Fallout 4: Designing for Interesting Choices

The Fallout series, and Bethesda Game Studios in particular are renowned for their incredible, systemic open worlds. Bethesda games have always had an overwhelmingly large amount of content for players to chew through, but they've also had deep and interacting systems (both gameplay and narrative) to accompany this content and bring it to life. Bethesda Games come alive when their content and their systems work together to create something more than either of them separately, and unfortunately, Fallout 4 doesn't quite live up to the pedigree set by previous Bethesda, or even Fallout games. For Fallout 4, the problem is equally with systems and content, but I think more blame is on the systems and their inability to interact meaningfully with the content as well as each other. This means that players lose out on meaningful interactions with both, and I think it's why a lot of people felt disappointed by Fallout 4, even if they couldn't pinpoint why. I'm going to walk through some of my own notes I took while playing and see if I can find some answers, starting with the combat system.

Combat

In Fallout 3, weapons were cumbersome and inaccurate when firing from the hip or aiming down the sights. Whether the cumbersome nature of the weapons in Fallout 3 and New Vegas is intentional or not, Fallout 4's FPS mechanics are significantly more "friendly". Well, at least smoother and less cumbersome. Nine out of ten times, playing Fallout like a normal FPS is ideal, mainly because unlike in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, weapons do not have deteriorating conditions and can be used infinitely, assuming you have the ammo. Contrary to a lot of people's thoughts, I actually think weapon condition was a positive element in previous Fallout games, since it forced you to make interesting choices about how you not only spend caps when not in combat, but also about how you engage in combat itself. While some might dislike the constant need to keep weapons maintained, this mechanic is justified wholly in the context of the Fallout universe, where weapons are old, or even cobbled together with scrap. The cumbersome nature of the weapons makes sense when you think about the type of world Fallout takes place in. Fallout 4 ditches this in favor of more enjoyable, fast paced moment-to-moment FPS gameplay, but there's a pretty significant cost to the core gameplay.

Conditions

Fallout 3's Weapon combat loop offers an interesting element of choice

 

Fallout 4's weapon combat loop, while more simple, offers a lot less interesting choices

There's a few ways in which this manifests so I'll cover them one by one. The above flow chart is my interpretation of Fallout 3 and Fallout 4's combat loop specifically as it relates to weapons; I'm not even including grenades/mines or V.A.T.S. in this, although we'll get to V.A.T.S. later. In combat, players will constantly need to cycle through the questions "do I have ammo for this weapon?", "is this weapon in a usable condition/do I want to use it and have it deteriorate?", and "Is this weapon an effective tactical choice in my current situation?" In may cases, this third question will be irrelevant, especially if players only have ammo for the equipped weapon. As you can see, this creates a series of meaningful choices for players in the heat of battle. Countless times in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I had to think about what weapon I should be using, knowing that a Deathclaw might be around the corner. Compare this to Fallout 4, where my choices were usually just "do I have ammo for this?" and occasionally "is this weapon my most effective option?". It makes combat feel dull, and worst of all, the lack of weapon conditions almost completely divorces the choices players make when shopping at a store from those they make in combat. Fallout 4 still requires players to make choices about what weapons to purchase, and which ammo and items to spend my caps on to use in combat, but these choices are only part of the equation in previous Fallout games, and they're among the simplest you're presented with throughout. Fallout 4 also misses an important opportunity to encourage players to make these choices in a different way through the weapon and armor crafting system. Not only is this system just as impenetrable as others in the game (looking at you, settlement building), but it rarely becomes a necessity. In fact throughout my entire playthrough, I only ever used the upgrade system once, and it was only to remove a scope I didn't like from a shotgun I had found. The lack of interesting and important choices both in and out of combat and the missed opportunity to really make upgrading a core element of the game. These aren't the only issues with combat, however. Like I mentioned before, V.A.T.S. also has a lot of problems.

V.A.T.S.

