlen had made the very first prototype of the horse just for her.

Arlen worked hard. Too hard, in fact. Wrapped up in improving and designing his creations, he hardly set aside time to see his wife Cheryl and their young daughter. One too many nights at the office, he didn’t call, he forgot groceries. He even forgot Marlene’s seventh birthday party. Despite this, Marlene love her father, and created a holotape especially for him sharing her love and asking him to come home.

Cheryl: Go ahead.

Marlene: Hi daddy! When are you coming home? You work too much. I want you to read to me again. Mommy says you’re helping all the horsies find good homes. Take care of them, ok? I love you. Hmm? Oh, Buttercup says she loves you too. We miss you. Come home soon!

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The Wilson Automatoys Building, circa 2287

But no matter how hard you work, you know politics isn’t far behind you in a large company like Wilson Automatoys. Arlen’s perfectionism in his designs began to erode the patience of the brand-new president of the company, Marc Wilson. You see, he inherited Wilson Automatoys from his father, and apparently wasn’t too keen on running a simple toy factory. Not only were the sales of Giddy-up Buttercup dropping due to the poor financial state of the US, the pressure of the government on companies to aid in the war effort in China had afforded Marc a golden opportunity: Project SCYTHE. Instead of making toys, the company would instead manufacture landmines at their factory just outside Boston. From children’s toys to weapons of war… Anything to make money, right?

Marc was one of the few people who knew about the project. At first. Somehow, word reached Arlen’s ears, and he was understandably furious. At the next company board meeting, Arlen called Marc out in front of everyone for steering the company so far from its original intent. Some stood with Arlen. Most didn’t. In response, Marc fired Arlen outright. Security escorted Arlen out of the building immediately, and advised him to never come back.

Marc: Damn it Nate, where are you? After today’s meeting, it’s going to take a miracle to salvage the SCYTHE contract. And you decide to take the evening off? Look, I wanted to keep the old man (Arlen) out of it. But what could I do? He called me out in front of the board! I had to fire him! Where do you stand, Nate? Are you with me, or with him? I want you in my office Monday at nine sharp. We can discuss the contract, or we can discuss your resignation. It’s up to you.

Instead of abandoning his life’s work, Arlen went back the next day to try to speak to Marc, maybe change his mind about the project.

But that day was the end of the world.

When a nuclear bomb fell just miles away from downtown, the city immediately became an ocean of fire and chaos. Arlen tried to make his way back home, but by the time he’d arrived, his home was nothing more than a crater.

He never saw Cheryl or Marlene again. In the deepest despair, he curled up in the ruins of his home and waited for the radiation to end his life.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. Instead of dying, the radiation turned him into a ghoul. You see, in the Fallout world, if some poor soul is exposed to the right dose of radiation, it melts the skin and cartilage (meaning you lose your nose and ears, among other things), but grants an immunity from radiation and an unusually long lifespan. Perhaps immortality, in fact.

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The man (or ghoul) himself.

For over 200 years, Arlen lived as a broken shell of a man, wandering across the dangerous wasteland. One day, he discovered a new community outside Boston made of ghouls and humans called the Slog, and decided to take up residence, making toys for children that visited the settlement. After all that time, his work continued to be the only way he could get away from his past.

And that’s when the Sole Survivor (you, the player) comes into the picture. After exploring the ruins of Wilson Automatoys, you come across the holotape Marlene left for her father all those centuries ago. Then by absolute chance, the Survivor meets Arlen Glass, recognizes his name as the once-famous toymaker, and gives him the holotape. Arlen plays it, and gasps in tearful awe, hearing the voice of his daughter and wife for the first time in 210 years.

Arlen: It’s… been so long. I never thought I’d hear their voices again. You can’t imagine what this means to me.

She was right, you know. I did work too much. And now… I’ll never hear her voice again. I’ll never get to hold her. Kiss her goodnight. All I have left are the memories. And… this tape.

From one parent to another… Thank you.

As a parting gift, Arlen presented the Survivor with the present he could never give his daughter for her birthday: a small Giddyup Buttercup toy.

Normally this is where the sad story and the quest line ends. Later I learned that Arlen is supposed to make a solitary journey back to where his home once stood to say a final goodbye to Cheryl and Marlene.

But he didn’t get the chance in my game.

After giving Arlen the holotape, I went about exploring the wasteland, killing raiders, helping caravans and settlements, you know… the usual hero Minuteman stuff. One day, I returned to the Slog to see if I could help assist in building up the community. But the moment I approach, I hear gunfire. The Slog was under attack by raiders.

I grabbed my plasma pistol. My companion and I rush into battle, vaporizing the bad guys left and right. After just a minute of intensity, the battle was over. The Slog was saved.

But there was a single casualty laying on the ground in front of the workshop.

Arlen.

