Many hours into playing Fallout 3, with my character standing on a bluff watching the sun set behind the ruins of Washington DC while Inon Zur’s haunting score played in the background, I started contemplating the very nature of video games and when a video game becomes something more than what “video game” often connotes. I played Fallout 3 obsessively for hours on end, often without any direction — sometimes going for days with no interest at all in advancing the actual plot of the game, content to simply wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland listening to Bing Crosby and Gerharde Trede, exploring every point on the game’s expansive map, and occasionally gunning down cannibalistic punks and super mutants. I began to wonder if this video game wouldn’t be better classified as something other than a video game, or if the term “video game” needs to be radically redefined. Does something as complex and sprawling and open-ended as Fallout 3 deserve to be filed under the same monicker as, say, Space Invaders or Angry Birds or Street Fighter? Or even as more sophisticated but less complex modern games like the Halo series.
It’s a pretty exciting time to be a gamer, but also a very frustrating and hostile time. The industry as a whole is suffering some pretty severe growing pains as begins to come out of its awkward teen years and transform into something more mature. This growth is causing conflict and stress from all sorts of angles. Most notable are the battles over the treatment of women as characters, as players, and as creators of games. Not surprisingly, a segment of entertainment that has been cocooned in a largely young male demographic, both as consumers and producers, for decades is having a hard time dragging itself out of the morass of the past and into a more enlightened and inclusive future, and this is resulting in some truly venomous, hateful, moronic commentary. It’s difficult to endure, especially if you are a woman who has found herself the target of such vitriol, but it’s also the equivalent (one hopes) of flipping a rock over and sending the roaches scurrying.
At the same time, game makers have spent the past decade pushing the envelope of game design dramatically in some directions while ignoring growth entirely in others. Which means now we find ourselves with an industry that has, in terms of story and mechanics, hit a series of dead ends and cul-de-sacs that are creating hints of dissatisfaction among both players and creators. People want to do more; not just with bigger, more detailed graphics. Trumpeting your polygon count and refresh rate has less and less meaning (and it had very little meaning to begin with), and more and more snobs like me are asking that game makers start thinking about other aspects of what makes a game interesting: story, dialogue, emotional investment — the same things we demand from a good movie, something that lends a little weight and depth to the spectacle.
These upheavals have also forced people to rethink the way games are written about and covered. I’m not interested in a game review that does little beyond reprint a press release then give me some basics about gore and the weapons I can use. Ho hum. We’ve been doing that forever now, haven’t we? It’s time for a push, I think, out of infancy and into something more substantive. If games are finally striving to be something more than “run down that hallway and shoot those guys,” then game journalism and commentary needs to keep up. None of these changes come easily, and most of it will get ugly. But as it was with cinema, so too do I think it’s worth the effort. For the prices we pay as consumers, we have the right to demand quality. For the amount of work that is put in by developers, they have a right to demand less simplistic and juvenile assessments of their work. And, uh, for the fact that they are human beings, women deserve to be able to make, play, and write about video games without being bombarded with sexual harassment and threats of murder and rape — that last sentence being so stupidly, glaringly obvious that I can hardly even grasp the fact that not only did I have to write it, but that there are legions of people who would challenge it. Anyway, like I said, it gets ugly, but games like BioShock, the Mass Effect series, Spec Ops: The Line, and the Fallout games are admirable shots fired in the battle to evolve games, how we play them, and what we expect from them.
Fallout 3 was one of the reasons I finally roused myself from my slumber and bought myself a gaming console. The television commercial, in which a camera slowly pans back from a dashboard hula girl to reveal a burnt-out husk of a city while The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” played caught my attention and promised a game that seemed to appeal to much of what I find interesting: old time music, mid-century design, atomic cocktail lounge culture (many of the same elements that attracted me to BioShock). I had not played any of the previous Fallout games available on the computer, so I was starting more or less fresh. I didn’t read anything about the game ahead of time, no reviews or summaries. Hell, when I finally got around to buying the game (in my usual discounted to $12.99 fashion), I didn’t even look at the cover art or back of the box. I just put the thing in and started playing. Several months later, I was still playing.
