Part 6: The OTHER Postmodern RPGThe OTHER Postmodern RPG
So, last time on ATOM I made a Cormac McCarthy reference because I thought the game was trying to go grimdark on us and the thread called out both The Last House on the Left and the Virgin Spring as references. Turns out, we were all kind of wrong!
An Atom Dev posted:
Hey there! Trust me, the references are under control. You see so many, because we have a lot of text. Our game is currently 2x the size of Fallout, if you compare how many lines of text we got Hence we have 2x references than Fallout had. Sometimes references also happen without input. The Last House on the Left is a great example. I never even saw that movie and I never made a reference to it in the game. What I was actually referencing with that quest, was an old Swedish folk song, called Per Tyrssons döttrar i Vänge. But it seems like the director of the Last House on the Left also read that old song, and made a movie similar to it's plot. Just like Ingmar Bergman did earlier in the XX century. And now it looks like I made a reference to Last House on the Left, which I never saw The moral is every idea was already made by someone, and true originality is pretty hard in a world overflown by information. But we're still trying, and the vast majority of the game is in fact the product of our brains alone. At least, we really hope so...
The song itself is about three highwaymen brothers who abduct three sisters on the road with the threat of marriage or death. The sisters choose death, the highwaymen stop by their parents' house and offer to stay the night, the highwaymen try to sell the sisters' clothes, the father goes for his sword and slays the elder two, and asks the third brother who the parents are. The third brother reveals that the brothers are the sons of the homeowners given away at a young age, and the father goes to the smith to get a chastity belt (iron around his waist) and build a church as atonement. Folk songs are fuckin weird! Per Wikipedia it's the legend of why the Karna church was built. What ANY of this has to do with the story as presented is a mystery, but we'll get there. Maybe.
This bandit has been lying in bed ever since we got here.
Well, this isn't good.
: I just wanted to talk.
: [The wounded bandit lifts himself up on one elbow, and looks you over]
: What's wrong with you?
: [The bandit laughs out lout]
: What are ya, blind? I got knifed, you idiot, knifed by a fucking kid... Haha. It happened a month ago when we heard some rumors about a gang of crazies heading for Otradnoye. These guys were scavengers, animals. People like them burn villages on a whim.
: We didn't want that fate for Otradnoye.
: We survive by taking protection money from that village, so we fight for them when they're threatened. We decided to ambush those fucks on the road. Hid ourselves in the woods and waited for them to pass. It worked. Right away, we put down half of them in a storm of bullets!
: The other half though... God damn, they really were scary.
: None of them panicked. Nobody ran. Instead, they literally ran towards our guns, wielding knives and clubs. A couple had nothing better than pointed sticks! We got them all in the end, but not before one stuck a shiv into my stomach.... Took me by surprise, the dirty fuck.
This is an accurate description of fighting early game bandits.
: I was reloading when he came at me. A crazed kid, nothing else. I messed him up real good... not gonna lie... I hit him so hard his skull shattered... But, like I said, he managed to stick me like a pig first... And now I'm half-dead.
: I can speak with Doctor Mikoyan for you.
: [The man obviously doesn't trust you]
: I can't promise anything, but at least I'll try.
: [The wounded man lifts himself up with much effort]
: I'll go find a doctor.
TheGreatEvilKing summary posted:
: Whoa, dude, I'm already dying.
: What happened?
: I got stabbed! These real crazy ass bandits who murder everyone were going to attack Otradnoye! We need the protection money from that village to live, so we set an ambush for them, and shot half of them to start the fight! The other half were fucking NUTS! They charged our gunline with pointed sticks! We won, but this crazy kid hit me with a shiv before I could shank him. So, could you get me Doctor Mikoyan? I know he hates bandits, but I'm gonna die otherwise.
: I'll try.
Stay classy, ATOM!
On the way back to Otradnoye we have this weird little encounter. It's actually scripted and unique, so I'm gonna show it off.
: [Seeing you, the man lifts his weapon]
: Calm down! I just want to ask some questions.
: Who are you, even?
: I see. Can I ask another question?
: What are you all standing here for?
: We're standing here because I said to stand here. I'm not leaving this place until I know what's what. We were going to Krasnoznamenny, me, those two guys and the driver. First day turned out okay. Ashot pointed the way, he is our guide. Boris drove fine like always, him knowing his UAZ so good.