I paused the game and thought for a moment. I could reload the game, and he’d be alive again. I could use cheats to bring him back to life, and I could go on with the game as if nothing had changed. He was only an NPC in a game, after all.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I thought about how much Arlen had suffered though his life. Losing himself in his work. Missing his daughter’s birthday. Surviving through atomic fire when the ones he loved didn’t. Wanting to die, but living for centuries with nothing but memories and his work to sustain him. Then, through this chain of random happenstance, after a complete stranger discovered an undamaged holotape in a super-mutant-filled toy factory and chanced upon the Slog, giving him a chance to hear the voice of his long-dead wife and daughter one last time…

A stray bullet took his life.

But maybe, just maybe, he finally reunited with Marlene and Cheryl in a better place.

That’s my headcanon for Arlen. That’s why I play Fallout and Bethesda games. While some of their stories are hit and miss, it’s the connections of those stories to incidents of gameplay that make moments special. The Fallout world may be uncaring and dark, but human connections of love endure through the radiation.

A Final Boss

I don’t like being dramatic, especially when it comes to my own life. I guess no one would know it by the way I reach out for help on Facebook. I’ve spent a large amount of my life trying to avoid drama and, consequently, meaningful relationships that I could be cultivating with others. I’m wired in a weird way. I try to share what I’m feeling, and it comes out in one of two ways: either I sound like I’m fishing for sympathy from close friends and family, or I alienate acquaintances and people I don’t know.

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Because of course, no one wants to hear you talk about bipolar depression. I mean, what are you supposed to say, right? It feels like admitting the personal demon sitting on your shoulder. It demonstrates a weak attempt to seem different and unique, or emotionally deep and brooding. The words sound pathetic coming out of my mouth, especially in response to the oft-asked question: “How are you doing?” If the answer is anything but “good” or “all right”, then you can either put on a mask and lie or respond by selfishly turning the conversation to yourself.

See? It already sounds like I’m looking for pity just by writing this all down. I can’t describe my feelings without wondering if I’m wasting my time. No one wants to hear all this. Not even me. Though this seems to be the only subject I’m knowledgeable about these days.

And all this junk goes through my head whenever I attempt to socialize.

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You know in most video games (any Zelda game comes to mind), how you crawl through dungeons, solving puzzles and defeating a bunch of enemies only to come to a gigantic boss fight? Usually in that dungeon you find a tool or magic item that enables you to defeat it with startling efficiency. The hero can defeat bosses hundred of times their size (Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind), or tear through hundreds of monsters with relative ease (Kingdom Hearts 2 comes to mind). In all of these cases, as is the case with most video games, these massive obstacles are designed to be defeated. Afterwards, the story moves on, and the plot continues to unfold.

In my dungeon, there’s no tool of magic item. Even the smallest monsters sap my health points within minutes. I’ve only got a small lantern in a huge foreboding cavern, and there’s not a large brazier or wall torch in sight. I’d say this dungeon mirrors Dark Souls or Bloodbourne in difficulty, but despite their designs, they too were created to be beaten. If my dungeon were designed to be overcome, it’s gotta be one of those long and complicated final dungeons; and all I got is a rusty knife and a shield made of flotsam.

My brittle defense is better than I had a few months ago, though. So there’s that. “Progress,” I guess.

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And when I feel like I’m coming to the final boss, feeling the slightest glimmer of confidence for the battle ahead, I step into the room to find the gigantic monster is invisible and has more than twenty life bars. You know what I mean? I can get away with a few timid swipes. Then comes the smashing and slashing, and I’m sent right back to the beginning room without any health potions. I think I lose all my rupees, too; it depends on the day.

Of course this is the best analogy I can come up with; my video game senses are the only thing I can be proud of these days.

So this is the reason I’ve been unable to update this blog. With everything clogging up my mind, the last thing I feel like doing is drawing cartoons. Or writing anything, for that matter. I guess I apologize to myself. I’m trying to find a hobby I can call my own, and enjoy it for its own sake. But boy, it’s hard. In one of my digital media classes in college, the professor told us to make this promise: that we would produce more than we consume. That way, we’d be guaranteed success in life. That would be nice. Because I am the very definition of a consumer. Entertainment, food, time… And then the guilt of consuming makes me sad, and leads me to consume more.

So, yeah, drama. As a writer, I suppose drama is something positive to convey. And as much as I hate it, I’m sure good at it. Oh well. It’s all therapy. Perhaps that’s one of the few health potions I have left.

Just a few thoughts about the way life is shaping up at the moment. I’m just clinging to the hope that I can beat this final boss in the end. I can’t even dream, but I hear there’s a heck of a cutscene afterwards. There might even be a new game+. I guess we’ll see.

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An awesome image about anxiety. ZestyDoesThings designed monsters based on mental health issues, including bipolar. They’re all neat.