Fallout 76 Sure is a Video Game

We live in a challenging time. Politics have never been this vicious.[1] Food has never been so tainted.[2] People are murdering each other on every corner.[3] This is a time for every American to take a hard look within and consider their values, their goals, and what the country means to them. It’s a time to increase civic engagement across the board, to increase political literacy, and for those who have the ability to rise up to correct the wrongs perpetrated against those who have been wronged.

In light of all of this, I have chosen to instead write about Fallout 76.

I’ll start by stating that I really like the Fallout series – at least those starting with Fallout 3. I tried playing the first game, but was killed by a radscorpion three times without landing a single hit and realized that the game was too hard for me and quit. Fallout 3, though, had a lot of charm, humor, and wonder about it. The DC Wasteland looked great (and, I would argue, still does even without mods) and Bethesda did a fantastic job of populating it with characters that made you compelled to continue on through your journey and make the Wasteland a better place. (Or wreck it, if you didn’t care about the NPCs you encountered.)

Fallout: New Vegas brought the series back to the West and introduced three factions that struck a very specific chord with me: They were damn close to figures in a morality play. And anyone who’s gotten me drunk and talking about writing knows that I fucking love morality plays. Medieval Christians had a lot of odd ideas, but one of the better ones was to cut through the bullshit and make Death an actual thing that you could interact with and try to negotiate with (and, of course, fail, because you were a sinner and Death cares not). New Vegas was pretty simple at its core: Three groups are trying to control New Vegas, because it’s relatively pristine after the atomic bombs fell, and you could be the deciding factor. That simplicity, however, gave Obsidian, the developers, room to iterate and be creative – like a canon. Then you added in a few really solid expansions (yes, even Dead Money!) and you have a classic.

Fallout 4 was lackluster in many respects, because Bethesda implemented a lot of stuff that didn’t quite work. Crafting is something that I’ve always begrudgingly accepted in games. I grew up on stuff like RTSs and Diablo, or Baldur’s Gate, where you don’t craft so much as trade and pull swords from corpses. 4 sort of made it a lynchpin, following from Skyrim’s template. Radial quests were another addition that didn’t quite work. (Why, for example, must I keep saving the same settlements? Haven’t they figured out that they can build turrets yet?) Despite that, the addition of a speaking protagonist and returning to the East Coast, and touching on themes like AI and pulp fiction, made the game fun to mess around with, if not as engrossing as New Vegas and Fallout 3.

We now have Fallout 76, the bane of the Internet. 76 is a multiplayer game that supposes all of the players have been released from a Vault on the same day and are sent to reclaim a slice of Appalachia after the bombs went off. Mutants, ghouls, and Mr. Handies are everywhere, of course, but the real surprise is that there are no human NPCs around, having been all conveniently killed just before you got out of the vault, thus saving Bethesda untold amounts of money in having to write dialog trees.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware of the reception the game’s received. Spoilers: It’s not been great. Critics have agreed on a consensus. The public has fallen into two camps: It’s worse than the ending to Mass Effect 3 or “You’re letting your expectations get the better of you and aren’t looking at it for what it is.”

Friends, I have appeared as a neutral third-party. I am here to deliver unto you the Truth™ of what Fallout 76 is. I am your deliverer. The Truth™ is that Fallout 76 desperately needed another 6 – 8 months in development, a creative lead who was willing to stand up to stakeholder expectations, and should not have been released for another year. I have reasons both concrete and speculative to back this up!

