Saturday, 27 October 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Allistair Tenpenny

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, our regular reassessment of the most infamous gits in videogames. Today, the crazed, despotic plutocrat who inspired the popular cartoon baddie 'Mitt Romney'.

When the post-apocalyptic FPS/RPG Fallout 3 was released, my then housemate bought a copy and we shared a savegame, for a time. We completed the tutorials together, headed out into the wasteland as one. We battled through the burned-out husk of Springvale school together, passing the controller each time our face got blown off by an angry raider. We strode into the small settlement of Megaton together, and got to know the town and it's colourful denizens together. And then came The Great Schism.

For those that don't know, Megaton is so named because at the centre of it lies a bloody great big nuclear bomb. It's still active, ready to go off at any moment, which is obviously something of a concern for the town's saner inhabitants. You are tasked by the no-nonsense sheriff with disarming the bomb, and this seems eminently sensible. There is, however, another option. A shadowy man named Mr Burke offers you substantial compensation and new fancy lodgings if you arm the bomb with a remote detonator and then meet him at a place called Tenpenny Tower.

In any game that has a binary moral choice system, my first playthrough will usually be as a good guy. My first Commander Shepard was a full-on paragon, my first JC Denton was a polite boy scout. I turned down Mr X's offer to join his evil syndicate of denim-clad hooligans in Streets of Rage. My housemate was the same, and thought the choice was clear.

But I was intrigued. Was this game really going to let you wipe the first town you encountered off the map? Was it really going to let me vapourise Sheriff Simms, and the sweet natured shopkeep Moira Brown, and the kooky old patriot Nathaniel Vargas? Not to mention the children in the town. Was it actually encouraging me to commit an atrocity?

And so the savegame was split. My housemate went his way, I went mine. He disarmed the bomb, was hailed a hero, and went on with his quest to find Liam Neeson, aka your in-game dad. I, on the other hand, became Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Many in-game weeks later I would return to Megaton to find a smoking, irradiated crater, a fresh blight on an already ruined world. Moira Brown, the only survivor, was now a hideously deformed ghoul. This once bustling little town was now an inaccessible graveyard. A permanent, visceral reminder of the choice I had made. But that was later on, after I'd met Allistair Tenpenny, my sinister benefactor, instigator of mass murder and Great Arsehole of Gaming.

Tenpenny had seized control of one of the few highrise buildings still standing in the ruins of Northern Maryland and turned it into Tenpenny Tower, a gated community built around the twin principles of monied prejudice and heavily-armed guards. It was an oasis of civility in the D.C. wasteland, a throwback to the old world with all the privilege and hatred and xenophobia that world had nurtured. It was my new home.

The problem with destroying Megaton was that I had turned my only lead to finding Liam Neeson into a pile of radioactive ash. I was rudderless, adrift with no purpose. So I walked the northern expanse of the wasteland, and emulated the only man I had seen make anything of himself in this godforsaken place - Allistair Tenpenny, the man who had seen what he wanted and taken it, who had imposed his will on a blank slate of a world and carved a part of it into his own wizened image.
I got into the slave trade in a big way. Strangers who crossed my path were brainwashed and sold to the slavers of Paradise Falls for handsome profit. I helped the corrupt autocratic leader of the Republic of Dave retain his iron grip on power. I found of town of terrified adolescents in desparate need of aid and left them to fend for themselves. I reaved my way across the world, taking what I could, what I felt I deserved. I grew wealthy through slavery and murder. I made my choices.

The chief guard at Tenpenny Tower told me of a group of ghouls who desired residence in the tower. The current tenants were disgusted by the idea of sharing their slice of heaven with some dirty, ugly outsiders. I found the ghouls and murdered them. All of them. Methodically. Remorselessly. I made my choice. When it was done I went up to the top of the tower to speak with Tenpenny himself, to let him know the service I had done for him. I found him on his balcony with a high-powered sniper rifle, taking potshots down at the wasteland below. I asked him what he was doing, what was he shooting at?

"Wasteland safari... Whatever I like, dear boy. Whatever I like."

And in that moment, everything crystallized. I had made a monster into my idol. All of the views I despised in the real world - might makes right, the rich and powerful have the right to exploit anything and everything at the expense of anyone else - had seduced me, and were now represented by this old plutocrat randomly firing at innocent bystanders without remorse or hesitation simply because he could. I had made my choices, easy choices for easy wealth, and my choices had made me more like Tenpenny than I could bear.

In a well-designed game, virtual actions and virtual choices provoke real-world emotional responses. Your character in Fallout 3 is not a pre-defined character that you direct and influence, like Commander Shepard or JC Denton. Your character is YOU. You are the sum of the choices you make, and the consequences of those choices belongs to you, and you to them. I have Allistair Tenpenny to thank for teaching me that. I killed him, then and there, and resolved to be better. I would help others, I would do good deeds, and I would hope that the choices I now made could in some way atone for the choices I had made before.

It wasn't quite enough, though. When I finally found Liam Neeson, he was pissed.

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