V.A.T.S. was a near constant requirement for combat effectiveness in Fallout 3. This was primarily because of the aforementioned cumbersome nature of combat. Most shooters typically use either hitscan or projectile simulation for their shooting, but the key to both is predictability and consistency. In Call of Duty, I know that pulling the trigger while it's over the enemy will result in a hit, and in Battlefield, I know that I was to aim slightly in front of my target to compensate for both their movement, and the time it will take my bullet to reach them and in some cases, the bullet drop. The key to both of these is that their mechanics are consistent, and therefore predictable, or at least understandable. Fallout by comparison is done through a series of calculations involving, among other things, Perks and Skills. You can read up on the way Fallout calculates weapon spread yourself, but the point is: Fallout is not a traditional first person shooter. It has much less to do with skill and much more to do with mitigating factors that contribute to your inaccuracy, from making choices while leveling that either improve your ability to hit targets when not in V.A.T.S., or increasing your action points to allow you to use V.A.T.S. more frequently. In Fallout 3, this meant V.A.T.S. was a necessity. You weren't going to take down a Mirelurk unless you used it, particularly with the right weapon. It made sense in the world of fallout as well - why wouldn't people use V.A.T.S. to help them be more effective with their cobbled together guns? In Fallout 4, V.A.T.S. becomes minimized in its importance since combat in Fallout 4 walks and talks like a traditional FPS game. It feels increasingly archaic as you progress through the game, as you get weapons with better accuracy and power. It's not enough to simply have the choice of using V.A.T.S. or not, because it really isn't a choice most of the time. Why would I waste Action Points on V.A.T.S. when I use them for sprinting, and I can just as easily shoot like in a traditional FPS? It's a no-brainer. This shift towards a system where V.A.T.S. is less of an important aspect of combat and more of a cool slow-mo kill theater does a disservice to the inherent choices players got to make at all levels of combat, from leveling Skills and Perks to help in battle, to deciding when and where to use the very useful V.A.T.S. system. Part of making V.A.T.S. useful was the Skills and Perks associated with it, and Fallout 4 also falls short here as well, creating more problems than it solves.

 

Progression

 

In Fallout 3, Perks, Skills, and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. were all separate elements of the leveling system. Players chose their base S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, which then informed their Skills. Skills and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. then allowed you to choose certain Perks, making the leveling system something of a web. Fallout 4 essentially combines all three of these systems into one system, where Skills are gone in a literal sense, instead being somewhat integrated into several perks as passive traits, and while S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes still dictate what Perks you can choose and can be increased, they are in the same chart as Perks, forcing players to choose between increasing a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute, and acquiring a Perk. Fallout 4 has 70 base Perks, and including all the levels available of these Perks, 275 options, compared to the 86 options available in Fallout 3. On paper this sounds great - it's a super understandable bullet point for the back of the box. 275 choices!  So much choice! A real RPG! The problem with those 275 options though, is that their combination with the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes, as well as the integration of Perks and Skills makes the discrete choices per level a lot less numerous.

Perks

Okay, so technically, Fallout 4 has Fallout 3 beat on the size of its all you can eat shrimp platter if we talk about the overall number of options available in each game, but if we break down the choices players have per level, it becomes pretty clear this isn't necessarily a good thing. In Fallout 4, the number of choices available to players per level is 1, whereas in Fallout 3, the number is a minimum of 15. This is because players increase their Skills and Perks independently, and Skill points are given at a rate of 10 per level, plus a number equal to the player's intelligence (which has a base value of 5). This means that over the course of the game, I will make a minimum of 300 choices about my character (not including specializations), and that's just in 20 levels. Compare this to the 20 choices I will make in the same amount of time in Fallout 4, and the pitfalls of having an "infinite" leveling system become pretty clear: if your system can't be balanced against a finite number of levels, it's very difficult to ensure that players receive consistent and meaningful choices to make about their player. It's a nasty trade off having to make the first 20 levels of your game significantly less interesting in the name of making the experience "infinite". Worse yet, the sparseness of these choices in Fallout 4 means the feedback loop of system <-> player is active a lot less frequently, and generally harms the connection players have with your world - something that's paramount in RPGs. I can't tell you the amount of times I wanted a Perk I did not have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. for, so I put a point into the attribute I needed, only to get to the next level and have completely forgotten about which perk I had been eyeing, which left my choices feeling fleeting and arbitrary.