Truthfully, it took a while to click. The game’s partially interactive prologue, detailing your life in an underground vault after an atomic war decimates most of the United States, tends to drag on for a bit and is populated mostly by irritating characters. It’s through this prologue that one learns the mechanics of the game play, but surely we could have trimmed a bit and made me spend less time at that birthday party. When your character’s father leaves the supposedly hermetically sealed vault for some undisclosed reason, it casts the player under immediate suspicion that leads to your eventual exodus from the vault as well, and into the mysterious world beyond the massive metal door. That world is a strange mix of 1950s atomic retro-ism and 1980s post-apocalyptic Road Warrior punkness, and even upon emerging from the vault and beginning the game proper, I wasn’t entirely sold. But then, somewhere between realizing that was the Washington Monument on the horizon (an oddly emotional and effective realization, knowing nothing of the game’s setting beforehand), fumbling with a crappy gun as I tried to defend myself from more experienced marauders in leather and mohawks, and finally stumbling half dead into the first friendly town on the map, called Megaton, something clicked. After that, there was no looking back.
The central plot involves your character’s (mine was a black woman with a jagged spiked haircut, because why not) quest to track down her/his father and figure out why the hell he up and left the Vault with no warning, no explanation, and at considerable detriment to your potential well-being. Along the way, the player uncovers clues — not always in the order that would make them make sense at first — until finally the whole picture snaps into place. The game gets increasingly advanced as it progresses, with your character starting things off as a bumbling neophyte armed with nothing but a pistol, trying to survive attacks by wasteland marauders and animals. Eventually, though, you’re being pitted against everything from zombies to mutants to futuristic armored soldiers.
There are also sundry side quests you can chose to take, and the fact that the game world is so huge means there’s a near incalculable number of situations, asides, and distractions one can find oneself obsessing over in lieu of following the main plot (or any plot, for that matter). I spent days roaming the sprawling setting just trying to collect bobble head toys, then later trying to find a series of recordings who’s ultimate purpose was to open a locked door containing some stuff I already have. It didn’t really matter; I had to find those recordings, man. Most of the official side quests are actually pretty fun and have the feel of actually being important rather than just being “busywork” to flesh out the play time. You can also elect to augment the game with a number of downloadable expansions that take your character into the swamps, Area 51-esque bunkers, and even Pittsburgh. At no point in any of these side quests did I feel like I was twiddling my thumbs or just wasting time. I enjoyed them all, and I think they all added something interesting to the world.
The end of the game really brought home for me just how much I loved playing it. As I, clad in power armor, brandishing a plasma rifle, and accompanied by my faithful companions (I think I stumbled onto some odd combination of factors that enabled me to skirt the game’s “one companion at a time” rule, and so got to run around with a Gatling laser gun wielding super mutant, a shotgun toting ghoul, and a faithful dog), stormed through the ruins of Washington DC in formation with a small army fronted by a towering 1950s robot shouting anti-Communist slogans, with red, green, and blue lasers and plasma blasts lighting up the night sky — man, that was as epic a scene as any I’ve seen in a game or movie. I had to pause the game briefly just tot hink about how far it had brought me from that first moment I emerged wearing nothing but a jumpsuit and armed with a small calibre pistol to fumble around the wasteland. It was a fantastic moment in a game full of fantastic moments, so much so that I regretted that I’d eventually gotten around to finishing the things that would bring the plot to a close.