Let’s first begin with Bethesda’s announcement at E3. As we all know, all conventions like E3 are marketing platforms. They now exist so that companies can boost up expectations among the marketplace for what the new thing is, get people amped up to buy that new thing, and then figure out a fallback plan when things implode. (Best case: You get something like a showcase at CES, where no one says anything negative ever. Worst case: You get something like the Diablo: Immortal clusterfuck where Blizzard’s leadership has completely been disconnected from its playerbase.) As evidence, I would like you to go back to Todd Howard’s announcement, take a step back from being a fan, and, now with the superpower of hindsight, consider the announcement spiel in the context of what was delivered. Use the brain in your noggin to consider how much time was spent in the announcement talking about the tech behind the game instead of the story in the game, which, as we know, is what drives people to play Fallout games. Why is that important? Because the tech was the most-solidified thing that they had. Now, I don’t mean tech in the sense of code, or physics: I mean the tech like “allows us to view distant weather systems across the map.” What that tells me is that Bethesda had spent a not insignificant amount of time working on how to get the basis of the game down, and then ran out of time to polish the stuff that was built on top of that.

One of the things I really like about Fallout 76 is that it is a gorgeous setting. The forests of Appalachia are verdant; the toxic wastes are horrid; the ruins of Charleston feel on par with bits of the DC Wasteland. The weather system is, indeed, striking. That portion of the game, the passive bit of the world, was done very well.

However, what we find when we get past that is that there are a ton of bugs in the game; bugs that you think should have been caught and at least partially addressed prior to release. Some nerd on Reddit came up with a list. Take a gander. (List as of November 26, 2018.) Bethesda games being buggy has been a loving joke for a while now, but that’s an amazing amount of stuff, there, and as someone who’s played a couple of Bethesda games shortly after launch, I can say that 76 stands out in the bug density. Now, several of the bugs I’ve run into on the list are not game-breaking by any stretch of the word, but they are off-putting; often enough to make me quit the game and go fire up Total War: Warhammer 2 and sail around the world as Sartosa, raiding and harassing Settra and, by and large, having a much better time doing so.

What those bugs tell me is that what was released was not a truly tested game. It’s past alpha, for sure, but I’m not sure that it got past closed beta. Enough of those seem like the sort of bugs one would run into during a beta test, report, and have fixed in a weekly patch. Indeed, while I’ve been writing this, Bethesda has pledged to maintain “better communication” with the community and release patches for some of these bugs on a weekly cadence, sort of what you’d expect to see during a beta.

This isn’t to say that Bethesda didn’t do a beta. They did. They called it B.E.T.A., as an acronym for Break-it Early Test Application. The skunky thing about this release, though, was that it was very limited in scope – over a couple of weeks – and seemed more focused on stress testing the servers than actually tracking down and fixing bugs. If memory serves, they did the same thing with Elder Scrolls Online: A limited beta period where the focus was getting as many people online as possible in an attempt to stress test their servers and get a rough approximation of what they would need in order to launch the game without something akin to a Diablo 3 launch. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s good to stress test your servers. It’s good to open up your game to folks. (At least the FO76 beta wasn’t thrown behind a creepily restrictive NDA.) The thing that bugs me about this, though, isn’t that it’s a stress test, it’s that Bethesda called it a beta, opened it over a severely limited amount of time, and then released a product that has, as linked above, an impressive amount of issues that should have been caught and fixed in a much longer, more focused beta test.

 

There are other things in this game that lead to questions about when this game was meant to be released and when it was actually released. They’re much more involved than bugs; they’re design choices. They’re design choices that feel half-thought out, like they were first taken from Fallout 4, the development team was playing around with them and figuring out where to go with what, and then decided to move forward with them when hit with a strict deadline brought about by sales goals. The ones that stand out are: Quest design, enemy level placement, and NPCs.

One of the things that Bethesda does well, and one of the things that keeps me coming back to their games, is designing quests in a way that meshes with the narrative in an engaging way, that brings the world to life, and makes what you’re doing have some purpose beyond completing the quest will bump you up to the next level. As much as I dislike The Witcher 3, the most significant quests did a good narrative job of tying their goals into Geralt’s goal of finding Ciri.[4] The Bethesda Fallout series has taken a different approach. Some of the quests tie into finding your son, but more of them are along the lines of you acting as a representative of a different form of society – a Vault dweller – who is uniquely able to affect the lives people living in ruins. The games offer you a way to address problems, either by helping people address them or making their problems worse, in a way that allows you to tweak the world in a way that you think makes sense for your character. In other words, the quests in Bethesda’s Fallout games make perfect sense for an open-world post-apocalyptic game.