Systems

Lest you think I'm simply throwing a bunch of numbers around, there's also an issue with the combination of the Perks and Skills systems (and to a lesser degree, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system). As I mentioned before, Bethesda's games thrive with an emphasis on systemic interactions, but the trick with systemic interactions is to avoiding complication. Complicated systems appear complex to the player, whereas complex systems appear simple. A great example of this is the much lauded Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system, which has a huge range of possible visual, narrative, and interactive states, and yet is very easy for players to understand, interact with, and manipulate. This system works because players can visualize and interpret the cause and effect their decisions in a real, measurable way.

 

Fallout 3's Leveling structure made it easy to interpret choices using short, long, and medium term goals

 

Fallout 4's leveling system muddles thesefilters and makes it hard to interpret the effects ofyourdecisions

 

Fallout 3 was similar in this regard, though much less elegant and much more numbers based, in that it arranged S.P.E.C.I.A.L., Skills, and Perks into a hierarchy of filters. You can see in the above left diagram how this works: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. dictates Skills, which together with S.P.E.C.I.A.L. dictate Perks, which have direct observable cause and effect. This hierarchy, though not necessarily visualized, is a way for players to interpret their choices, and creates an interesting feedback loop to the player regarding their short, medium, and long term objectives when leveling their characters. In Fallout 4, the integration of these elements into a single system conflates the short and medium term goals of levelling. Long term goals are still somewhat observable through the way S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes still unlock tiers of Perks but the need to choose between these attributes (i.e. your long term goals) and Perks (i.e. your short/medium term goals), while in theory creates an interesting and meaningful choice, it's actually a mutually exclusive choice every level. By forcing players to make mutually exclusive choices about their goals through the leveling system, Fallout 4 ends up complicating the choices players have to make, as opposed to making them more complex. You can see how the combination of the Perks and Skills and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. systems affect the clarity of each in the above right diagram, as players are less able to interpret their choices. Players shouldn't have to choose between their goals: the meaningful choice is not in what goals are being accomplished, but in what way they are all accomplished. Speaking of accomplishing goals, one of the primary ways in which players make choices in the Fallout series is through making narrative choices...

Narrative

Especially from a narrative perspective, Fallout 4 starts very strong, with a view of pre-war Boston, and a great narrative climax to the prologue that has you frozen away in a vault just as the bombs drop. Right from the get-go, I was intrigued by the overarching goal of finding my son. The narrative uses its time well, smartly integrating character-building, tutorializing, and narrative into a brisk, but enjoyable beginning. Unlike the beginning of the game, however, all the tension, choice, and motivations I felt in that first 30 minutes completely dissipates in the vastness of Fallout 4's open world. I should be very clear about this: It's not because Fallout 4 has an open world that the main narrative (and pretty much all the other quests I did) fails; Fallout has succeeded in telling interesting stories in an open world before. To me, the issues with story come from two major categories: the game's ability to reflect the choices you make in the world and narrative, and the ability you as a player have to understand the choices you make. 

Clarity

Fallout 4, Unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas, has a fully voiced protagonist, which on the surface might seem like a great choice, but in practice it kind of falls apart. The new "simplified" dialogue system creates a bit of an issue in understanding options in conversation, since Fallout 4 adopts a Mass Effect style approach to dialogue selection, where instead of the full lines of dialogue are represented to players as roughly three to five word options. The thing about Mass Effect, however, is that despite the choice players have in who their Commander Shepard is, they're still always going to be Commander Shepherd. The writers have some degree of control over defining the main character in Mass Effect, whereas in Fallout, control of defining who the main character is rests entirely on players. This doesn't just apply to dialogue either, but also to gameplay choice. Mass Effect gameplay is a sort of hub and spoke style open world, with linear missions taking place between visits to open hubs, but even then, these hubs are typically enclosed loops to guide players around. Fallout 4 is pure open world, and while its dungeons could be considered linear, these dungeons are much less seperate from the rest of the open world than in Mass Effect.

 

Buying lottery tickets would be a lot less appealing if your chance of winning the jackpot was "orange".

