Greg Villander Memoir #1, The Vault – A Fallout 76 Story


First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.

When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.

My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.

So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.

Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).

I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.

I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.

You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.

The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual! 

During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted. 

“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”

Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.

And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.

From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.

Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.

But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.

My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.

And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement. 

Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.

But I knew.

No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.

Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.

Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.

“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”

“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”

“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“…you-you’re coming with me?”

“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”

That’s when the crying part happened.

About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.

“You prepping for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?” 

“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”

Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?

“Are you serious?”

“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.

“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”

“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.

Liam peered at Sonny.

“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”

“Thought you might say that.”

Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.

“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”

“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”

“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”

“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”

“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”

“We really plan on camping, huh?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”

“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”

“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”

“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”

Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.

“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”

“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”

“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”

“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”

Responders Nuka-Cola Plant Journal – a Fallout 76 Short Story

A holotape discovered by Vault 76 survivors in the ruins of the Nuka-Cola Bottling Plant east of Flatwoods on the edge of the Ohio River.



Nuka-Cola Plant Record: written by Erica Daniels.

March 4th, 2078: 

Yes! Absolute jackpot! The moment I saw it on the map, I knew it was the thing we’ve been searching for.  If there is anything that could uplift the spirits of the Responders and the people they’re assisting, it’s a taste of the pre-war world to enjoy. And what’s better than Nuka-Cola? As far as I can tell, all of the machinery is more or less intact. All it’s going to require is a bit of oil to grease up the gears, as many glass bottles as we can find, and a few wrenches to keep it maintained. After all, I’ve heard these bottling machines can be a bit finicky; the bottles jam in the hoppers the moment you stop paying attention.

I blame the bottle designers. Sure, the shape is iconic. But having to clear jams every hour is a pain in the ass.

March 12th, 2078: 

Seventeen crates ready to go! I had one myself, and my Geiger counter spiked. It was perfect!  The selfish part of me tells me to charge for them, considering how rare they are anymore (all of the vending machines in Charleston were looted in the first two weeks), but who would do that, honestly? I mean, it’s not even that paper money has officially lost its value. But there are so many orphans in the city that need some kind of comfort, even if it’s just a bottle of ice cold cola. Well… they might not be ice-cold by the time they get there, but you know what I mean.

To my sheer disappointment, the storage tanks for the Strontium-85 had deteriorated… no, melted. No doubt by the Strontium-85 itself. It was never meant to stay in storage tanks for long, anyway. There was certainly a bright blue glow, but I didn’t dare reprogram the systems to process Nuka-Cola Quantum with contaminated radioactive ingredients. I’ve had a clean one before, and it felt like my brain was being smashed with a fruit-flavored brick… along with my pee glowing blue for a week. I heard people died flavor testing the thing. Sure, they were just rumors, but I’m not about to try getting the recipe wrong on purpose.

I didn’t want to disturb the dust of a deteriorating factory, but curiosity got the better of me. I explored the taste testing booths, and what I found blew me away. I can’t type in the entire non-disclosure or liability papers, but holy hell… They’re pretty brutal. Even donating plasma for the war effort didn’t have this many terms of agreement. And one of the taste results I read? It sounds like the guy ascended into nirvana. No thanks, I’ll keep my mortal mind restrained to reality, I think.

April 2nd, 2078:

Hoo boy, I’m glad I’m all the way out here and not in Morgantown. Heard Captain Larkin and Chief Mayfield have more than a bad feud going on between them. Can’t believe Mayfield fired on students at VTU… I didn’t go to no fancy-schmancy university, but kids are kids. It’s not like a few broken windows and walls of graffiti are going to affect us any worse than the gosh-darn end of the world already has.

Keeping that in mind, I sent fifteen crates (ninety-six bottles times four columns, for those keeping count) up to the University. I made certain to send a message with the boys that the Nuka was for the fire department, the police, and the students. A liquid peace treaty, if you like.