This tradition is kind of carried over to Fallout 76. You’re still given the same sorts of quests you would be given before: Fix a food processing plant; develop an inoculation for a disease; clear out a Super Mutant areas. The catch is that there’s no point in doing so aside from an abstract narrative goal of “reclaiming the wasteland.” Why is there no point in doing so? Because everyone other than the Vault Dwellers you’re playing with is dead. Right off the bat, when you leave the Vault and go into a first town, you’re met with corpses of a group called The Responders, who seem to have been founded in order to make people’s lives better by providing medical aid, survival training, and secure towns in which to trade and rest. But of course, they’re all dead. You can “join” their group, but you’re really only doing so to get quest rewards.

This is tricky. On the one hand, you’re still getting quests from them. On the other hand, if you take a step back and consider that, in joining the Responders, taking their training, and completing quests for them, you are, in effect, setting your character up to build up the Responders for the future, once everyone from Vault 76 has resettled the Wastes and has had a chance to build a society. This makes sense, but the explanation lacks something for an interactive medium like video games. For a video game to be successful in such a thing, I would argue, you still need some steady framework with which to interact. The most obvious way to plug that gap is with NPCs still alive who are act as an anchor with whom you can interact. We’ll touch on this more, but, for the moment, my thoughts are that the approach that I believe Bethesda is taking – the approach above, that you are acting as the first representatives of a reborn Responders, or Brotherhood, or Raiders, or whatever – is way too abstract and isn’t developed enough to be meaningful. It’s like if you’re in a tabletop campaign and the DM opens by saying “You can do whatever you want. I have just built the skeleton of the world. You must provide the flesh.” Yes, fine. I enjoy collaborative storytelling as much as anyone, but some direction of why I should care is better.

But let’s turn our attention back to more fiddly-bit technical design choices and save the discussion about narrative design for another day, shall we? This is getting long enough and I don’t want to wind up writing another book that no one will read.[5]

In playing Fallout 76, I’ve experienced something I haven’t in other multiplayer games. Typically, what you find is games that approach levels in a couple of ways: First, and the way that Bethesda games usually approach them, is enemy levels that scale with your own. In other words, enemies will be tougher and more dangerous the stronger you are. The second method is that you have areas of a map divided up into zones – or Acts, or Chapters – that have defined enemy levels. For an example of this, think of the way World of Warcraft was universally set up. Instances/dungeons and zones had a level range in which it was appropriate for your character to go and play; once you got past that range, it ceased to give you awards, and there was no reason to go back.[6]

In Fallout 76, I’ve run into an issue where, having tried to follow the Overseer’s journals as if they were breadcrumbs, I’ve run into nothing higher than level 6 enemies, despite being, at this point, level 15. Then, suddenly, upon trying to leave Charleston for the next zone, I find myself facing a patch of enemies in the 20 – 35 range, dying immediately, and being immensely frustrated. I’m not sure what the plan there, was. In looking at the map, I realized that my path, so far, had been in areas that were green and verdant looking – up until I hit the 20-35 monsters, at which point the map turned gray and bombed-out looking. Ostensibly, then, that would mean that everywhere that looks roughly pleasant has lower-level enemies. That’s all well and good, but as near as I can tell, all of that has also been along a highway, which is what I’ve been using to get from quest marker to quest marker, up until I hit the point where I came across a gas station with enemies ten levels higher than I am.

Well, as it turns out, this is the result of an algorithm that attempts to scale enemies to the levels of nearby players. At least, ostensibly. While this algorithm seems to work for friends of mine, I remain awash in a swamp of level 6 Scorched, rushing at me from all sides while I mow them down like some incredibly lazy Doom Marine, never to get anything more powerful than a hunting rifle. Sure, occasionally I see a level 15 or so, but I’m killing enough of its lower-level buddies that I’ve propelled past it to level 19, and now, the most challenging thing about those enemies is switching to a better gun – i.e., the shotgun, because, again, everything I have is one step above a pipe gun because, again, I’m awash in level 6 enemies – before taking it out, finding nothing of value, and logging out to go annoy the world as the Vampire Coast in Warhammer 2.