 

The adoption of Mass Effect's style dialogue selection doesn't work because fundamentally, Fallout and Mass Effect are completely different RPGs - Fallout is systemic and open, and Mass Effect is incredibly narrative driven, with an emphasis on more linear action. Because Fallout is much more systemic, it means players need to be more aware of exactly what their choices are and how they'll affect the world they're playing in, and Fallout 4 fails at this by giving a small amount of information before a choice is made, and only giving all the information (spoken dialogue) after the choice is made. This is even more of an issue when it comes to using persuasion, where the chance of persuasion is represented by the dialogue option being tinted a specific color: red means you'll likely fail, orange means you have an okay chance at succeeding, and yellow means there's a good chance. But really, that's just gobbledegook to players when making pretty significant choices like that. People buy lottery tickets because, despite the futility, they have a clear and understandable way of knowing what their chances of succeeding will be. Buying lottery tickets would be a lot less appealing if your chance of winning the jackpot was "orange". This obfuscation of choice is just one half of the question though, and while it harms the user's ability to communicate with the game, the game also does a bad job of communicating with the player.

 

Information

 

Seeing the USS Constitution in a separate quest, and the locating it later on to see what was inside is a great moment in Fallout 4, but one it rarely repeats.

Video Games are at their best when they show something, describe something, and reflect something all at once. I should mention that here, describe is used to mean showing something in a non-literal sense. This can manifest in a lot of different ways - and they don't have to be artistic or narrative. These three things can be fulfilled with things other than narrative. For example, Super Meat Boy shows a reverence for nostalgia, it describes a lighthearted but macabre perspective on the world, and it reflects the user's skill and dexterity. In Fallout 4's case, it's very good at showing a beautifully realized post-apocalyptic retro-nuclear Boston, but it's only marginally successful at depicting this world as alive, and it's even worse at reflecting the effect of user choice within this world. Let's address that first problem (even though the two are intrinsically linked in this case): that Fallout 4 has issues describing the world it shows as one that is alive and feels realistic. This comes down to the lack of interesting information given about the world in which Fallout 4 is set. A great example of this in Fallout 3 is the side quest "Oasis", that involves a tree cult, an uncharacteristically green and life-filled location, and equal parts dialogue and combat offering lots of choice on how players want to approach the situation. The closest I got to this feeling of truly learning about the people, places, and culture in Fallout 4 was "The Last Voyage of the U.S.S. Constitution", which saw me helping a bunch of robots aboard Old Ironsides try and get back to the ocean. It's wonderfully bizarre and hilarious at the same time, but the best part of this quest was that I saw Old Ironsides crashed in a small town as I felt overheard on a completely different quest, and returned to find out what was there. "The Last Voyage of the U.S.S. Constitution" was a perfect example of how information about the game world itself is a reward, even if the quest itself doesn't offer a particularly broad range of options on how to progress. There's just not nearly enough of this type of interaction in Fallout 4 when compared to its predecessors, and it's especially frustrating considering the great moment I did have when the path of one quest led me to another. Tightening this structure of overlapping paths would have almost certainly have helped the world feel more interconnected, as opposed to over-designed. Sadly, most quests in Fallout 4 boil down to something that feels arbitrary, much like the levelling system. But Fallout 4 isn't just bad at making the world feel alive: it's bad at showing you how you've changed it in any meaningful way.

Reflection

The lack of reflection of player actions in Fallout 4 is maybe most easily summarized by an anecdote from my time in Fallout New Vegas. While playing New Vegas, I had sided with the NCR originally, but had also persuaded Caesar's Legion to let me run some errands for them. At a certain point while wandering out in the wasteland by myself, some NCR militiamen came up and warned me to cut ties with Caesar's Legion in the next few days, or else I'd face consequences. Little did they know, I was planning on meeting Caesar himself in order to kill him. Ultimately, I killed Caesar, but not before having to contend with militiamen every so often while I accomplished my objective. This perfectly exemplifies the strength of New Vegas especially in that it clearly shows me the results of my choices. Did I have to maintain allegiance to Caesar in order to kill him? Of course not, but I made a choice to play the game as a skilled infiltrator as opposed to some other way, and the game reflected and reinforced those choices in the changing state of the world. Fallout's enormous open world and emphasis on player agency work their best when the ripples of the choices you make are often seen for long periods of time afterwards, so players are constantly reminded in small ways of the impact they've had (like when the militiamen first approached me). Fallout 3 also has similar moments, like when Moira becomes a Ghoul if players choose to nuke Megaton, but only if you've started her quest. Fallout 4 tries to do this but fails because it misses the point of these major world-changing actions: It's not enough to have a new landmark, the world has to socially, culturally, and physically acknowledge it. Old Ironsides ending up perched on top of a different building is cool, and so is the Prydwen crashing into Boston Airport, but nobody talks about it afterwards. If you Nuke Megaton, people will hunt you down for vengeance. You made a significant choice to kill hundreds and everybody seems to know about it. Go figure. Megaton is also now a giant crater, but the people in the world also reflect your choice and change the way you play the game. There is perhaps no better example of how Fallout 4 fails on delivering this interesting social climate for players than in the main quest, where players can complete quests for 3 main factions: The Railroad, The Institute, and The Brotherhood of Steel. You can very easily complete most missions with each faction without the others knowing of your involvement. It's not until a very arbitrary point late in the main quest where the game literally tells you that you must now decide which faction to ultimately support. This could be excusable maybe if an NPC expressed this to the player, but it's done with a UI popup. This left all my prior decisions feeling hollow, and had me asking myself if anything I did really even mattered.

