In Praise Of Patricia Hernandez’s “Gaming Made Me: Fallout 2″

I don’t know Patricia Hernandez personally, or at all, really. I’ve read a piece or two of hers on Kotaku, I think, glanced at some of the things she’s cobbled together for Nightmare Mode, where syntax and insight don’t matter as long as as you believe, looked at her Twitter feed, written in an almost incomprehensible, almost playfully Joycean pidgin–I know she exists in the world, as an arrangement of molecules, as a being which lives and hopes and dreams and sometimes gets professional outlets, some of which have a reputation for publishing high-calibre stuff and some of which have a reputation for publishing not high-calibre stuff, outfits which are staffed by people who have journalism degrees and who assumedly know how their language sounds, what its rhythms are, what separates a beautiful phrase from a clunky one, what is legitimate insight and what is merely trendy fluff, what has perspective and what hides behind pretense–I don’t know Patricia Hernandez personally, but I feel edified for having read her recent, widely-acclaimed piece “Gaming Made Me: Fallout 2“, for now I feel like I know her so well that her story is almost a part of me.

Most of the criticism of Hernandez’s work comes, of course, from the comments fields that we as a society still deem necessary–a vox populi if you will, a way for writers to connect with the audience that they have such a deep relationship with–and all of that criticism is of the “how dare you waste my time”, “how dare you talk about these things” school of criticism–that one which has no salient points to make but simply destroys, given how it’s simply an arm of the Patriarchy or something. What criticism could one make of this piece? Certainly we can’t fault Hernandez’s insight or her need to tell her story or even her writing style–for really, what is style but something a bunch of white dudes got together and decided was the way everyone should write? Hernandez’s piece is fully her own Thing, and no criticism of her work has merit because what criticism can we make of such a pure expression of Soul? And yet I fear that the praise of her work has been similarly limited; it is sad that just as we have no developed critical language to talk about games, so is there no language for the videogame criticism community to interact with its own writing. We have no way of telling a good piece of criticism from a bad one because of the culture of fear that has surrounded it–that fear that one could easily be labeled misogynist or racist or homophobic by critiquing a piece–because, as we all know, a person is inextricable from the writing he or she does, they are a merged entity. All of the praise that other articles get certainly cheapens the praise that Hernandez’s article has gotten. I do not wish to slight these other articles, for I can point to many other articles written with the same level of skill and from the same place of intelligence; I feel almost guilty for placing her in the “hot seat”, as it were, and I can only humbly request that she not let all this attention go to her head and that, Dear Readers, you please take on the small task of applying the platitudes I am making today to these and any piece of videogame criticism–in fact, to any piece of writing–you may be inspired to encounter in the future. I can only hope I am not embarrassing Hernandez by focusing all of this time on her.

I am not so brave as Hernandez as to bare my soul so fully, to drag out every trauma I have faced. I do not have the confidence, the self-possession, the chutzpah to stand up and point to the parents that fed and clothed me and say here are the people who ruined me, to say you’re fools for believing the way you do, to say too bad you’re on your own–in short, I, too, have a complicated relationship with my parents, and I can only hope that Hernandez’s example might inspire me to, one day, become mature enough to realize that such issues should not remain in the privacy of a therapist’s office or kept in the context of a serious discussion between intimate friends. To know that I, too, am special.

Alas, that is not the place I am at in life. I am merely a coward who, on the rare occasions I’m able to silence that inconvenient inner critic, the one which perches on my (and every writer’s!) shoulder and screams, straight into my eardrum you faggot piece of motherfucking shit who the fuck do you think you are get the fucking pills and take ‘em like you’ve known for years you would you talentless motherfucker you piece of shit fucking kill yourself already who’d listen to you–a voice that Hernandez is undoubtedly able to ignore so easily that I’m almost tempted to ask her for her secrets–I remove as much Autobiography as possible, timidly thinking that the mundane habits of my day-to-day existence, the little traumas of my childhood, the big serious ones of my life in general, the ways in which I’m broken and the ways in which I’ll never be fixed, the ways in which I have collided with Society, the fallout that such a collision has strewn across the landscape, as it were, I remove all of that because, I say, people aren’t going to be interested in a stranger’s decades-old problems, they’re going to, hopefully, be interested in what that stranger has to say about this game, that the only people it’s appropriate to talk about that with are people you’ve developed a relationship with, because I feel (this is not the truth, remember, but a lie I tell to myself) that boundaries of privacy are important and go both ways–I won’t ask for more than you’re willing to give long as you don’t tell me more than I want to hear–but, really, because I’m a bitter, self-loathing man who doesn’t want to show himself to the world because he knows they’ll hate him as much as he hates himself.