 

But really, that’s all bugs. There’s probably some glitch in the algorithm that’s keeping enemies from leveling. There’s likely something keeping enemies from not scaling down from an encounter with a stronger player by the time I get there. And there’s an unseemly list of reasons why the rest of the game is a buggier mess than the Deep South in high summer. And, for the most part, I can ignore those things. I liked every other Bethesda game, after all.

But the thing that got me thinking about all of this in the first place, the thing that makes me consider why this game was released in this state at all, comes back to the question of NPCs. Has has been thrown about in this piece, Bethesda’s marketing materials, interviews, and countless forum posts: There are no human NPCs in the game. Bethesda was quite proud of this. “The world is yours, for all others have died,” they seem to have said. “Yea verily, thou art Ozymandias, and this is your dominion. Go forth and build your works out of junk.”

The idea behind this, as near as I can figure, is that you and your fellow Vault Dwellers are acting as the progenitors of whatever society emerges from the ashes of the old. You are faced with endless waves of Scorched, Liberator Bots, and every other incredibly annoying enemy that’s in this game for the purpose of removing them so that civilization can return.

That’s a decent idea for a short story, sure, or even some B-grade novel series or AMC TV show, but it makes for a dull game – at least a non-narrative-driven game. Why? Because, as previously discussed, everyone around you is dead. You might find their journals, their collected wisdom, their thoughts and dreams, scattered throughout the wastes in the form of notes and holotapes, but you won’t find them. You’ll find their bodies, but the only impact that has is that the word “Corpse” flashes on your screen, you pause for a moment, and then loot a couple of caps off of them before returning to wandering around and building a giant dick-house. (Cheating, I know, because that was Fallout 4, a game with a narrative and some attempt at getting people to care about the world around them.)

The central problem, here, is that there’s no anchor tying this world down. And the reason that’s a problem is because you have the word “Fallout” in the title. That name, by tying the game to a series of games, carries with it certain expectations that are incredibly hard to get past. I know people who have gotten past that, and they love the game. I’m happy they enjoy the game, but I – and a whole hell of a lot of people – are utterly baffled by why this was thrown into the Fallout series instead of reskinned and thrown into the marketplace as an open-world survival game.

(That’s disingenuous. It was thrown into the world as Fallout to sell copies and so that they could put trash bags in a collector’s edition, because lol fuck customers.)

Bethesda clearly spent time on trying to build a world. The holotapes, the glimpses of factions you get, the world you traverse through, all of these things point to ideas someone on some design team had of a narrative. While you walk through these places, you get flashes of large scripts being thrown down on tables during writer’s room sessions. People workshopped dialogue. Conversations were had about just how big a Vault-Tec University should be, how many students were there, and what sort of things those students would have been writing about.

Then, at some point, the next step – designing virtual people in which to live in the world – was thrown by the wayside in favor of robots and raider camps with interesting names filled with nothing but corpses. There was, at some point, a great world with a lot of detail and interaction, but that, instead, was thrown away so that you could escort a Mr. Handy to a decaying shack so that it could then sing a song for a dead person. That’s the level of quests we’re stuck with when we’re not being told by an automated broadcast that Scorched are swarming an airport and we need to protect people (who are already dead).

The game is some weird danse macabre, where we’re trying to match the steps of ghosts. However, unlike the dance shown in this documentary, there is no sense of gothic glee or wonder.

But the question is: Why would they do all of this? Why would they make these decisions? Setting aside the bullshit that Todd Howard said about making this a world for you to inhabit and all of that stuff, I have the suspicion that Fallout 76 was the unfortunate result of corporate pressure to release a game after someone at Zenimax realized that Bethesda Game Studios (BGS) hadn’t released anything since Fallout 4, and Bethesda the publisher since Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which, while I enjoyed a lot for it’s pulpy joy and is-this-real subtext, had fair-to-middling reviews.