Wrapping Up

Fallout games - scratch that - Bethesda Games are at their best when they encourage and allow players and systems to interact freely and dynamically, and the limitation on both the choices and the impact of those choices in Fallout 4 significantly limits the back-and-forth between and therefore effectiveness of both elements in that equation. It's a damn shame, since Fallout 4 is stunning, and despite some other questionable elements (I'm looking at you, super confusing settlement building interface), Fallout 4 could have been so incredibly good. The dungeons are well designed, the soundtrack is amazing, the setting is perfect for that retro-futurist americana the series is known for, and there's hint of the amazing opportunities for deep system-content-player crossroads, but they're just few and far between. Hopefully Bethesda's next game, even if it's not a successor to Fallout 4 or Skyrim, will double down on systemic interaction and blow us out of the radiated water.

Thanks for reading!

Familiars

I've been fascinated by science fiction since I was a kid. Star Trek plays in the background of too many of my memories, and I distinctly remember being shown 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was around 10 and understanding precisely zero percent of it. "What's with the monkeys?" I thought, "when do we get to the SPACESHIPS!?" I cried like a human version of Benny from the LEGO movie. Despite my inability to grasp metaphors very well at the age of 10 (that baby freaked me right the hell out), one thing that did make sense to me was the vision of these shows and films.

Only later in life did I learn that literature was the beating heart of science fiction, and while I've honestly never been a big reader, the visceral reaction a line of text can provoke is a really amazing thing. The Left Hand of Darkness is impeccable, and one of my favourite books of all time is Ubik by Phillip K. Dick. It blew my mind in slow motion.

In my last post, I talked a lot about serendipity, and a little about text. You might remember one of my favourite artists of all time being Barbara Kruger, because of her ability to combine image and text and reel something guttural out of her audience. From my deepest point, I react to Barbara Kruger's confrontational epiphanic statements. There's lots of other artists using text.  

Once, while wandering around the Art Gallery of Ontario, I passed through a small atrium which led to a collection of French landscape paintings of tropical locales. Boldly plastered above the archway leading out of the atrium and into the exhibition room was this phrase:

"Many things brought from one climate to another to make a group of things not related to the climate at hand."

 

That was it. There was no didactic placard to give me an intellectual leg to stand on, and as I walked through the rooms filled with the landscape paintings this quote prefaced, the words added meaning to the images in a way the images could not have had on their own; they presented a contemporary context that encouraged me to think about the fallacious fantasy of the tropical paradises in these paintings. It was an epiphany for me, where I realized that words are at the core of everything. I did some investigating and found out later it was a work by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whose work I subsequently fell in love with. I was so happy there was no panel to provoke specific thoughts - the words themselves were didactic enough - and Weiner's work made me realize that words give us imagery, and imagery gives us new words and new combinations of words (English students would be appalled at the amount of made up words in a critique). It's the circle of life, and it moves us all. 

So, who cares? Well, I'm going somewhere with this, I promise. If you remember in my last post, I discussed  a piece called Semi-Fiction which incorporated text a lot. When I thought about what I wanted to do after I finished my degree, a lot of things swirled in my head. One thing I wanted to do, and thankfully will be doing come April next year, is learning how to make video games in Vancouver. That's really exciting and I can't wait to learn as much as I can, but artistically in the interim, I wanted to continue to look into text. 

