First things first: I never would have heard of The Road were it not for this engaging Bitmob article by Tyler Miller on connecting games with other media. He compares The Road to Fallout 3 as both are set in a dreary post-apocalyptic United States. It was this recommendation that brought the book to my attention, and just in time too as the film version has been released in theaters.
Living in Japan as I do, I will not be in a position to see the movie for quite some time, but I did recently complete the book and I found it to be quite moving. With the Fallout 3 comparison ringing around inside my head, I found myself wondering if The Road would actually make a great game or not.
The Road isn’t much like Fallout 3, honestly. They share the same setting but not the same tone. Comparing the two would be like trying to draw lines between Event Horizon and Sunshine. Sure, both films involve spaceships on a rescue mission, but that’s it. The superficial similarities pale in comparison to their disparate narratives.
Fallout 3 is an adventure, The Road is a tragedy. In Fallout 3 you set out into a land you didn’t know still existed on a quest to find your father. In The Road, a man and his son trudge through the wasteland, surviving only for survival’s sake. Fallout 3 offers players a world to explore, albeit a decrepit one. The Road offers readers a glimpse at a man and his ever-shrinking world, one where nothing matters beyond the safety of his only child. Fallout 3 has a dark yet ever-present sense of humor throughout, The Road is just dark.
The Road is certainly one of those books that, despite its exceptional quality, you can’t simply recommend to people with the usual “I enjoyed it.” It’s a horrible book and by that I mean the story is full of horrible things, not that the story itself is horrible. Frankly, the story is kept to a bare minimum. The reader never learns what exactly caused the apocalypse, only that this man was alive to see it and his son was born afterwards, so the boy’s only source of stories about the way things used to be is his father.
I loved how the story handled morality. The man frequently tells the boy they are “the good guys” and how they need to avoid “the bad guys.” While they certainly encounter some outright monstrous people in their journey, there’s seldom a stark difference between good and bad in their world. Everyone loots and guards what they have taken as if it is rightly theirs, often with deadly force. The man discourages the boy from helping others, a logical decision (since they have so little) but a harsh one that no doubt means they have inadvertently caused others to die through their neglect.
Contrast that with the false binary that is morality in so many video games right now, where every decision you make is either patently “good” or mercilessly “evil.” The inspiration for this current crop of games is likely BioShock, where you can rescue the Little Sisters or harvest them like a resource. Even when the choices aren’t as straightforward, as in many RPGs, the game assigns a value to your decisions based on its own code. I remember returning a bottle of wine to a wino at the start of Fable II and being informed I was “bad.” He asked for my help and I helped him, what’s wrong with that? A few minutes later I helped a young couple in direct defiance of the girl’s disapproving mother. That, I was told, was “good.” So wine is wrong but disobedience is right?
The world is a very complicated place. We all make choices everyday that could be viewed as right or wrong by others. I eat meat, for example, no doubt to the disgust of vegetarians and vegans around the world. I spend money on frivolities like video games and cable television, funds that would be better spent on my debts or given away to charity. However, these actions as a consumer benefit those businesses who provide these services, and those businesses have employees with families of their own who get paid with a portion of my money.
The Road removes all those abstractions from the equation and still presents a world where every choice is laden with hidden implications. Every morsel of food they scavenge is potentially taken from the mouth of another. The man always tells the boy that the things they find don’t belong to anyone, but he has no way of knowing that. He presumes all unclaimed objects as property of the dead, yet when someone takes their shopping cart one night he furiously tracks the culprit and makes him pay a high price for a crime he himself has committed countless times. When the boy tearfully objects, he defends his actions with a limp “that’s what he did to us” argument.
The message that I took away from The Road is this: when the apocalypse comes there will be no good guys or bad guys among the survivors. There will only be survivors. The man and his son have no mission and no goal, only a vague notion that they should head south towards warmer climates. There is no MacGuffin in this tale, no object they need to deliver, no task they might fulfill to save the world or themselves.
The man tells the boy they are “carrying the fire,” a statement that is never fully explained. My first thought was of Prometheus from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. The gods condemned him to an eternity of suffering for his crime. I also pictured the Olympic flame as something which is carried great distances by a select few individuals.
While comparisons could be made to those ancient Greek concepts, particularly since the entire planet is suffering in the wake of a cataclysm, I think “the fire” they speak of is the will to live as humans and cling to whatever social order they can. The concept of personal property may have lost out to the rule of Finders Keepers, but the man and his son do abide by certain standards. They do not prey upon the weak, (knowingly) steal from others, nor do they engage in cannibalism. Not everyone in their world adheres to those rules, so the man takes it upon himself to raise his son to respect minimal ethical guidelines while still surviving.
I think a video game version of The Road could actually allow players to experiment with their own moral compass to see how they might fare when their survival is on the line. Unlike Fallout 3, this game would not have much of a narrative. There could be NPCs to meet and interact with, but only in a minimal fashion. No dialogue trees, just simple messages like “Help me” or “Give me your food.”
For starters, there would be no saving and each time you play you start at the beginning. The basic environment could remain the same but the people you encounter or supplies you discover would have to be random. You could stick to the road and move faster or you could wander off to see what there is to see. Much like The Path, straying into the woods would carry a risk factor but it could also lead to new discoveries.
As you play your “life” would steadily decline. Finding food or medicine would restore your condition, but only temporarily. It would be up to you to decide how to split your findings between the man (your character) and the boy (your NPC companion). You would start out with a gun and a handful of bullets (with the potential to find other weapons) and upon meeting people you could talk to them, attack them or avoid them altogether. Of course, there would also be the suicide option, as the man grapples with that choice many times in the book.
The game would end when you die (inevitable given the rules we have set) but there would be a chilling epilogue. After your character dies, you get to see (not control) what the boy does next based on what you taught him. If you ran away from people, he would do the same. If you were aggressive, he would be aggressive. If you took care of the boy, he would try to bury you. If you didn’t, he would simply run away.
I know this game is a tall order. Lots of AI issues, tons of random variables, and the lack of a save feature or larger narrative would probably be a turn off to most consumers. However, the controls would likely be simple and such a game could theoretically be made in 2D, although a 3D version would probably carry more weight as the condition of the Earth is a major emotional element.
We’ve got plenty of games that let you explore a wasteland as a conquering hero. It’s high time we had one where the wasteland wins every time just to see how players handle themselves in a no-win scenario. Using The Road as a model would be a great way to do just that.