What happened, in my opinion, was that BGS was in development with a full-on Fallout game set in West Virginia. They had started planning out the factions, the world, and recording some preliminary dialog, and then were told that they had to make an announcement at E3, and that this had to be their next game. Looking around at their offices and realizing that the Elder Scrolls and Starfield teams were in no shape to release anything, they landed on Fallout 76 and had to make do with what was there. Thus, a full-on Fallout game was branded as an open-world survival game with heavy crafting elements where you and your friends told the story, where there were no human NPCs, and you had a mystery on your hand to solve as to why no humans were around.

It is, in my opinion, the only explanation for most of the deeper issues that we’re seeing in this game. If I’m right, and stuff like living factions and actual human NPCs was planned, I’d think that, within the next year, we’ll see announcements about some exciting new major updates to Fallout 76 – free, of course, because Bethesda values its customers – that re-introduce what people love about Fallout: Factions and actual people.

Another reason why I think this is because this seems to be an industry issue at the AAA level. Games are pushed out on a market-driven schedule, leading to stuff like the Mass Effect: Andromeda fiasco, with the game tanking a BioWare studio and all support for the game being pulled following poor reception. The prevalence of Early Access being a way for companies to start selling games before they’re done is certainly not a good thing for games at a AAA-level, either. (And, one might say, Fallout 76 was released in an Early Access state without being branded as such.)

So what about it? What can we do about this? Well, for the love of God, stop pre-ordering stuff and stop buying $200 Collector’s Editions. Start thinking about games as an art form if you want them to be an art form. Think critically about what’s happening behind the scenes and acknowledge studios that do good work – like Creative Assembly, Firaxis, and the countless indie studios that put out clever games with well-thought-out mechanics. (Even those whose work you don’t particularly like, like me and CD Projekt Red! I may find their Witcher games incredibly dull, but good God do they take their time with games and it shows.) That’s tough, I know. I keep pre-ordering stuff because studios tie in content with pre-orders. However, we, as a market, need to stop doing that. It encourages a downward trend where games are released well before they’re in a state that could, conceivably, be considered ready.

Of course, I could be wrong. This could have all been planned from the start. I sincerely hope not, though, because that means that, truly, we live in the most boring of dystopias.

[1] They have. American politics has never been the realm of the polite.

[2] It has. We have, of course, backslid a lot, but we used to throw Jell-O in everything and think that was fine.

[3] They’re not.

[4] They did not do a good job of making Geralt into anything other than a flat character, but what are you gonna do?

[5] The Justice Trio! Now available on Amazon!

[6] As another example, think of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s planets.

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Why the Astros’ Win is a Very Big Deal

So something momentous happened recently: The Houston Astros won the World Series. Yeah, you might have heard about it. It was, after all, a record-setting series filled with tremendous moments: The most home runs in a Series; Carlos Correa proposing after the Astros won; George Springer with the most home runs during a Series, Yasiel Puig winning Most Terrifying Set of Crazy Eyes in a World Series Game; Yuli Gurriel coming damn close to having the entirety of MLB fans calling Houston Astros fans racists; and many, many others. There have been a lot of pieces written about this, so I am very much just adding my voice into a ton of articles written by people who are more stat-heavy, bigger baseball fans, and all that, but what the hell. I’m in Singapore and it’s too humid outside for me, so why not hole up in my hotel room with a cup of green tea and get some writing in?

Now, the Astros winning is a big deal for me for a lot of reasons. One of the most personal, though, is that for a while, like every teenager and young adult, I had a lot of difficulty trying to figure out how to exactly be myself around my dad. Don’t get me wrong, I had it a lot easier than a good proportion of kids my age: We got along well, we were on the same end (mostly) of the political spectrum, and we had the same sense of humor. There were still a lot of things that kept us, I think, from understanding each other. That was about the time I started really thinking about the fact that I was an atheist, and that was about the time that he started ramping up his involvement in the Jewish community. That was about the time that I developed a lot of political views that meant that there were some severe differences between us when it came down to work culture and labor treatment in the U.S., and how to solve those problems. That was about the time when I was really trying to figure out a way to avoid getting a gnarly job I knew I would dislike, and that was about the time that he (rightly) tried to impress upon me that I really needed to get a goddamn job to fill out my resume.