: We spent the night at Old Lady Nadia's cabin. She's a great old crone, you know, even though she's crazy about cats. She told us a story about a new kind of mutant, haunting the local swamp, the Leather Worm, it's one hell of a beast. Looks like a thin snake, or a large worm.
Make your own jokes.
: If one of these critters sneaks through your ear into the skull - it's the end of you. He'll possess your brain, and your whole body will be his. And he'll do it so well, no one can tell the difference. The biggest clue would be this - the possessed person begins to mix up names, and to forget small events from the past.
I'm not sure if Animorphs or Stargate did the parasitic mind control worms first or if there's another, earlier source I don't know about.
: Oh, another thing: the possessed human turns into a cannibal. That's a sciency word for maneater. That's the story old Nadia told us. The next day, we got into a car crash. It rained a few days ago so the road got all mushy. Looked like gravel but it was slippery as heck! So we drove off road...
: Creepy. Can I help somehow?
: [He looks at you suspiciously]
Number 2 is to report something suspicious, and I try it and don't have the option to pick anyone.
Wandering off to the next guy...
: Hey, can I ask you about stuff?
: Tell me about yourself.
: I see. I have a follow-up question...
: Why the vigil, if it's not a secret?
: What else can I do? I won't go with them, that's for sure! They hired me to guide their car to Krasnoznamenny. Everything was going well at first. The driver drove, I navigated. We spend the night at Old Lady Zina's dilapidated gas station. She's quite the woman, you know? And she has a funny dog named Toby.
Hang on! Ivan told us the lady was named Nadia, she did not live in a gas station, and she liked cats!
: But in the morning the rain started, a real downpour. The driver couldn't handle the vehicle, smashed into some tree and we plunged right into the swamp! Barely made it out alive. One more minute, and we'd have sunk to the bottom with the UAZ, along with the poor driver.
: When we finally got out, we suddenly knew where we were... In the skin-wyrm swamp! A skin-wyrm is this mutant critter that crawls inside of people through their mouths and starts controlling their bodies, you dig? And it's so good, nobody can tell the difference... until it's too late.
Whoa, Ivan told us that it was a Leather Worm and that it entered through the ear? I guess we won't know until we talk to the third guy.
: That's quite the tale. Can I help you out?
: [A tiny bit of hope sparks in the man's eyes]
: I can try and talk with the others, to search for clues.
And off we fuck!
: [The man looks at you angrily. He's obviously very tense about something]
: Nope, sorry. I'm just passing by.
: [The man lets out a disappointed gasp]
: Damn it! Shit, how much longer should I sit here? With these two nutjobs, of all people.
: [The man glances hatefully at his companions]
: Can I ask you a few questions?
: Who are you?
: [The man looks surprised, but then shakes his head as if remembering that no one here knows him]
This updates his nameplate immediately and... I'm not sure why?
: I'm not a big connoisseur of shit... or traders.
: So what happened here?
: [The man looks vexed]
: I, a wealthy, intelligent man, got stuck here with these two chimps. That's what happened here! I was invited to Kraznoznamenny to have a talk with the Chamber of Commerce.
: Then what?
: After that, there was the road, or should I say the lack thereof? Nothing our UAZ couldn't handle, though, at least in the beginning. 'Twas a jolly ride. The local plebs couldn't have caught up to use if they tried. It was quite nice, actually, sitting in a warm car, looking at the trees passing by. When night came, we stayed at Old Lady Valya's house.
Now, notice that two of the guys (not Ivan) say the old lady lived in a gas station... but Alshot says she lived with Toby the dog while the other two say she's a cat fan. All three of the men give different names for the old lady and the worm.. Good luck!
: What kind of a beast is this Skin Worm?
: There is no such beast! The whole idea's moronic! An old wives tale! Proletarian folklore! Made up by people who trade with Old Valya. Anyway, the legend goes that there's a mutant in the local swamp, and if you walk there alone it falls down from a branch and crawls inside your moth. Once it's inside you, it connects to your nervous system, destroys your personality and switches to its own.
: Then your body becomes a sort of doll, controlled by the Worm from the inside. But you don't look any different and nobody ever notices the change. There's only one major difference: the Worm has trouble with your memories. He'll mix up names and locations, things like that.
: You don't say. What happened next?
: [The man's face fills with deep torment]
: We continued our drive in the morning. We'd have been in Krazsnoznamenny by noon if not for the accursed fog! It's like driving through cotton batting. My Boris was an ace driver, but he couldn't see for squat, and crashed into a tree. That's how we all ended up in the swamp. The tree, the samples,. the car and us inside it. All into that stinking sinkhole.