So, for the month of March, that’s ninety-seven crates sent out, forty-three to Charleston, twenty-five to Morgantown, eight to Flatwoods (in exchange for two mechanics and machine parts), seven with the medical teams, six to VTU, and eight given out free to refugees who pass by the factory.

I’m going to be very sad when the ingredients in this factory run out. I’ve seen a lot of faces brighten up to drink Nuka-Cola again. From what I hear, the next closest Nuka Bottling Plant is in D.C., and I’m not about to travel east; from the stories the refugees tell me, the capital got blown to hell and back. I realized that offering irradiated soda to already sickly irradiated people wasn’t a good idea, but just the opportunity of tasting America’s number-one soda again made people happy for the first time in months. These moments make enduring the factory’s lack of air conditioning and constant assembly line malfunctions worth it.

Who knew the Nuka-Cola corporation would become a non-profit?

May 16th, 2078:

Well, it was too good to last. This Tuesday at two o’clock, the red lights came on and the line halted. All of the ingredient tanks were empty, except for one with a peculiar scent of seventeen fruit-flavors and rubbing alcohol. Better yet, when I opened it, an explosion of flies burst out like the damn plagues of Egypt. It wasn’t until I checked the terminal in a panic that I realized that this particular tank was disconnected from the line. A few of the boys saw it happen, and they all swore to secrecy. Dodged a very large bullet there, and I’m not about to tell anyone.

This morning Captain Larkin and her fellow officers stopped by the factory and congratulated us personally. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s not just soda,” she told us. “And it’s more than just morale. It’s a sign that we can bring the world back again with a wrench and a bit of willpower.” That made this whole venture worth it. She even told me that my stubborn captain-of-the-guard brother Tom sent his gratitude; apparently his men loved the factory’s particular post-war taste. 

Anyway, the boys and I cracked open the line’s last bottles of icy cola with Captain Larkin and her group. We sent the last four crates with them as well. And now it’s just clean-up duty. We’ll scavenge what we can and send it off to Charleston.

I wonder where me and the boys will go next. I hear there’s a giant teapot right up the hill, and I’m dying for some authentic sweet tea.

Monorail Elevator Recordings – A Fallout 76 Short Story

Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).



October 23rd, 8:11 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:48 AM.                                                  

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:49 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 11:22 PM.

Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.

Backstage Tales – A Reason to Game

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Hey everybody, I’m back. Sorta. I’ve emerged from a depression coma into a three-day weekend, so that’s an improvement in anyone’s book. Nothing medicine-wise has changed yet, however, so I’m still stuck in the same darkish mood. Accordingly, I’ve had a really hard time deciding on what to write; I promised Graveyard Keeper, but something about the game is really bugging me, and I can’t explain it. Hopefully for the next blog I can iron it out.

Instead, I wanted to expand upon an answer I recently wrote for Quora, as I felt I wasn’t entirely truthful about my feelings. I’ll post my answer as I wrote it and add more to it, and hopefully it won’t feel like a rambling mess by the time I’m finished. The question I answered went like this:

——–

Does playing video games feel pointless and unproductive to you? Why or why not?

“Very much yes. And very much no. And also absolutely not.

“Very much yes, because (as my Dad would put it) the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Skyrim, Diablo, and Escape Velocity could have been spent honing more practical abilities, such as writing, playing an instrument, or picking up a more hands-on hobby like leatherworking, sculpting, or sewing. While these hobbies are expensive and often require a mentor, I don’t like to comprehend the amount of dollars I’ve put into my Steam library searching for what I hope will become my next favorite time-absorber.

“Very much no, because my electronic hobby has enabled my depressed mind to take a step back from itself and literally voyage into other worlds. For someone with depression and social anxiety, games like Final Fantasy XIV has allowed me to become part of a group of people that enjoy the same game and want to experience it with other fun-loving drama-free people. Minecraft has allowed me to become a kid again and share an infinite blocky world with friends and family in a way that would be prohibitively expensive if we did it with Legos, wood, resin, or metal.