Throughout the semi-rough patches we had, though, we knew that we could successfully avoid difficult conversations by talking about how much the Astros sucked. See, this was about the time right after the White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series. This was about the time that Drayton McLane decided the best option for the Astros would be to fire Phil Garner and start the team into a ten-year(ish) tailspin. Right about the time is when “Lastros” became the joke of the National League (rightfully so, because we were garbage). Going along with that, though, came a certain freedom with acknowledging that the team was awful. When you have nothing really going on, it’s easier to acknowledge that sometimes, life just sucks, or your job just sucks, or, hell, flights between Portland and Tokyo just suck. The freedom is the freedom to acknowledge mediocrity. It’s not a willingness to embrace it, because if you’re worth your individuality or your sense of being a human being, then you’ll do your best to pull yourself out of a bad situation, but it’s a willingness to know that if you keep down that road and look at it with a bleak, unforgiving attitude, you’re just making it harder to pull yourself out of it.

The term that’s most applicable to it, I think, is gallows humor. There’s a joke that goes that a union man was tried and sentenced to death for his part in a riot. He goes up to the gallows, accepts his fate, and the hangman steps up to him and says, “Gee, I hate to be the guy to do this, but at least you’re being hanged by a card-carrying union member.” In the heart of it all, I don’t think that if you can pull up the nerve to laugh in the face of utter bleakness, then there’s not much hope, or reason to keep trying.

All that says a couple of things about my family: One, we make very ill-advised jokes that really confuse people and; two, we are, all things considered, a pretty lucky group who can think of joking about baseball teams as gallows humor.

Still, for my Dad and I, talking about how much the Astros sucked, but how we were still fans, was a bonding thing. They would reach ever-new lows, replace all of the regular faces with complete unknowns, and no matter what else was going on in our lives – whether it was job changes, uncertainty after college, uncertainty after grad school, or living with family members because of low salaries – there were the Astros to sigh about and go, “Well, maybe one day they won’t suck.”

Then, in 2014, after the absolute nadir of nadirs, Sports Illustrated ran the cover story of “Your 2017 World Champions” with a picture of George Springer. We talked on the phone about it, he and his wife sent me a copy, and then time passed. In 2015, it looked like SI was off by a couple of years, but the Royals just wouldn’t give up and the Astros bullpen was worse than it is today.

In 2017, things were going well for me – I finally got a job that wasn’t psychologically crushing me (it was overworking me to the point of my blood pressure skyrocketing for overwork as well as a lot of reasons, but that’s besides the point), I was travelling again, I finally made a return trip to the UK, and I could actually save a bit here and there. For my dad, though, things weren’t going well: The job changes continued, culminating in a layoff. Then, almost immediately after he got his new job, Harvey hit. We spoke before the hurricane, and we joked about it like we’d joked about previous hurricanes. “We’ll text you if we die,” he said. During the storm, the flood waters from a nearby bayou seeped into his house and, effectively, they lost everything. They were rescued by a neighbor with a kayak, and none of the animals were harmed, but everything was gone.

We talked afterwards and he was trying to put on a brave face, stiff upper lip, all of that, but I could tell that it got to him. For the first time in my life, he sounded tired. I mean that in the sense that he was existentially tired. Previously, when jobs ended or car wrecks happened or friends died, he would be, at the very least, thankful for what he had. I guess now, though, with everything hitting in the same year, it got to him. There’s nothing like hearing your parents sound tired. You might think of them as humans, come to the understanding that, like everyone, they will, one day, not be there, and you may intellectually accept it and start to prepare yourself for it, but it’s different experiencing it.

