At the risk of my oh-so-fragile masculinity, I’ve cried at a lot of pieces of fiction and I’m not ashamed to admit that.
I got to thinking about this after reading Laura Kate’s piece on Indie Haven about the second episode of Life is Strange and how that affected her. I really recommend you read that, but be warned it contains massive, major spoilers for Life is Strange: Episode 2. I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to compare my experiences to Laura’s in any way, nor do I consider the experience I want to talk about anywhere near as severe as Laura’s. It’s simply her article made me think of this, and I wanted to share those thoughts.
Anyway, one of the many things that has made me cry that, and I feel slightly embarrassed about, is Fallout 3. Specifically, the Oasis quest. If you have not played Fallout 3, it is set long after a nuclear apocalypse in the ruined wastelands surrounding Washington DC. Far to the north of this wasteland is a secret grove full of green trees, fresh water, and a cult of people worshipping what they think is a living tree called Harold.
The problem is, Harold isn’t a living tree. He’s stuck inside of it. Harold was a victim of mutation hundreds of years previous and was left with a tree growing out of his head. He finally became rooted to the ground through this plant and has been stuck in Oasis ever since. Inside the wood, he is a living being who is tired and in pain, and the quest he gives you is to kill him and put an end to his suffering.
As I have mentioned before on Indie Haven, I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It’s a connective tissue disorder that affects my mobility and also causes severe chronic pain. Naturally, I identified with Harold in this way, and respected his charming and affable personality during the dialogue with him. Harold is a genuinely nice and funny guy, he’s just in a bad place and needs help with that.
To kill Harold, you must travel underground and destroy his heart. Alternatively, you can set him on fire to achieve the same goal, but that will cause him a tremendous pain and reduce your in-game morality. Alternatively, I could keep him alive and even speed up his tree’s growth at the request of the cult.
This quest had presented me with an extreme and obviously very fantastical version of the situation I am in because of my disability. It expected me to carry out the most extreme measure possible, contrary to my own feelings on the matter. I would not want for myself and my condition what Harold wanted for himself. I could’ve paid attention to the cult at Oasis and not killed him, but why would I when not only did the cult want him to live for their own selfish reasons, but Harold had his own voice?
I understood the pain Harold would’ve been in, and begrudgingly set out to put an end to it. I killed the nicest character in the game.
I left the game feeling bummed out at the loss of a fantastic character in Harold, but overall satisfied with the interesting narrative the game had presented me. Then I read the Fallout Wiki’s page for the quest.
It turned out that you could in fact talk Harold out of it. I could’ve convinced him to not want to die, but instead accept his disability. While this throws the right-to-die debate in the game in to slight disarray, that option allows me to truly get across my feelings within the game. I didn’t know I could do any of this when I’d played, and only found out after the fact.
I identified with Harold, but the quest previously took away all the agency I wanted in that identification: either I killed Harold as per his wishes, or I let him live as per the cult’s wishes. I was never aware I was able to encourage him to live because of my own feelings, for non-selfish reasons. The decision I made was the lesser of two evils. I simply didn’t know the option to talk him out of it was there. I missed that opportunity.
That heart-breaking realisation I could’ve done better by this character that I identified so strongly with is why I cried at Fallout 3. That desperation at wanting to try again for reasons external to the game is why it came to mind when reading Laura’s article. Naturally, I cannot and will not speak for Laura, but I wasn’t upset about what happened in the game. I was upset because I’d allowed what happened to happen, despite it hitting so close to home.
That’s the story about why I cried over a fictional tree-mutant’s death.