Spoilers for the game Fallout 3, ahoy:
The internet suggests that a lot of people knew they were hooked on Fallout 3 the moment the tutorial is over, and you leave Vault 101 to see the (irradiated) sun for the first time. For me, the opening credits in which “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots* plays, and then the camera (as it were) pulls back to show a world of desolation and ruin confirmed that Rogert Ebert, may he rest in peace, was wrong about video games not being art.
I have happy memories of Sonic, Super Mario (or rather, watching my brother and cousins play them much of the time) and of playing Mariokart 64 and Super Smash Brothers (and failing atrociously at Goldeneye) after homeschool group was over on Fridays.
I would never have insulted video games as a medium. But for more than a decade, I was stuck firmly in the N64 and the Sega Genesis era of games. I have been amused in passing by the violence of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but only enough to steal a few cars, then drive off a cliff with the cops on my tail. Not enough to really want to get anywhere in the game.
And though I don’t dislike fantasy, it rarely really gets me, so video games never grabbed me as much from that angle. I’ve beaten Shining Force 1, but I have never played Final Fantasy, Warcraft, or Elder Scrolls or anything like that.
My video game knowledge completely stalled out. Games were a bit base with me. They were about a ticcy sort of entertainment, or an itch to scratch when you want to do something with your hands. They were not about simply wanting to see what happened next.
And then I saw Boyfriend play Fallout: New Vegas and said “oooh, pretty backgrounds” and then I got very interested in the nuclear side of the apocalypse via On The Beach, and a few months ago I said, hell, Boyfriend, hook up that Xbox 360, and let’s play Fallout 3.
I was confused for weeks about basic movement, and I missed a few choice things like captions for months. It took me more than six months to play for about 130 hours. Hell, this game is seven years old already. But this game taught me (rather dangerously) that there is a whole ‘nother medium that I could fall into. It was like pretending and like watching a movie that never ended — like an emotionally effective Choose Your Own Adventure book. It was a revelation.
Everything I would gush about in respect to this game would sound obvious to people who play them. And to people who don’t (like my mother, who sticks with Myst and The Neverhood-style puzzle games without violence) it’s hard to describe the mixture of violence, frustration, curiosity, amusement and joy, within this post-apocalyptic Washington, DC.
I never played a game with emotion before, not really. I took joy in the claymation in the aforementioned Neverhood. I know the frustration and the satisfaction red shells can bring in Mario Kart. I even enjoyed the semi-tedious RPG fantasy of Shining Force. But it didn’t fully click until Fallout 3.
Basically, nuclear war happened 200 years before (which is weird, because the terrain makes it feel more recent). You were raised in Vault 101, and your dad (Liam Neeson!) raised you up, and then one day mysteriously left the vault. All else — as in, you and a thousand side quests before you find him again– follows. The outside is a Mad Max-ian wasteland, except there are ghouls, supermutants, and warring human factions. It’s a first-person shooter, except that it’s also a sprinkle of RPG, and also you can gather objects, and wander around, and talk to characters, and read things, and basically choose a great many things including the order in which you do almost everything.
Oh, and it’s DC. It’s familiar enough DC to give me the creeps (though not as much of the creeps as when you go to Pittsburgh in the expansion!). The metros are the grimmest part. They’re depressing, dank, and easy to get lost in. This was a world in which their reality and ours diverged somewhere after WWII, and it’s a parody of the ’50s (or the World Of Tomorrow ’50s) turned into dust and radiation. (Though the old world lingers, albeit sometimes in chunks of rubble, garbage, and dead people form. And in clouds.)
Since my thoughts are not easy to organize, let me just offer a few scattered impressions of the most memorable bits, starting with the myriad sad ones:
-Night and day. I have never played a game where there is night before. The fact that a video game can actually provoke that feeling of being stuck somewhere where you should not be, with no ride, when it’s getting dark and you’re in trouble, amazes me. Night brings about fear, even if daylight is also dangerous in these times.
-The violence. The extent of my experience with even slightly realistic violence in games is Grand Theft Auto, where I mostly just ran over a few people while fleeing, and Wolfenstein 3D, which is so old I played it in MS dos. Fallout 3 gives you head-exploding bloodshed often. It’s cartoony in its way, but can be unsettlingly graphic when you are the one causing it to happen.
But the moral questions are there, even if they are inconsistently applied. I feel no regret killing the soulless human raiders. But the feral ghouls who were once humans give me the creeps. In the game, you pick belongings off of bodies for loot, and the ghouls seem to invariably be carrying a pitiful collection of a few caps (currency) and maybe a single fork, or worst of all, something like a teddy bear.
Even supermutants, who are entirely unsympathetic until you meet a sane one, can creep you out to kill sometimes. After slaying ten of them one evening, I started to feel all too I Am Legend about the whole thing.
I always feel a pang of regret in killing robots as well. Hostile robots were programmed that way. Raiders and such have made their choice!
-Truly horrible easter eggs abound. Fallout’s mascot is the in-game mascot of the Vault-tec corporation known as Vault Boy. He’s a smiling cartoon fellow who represents the game’s one foot in pure retro-future, ’50s kitsch, in which smiling housewives tout their brand new robots. The other foot is a grim future that (obviously) cannot realistically portray nuclear war, but is intending to disturb you all the same.
Somewhere in Georgetown is a house in which the robot will read a poem if you ask him to. It’s a nod to “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, in which the dogged automatic house keeps functioning long after everyone is dead. The Fallout 3 house contains what is obviously intended to be a child’s room, with a child’s skeleton on the bed. This kind of thing leads to coping habits. I collected a few useless items in-game, such as teddy bears. I did not take them from that house, or from what appeared to be a child’s grave in another area. I have standards.