With my mom, it’s been a challenge, because MS is a constant grind and even though she is an eternal optimist, you begin to understand what, exactly fatigue is. Fatigue is not something you feel after a long day at work, or after going for a run, it’s the deep, from-the-core feeling that if you don’t stop right now and take a deep breath, you may not make it. Any time anyone experiences it, it’s a terrible thing.

With my dad, though, it wasn’t a gradual getting-used-to sort of thing, but a sudden realization on my part that, no, my parents are no longer in their 40s. They are, in fact, aging as people do. My mom’s battle is MS; my dad’s battle is that it’s getting harder to find a job that’s a long-term prospect in the steel industry. This is a major issue for him, because, as long as I can remember, he has been nearly-completely dedicated to his work, no matter the levels of toxicity in the office. Despite not being a WASP, or from old money, or a member of a country club, my dad, at some point, worked into his fiber (at least from my perspective growing up) the ideals of the Protestant work ethic: That you grind it out and eventually, good things will come.

However, that’s not the case now. I don’t think ever has been. I’m fairly positive that the work ethic above is a mantra the American working- and middle-class has told itself in order to get up in the morning, to get through the tough days when factories close and salaries remain stagnant, and work hours raise while benefits crumble. You couple that with a trauma like losing your house and having to move into a small apartment while you figure out what to do with your wrecked shell of a home on the other side of town, it only makes sense that fatigue is going to hit.

All of that to say that the night that the Astros won the World Series, it was my dad who initiated the call to my brother and me, while I was at a bar with other screaming Astros fans. It was my dad who was the one who was literally in tears. My brother and I were almost there, with my brother repeating over and over that he felt like he was about to throw up, but he was the one who really felt it. And, two hours later, he’s the one who called me up after the game and said, “I have had a truly shitty day, and I cannot tell you how much I needed this.”

Look, I know that other people had it much worse in Harvey. He knows that. However, when you’re facing an insurance statement that brings your possessions down to the level of line items, or when you’re on the phone with your father who is in that situation and you have no idea how to help, all of that intellectual understanding drops away. All you’re faced with is what’s right in front of you.

As humans, we latch onto things as symbols. This is what’s enabled us to build communities, talk with other communities, and develop systems of understanding like religions and philosophy. For people with ties to Houston, the Astros in the World Series became a symbol of rebuilding after Harvey. It became a narrative of a city saying “We can come out of this stronger than we were before” to itself and others. And, though the Dodgers put up a really good fight, I cannot tell you what a difference hearing “The Astros are, for the first time, the World Champions” makes from the potential alternative of “The Astros lost the World Series in Game 7 after a neck-and-neck battle against the Dodgers.” What I can show you is this picture that, I think, sums up that feeling:

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I’m not saying that the Dodgers deserved to lose because Houston was hit by a hurricane. (After all, it seems like L.A. has been on fire since, like, May.) What I am saying is that it’s impossible to describe the feeling of relief that comes from hearing your dad in tears after a sports team we have no tangible connection to made good on their fans’ support and hopes.

V for Victory

It is no secret that I have a thing for Beethoven. I’ve written about it here and if you’re around me when I’m drunk enough to go on a ramble about music, then chances are that you’ll hear me talk about why Beethoven’s work is so important to me. But in the context of what the US is going through right now, and, really, what the world is going through right now, Beethoven is integral.