I've always wanted to write a graphic novel too, and while I'm also getting back to oil painting, my primary focus for the next six to eight months is going to try and write, design, and draw an entire graphic novel called Familiars. Graphic novels are, to me, the perfect way to combine my love for punchy, graphic text and iconic imagery, and given my interest in both of these, I think Familiars is going to give me a really engaging set of challenges to tackle. 

                                       The cover of Familiars

It's already given me a nice problem to try and work out: how do you treat written text as imagery? We don't think of text as visual, but it's what we see the most in our daily lives; text composes at least half of our visual information intake, I'd wager, so I've become very interested in how I might manipulate the way in which this intake occurs with Familiars. It's in the early stages now, but I hope to push this relationship between text and image further than I did with Semi-Fiction. 

Familiars is being made in a non-linear way. Since a lot of my text and imagery are inside my head as a big pulp, the pages sort of eke out as the story forms. This is why the cover was the first thing I drew: It had been percolating for ages in my head as the "key image" of sorts. That's what a cover should be. It should speak the the tone of the novel without giving away too much. 

As for the rest of the book, it's organized very loosely around a science fiction story that draws on the theory about how the first micro-organisms might have began on earth. The theory posits that, perhaps, micro-organisms exist on earth because they were brought here during our planet's more turbulent adolescence by other celestial objects. Familiars isn't that simple - it's less about the science and more about the mystery associated with these ideas, and that's all I'll say for now, since a big part of Familiars will, hopefully, be a sense of mystery. 

I tried writing an "elevator pitch" for Familiars here, but I just couldn't I don't think it's possible to sum it up in a couple sentences without giving away too much. Nothing I wrote accurately described what Familiars is to me, and hopefully will be to you. I ended up over-explaining things, which usually means it's too complicated, you don't have enough confidence in it to stand on its own, or it's just too obtuse for anyone to get, so I decided not to do that. It doesn't need to yet, but I'm confident that when the time comes, Familiars will be the best that it can be and stand on its own two legs, without the need to be explained. If Lawrence Weiner doesn't need a damn text panel, neither do I. 

I'm so excited to keep working on Familiars, and I can't wait for you all to see it finished. I definitely can't back out now. I'll leave you with a set of pages I finished* a couple days ago. These would be around halfway into the book, and appear as they do across from each other:

Thanks for reading,

- Scott 

 

 

*"finished' is a relative term, since the rest of the book is zero percent done. It will almost certainly get edited before april of next year. You should know this. 

 

 

 

I Want Serendipity

I've been out of school for about a month and a half now, and for the last 2 months, I haven't been in the thick of art-making. It's starting to take a toll on me even though I've been drawing, thinking, planning, prepping, and so on for a couple weeks now. In the process of thinking about what to do, I've begun to reflect on what I've done. That wasn't easy for me considering I tend to have artwork ADD, but ultimately, it involved sorting through some of my favourite work from the past few years and really trying to narrow down what it was about them that made both their creation and the final product appealing to me.

For me, one of the most attractive intrinsic qualities that art practice has is serendipity. My amazing friend and former studio partner Jordan channels Bob Ross, calling these instances "happy accidents". I found especially in my final two semesters at school that they are the result of a few things (though I reserve the right to edit this list at any time), namely: method, preparation, rhythm, and discipline. When you find these "happy accidents" occurring, it's important to first recognize them and subsequently let them happen. Without the instinct to sense and allow them to exist, the accidents become mistakes; It's all about letting process take over. This idea of serendipity is most apparent to me in my series Journey to Nowhere, particularly Semi Fiction

The Golden Eternity, Rust paint, acrylic, gesso, marker on canvas, 36"x24", 2013

Semi-Fiction started as a set of 76 individual 6" x 6" pieces of MDF that I had planned to do small studies on. After completing The Golden Eternity, though, I became more and more interested in referencing other forms of narrative in each piece (the title "The Golden Eternityis, itself, a reference to an amazing letter written by Jack Kerouac to his Ex-Wife). So, I wrote my own short story; very short - 4 paragraphs long, but growing - in very vague but very specific language, which is not as contradictory as it might sound. Words and images are imbued with the most incredible power. They are titans of thought when arranged correctly, and when arranged together (as the ever-relevant Barbara Kruger shows us), they are truly a force of nature. The idea of image and text coupled in a controlled but random way was what compelled me to make Semi-Fiction.