“Absolutely not, because video games have helped me become a more confident and critical reader and writer. I love the medium of video game storytelling because I’ve experienced the shock of betrayals, story twists, and character revelations in an arguably stronger way than books can. Books allow you to follow a protagonist, movies allow you to see the protagonist, but only in video games are you allowed to be the protagonist and experience stories in a way no other medium has yet to share.

“The first time I experienced the climax of Bioshock was something I’ll never forget. Although a little formulaic, the first Knights of the Old Republic reveal really got me good. And the climax and ending to Spec Ops: The Line is something I thought could only dared be done on paper or on the big screen (there’s a reason the game developers promised to never create a sequel). Sure, you get floppy story structures like Fallout 4’s main story. But in the same game, you get the tragedy of Arlen Glass and the challenging of the concept of personhood and personal identity (what is a synth?). As the medium evolves, the stories will improve, and they’ll continually challenge us and our assumptions about what makes good fiction.

“Video games are just like any entertainment medium: it’s up to us to determine what we make of them. From Madden and Arkham Knight to Borderlands 2 and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, they all have a purpose. Find some that suit yours!”

———-

I’ve probably talked about this at length in previous posts, but I think it’s been long enough. There’s another aspect to my love for video games that is perhaps larger than all of the ones I stated in my answer that I couldn’t have covered properly in a Quora answer. And that involves my depression and how I deal with it.

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Madness? Insert ‘this is Sparta’ meme here.

I’ve always fancied myself a very independent person, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. I simply like to be alone, as being in a large group of people is uncomfortable to me, even if the crowd is made up of friends and family. If I can be home free of distractions at my computer listening to my favorite music and playing my favorite games, that’s where I’m going to be. That’s my default. Is that healthy? No, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Would I prefer that I spend my time honing my writing skills, or drawing, or leatherworking, or learning to play the guitar? Some part of me thinks so, but whenever I sit down by myself and don’t distract my mind as soon as possible, I open myself up to negativity the moment I take a seat.

So I’m damned: do I force myself to enjoy the company of others, building up more and more mental tension inside myself until I go crazy from the social drain, or do I confine myself to a solitary existence, playing the victim to my own treasonous thoughts? My answer is neither. My answer is to distract my mind with as many digital micro-goals as I can focus on to avoid the spiral of depression. Beat this level, obtain this item, talk to this NPC… ever on to the next thing.

This answer has always been a crutch of mine, a backdoor in case someone demands why I waste so much time on my computer. An excuse. But it’s really the only one I’ve got. Let me give you an example of how awful this is.

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This exact one.

Right next to me sitting on my desk right now if a leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping on and off since 2011. It’s currently a little more than halfway full. My journals have been the source of my worm drawings and are filled with little cartoons and doodles. But if you ignore all the cute pictures and actually read the words I’ve written over the years… It’s not really pretty. I only write in my physical journal when I’m really bored or really depressed, sometimes both. This does not make for a very fun and optimistic read. In fact, I’m hoping that no one reads what’s in my journal for many many years, long after the sting of my emotions has passed.

My previous journals are very similar, especially my mission journals. I was a much happier person on my mission mostly because I didn’t have the burden of my mind keeping me occupied all the time. I had a constant companion and friend that kept the thoughts in check. Of course, even then, I had my off days, not to mention how devastated I felt after I came home early because of kidney stones. My journal writing stopped for a good two years after I came home, starting up again when I got a handle on life.

A handle made of det-cord.

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Now, ten years after I returned home from Los Angeles, I have no companion to help me monitor my thoughts. And the thought of asking a girl on a date and going through the motions of all that again fills me with such dread that I am loathe to think what kind of man I would appear to be if I actually went through with it. Certainly not one I would consider for a healthy long-term relationship with. But there’s my anti-me bias again.

And there the book ever sits, always inviting me to write in it but ever filling with the most negative of my thoughts and anxieties. I’m writing a testament of my own darkness. I’m an observer of my own life, and nothing more, because the alternative to too difficult for me to comprehend.