A good deal of what helped me immerse myself in the game is the design. Like BioShock, Fallout 3 goes for a retro-future design, a world that was well into the futurism imagined in the 1950s before atomic war and a conflict with the Chinese decimated the world. What is left behind is a pop art blend of Flash Gordonesque science fiction mixed with the punk aesthetic of Road Warrior and the good, clean living of Leave it to Beaver. All of it is accompanied by, if you chose, a selection of standards from the jazz years, most of them hits from the 1920s-1940s (my favorite era for music). So if you’ve ever wanted to shotgun your way through a throng of super-mutants while listening to Cole Porter or fend off waves of monster ants while Jack Shaindlin croons “I’m Tickled Pink,” then you are in luck. Depending on your tastes, however, you can also listen to a radio station owned by The Enclave — a shadowy group of high-tech soldiers led by an unseen man claiming to be the President. Their taste runs toward “Halls of Montezuma” style political rally standards. Or, you can simply turn your radio off and listen to Inon Zur’s score, which is fantastic.
The artwork is pretty fantastic as well. I already mentioned that first time I caught a glimpse of the distant DC ruins against the setting sun, but overall there is something very compelling about a game set in such familiar surroundings. The blend of iconic DC locations, 1950s Americana, and 1940s style futurism was basically custom made to appeal to me. Outside of the city, the sight of strange structures — rocket ships, radar arrays, lone high rise buildings — against the distant horizon further stokes the desire to wander around. You can eventually earn a perk that shows every potential location on your map, but it’s almost more fun to simply stumble across them with only a vague idea of what might be waiting for you when you get there. Also scattered around the Capitol Wasteland are ads and magazines with a perfect period feel to them — my personal favorite being the billboards for Captain Cosmos, featuring Jangles the Moon Monkey.
Not everything about the game, as much as I loved it, is steak and onions though. Most of my complaints aren’t really complaints as much as they are comments on the direction I’d like to see games like this take — keeping in mind that something like Fallout 3 is very much the direction I’d like to see games go (though not to the exclusion of other types of games — it talkes all sorts, after all). Most of the refinements I want from gaming are more philosophical than technical, though a few relate directly to gameplay. For instance, I’d love to see non-player characters (NPCs) more accurately react to changes in situations. Like, if I am walking around Tenpenny Towers, a fortress built out of an exclusive high-rise hotel and populated by post-apocalyptic rich folk who hate “ghouls” (humans who have been mutated into corpse-faced folk) and my sidekick is a shotgun toting ghoul, perhaps the game should be smart enough to acknowledge that. Or if I am walking the wasteland clad in power-armor, armed with a plasma rifle, and accompanied by a super-mutant with a Gatling laser, it’d be nice if the game was smart enough to recognize that some half-naked punk armed with a switchblade would likely think twice about attacking me.
The game also suffers a bit from the fact that, aside from hiring Liam Neeson to mumble a few lines for the father character, most of the other characters seem to have been voiced by one guy doing either cartoony old man voice or cartoony gravel voice. The dialogue and dialogue choices are usually OK, and the voice acting is actually pretty good, but it’s a bit cheap feeling to have everyone sounding the same. I do like moments where passersby will cheerfully greet you with a “Hi, what’s up!” but if you stop to talk to them, they respond with something like “Get the fuck out of my face!”
But these are pretty minor snipes in the face of my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the game. Fallout 3 and other open-world games like it are difficult to review since they require you to be looking for a very specific something that is a bit outside of the norm in video games. There is action, to be sure, but the shooter aspect of the game is not front and center. And there is role playing, but that too is pretty spaced out. You have to go into something like Fallout 3 with a desire to simply lose yourself in exploration. It’s as much a walkabout as it is a game, and if your criteria for stimulating play doesn’t include poking around in ruins and walking across wasteland landscapes while listening to music, then this sort of game is going to try your patience. But if you are looking to lose yourself in a world, Fallout 3 is a fantastic place to do it. Like I said, I ended up spending an ungodly amount of time out there. Some of it was almost meditative, Some of it was obsessive. All of it was worth the late night hours I spent playing the game instead of watching that movie where a platoon of vampires fight drug cartels in 1980s South America.