Anyone who pays any attention to news from the US and abroad knows that the world has seen a massive upswing in the worst excesses of right-wing politics, from reactionary rhetoric to autocrats encouraging the full-sale slaughter of their own citizens. But more disturbing than their actions is that, at least in the West, these parties are democratically elected. They are a symptom of a great amount of fear, hatred, and misplaced rage the world over, and the causes of that are best left for another post written by someone who hasn’t recently gone on a tear shouting “Punch Nazis wherever you see them.” No, what I’m here to talk about today is a follow-up to a Twitterstorm I threw out a few days ago about Shostakovich. See, that happened before our President, a man with a micropenis—evidenced by his reactionary and egoistic approach to anyone criticizing him or the straw figures he calls his policies—decided to throw a gag order on environmental and recreational federal agencies. After that popped up, I thought some more about Shostakovich, a man who fought back against another oppressive regime in his own way: He made music. And now, with our President deciding that, yes, a list of crimes committed by immigrants is a fantastic way to unify the country and use his executive powers, I think about Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man from the margins who spent his life attempting to become an aristocrat by virtue of his work. His family was not of the upper crust, and he knew that very well. It’s reflected in his relationships with his patrons and his mentors, this mentality that they had no moral right or standing to address him as an inferior, or that he should be content with his station as a mere employee or artistic servant. This carried over into his politics, where, for the day, he was a staunch proponent of individual liberties. He criticized the Austrian court, its secret police, and the foibles of the aristocracy. He supported Napoleon up until the point where Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. His only opera deals with the theme of the unjustly imprisoned and mistreated overcoming their oppressors with the help of a just ruler. In all, Beethoven was, at least nominally, a friend of the common man. His music is filled with these themes, and to write about any of those pieces would provide enough content for an entire series about Beethoven and political resistance. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about Beethoven’s 5th and World War II.

In short, the Allies realized that they had a propaganda coup with using the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to open their broadcasts. Not only is the music striking, but, in Morse Code, the same short-long pattern translates to “V,” as in “victory.” So, with every broadcast, with every bumbumbum-buh, the Allies would telegraph their hope for victory over the Germans. Of course, what they didn’t really make a note of is the very same bars being the implication of Fate knocking on one’s door. That, naturally, has its own propaganda use, as it’s almost as if Heaven and Earth are willing the Allied forces to victory over the Axis powers. But, that’s a lot less snappy than “V for Victory.”

Of course, Beethoven’s German roots were a little troublesome to some people. Those people, naturally, didn’t really think about that beyond the labels of “German.” On one level, it falls apart because Beethoven didn’t live in Germany, as Germany would not exist for decades. On another, he came from a Flemish family (hence the “van” in his name), and lived and worked in Austria for a significant portion of his life. On yet another level, that concern falls apart when one considers that Beethoven had a certain, significant portion of his brain dedicated to making known his disdain for autocrats, tyrants, and the crushing of the masses by the aristocracy.

But beyond all of those political matters, the underlying theme in all of Beethoven’s work is a sort of universalism that is a unique hybrid of a Protestant environment, Beethoven’s sense of natural wonder and nature-based spiritualism, and the brotherhood of man. The most famous example of this is the Choral portion of his 9th Symphony, which takes and edits (for the better, by all accounts) a poem by Friedrich Schiller. The content of Beethoven’s choral work is a sort of unitarian spiritualist praise of the best qualities of humanity, and, at its core, a call for people to rise above their base natures and embrace one another as brothers (and sisters).

But, as it stands, and as poetic and beautiful and moving as the 9th is, there is nothing quite as punch and attention-grabbing as those opening bars of the 5th. They force you to sit up, focus your attention, and set you up for riding the wave of Fate that is the 5th. Most relevant for today’s political environment, though, is the call to action implicit in those bars. As the dynamic, bombastic music throughout the symphony would suggest, Fate does not favor those who sit idly by. Fate favors those who act.

Perhaps that was in the background of the Allied propagandists’ minds when they decided to use those opening notes in BBC broadcasts across occupied Europe. For whatever reason, though, those opening bars of the Fifth Symphony have found their place in the composer’s work’s theme of triumph over adversity, of resistance to tyranny, and the triumph of individual liberty.

As the United States faces a President who is at the very least someone who is eerily close to several definitions of fascism, we would do well to look back at the inspiration our parents and grandparents took from art like the Fifth Symphony, and the themes that Beethoven espoused in his work. Just as Fate favors the bold and the active, it takes more effort than we’d like to admit to rise above our evolutionary origins of face-ripping, feces-throwing apes and fully embrace each other. It takes a strong will to stand up against the empowered few who seek to dominate the disempowered many.

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