Media Nostalgia: Wasteland and the Written Word

Nostalgia for times before you were alive are silly, because it’s inevitably based on a romanticization of the period that overlooks its flaws.  Nostalgia for a bygone medium, on the other hand, is perfectly justifiable.  Since you experience and enjoy them more or less the same way the original audience did, you can fairly regret their demise.  I was not alive during the time of silent movies.  I was not playing video games during the time of early RPGs.  Yet I miss something something common to them and virtually unknown afterwards:  The incorporation of meaningful text into a visual medium.  An example of a game that I think works well because of, not in spite of, the large amounts of text is the classic postapocalyptic RPG, Wasteland.

Being a chimaera, I’m a fan of combinations and syntheses.  I like multimedia artwork.  One would think that, aside from text adventures, video games would be a naturally multimedia experience, combining graphics, words, and sound, but most game designers don’t seem to agree, since modern games seem intent on providing the most uniform, monotonous experience possible.  Some want to be movies and only grudgingly allow the player to have a turn; others abandon the vestiges of story for a simple game of “There are mutants.  Shoot them.”  Granted, the latter is a time-honored game plot.

But early RPGs, with barely any graphics, could rely neither on flashy effects to make a game fun nor on easily-identifiable images to communicate what’s going on.  If you’re getting attacked by a giant lizard, the game had better tell you it’s a giant lizard, because it looks like you’re getting attacked by a pink blob.  Also, absent any sound except the system beep (of which Wasteland makes constant and irritating use), written dialog must replace voice acting.  Thus, games like Wasteland must make copious use of writing, and that is precisely why I like them so much.

There are many other things to like about Wasteland: its groundbreaking skill system; a plot free from meaningless fetch-quests and kill-quests; its sandbox-style map that guides you naturally from location to location without railroading or locking off earlier areas; the bizarre cybernetic journey into the mind of a madman; the slyly named NPC Faran Brygo; the sheer number of hidden jokes, details, and Easter eggs.  But I like the writing.  Writer Alan Pavlish doesn’t just blandly describe what the player would be seeing: he takes the descriptions and runs with them.  And it’s fun.  For instance:

Fat Freddy is a genetic nightmare — a squamous mass of slimy flesh shuddering and twitching before you like some animated blob of flesh-colored Jell-O.  He smells like a swamp, a foul, choking miasma of rotting mastodonian flesh left to putrefy.

These descriptions are not limited to important plot points either; even abandoned houses, which are nothing more than map filler, are stuffed with loving descriptions like “You are walking on the door to this room” and “Don’t put anything on this table. I don’t think it could take the weight of a feather.”  Other messages are in-jokes (Bard’s Tale was Brian Fargo’s previous game).  There’s a richness to the game and the world to be gained from passages like these, which set the mood and give the player a chance to exercise his or her imagination.  Best of all, the game synthesizes all this text with with maps and graphical interfaces that remove the “You can’t get ye flask” frustrations of text-based games.  Yet writing has fallen by the wayside in games since 1988.  Wasteland‘s spiritual successor, Fallout, made good use of item and scenery descriptions, but contemporary games have lost this element, and with it, a little bit of a game’s richness.

Movies, I think, have also suffered from the loss of written text.  Since the silent-movie era it’s been rare to see a single written word that isn’t in the opening or closing credits, but as with games, writing has a different feel than images or spoken words and, thus, there are situations where written words convey the connotations better than spoken ones.  Consider the words in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis*, such as this still from the Babel scene.  Lang isn’t using print as a stopgap measure to fix the lack of sound; he’s synthesizing print and video into something more expressive than either could be on its own.

I should clarify that video games and movies that don’t make use of text are not bad.  Purely visual movies and games can be masterworks just as often, or more often, than combined text/visual ones; many wouldn’t benefit at all from the inclusion of written words.  But words are a tool in the creator’s arsenal.  There are situations where they are the correct tool for the job, but too often they are treated as nothing but an outdated measure that has no place in modern media of sound and animation.

Moving on, it’s time for a game of Confuse Roger Ebert!  As we know, Ebert has a strange set of criteria for determining what counts as art.  For instance, art must have a single dominant creator; a creative team doesn’t count (if you’re not sure how one could possibly define such a criterion so that it includes movies but excludes video games, you’re not alone).  Anyway, both Wasteland and Fallout pass that requirement thanks to the mad genius of producer Brian Fargo; the latter even has a big “Brian Fargo Presents” splash screen.  I wouldn’t put forth Wasteland as an example of art, but that’s the problem with strange criteria: they let things in as well as keeping things out.

You will recall that Ebert was on thin ice when discussing game text and graphics.  Braid exhibited “prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie;” Flower had “decorative interest on the level of a greeting card” (Ebert doesn’t have too many creative phrases).  But the condemnation of poor prose and graphics is a concession to the possibility of good prose and graphics that would qualify as artistic**.  Still, I suspect that Ebert would disqualify any text or picture that appears in a game; the atmospheric, brush-textured backgrounds of Braid wouldn’t count as art because of the video game elements in front of them.

Wasteland, however, was released in a time when computers had so little memory that even text had to be conserved.  Thus, the status box (itself too small to hold more than about 100 characters) only displays short messages.  Longer excerpts–of which the non-graphical nature of the game necessitates many–were included in a packet of paragraphs that came with the manual.  The game would simply tell you which paragraph to read.  Aside from saving memory, this acted as a simple form of copy protection:  An illegal copy of the game would not come with the packet, leaving the player unable to proceed.