And so I would not be able to write the article that Hernandez has written, because an article like this needs to be written deftly; it’s easy to fall into one of a dozen different pitfalls, any one of which can completely destroy an article. Falling into every single one, as I would have done, would have created an article which would be a laughingstock. Hernandez’s skill and talent have trumped me at every term; every mistake I would have made she avoids splendidly.

I would have avoided the portrait of the teacher. In my hands, the phrase “truth bombs” would have been an extremely poor choice, given how its unironic usage would paint me as callow and immature; spoken in my voice, it would clash regrettably with the fact that Fallout 2 is a game whose backstory involved one too many bombs, bombs that are not admittedly of the truth sort but whose impact was equally devastating. And yet, Hernandez the Virtuoso is weaving an explicit metaphor here, one which is lent weight by its association with the game. In the Fallout universe, nuclear bombs led to the destruction of most of the world. It is in the ashes of this world that the society that Hernandez describes can rise, in which a clever woman can get by with just her wits and a gun, one where America is no longer a destructive, dominant force. This teacher explodes Hernandez’s worldview with the force of a bomb; it is through this teacher’s influence that Hernandez is able to take the first steps towards dismantling her parents’ values. Fallout 2 may be the bone which flavors the delicious soup of Hernandez’s thoughts and opinions, but this teacher is the Delphic Oracle whose wisdom gives Hernandez a step-by-step guide towards becoming a mature, well-adjusted adult. I would not have been able to give this story such a powerful resonance. I would fumble, unable to fashion it into anything beyond a pointless anecdote about someone you’ve never met, into an admission that I wasn’t thinking for myself but merely parroting what a teacher, not much older than myself, had taught me.

I would not have so gleefully talked about wanting–and succeeding–to kill the temple guard. Hernandez’s joy at murdering a member of the opposite gender would have come across as violent misogyny if I had expressed it, and yet for her it’s seen as the righteous anger of the downtrodden coming up and destroying the oppressors; equality will not be won through dialogue or through writing but through blood and violence. It’s an extremely interesting notion, given that she has made the artistic decision to juxtapose this scene with a discussion of gender roles in her family.

As a white man, I feel that I almost have no right to discuss matters such as this or to have my own opinions on race or gender, so please understand that while I am talking about matters which may seem like stereotypes, I am completely using Hernandez’s own words as my source. Hernandez tells us that, in her family, men completely dominate women. (“Men work hard for the family, the argument went, and it’s the woman’s job to acquiesce to a man’s every whim.”) What they say goes. We must take that on faith because her father does not appear at all in the text. (Although it’s possible that his absence might be due to death, divorce, or another unfortunate circumstance, Hernandez uses the word “parents” several times, suggesting that he is alive and well.) Hernandez’s mother, in fact, is the incarnation of gender dominance in this piece. Hernandez’s father’s presence permeates the text through his very absence; he is an invisible ghost because patriarchal dominance is a likewise unseen force. Note the inner monologue Hernandez uses when describing her murder of the guard:

I didn’t realize how much resentment I held against those gender roles until I became obsessed with killing this guy standing in my way in Fallout 2. He told me that no, I had no choice but to go through the temple. And what if I didn’t want to, you bastard? Why should I listen to you? What if I put this spear through your skull? So I did that instead, and to my amusement, it worked.

Control of a temple is an old symbol for agency; in Lysistrata, for example, while the sex strike is the focus of the play, much is made of the fact that the women’s power is only backed by the fact that they’ve seized the Acropolis. Control of the temple–the way in which agency is meted out–is incarnated in this guard, who dictates how and when Fallout 2′s protagonist (female, in this case, although I assume that the dialogue is similar no matter what gender is chosen and therefore must remain not as an intended facet of the game but a legitimate reading by Hernandez nontheless) must enjoy said agency. This guard is the target of her rage and righteous violence in the game; he is a symbol of the guardian of Hernandez’s agency, agency which is free to prefer not to make six figures and is free to prefer not to give money to her family and is free to prefer not to sponsor them to become citizens.