A few blogs back, I said I would never throw a pity party for myself because of my depression. That I wasn’t a “snowflake Millennial” for all of my experiences. And yet so many of my male peers seem to be going through the same thing for similar reasons. How can I resent a descriptor that is so lock-step with my experience? Video games are wonderful things filled with incredible experiences and innovative systems, but when they come at the cost of my personal health, I begin to wonder if there’s anything I can actually do instead. I always have a choice to play or not. That’s not the question. It’s more of a question of what I would replace video games in my life. And nothing else compares. Not even writing, and I love writing… when I’m not depressed.

Let me tell you, the journal sitting next to me is not an appealing alternative.

Have I chosen my hobby or has my hobby chosen me? Do I play for fun or do I play to survive? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Is it bad that my gaming hobby (call it an addiction if you wish) is the only activity I consider strong enough to distract the negativity in my mind? Or is it just sad?

And in the end, is there anything that I will do to try and change?

No, not really. I suppose that’s why you could call it an addiction. I’m not even brazen enough to say, “I can quit whenever I want.” I fully admit to being dependent on my hobby to remain sane. But if my chosen hobby were leatherworking, music, or even writing, would it be any more preferable? Or safe?

Hey, at least I’m not doing hard drugs.

…or am I?

My 100+ Hour Tale – Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

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On Tuesday, I finished the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (I got the end credits and everything), and now I feel that the game can truly begin with the expansions of Heavensward and Stormblood. But before I continue, I wanted to condense my thoughts about the base game as much as I can and share what I think works in this MMORPG and as well as what things I’ve seen that have been done better in comparable titles.

Here is my Warrior of Light, Jerik Noa:

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Sing, O sing, ye Candidus Fellows, unto the pure Light of Dawnbreak!

And yes, with the conclusion of the final story quest, I just received another bottle of Fantasia, so I might be changing into a female character soon. They just seem to have so many cooler fashions and styles available, besides the fact that I usually prefer to play female characters (I’ll have to write an article about my thoughts of gender in video games, especially in games where you customize your character down to the freckles on their cheeks; although, come to think of it, that approaches the unassailable gates of feminism and political discourse, and we all know how prepared I am for those topics). I’m thinking a Mi’qote, as that was the first race I played as when I first picked the game up, although the thought of playing a hardass Dark Knight Lalafell is hilariously intriguing. I would be playing a nightmare-fueled spikey-armor clad toddler with a three foot soul-sucking blade that just wants a hug.

Is that racist? That seems racist. Can you be racist against fictional fantasy races? I mean, it’s no better than my character now: whenever I change job classes to weaver or goldsmith, I suddenly become Eorzea’s most frightening butler, complete with cummerbund and necktie. Mi’qote just seems like the right middle road between plushy-adorable and mildly-threatening.

 

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On the left: Warrior of Light. On the right: adorable Papalymo. Would you believe the one on the right is arguably more dangerous?

So, how was the ending? Without spoilers, of course, I can say that it was… unexpected. Having gone into this MMO aware of some of the story elements, I knew a few different things had to happen, and a few things still need to happen. I just wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. Unaware of what parts of the story fall into place between A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood, I realize that I still have a ton of content to get through, not to mention taking to time to master all of the other classes and trades.

Here’s my list of good versus bad (with some neutral sprinkled in) from what I’ve played so far in Final Fantasy XIV:

Positive: Changing Classes Made Easy

I started this particular playthough as a gladiator, although I quickly realized that starting the game off as a tank is just asking for trouble in multiplayer dungeons and raids. If you aren’t familiar with a run and you tank for the first time, you’ll probably tick off your teammates. Fortunately, FF XIV makes it super easy to change classes and level them up, even going so far as to make the process of leveling faster for those who already have a high level in another combat class. I hadn’t been an archer before, so I chose to continue my game as an arrow-slinger and eventually as a Bard.

I’m really looking forward to playing as a machinist, as machinists have royally screwed me over in PvP with their pushing and pulling abilities, and I would like to experience being on the other side of the coin. But, then again, tanks are in short supply nowadays, and dark knight looks awesome. Either way, I’ll get to it all eventually.