There are lots of bits of data you can pick up along the way that also add to the picture of this destroyed world. There are diaries by a nurse trying to help people right after the bombs fall. There’s a log from a scientist slowly going mad in a vault after his child dies (yep). There are so many touches that make the world feel too big to even get to. I know I missed important characters, and whole quests, because there was just too much to do.
-Ghouls and their rights. The game more or less gives you the option of if you want to be prejudiced against ghouls, some of whom are perfectly normal non-player characters (NPCs) with which you can speak. One of them in the ghoul town is named Carol. Since ghouls are old, she remembers the day the bombs fell. She can tell you about it if you ask, and it’s as eerie as any cold war sci-fi classic.
When you get to a place called Tenpenny Tower, you find a snobby population of humans warring with a cranky ghoul named Roy Phillips and his followers who want to be able to move in. One of the many skills you can hone in the game is speech, and you can choose to try to resolve the situation peacefully. You can speak to some of the bigots (and they aren’t all bigots) in the tower and convince them to let the ghouls move in.
You feel good and righteous when you do that successfully. Until you come back a few game days later and find that the ghouls have killed everyone, including the endearing NPC Herbert “Daring” Dashwood. The choice to commit horrible revenge upon the killers is yours to make, and it seems to be a popular one. (Myself, I killed Phillips and let the others live.) I was furious with that ending when I found out about it, but I appreciate the gut-punch it delivers all the same.
-Dad and other companions. No game that gives your dad the voice of Liam Neeson, and gives him a habit of calling you “sweetheart” is going to let things be okay in the end. Of course still I thought things would be okay in the end.
The game gives me such an irrational attachment to NPCs. You can pick up followers, including a dog called Dogmeat, a supermutant called Fawkes, and various other short-term followers you must protect on one quest or another. You have so many choices in Fallout 3 — including ones to be downright evil, such as when you can NUKE THE ENTIRE TOWN OF MEGATON — but I mostly stuck with playing myself, with a later character drinking problem. That meant I was not leaving any computer people behind, and I was constantly afraid my stupid dog would get himself killed while attacking a giant radscorpion or something.
But, oh. I had a moment with the dad character that killed me. You are supposed to escort your father and some other unhelpfully helpless scientists characters across the wasteland. A supermutant attacked, and I — forgetting that there are essential characters who cannot die — was worried about my father and his mere pistol. I lost track of him in the heat of battle, and then he appeared with some kind of laser gun he had taken off of a supermutant. It was a Hollywood moment of “fuck yeah, dad!” and a game full of uncanny valley-faced pixel dudes delivered it.
And then dad had to sacrifice himself. And it was upsetting. Like a story. So I added to the story, and I I went to the expansion pack area of the creepy swamp, and I killed bizarrely-strong hillbillies and drank game alcohol until I felt I could go on with the business of living in the wastes.
-This game starts with you losing your home in Vault 101, you find and you lose friends and safety over the course of the game. It took me a while, but I began decorating my house in Megaton with teddy bears, with souvenirs I couldn’t bare to sell, and with memories of dear old dad. It felt like home. You start to relish safety and downtime on some days, and the next you wander recklessly, itching for a fight.
-After losing Liam Neeson-dad, and after being depressed and frustrated during a 100 trips into the DC metro-horrors; after the no-winning at Tenpenny Tower, there is a final charge on the water filter project that dad was working on, and which has been taken over by the evil Enclave (the US government, for serious).
You are allied with the Brotherhood of Steel, who have some fascistic, racist leanings, but you kind of win their respect over the game. You have power armor, and though I kind of prefer my earlier, scrappy, Mad Max/gasmask-faced, shotgun-toting look, the armor is the classic Fallout look (seriously, it’s on every game cover). The Brotherhood has power armor. I was followed by Dogmeat and the friendly supermutant Fawkes, who you can rescue in a scary vault if you like, and then he later appears to help you out as you flee the Enclave (in another “fuck, yeah!” moment with a less flipping-you-off end result).
And then the Brotherhood mentions they finally got their giant robot working again. The one that was supposed to have been fighting the Chinese communists who took over Alaska right before the bombs fell. The one whose name is Liberty Prime, and who drops mini nukes and who speaks in robotic catch phrases about communism being a lie.
You follow the robot as you charge the water filter, taking out Enclave troops, and it makes every God damned depressing, confusing thing worthwhile during the last 130 hours. The game is such a sandbox, that I forgot I was going to be given some kind of ending. I had no idea the ending would make me giggle happily.
All of this is an incrediblye roundabout way of saying, video games; holy shit, video games. I am used to television, movies, music, and books telling me stories. To feel invested in a character who dwells in a wide-open, free format where you don’t just get to play as a wanderer, but you get to choose which way to go next is to feel like they just now invented a whole new way of telling stories.
You guys were doing this the whole time? God damn it, you should have told me about video games.**
*Way back in 1986, The Singing Detective demonstrated that The Ink Spots could be used to sinister effect. I very much appreciate that the makers of Fallout did their homework.
Also, you can listen to the radio station which reports on YOU a lot, but also plays the same eight old timey songs while you play. I usually played at night, so I couldn’t do this, but wandering in the dark while listening to a solid version of “Anything Goes” was pretty tremendous. However, too much music plus killing feels a little Apocalypse Now dissociative. I mostly keep the music at home in Megaton.
** On the other hand, video games feel a little more disconcerting than even a great movie in a dark theater. I shake it off within the half hour, but they are still weird in that they make me feel not just that I was in another world, but that in this one I have to click on “a” in order to pick something up.