Of course the difficulty of putting all the passwords and vital clues into one physical book that the player can look at whenever he or she wants is that the player could simply look up answers instead of finding them properly.  Thus, the packet begins with a warning:

We know that as a Desert Ranger who enjoys the best of challenges, wouldn’t
randomly read these paragraphs in search of clues. But intense radiation, coupled
with the blazing sun, can impair your good judgement, rendering you
totally unable to resist. Fight your best fight here: try not to read a paragraph
you’re instructed to.

Additionally, the packet is seeded with fake paragraphs that are not actually part of the game.  Some are dire warnings against the reader for reading a paragraph not included in the game; some are incorrect passwords that will lead to dire in-game consequences.  But there’s also a third type: some of the paragraphs string together into a wonderful parody of B-grade sci-fi films, weaving in characters from the game for the maximum confusion of the casual reader.

Finster sits down on a Phobosian tree. “At birth the Serpioids captured me and educated me to be a spy against my fellow humans. I rebelled, but I cannot strike them directly.” His hands shake. “You have to understand. Their queen is my sister!”

A sci-fi parody, even one this fun, could hardly qualify as art, but what if it was something else?  What if the writers had woven together a beautifully crafted short story, split up and hidden amongst the paragraphs?  Would that qualify as art?  We’ll never know.

But I know;  the question “What is art?” is utterly tangential.  Wasteland is old and, at times, pretty silly.  And so, without further ado, ten things I learned from Wasteland:

  • Matches are sold individually, and they’re useless.
  • All good guys are pallid, stubbly men who don’t comb their hair or button their shirts.
  • Antitoxin is made of fruit.
  • You can punch something 14 feet away.
  • Clones not only spring forth full-grown and ready for combat; they also know everything the originals knew.
  • A sledgehammer, lockpicking skills, and a stick of TNT will get you many places. However, no force in the universe will get a man into the ladies’ room.
  • Android heads are interchangeable.
  • More things are magenta than you might expect.
  • Radiation will only harm you if you stand directly on top of the source.
  • Dan Citrine is not only a game-breaker, he’s a cold-blooded murderer***.

If you have the patience for an 8-bit game that clocks in around 100 hours and is, at times, overcome by its own hypermasculinity, you should try Wasteland.  It’s a nostalgia trip, all right, but it’s also a reminder of a way that games were once made that has now been forgotten.


*I’m floored.  Nearly all of the missing half-hour of the film, not seen since 1928, was found a couple of years ago in Argentina (brought there by fleeing Nazis, perhaps?) and is now being re-released in a gorgeous, acclaimed restoration.  The old rivalry between Fredersen and Rotwang is fully expanded upon!  Georgy/11811 has an actual part…and a name!  The rescue of the children is even more dramatic!  The DVD will be available in November.

**This reminds me of nothing so much as the anti-rock-music faction.  They often protest rock by citing the lyrics.  But by equating bad lyrics with evil music, they concede to good lyrics making for good music.  Thus, a single rock song with unquestionably positive lyrics topples their house of cards.

***Dan Citrine is an NPC famous for the bugs that appear when he leads the party.  Most of these are actually good bugs: dangers like land mines won’t go off if he’s in the lead.  However, this being an extremely early game, his AI doesn’t include the concept of “shoot the hostage taker, not the hostage.”

Screen captures were taken from their respective works by me, except for the Wasteland screenshots, found here.  If anyone has any idea why screen printing Wasteland doesn’t work, by all means, tell me.



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3 responses to “Media Nostalgia: Wasteland and the Written Word

  1. bryce1618

    I really enjoy your commentary on video games. But I’m curious what you would have to say about the video game mainstream, or its legendary franchises (i.e. Legend of Zelda).

    • katz

      Why thank you. I am not actually much of a mainstream gamer; Jordan has expanded my game library exponentially, but I cut my teeth on abandonware out of a combination of aversion to spending money on gaming (and especially on consoles: why would I pay for a computer that does nothing but play games?) and a love of pixels the size of acorns. I’ve played only bits of Zelda (though I’ve watched a significant amount) and have never played some franchises, like Final Fantasy.

      Assuming we’re limiting the discussion to adventures and RPGs, the plots of mainstream games often disappoint me with an excess of fetch/kill quests; I lost my patience with Neverwinter Nights 2 after the umpteenth successive quest required to get into the Blacklake district. A DM who tried that would face full-scale player revolt. Innovative games with distinctly different objectives, like Beyond Good and Evil (my appreciation for which may have been mentioned), are often marginalized.

      Across the board, games lack good characterization. In fact, Portal’s GLaDOS is about the only counterexample I can think of (“Just because I’m trying to kill you doesn’t mean I can’t give you good advice!”). But this is independent of era or popularity.

      Overall, video games are not on a trend towards being better or worse: Graphics improve, but text is lost. But as with books, the best examples remain in circulation while the poorer ones fall rightfully by the wayside–though too often executive meddling causes excellent games to suffer the same fate, a problem that DRM will only exacerbate in the future. Thus, older games that have been ported to PC tend to be good.

      Since enjoyment is such a primary goal of games, it’s inadvisable to attempt too much of an objective evaluation. Take Spore. Even aside from the DRM, you could come up with a list of game design flaws as long as your arm, but it’s fun and therefore it succeeds. I tend to enjoy older games and those with substantive stories, but in the end, that’s just my preference.

  2. I never played Wasteland, you’re making me want to!

    I did play a lot of Bard’s Tale (mostly 2 and 3).

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