Originally published on December 4, 2015, available at http://www.unwinnable.com. All rights reserved.
Anyone who reads a lot of criticism must learn to deal with friends who accuse them of ‘over-analyzing’ stuff. Granted, there are people in the world who’d love to hear me expound on the hidden meanings behind The Shining’s conspicuously-placed Calumet Baking Powder cans; many others, however, would find it tedious. I think it’s polite to read the room a bit before opening my mouth.
The Shining is one of those ‘complicated’ films, full of dark corners in which to build dense essays and hour-long YouTube analyses. I like complicated films! But I also appreciate those ‘CliffsNotes’ kinds of films: equally-great works that place their themes right out in the open. You rarely need an essay for those ones. Sometimes all it takes is one sentence. For example: I think the sled in Citizen Kane represents the protagonist’s childhood innocence. It’s not the most exciting thesis, but it’s concise, and it’s relatable, and that’s nice!
In the land of videogame criticism—which is my country of origin—we tend to get the worst of both worlds. While Kane spends its runtime showing us snowglobes and sleds, the time I’ve spent with Fallout 4 consists mostly of digging medical syringes out of garbage cans so I can use them to magically heal bullet wounds. It’s hard to decide what I think the garbage cans represent. I’m pretty sure it’s not my character’s childhood innocence.
The videogame industry would hate for you to ‘over-analyze’ these elements. Its spokespeople would have us believe that said elements don’t mean anything. They’d claim these elements exist simply to gratify: to be fun and exciting, rather than enlightening in any particular way. Playing a videogame, by this mode of thinking, is essentially like receiving an impersonal blowjob from your computer. You’re there to be stimulated; you don’t much care for the company.
Yet as critics we love videogames, and so we’re determined to go beyond mere gratification. We most certainly can read into games like Fallout 4; and of course, we find that they do mean things. Our problem is that the meaning-finding process takes us to some really strange places: even stranger, sometimes, than The Shining’s Calumet Baking Powder. To analyse Fallout’s ubiquitous garbage-shaped loot containers I’d need a mountain of history and theory. Maybe I’d reach for the psychologist B.F. Skinner and his now-infamous ‘Skinner Boxes’: experimental bird feeders he designed to maximize compulsive behaviour in pigeons (and in humans, given a few simple tweaks). Maybe I’d relate Skinner to the traditions of interaction design, which would lead me to the ideology of ‘usability’, and so on. That would take me thousands of words! Not everyone is willing to read thousands of words. You’ve got to read the room a bit, remember?
In this way games like Fallout, though very easy to play, are exceptionally difficult to analyse. They don’t want to meet me halfway, like Citizen Kane does. If as a player the computer goes down on me, as a critic I must usually go down on the computer.
Speaking of oral sex: have you ever listened to The Weeknd?
The Weeknd is a singer and songwriter whose lyrics synthesize three things: raucous sex, tragic drug abuse and impossible emotional distance. He is a damaged character towards whom other damaged characters can’t help but gravitate. His lovers want to fix him—and to be fixed by him—yet he knows these things aren’t possible. He focuses instead on servicing their physical needs, always doing so on his own sordid terms: “I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you,” he explains in his hit single The Hills, “and you’re gon’ have to do it at my tempo”. He’s a little gross, a little sad, a little bizarre and, for the fictional women in his songs, utterly enthralling.
His other single, Can’t Feel My Face, is the record’s only unqualified love song. It’s dedicated exclusively to cocaine.
Mixed in with the aforementioned debauchery is a string of artsy music videos, all set within the same continuity. They take their queues from movies like The Shining, and especially from the work of David Lynch: brooding, mysterious, surreal and laden with symbolism. They make his work engrossing in the same way a concept album can be engrossing.
All that I’ve said, alongside a legitimately amazing hairstyle, builds up to make The Weeknd a complicated persona. He appears immediately available, yet impossibly distant: eager to “make that pussy rain”—and “often,” if we are to believe his lyrics—yet forever estranged from us, standing as he does behind a veil of drug haze and apathy:
I only love it when you touch me, not feel me
When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me
When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me, yeah
So, why do I bring this guy up? Well, I was playing Fallout 4 one night when it struck me that blockbuster videogames are exactly like him. Like The Weeknd, Fallout 4 is eager to gratify yet difficult to read; and like The Weeknd it is completely uninterested in meeting you halfway. Like The Weeknd it longs for you to bury your face in its garbage cans. Yet like The Weeknd, it cautions you not to look beyond the veil: to start reading, for example, about the things B.F. Skinner did to pigeons. Games like this don’t want to get to know you over dinner; they want to roll up unannounced at half past 5, with a baggie full of preorder swag and a pelvis full of blood. They only love it when you touch them, not feel them; when they’re fucked up, that’s the real them.
What we understand about The Weeknd, but not so much about games like Fallout 4, is that a little fun is harmless but unrequited love can be dangerous. On the one hand it is obvious why emotional attachment to a globe-trotting, pussy-rain-making cocaine enthusiast might be a bad idea. Seldom, however, do we think very deeply about what it means to become attached to some of our nonhuman entertainment products. Like The Weeknd they will “always be there for you”; lord knows they “have no shame”. It may even be the case that no one’s gonna fuck you like Fallout 4. But if you want to love it the way some people love movies—if you want it to enlighten you, to raise you up, to fix you—well, there aren’t enough garbage cans in the world.