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Astrologian, too. Heart of the Cards, baby.

Negative: Vesper Bay

Why. The heck. Does Vesper Bay. Not. Have. A FAST-TRAVEL OPTION.

I would say this is a simple complaint, but bear with me, it’s more complicated than just missing an important waypoint. This has more to do with a lack of balance and a clear insistence on wasting my time and resources than it does with ease of travel. Considering you come back to this place repeatedly in A Realm Reborn makes this a travesty in more ways than one.

First, there are two ways to get to Vesper Bay. The first is by fast-traveling to Horizon and hoofing it all the way across the map of Western Thanalan to get there. Even on chocobo-back, this is an annoying journey to have to repeat again and again. I consider this the ‘unintended’ slow way, but the alternate route is no better. The other way to Vesper Bay is by boarding a boat from Limsa Lominsa (by talking to an attendant next to the Arcanist’s Guild). This necessitates teleporting to Limsa Lominsa, teleporting to the Arcanist’s Guild, then taking the boat. Unless you want to spend a lot of money teleporting to Limsa Lominsa again and again during the story missions, then expect to set your home marker to Lominsa.

But with your home marker on Limsa Lominsa, what’s the use of being in any other Grand Company than the Maelstrom? You’re going to spend a lot of money teleporting to Gridania and Ul’dah if you join the Twin Adders or the Flames, since acquiring and spending guild seals with your Company is a good way to keep your character’s gear up-to-date, not to mention keeping your Barracks active once you reach that point.

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I’d rather not, Minfilia, thanks.

Once you’re done with the story missions, I imagine (or desperately hope) you won’t have to travel to the Waking Sands as often, and you can set your home point elsewhere. But it really bothers me when games make important oft-visited locations difficult to get to. Even search “vesper bay ffxiv” in Google, and the third entry is: “How do you get to Vesper Bay”. When you’ve made it that inconvenient and confusing to repeatedly return to a story-critical location, you’ve either accidentally screwed up as a developer or you’ve done it intentionally. As the game has been out for almost five years now, I’m thinking the latter.

Related Negative: Fast Travel Costs

Just a short point: fast travel is insultingly expensive. I’ve never played an MMO with such high costs of travel. And since your home point is Limsa Lominsa, a landmass away from Gridania and Ul’dah? You’ll be paying out the nose every time your journey takes you hither and yon.

Positive-ish: Oh, the Joys of Resource Gathering

Remember when I talked about fishing in Ocarina of Time and Dark Cloud 2? Well, strap on your gathering pants and get ready to make some money, honey! Whether it’s steel, alumen, mythril, electrum, red coral, fleece, or boar leather, there’s goods to procure from your local environment. I’m not overly fond of the resource node system, especially with how difficult it can be to obtain necessary materials like elemental shards. I understand how high-quality materials work, and I like that part of the system; it’s a thrill to hit those HQ nods and hear the sharp bang of the sledgehammer or the golden glint of the catch on your line. But in The Elder Scrolls Online, for instance, you’ll obtain about three to five resources per node in a single instance and only have your crafting skills to worry about. In FF XIV, the craft and the gathering are separate, and the gathering is more literal, piece by piece.

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Until you rage-quit from worse-than-XCOM accuracy percentages. What do you mean, I missed three times in a row with 92%?!

Oh, and if you don’t upkeep your gear with your current level, you’re going to find gathering a waste of time. Instead, worry about leveling up with fieldcraft leves as soon as you can, then go back and get the materials you need.

Related Negative: Inventory Space

I don’t have housing yet. All my money has been spent fast-traveling and getting stupid lightning and wind shards for crafting. So my inventory is full, my chocobo’s pack is full, and I’ll soon be turning to my retainers to hold mats. You can’t sell anything in this game. Almost everything has a crafting purpose, no matter how obscure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chucked something to free up space just to have to go grovelling back to the Market Board to buy more later on.

Everything about the inventory is so dang inconvenient. Except the ‘Sort’ key, that I like. Let me have a material’s sack like The Elder Scrolls Online, realism be damned!

