It was a Wednesday morning like any other. The sun was glaring down on me as I exited the flaps of my camping tent into the desert overlooking the sprawling concrete of the I-15. My eyes followed the faded yellow highway lines north towards my destination: Las Vegas. It was 15 long miles away, and working car engines haven’t existed for 200 years, but I had a canteen full of water, a backpack full of supplies and a working set of legs. It would have to do.
I’m a mail courier through and through, even after the point-blank gunshot to my head. I’d get there one way or another.
Unlike most travelers, I wasn’t visiting Vegas for pleasure, no, but for revenge. I was a lone woman wandering the sands, with raiding gangs and man-eating deathclaws at every corner. To top it off, I also got roped into a political conspiracy between three rival armies, even though all I did was deliver a freaking package.
I was on my way towards New California when some men grabbed me, stole the package from my bag and shot me point blank on top of a newly dug grave. The man who shot me heads one of the biggest casinos in New Vegas, and I have a bullet with his name on it.
Well, my “Fallout: New Vegas” character does. I’m just a junior at UC Berkeley. I’ve never been shot point-blank in the face, nor have I even held a gun. I certainly don’t live in a post-apocalyptic desert where everything is trying to kill me, but rather in a quiet suburb in Kentucky. If I wanted to go to Las Vegas, I’d drive or fly, not walk and fry to death under the Nevada sun.
In games, I can play out various versions of myself. Being a quiet teenager whose parents wanted me to focus on studying, the only grand adventures I could have were digital. In my own way, I could interact with a social environment (even if the main form of interaction is shooting people) in a digital world programmed to mimic reality.
Sometimes, this mimicry of reality became literal. The first time I saw Vegas (in real life), I was a sleepy middle-schooler who woke up to my parents driving up a hill on the I-15. As we reached the peak, bright lights appeared out of the dark desert. Through my sleepiness, the experience of seeing the lights rise like a phoenix was almost magical.
Unintentionally, I replicated the same experience in-game. The fictional lights of this fictional Vegas rose up from the dark fictional I-15, the same way as they had in my hazy middle-school memories. Despite all my brain cells reminding me that this scene was a construct made by a team of programmers, coincidentally mirroring my middle-school road trip, it was as if the game was singing out to me to go west.
And so I did.
My parents and I have always loved road-tripping to wild, natural lands, but funny enough, it was a visit to a fictional digital scenery that spurred me to road-trip to California from my Kentucky home in order to move into my freshman dorm, instead of taking the faster choice of flying.
For this roadtrip, I knew just the playlist to make.
In “Fallout”, I loved listening to the old twangy country pop songs that played in radio stations while killing irradiated enemies and walking through miles of sandy nothingness. Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra’s voices drifted through my head as three-dimensional tumbleweed drifted through the landscape.
I downloaded my favorite songs from the game and packed up for college. Passing a Colorado River, Hoover Dam, and Vegas unaffected by a nuclear apocalypse, I nonetheless felt that same wonder and wanderlust that I had in the game.
What drew me to the series was not simply experiencing a destroyed old world, but playing a part in the birth of the new world. Las Vegas is renamed New Vegas, with the same bustling casinos and nightlife (though this time with more robots and cannibals). The California Republic is rebuilt by small farm communities into a vast New California Republic, with a two-headed bear on its flag. The player character dies at the prologue from a bullet in the head and rises from the grave to begin a new chapter in their life.
Like my character, I wanted to find a new life for myself beyond the world I already knew. I wanted to begin again, and distance myself from my challenging years of high school in Kentucky. Maybe, with that phone full of cowboys and cowgirls crooning over lost loves, steady eyes on the road, and a college-ready suitcase, I may have achieved that.
Through imagined worlds, we understand our own, and that’s what I aim to explain this semester.
Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living through video games. Contact her at [email protected].