This is the source of her rage. As her target she picks a guard, but given that power is incarnated in the men in her family and given that such power would assumedly rest with her father, Hernandez’s murder of the guard is a symbolic murder of her own father, a confession of her deep-seated desire to destroy him and, by extension, herself . The weapon used–a spear–is an obvious phallic symbol; this, coupled with her later proud assertion that giving her character armor to wear made her felt like “I wasn’t a woman. I was a force not unlike the [male] antagonist of Fallout 2, Frank Horrigan,” leads anyone with a basic understanding of Lacan to the natural conclusion that Hernandez is suggesting that the only way for women to gain any agency–and, simultaneously, the ends to which that agency is a mandate–is for them to claim the Phallus, to destroy men, and to replace them entirely.

It is a stirring portrait of self-loathing, internalized homophobia, internalized racism, internalized misogyny; in short, it is a wonderfully rich passage which, in my cracking voice, would have come off as a squeaky Oedipal rage against my dad, because he won’t let me do anything and because he’s gotta make me mow the lawn. I am merely the gay only child of an Italian Catholic family; I have had no meaningful struggles against high parental expectations, I do not know what it is like to live contrary to my family’s values.

I would have followed standard syntax conventions such as keeping my verb tenses straight and talking about texts in the present tense, but I am no wordsmith. This temporal confusion that Hernandez utilizes, however, leads us to consolidate past, present, and future into one eternal Now, and to merge that Now with Game Time, that is, the quantum interference pattern of all possible game decisions, all the choices that Hernandez (has made, will make, makes) in all of the times that she (has played/will play/has never played) this game. “Gaming Made Me: Fallout 2″ is almost a crystalline sculpture, a wrought object in which Hernandez and the game have become one, and this time there’s no reloads and no strategy guide. I would have stayed focused on one subject. I know it seems like Hernandez goes from story to story without any real order or structure but that has been okay because it will be an organic composition which was necessary to the objet d’analyse that she had been creating.

I worry that we have been too prodigal with our praise of this article. All great artists grow to resent their masterpiece: Nirvana loathed playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after all, quickly grew bored of having to talk about it in every interview, hated having to play it every night. The New Statesman, recently, has been the site of much discussion about the value of videogame criticism, with Helen Lewis and Ed Stern both writing (no sarcasm here I assure you) wonderful pieces about the subject. Lewis bemoaned the lack of any good videogame criticism, a statement which caused an army of Crit Kiddies to rise up and let her know the error of her ways, damning her for her foolish and uninformed opinion, pointing her to the likes of Nightmare Mode and Critical Distance. Ed Stern, in a move which suggested that Lewis had meant something entirely different by her article, clarified: While there is indeed criticism, it might not be very useful–and it might not be very good to read.

Many of The New Statesman’s readers wished to read some gaming criticism, so as to decide the issue for themselves, and so Lewis published a fairly comprehensive list compiled by Liz Ryerson. Ryerson, whose review of Indie Game: The Movie is (again, be assured, because I know you Internet people have trouble reading, that I am speaking sincerely and honestly) one of the finest pieces of games journalism I’ve ever read and a master class in damning with faint praise. She is both an adequate curator and an excellent producer of content, but I fear that her list included several missteps.

One piece is by Tim Rogers, whose reputation, like Ulysses or War and Peace, is based on them being so long that nobody’s ever actually finished them, praising them so as to not look uncultured–and an especially unfortunate comparison considering that the untrained reader might mistake the cursory discussion of videogames to be a simple excuse for Ordinary People-esque catharses of Mommy Issues. There’s a link to the book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy, whose work is usually written from the hilarious persona of one intent on making every reader an amusingly unwilling accomplice to a sex life predicated on having an audience witnessing the shame that she is putting her “slut” through, a persona which might be mistaken for genuine by an outside audience unfamiliar with all of the literary theory needed to understand–but let’s not go through all of these, because who has the time! We’re here to talk about Hernandez, the jewel of this collection.

Each one of us has, upon reading Hernandez’s work, had a similar chain of thought that I have had, but Lewis and Stern are perhaps not as thorough as all of us, given that they have professed ignorance about our culture. I worry that seeing Hernandez’s article in there might cause them to dismiss it, and, by extension, given that her piece is among the best of the best, dismiss videogame criticism forever and ever.

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