Semi-Fiction (Installation), Mixed media on MDF, 6"x6" (each), 2013

Semi-Fiction (Part 2 of 76), Mixed media on MDF, 6"x6" (each), 2013

I had this idea to play around with the arrangement of images and words by stacking the 76 "tiles", and drawing something, making a mark, preparing a surface, a texture, or nothing at all on each of them. I would then re-stack them, and separate one of the paragraphs of my story down one side of the stack, ignoring the images on each as I went so as not to influence how I chose to divide the text. Once I finished, each tile had one or more words on each side, and potentially something on the top. The serendipity resulting from this randomization was sometimes non-existent, but often exhilarating. A good example of this was Semi-Fiction (Part 4 of 76), which included a side which had "We landed" written on it, and a drawing on the top of a thruster from the Apollo Rocket that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. 

Semi-Fiction (Part 4 of 76), Mixed media on MDF, 6"x6" (each), 2013

Semi-Fiction (Part 5 of 76), Mixed media on MDF, 6"x6" (each), 2013

Once Semi-Fiction was done, people were encouraged to re-arrange and investigate each tile, taking the story along the sides and re-writing it themselves through the movement of the tiles - not only is the whole stack a story, but so is each tile, as you can see with Part 4 of 76. These forms of interaction acted as my way to control serendipity: The audience re-arranging the tiles formed new narratives from an old narrative, just as my images and texts were inspired by old stories and images. This is how stories work, and how they have always worked, and My goal with Semi-Fiction  was to direct these coincidences. I can't control them entirely as forces of nature, but words and images, like nature, can be manipulated, directed, and given new meaning. 

I want more "happy accidents" that show me what I'm fighting against, that tell me what habits are bad, that reveal my work to me. I want serendipity. 

Italy

As some (read: anyone who would listen to me the week before I left) of you may know, I spent the last week in Rome. Ever since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated with history. Colonial history, ancient history, even geology if you can believe it (which I sort of view as the history of the planet in a lot of ways). History has this unique ability to give you perspective on the present, and to produce this intense reaction from me that almost nothing else does.

Our apartment two blocks south of San Pietro, and there was a bakery/gelato place in the lobby of our building, which was... yes...

So, you can imagine my excitement when I was preparing to go to Rome. I had some trepidation about finally going somewhere where they spoke another language (which I've since acclimated to just fine), and also somewhere with such raw cultural power. Rome has so many famous things, you just can't see them all in one visit. In my week there, I saw the Vatican Museums, The Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps, The Coliseum, The Roman Forum, The Palatino, The Altare della Patria, Villa Borghese and The Borghese Museum, The Pantheon, and tons more stuff I don't feel like listing. Needless to say, our days were chock full of stuff to do and things to eat (it's true, the Italians know how to eat well).

Our first (full) day there was spent at the Vatican Museums wading through the hallways which are punctuated with vendors selling little trinkets, books, and DVD's extolling the wonders of Catholicism. Never has the term "preaching to the choir" been more apt, I think. The Vatican Museums are an excess of riches; they are the visual equivalent of lead. So immeasurably dense that you can hardly consume them properly without going mad. Ceilings dripping with frescoes and gilded to within an inch of their lives. Alcoves jammed with sculptures commissioned, and "acquired" (ahem, stolen), by the church, and hey, they've even got a "Missionary Ethnographic Museum" to prove they aren't only stuck in the 16th and 17th centuries, but also the 18th and 19th ones too.

One of the more amazing things I saw - a 4 foot vase made of gold and Lapis Lazuli... tucked away in a corner behind and open door... Also, this is pure coincidence, but the dimensions of this image's longest side are 666 pixels. Sweet sweet irony.