: Then what?
: [The man sniffs]
: Then we saw we were in the same swamp from Valya's story. Kasparov ran off straight away. That's what you get with locals. Just took off like a hare through the underbrush. Me and Ivan followed but Ivan fell into a bush while I kept going. He got a leg cramp or something. In other words, the three of us were separated for a while. We only regrouped when we arrived here.
: Right then would be a great time to look for some locals, get help, right? Not according to those two!
: Kasparov, the friggin' savage, told us he won't move or show us the way anymore, because he can't guarantee some of us haven't been changed by the Worm!
: And Ivan, who I trusted with my life, repeated the same bullshit! Saying << Vsevolod, how can I be sure you're not infected by the worm? And I don't know about the guide either. Maybe you're both cannibals now? Maybe you're just waiting for your chance to knock me over the head and gnaw on my tender flanks!>>
: Now, we're[sic] got a dilemma. I want to go find help to get my car out of the swamp, but I can't do that without a guide, and the guide's not going anywhere since he's afraid we'll eat him. My guard simply wants to abandon us as soon as his leg feels better. Meanwhile, he's threatening to shoot anyone who makes a move!
: That's too sad. Well, I better go.
So, we've got enough inconsistencies it's clear none of these guys has an accurate recollection of this crap. Hey, Kasparov, hear out my theory?
: I think I know what your problem is.
: [The man looks like he's ready to hug you!]
: I talked to everyone, and got a pretty interesting conclusion...
: You're all telling a slightly different story. I'm getting out of here!
: [The man looks you straight in the eye and smiles strangely]
You get similarly creepy replies from the other two, incidentally. If you pick someone they get shot as you walk away.
: Good luck, I think.
106 experience points though! Ka-ching!
TheGreatEvilKing summary posted:
: Why are you guys all standing around pointing guns at each other?
: Well, we were on a trip to Kraznosnamenny, then we stayed with this old lady and she told us about mutant worms that crawl in your body, mind control you, and turn you into a cannibal! Then we crashed in the swamp, so one of us is infected with the worm! They act identically to normal people, except that they have short-term memory loss! You gotta look for inconsistencies!
: None of us can give a consistent story about how we got here, the old lady's name, where she lives, and whether she likes cats or dogs.
: Yeah, uh... you're all infected, aren't you?
: Creepin' time!
: Ok, bye!
So this is kind of a weird sequence, but I'm going to segue a bit into the actual literary influences behind this game. This is going to go down a bit of a rabbit hole, so forgive me, and also this book is not available in English so I'm relying on a bunch of academics writing about it. It started with this review on the RPG Codex, which surprised me! Instead of tearing the game apart, the reviewer made a pretty good case that this was based - in part - on the literature of one Alexander Prokhanov, who shows up in the game as the companion 'Hexogen'. As it turns out, the writer confirmed that this game is, in fact, based on the works of Prokhanov. The companion Hexogen is presumably a reference to the 2002 story "Mr. Hexogen", which won Prokhanov the National Bestseller Award. (I'm going off Wikipedia here, forgive me). This isn't the first big thing Prokhanov wrote - he started as an Afghan war reporter, but - this is kind of important - anonymously wrote A Word to the People. This became the manifesto for the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev who...will be mentioned occasionally in the game. You might notice from the linked sources that Prokhanov...is straight up anti-Semitic, runs a right-wing newspaper named Zvatra, and that A Word to the People hits a ton of the Umberto Eco fascist tree on the way down. I don't mean to downplay any of that stuff here, in fact Prokhanov's anti-Semitism is so bad that Henrietta Mondry, of the University of Canterbury, wrote an entire paper on Prokhanov's use of blood libel in his story "Mr. Hexogen" - you know, the one that the developers explicitly reference to create a companion in this game.
The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that these two novels by Prokhanov actively construct the cults of blood aimed at privileging Russian ethnicity and degrading Jews, thus dividing the society into dichotomous camps.
Does she quote the author at all?
In order to explain the behavior of his Jewish protagonist Zaretsky, Prokhanov introduces the theme of the eternally blood-thirsty Jew whose acts are motivated by primordial instincts.
["]You [Zaretsky] did it out of pure sadism! You pervert, tormentor! You like our peoples' sufferings! You like Sheptun's head which had been cut off!