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I have to have all these coeurl skins and pinches of mythril sand and fishing bait and walnut logs and…

Negative: The Overabundance of Story-Critical Dungeons and Trials

I’m imagining this is how it went.

One thing the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic realized as the game was getting longer in the tooth was that its emphasis on story was more important than multiplayer gameplay. That isn’t to say The Old Republic had lackluster gameplay; far from it. They realized that they had so much content gated behind dungeons and trials that most players passed it by on their way through the main story missions for each class. Not everyone who plays MMORPGs wants to do so with friends. So they chose the RPG over the MMO and rebuilt their dungeons so players could single-handedly go through 4-man dungeons by themselves (with help from a tanky battledroid and their NPC companions).

And it doesn’t matter what class you choose to be, either. A tank can DPS, and healer can tank, and DPS can… well, DPS more.

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Violence solves ALL the problems!

Final Fantasy XIV went the completely opposite direction. Not only are their 4-man dungeons not optional, there is no way for players to accomplish them by themselves. Dungeons are strictly one-tank, one-healer, two-DPS affairs that break down if any player doesn’t do their part with relative skill. I’m making this sound more dramatically bad than it is, of course, but you all know how I feel about multiplayer; last night I was the only one in the group who hadn’t run the 8-man final dungeon, I fell behind pretty dramatically at one point, and all the other players talked about while the unskippable cutscenes were playing was Japanese porn and masterbation. I won’t question their ability to kick Ultima Weapon in the junk, but I’d rather not hear about what they plan to do with theirs.

“You’ll be doing this dungeon a lot,” they said when I fell behind.

Uh-huh. Like hell I will.

*sigh*

I probably will.

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Despite their vulgarity, my fellow players in that 8-man dungeon were very nice about me getting behind since it didn’t impede their progress. If it had… I would have had a worse experience.

Positive: Gameplay. Like, All the Gameplay

Everything I wrote above this would probably make you think I dislike Final Fantasy XIV. But that isn’t true; I’m 250 hours in, and I’ve probably got that much to give and more with the fun I’ve had so far. I’m in a good Free Company that answers questions (and at least doesn’t kick me out). I’ve nailed down being a level 55 Bard, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes as I proceed into Heavensward.

It’s a joy to fight, especially when you line up all of your attacks appropriately (and with my mechanical keyboard, it sounds good too). Maximizing my DEEPS (or DPS, damage-per-second) is awesome, and I feel like I’m in a good spot.

Just as long as I can keep multiplayer at arm’s length. Or find a good group of friends to connect with, which is unlikely considering I’m one of the few people I know that cares for a subscription MMO and Final Fantasy and has an appropriate system that can play it. In other words, yes, I anticipate my journey in Eorzea will end due to repetition, multiplayer negativity, and poor time-wasting design decisions. But it won’t be for a while.

At least until Fallout 76 appears. Or I buckle down and actually write more for Alyssum. Type-type-type-type.

A Realm Reborn Review: 8.5/10

In Response – The Irreversible Choice

This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.


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Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.

One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.

At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.

So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?

Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!

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So much anger. Thankfully, most RPGs are single-player so the rage is contained. Until they complain on Steam forums and Reddit.

Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).

Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.

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He never asked for this. But gamers do!

When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.

First, something simple:

Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.

I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).

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I’m not sure if this is a spoiler or not. If it is, please let me know.

A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).

Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.

The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.

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“But I’ll run out eventually!” you cry, with tears streaming down your face. Siiimple and Cleeeean is the waaay that you’re maaaaking me feeeel toniiiiight…

Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.

A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.

A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.

One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!

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SUCK ON EXCALIBUR, MALBORO! Art by Morbidmic.

The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…

And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!

Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.

One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.

Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.

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Three out of the three XCOM soldiers in this picture will die by the end of the match. When you consistently miss 85% accuracy shots, you begin to wonder if you’re the one at fault.

So, in the end, we have:

  • Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
  • Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
  • Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
  • Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)

Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.