There really are some great works in the museum, but they're so hard to notice among all the noise. Also, and this is completely not related, but pain seems to be a common theme in a huge proportion of the works... how apropos since our visit consisted of 5 hours being herded like cattle. I half expected to get branded at the end like Ewan McGregor (A.K.A. The Amazing Skydiving Camerlengo) in Angels and Demons. Anyway, the Vatican museums aren't so much museums as they are mausoleums. The works inside give a sensation that they are not part of a living history - they are there and be gawked at awkwardly. It's so lifeless and stationary. If what I ought to have experienced was the awe and reverence one associates with being in the presence of holiness, then I had the opposite of a sacred experience. I was offended, saddened, and began to question how anyone could possibly think this was a good idea, considering Jesus was apparently not particularly fond of the rich. This is the strange situation I was presented with inside the Vatican Museums: This is a place of worship where modesty and decorum are required; respect must be paid, but also, would you like to buy a commemorative DVD or a Sistine Chapel calendar? It's only 5 Euros. 

Speaking of that place: The Sistine Chapel. Well, it's at the end of a long and winding path through rooms filled with Raphael, and the Borgia Apartments, and, curiously enough, a "Contemporary Gallery". I'll get to the Sistine Chapel in a moment, but I'd just like to take a second to point out, Vatican Curators, that "Contemporary" doesn't really include Henri Matisse anymore. Quite telling of how far back in time the Vatican seems to be spinning its wheels when you consider that fact that pre-WWI work is in that gallery. Also, nobody there knows how to light anything, apparently.

Wave hello to the visitors, creepy back-baby! Ron Swanson looks angry...

Strangely, the contemporary collection, however misnamed, is the most interesting part of the Vatican Museums. It suggests that, perhaps, the Vatican is self aware (oh god, run! RUN!) - the Inclusion of one of Francis Bacon's Papal paintings is evidence of this. However, the staggering proportion of seemingly unaware content in the rest of the museum makes it seem as though someone duped them into buying these more critical works by telling them some phoney story about how the screaming pope is only screaming because he stubbed his toe, or that his Soaps didn't tape. It's weirdly out of place and given the seemingly prideful exposition of the other work throughout the museum, it comes across as a platitude. It becomes especially antithetical when you follow this collection by walking up a flight of stairs (just past the washrooms) to enter the one, the only, The Sistine Chapel.

Guess what? It exists. It left me feeling decidedly empty, actually. Yes, it's a masterpiece. Yes, it's beautiful. No, I didn't care that much. You know when all you hear everyone talking about a show (for me, it was Breaking Bad) and how amazing it is, and then you watch it and it does nothing for you? That was the Sistine Chapel. It just kind of...exists. I had the exact same feeling when I saw Times Square for the first time this past October. And the chapel itself is a strange microcosm of the rest of the museum: you're constantly being shushed loudly by the distressed guards, since this is a place of worship and one must be respectful and modest in such a place. And as soon as you exit, you can buy a commemorative plate. 

"No photos" just means "don't let us catch you taking photos even though we know you will"

These types of things, the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, Times Square, etc. have been so widely proliferated in culture throughout the world that at some point, they lost their value as original objects. I can get a better view of the paintings of the Sistine Chapel online rather than stand in the dimly lit cavern where they reside along with the 300 other gawking tourists. If this sounds pessimistic, it is, but I certainly don't regret going to the Vatican Museum. As bad a taste as it left in my mouth, it was an important experience, and really stimulating to think about. It's nice to know that even if I'm not in school I can still seek out knowledge and chase it. 

That same day, we thought we might peruse some of the larger outdoor attractions, so we took the Metro to the Spanish Steps. The Spanish steps are some steps with a church at the top and a big fountain at the bottom. We were there while the fountain was being repaired, which meant that they were basically just some nice steps with some cool history and a great view at the top. Next was the Piazza del Popolo ("People's Square"), which used to be the sort of "entry" into Rome. Two roads, flanked by churches, led into this square (it's more of an oval, really) with a giant obelisk at its centre, where a single road led into Rome. The last and, in my opinion, best thing we saw on our first day was the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is an astounding sight. It's always busy but doesn't feel overwhelming so - there seemed to be plenty of room to move around and sit down. I love Baroque sculpture, so it was an absolute pleasure to behold. 

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory...

And well, that was the end of the first day in Rome. It was a doozy - 8 hours of walking - so we earned our gelato. I learned a lot in Rome, and the second day was all about the Coliseum, the Forum, The Palatino, and more, so stay tuned for a post on that some time this week! 

 

- SWB