I’ve never met someone who didn’t have something to hide, who didn’t have something that they’d rather not think about. Most people try not to think about it. They never address it and they let it sit for years in their minds and I don’t pretend to be any different.
I was a thief.
Back in the day, I stole from friends, family, stores and nearly everyone that crossed my path. I had clever strategies to avoid detection, too. At big box retailers, I would move items from one part of the store to bedding, wait for their inventory check to register the item as missing and then walk out with it.
If I was stealing Pokemon cards from friends I’d wait a week or two to use, show off or even mention new cards until I was sure I wouldn’t be caught. With family and others, I’d swipe a few bits here and there from a purse or unguarded wallet then immediately make myself look busy. If they noticed something was missing, they never blamed me.
I justified my kleptomania, or at least attempted to, by telling myself that I was “owed” by society. Growing up poor and within the public school system, I saw many of my classmates with toys and electronics that, I, being a child, envied. I rationalized my actions as “equalizing”, making things “fair”.
After a time, I stopped. I was caught by my best friend and I damaged that relationship, irreparably, for years. I started realizing that people don’t tend to like those that swipe their stuff. Still, the thrill of it was never lost on me. I needed catharsis. I needed a way to explore some of the darker aspects of my personality safely, to know and understand myself better, and I sought that outlet in gaming.
I’ve always preferred western RPGs. They’re so easy to get lost in. The sheer scope of the worlds, the locations, characters and items to discover and explore consumes me. At least once a year, with the latest release, I cloister myself. I take care of all business, school obligations, and get my affairs in order and then I block off entire days at a time.
For me, it’s a ritual. I hide away with the darkest elements of my personality and take the time to explore my own psyche. Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Arx Fatalis and countless others are powerful, psychoactive chemicals.
As I play, I begin to embody my own, real sense of morality in an environment whose consequences are fleeting. I can, for example, sneak into someone’s house, learn all about them and judge whether or not they deserve their wealth, their good fortune. Most, to my delight, are found to be… unworthy.
I hunt, explore and track my victims; study their habits and attempt to work out the best way to plunder their home. I get a huge rush every time I pull a successful heist. Sneaking into and then out of their houses provides unique, dynamic challenges fraught with risk. If I fail, guards are called, and I am forced to make a quick escape. It’s frustrating and time-consuming, but not too big of a deal. Then I played Fallout 3.
I think, all told, I spent somewhere around 400 hours here, for good reason. Filled with the mutated and sickly descendants of the survivors of nuclear fire, Fallout 3’s depiction of Washington DC is a ghastly, affecting one. As I wandered through the torched wastes of the former United States capitol, I found some of the most relatable characters I’ve ever encountered in gaming.
Everyone from the cannibalistic residents of Andale, to the Treeminders of Oasis is utterly desperate. They seek and cling to any bit of hope they can find, all struggling just to make their way in life. Besides the raiders, most of the people are simply “fighting the good fight”, as the pirate radio DJ Three Dog would say.
It was here that I finally started having trouble with my normal routine. I had the energy drinks, the junk food and the solitude needed for my annual excursion into the deepest recesses of my own personal demons. Something was different in the wasteland, though. I couldn’t steal from these people. The cathartic release was lost. Instead of generic, faceless guards, my attempted larceny was greeted with either the forlorn pleas of my carefully chosen targets, or a rapid escalation to violence.
These are digital people whom, under normal circumstances, I would turn to to get my digital “fix” for theft, and instead, I empathized with them. They were like me, and yet, they didn’t steal anything — at least that I could tell. They struggled, they persevered, and they made their own way.
What was my excuse?
Throughout the long stretches of foot-travel, I had time to think. To reflect on what the rest of the game was telling me. Desperation, true desperation is the lowest state of existence we can occupy. It’s the closest we get to our more animalistic instincts. And yet, there’s a beauty, a venerable quality to the maintenance of some form of morality in the face of that absolute despair.
In Fallout, as I encountered different enclaves of people with their own strategies for survival, I was asked to critically consider their lifestyle, understand their perspective and finally judge the rectitude of their actions. It forces us to answer, both from observation and through play, how far we’d be willing to go to survive in the wastes. Fallout: New Vegas takes that core narrative one step further, with more nuanced mechanics and a greater number of “morally gray” agents, the questions posed are both more realistic and more disconcerting.
Who we are isn’t always easy to understand. I stopped stealing long before I played Fallout 3, but I only did so to save face. It wasn’t until I experienced, in a very real way, the effects of my own actions, that I was able to truly come to terms with what I had done. And in 2008, I began to apologize to all the people I stole from.
Image used courtesy of Dead End Thrills