It is with good reason that the red-browns [communists and fascists] make drawings which depict you with an axe covered with blood!["]
Isn't this the game where a merchant's portrait is a Jewish caricature?
We're gonna shelve the crazy anti-Semitism until we get to that particular character. It's entirely possible the developers liked Prokhanov's use of language a la modern H.P. Lovecraft fans who like Cthulhu and hate Lovecraft's shitty racism, or the Mishima stans over in the Book Barn. There are actually a ton of scholarly papers on this book, from people analyzing the rise of Russian nationalism due to Prokhanov's work to people surveying him as an emblem of post-Soviet literature. I want to emphasize that aside from A Word to the People, I have not read any of Prokhanov's work as it is untranslated and I cannot read Russian. The following comes from the work of Sergei Alex Oushakine, who provides us another translated quote from Mr. Hexogen:
Prokhanov by way of Oushakine posted:
Everything is virtual, everything is relative, everything is an outcome of conspiracy.
This is a recurring theme through the game. The player is introduced to the game via orders from the secret conspiracy ATOM. The game's sidequests have various themes of engaging in various conspiracies, from taking instructions from men in hidden bunkers to commit genocide to breaking up a couple to empower a future dictator to our quest to find Morozov. But wait, there's more...
Oushakine's Prokhanov translation posted:
We left our headquarters on Lubianka Square; we left our alma-mater, which was immediately swarmed by traitors and scum. They dug into our archives and our files, they occupied our offices. We intentionally scattered in all directions so that we could be united later. Swahili was the heart and the brain of the Union. Our people are in the Army, in the police, and in the secret services. We are invisibly, in the shadows in the Church, in inter-national organizations, in the Kremlin, in the Presidential Administration, and in all however small and tiny political parties ... Every one of their initiatives contains our will and our intention. (Prokhanov 2002 : 323)
This is quite similar to ATOM, which is a secret organization that has infiltrated the Wastes with the goal of restoring the old Soviet Union, and works primarily through secret agents like Fidel and the player who lie low and invisibly help the population. The goal of the conspiracy (the Secret Union) is to restore Russia to greatness.
The understanding that the chaos was only a perception error, a result of the inability to recognize a new structure beyond an appearance of disorder, shapes the rest of the novel. Reality is construed as a network of overlapping and competing plots. Ostensibly disconnected things, events, and people are actually tightly linked, following the protocols that are known only to a selected few.
We've kind of seen this already, honestly.
Earlier in the game posted:
This looks like a random event, but it's actually tied in with the main plot. Maybe minor spoilers.
Remember this? posted:
Pay attention to the "hundred voices in one". There's one more theme I want to cover, and we've seen it already.
Prokhanov links together these real-life events from Russias roaring 90s to build a purposeful sequence of actions, the enfilade of conspiracies ( 2002 : 305). Using Beloseltsev as an outsider looking in, Prokhanov reveals a power structure that has no place for any moral strictures or ethical principles. The lesson that Beloseltsev learns in his attempts to rescue Russia is that power struggles are struggles for power, not for high principles or the common good. Punctuated by deaths and saturated by universal hatred, the story presents power as the ultimate source of evil and self-annihilation.
We've seen this already with Kosoy and Dan. Kosoy, the bandit on the bed, and a lot of the other bandits are following Dan because they believe his rhetoric about creating a state and want to be part of something bigger. Meanwhile, Dan tells us that his goal is merely to create legitimacy to loot the peasants for himself. This is going to be a recurring theme in the game, in that every authority figure not named Kovalev is a piece of human trash with no principles who seeks power for the sole purpose of looting everyone else, while the principled Kovalev is completely ineffectual and helpless in the face of Dan.
Once again, I want to reiterate that I cannot read Mr. Hexogen and thus am relying on other sources for a picture, so this might be completely unfair to Prokhanov and the developers. We're going to come back to Oushakine's book Russian Literature since 1991 as we uncover more of the main plot. Xander77 rightly pointed out that a lot of the plot doesn't match up, but, judging from the bits quoted by Oushakine, many of the themes do. We will leave the analysis here and continue the game next time by convincing Not-McCoy to heal our wounded bandit friend. In the interests of fairness, I also never used the Hexogen character in the party - by that time, I was fed up enough with the game's systems to do a solo run. We'll see what happens.
Next time: Bustin' nuts!