(This is an essay that I wrote last year, I never got around to publishing it. I just picked up Fallout New Vegas, so I figured that I should post it online before I begin to play the new one.)
An Exploration Of Fallout 3 (Game of the Year Edition) PS3
An Interactive Narrative
By Brian A. Bernhard
(WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS, If you do not wish to learn about specific plot points and game mechanics of Fallout 3, please do not read!)
At its core Fallout 3 is a first or third person sandbox style role-playing video game. Meaning that it is designed to be a big open world where the player can explore a map discovering many different sub-plots and stories, while choosing weather or not to pursue the main narrative of the game. This kind of game allows for the player to experience the game at their own pace, and play as much or as little as they want, in any order that they wish to proceed throughout the narrative.
The story of the game begins, at the birth of your customizable character. At the beginning of the game, you set your attributes and how you would like the character to look and develop. You are born to a world that has been devastated by a nuclear disaster and your only life experience has taken place in a vault, sealed off from the hostile outside Wasteland. Your father is a scientist, and while you are still learning how the game mechanics work, an incident occurs sparking your father to disobey orders from the vault supervisor, called “The Overseer” and leave the vault in order to pursue some sort of crazy unknown quest. Your father’s action causes “The Overseer” to turn against you, forcing you to find your way out of the vault in order to avoid being arrested and begin the search for your missing father.
Your character and you are left completely in the dark about what is actually going on. The game is designed to only give enough information and story to keep you (the player) sucked into the mystery, always searching for the next piece of narrative transforming into a detective discovering plots and sub-plots by interacting with other characters throughout the Wasteland.
Once you emerge from the confines of Vault 101, the juicy/meaty parts of the Fallout 3 experience begin. Your character ventures out into the “sandbox” other wise know as “The Wasteland”. Armed with whatever you grabbed on your way out of the vault, not prepared for any unusual surprises.
Fallout 3 also meets all the required bullet points of an interactive narrative. There are many branching story lines within the game, all of which evoke a strong sense of agency within the game playing experience. During game play, the player will be expected to make choices, and the outcome of each story and sub-story will be adjusted according to the actions of the player. For example, your character may stumble upon a desperate beggar while exploring the “Wasteland”; this character might ask you for help, if you choose to help him, the character you are playing in the game might receive some points for “Good Karma”. Alternately, if you chose not to help the beggar, you might receive “Bad Karma”. These kind of moralistic choices drastically determine how other characters in the game respond to your interactions.
The game is designed so that every player will have a somewhat unique experience. Although, there are major game key-frames; the choices you make and sometimes the order that you choose to do them in effect the experiences that become available to you throughout the game. Because the game is such a massive experience I can only tell you about my story, my personal experience, my version of Fallout 3.
As I stumbled out into “The Wasteland” the only thing I had armed myself with was the baseball bat I snatched on my way out of Vault 101. Almost immediately, while I aimlessly wondered the post-apocalyptic Wasteland, some in game thugs called “Raiders” ambushed me. Once they detected my presence, they opened fire, I had no idea what to do, they had guns, I only had a baseball bat. I did the only thing I could think to do, I charged into the hail of bullets and beat them to death with my wooden slugger before they spilled my guts onto the dusty landscape.
After a few moments running throughout the game space under assault from a flying, spitting insect of some sort, I came upon the town of “Megaton”. Immediately upon entering the city walls, I was approached by a man claiming to be the town sheriff. He threatened me at first, but then asked me to disarm a huge active nuclear bomb that had become the focus point of the town square. While I continued to explore the town of “Megaton”, I discovered a local bar. There was a mysterious character sitting in a remote corner of the bar, after I had interacted and questioned just about everyone else in the bar I moseyed over to the mysterious character and began a dialogue sequence. This moment signified the moralistic turning point in the game system. The mysterious character took me aside and asked if, rather then disarming the bomb, that I would rig it to explode and destroy the entire town of “Megaton”. I decided to pursue the narrative arc of “a heroes journey”, so I declined his offer and exposed his request to the town sheriff, causing me to receive my first dose of “Good Karma”.
During the majority of my game play, I made distinct attempts to take the “moral highroad”. Eventually, the game would throw dilemmas at me where there would be no clear, black or white, moralistic highroad. The stories highlighted here are just a few of the more memorable moments of my game, where the decision making process dipped into a very gray area.
Throughout most of the game, some of the more difficult “bad guys” are called “Super Mutants”. These characters are massive killing machines that like to kidnap, torture and eat the humans living and wondering around in the Wasteland. While I was traveling among the ruins of Capitol Wasteland I happened upon a super mutant. Immediately, I began shooting at him, because I had been trained throughout my experience in the game that these “Super Mutants” were evil. I stopped shooting long enough to realize that he was not attacking me or even defending himself, in fact he had no weapons at all. I approached him to see what his deal was and realized that he had a unique name; this generally signifies that there is some sort of story attached to the character. Unfortunately, because I had already shot at him, he continued to run away and would no longer engage in conversation. Realizing my error, and not wanting this character to spread rumors of me being an evil killer to the other characters in the Wasteland, I killed him. I did not intending to kill him, I shot at him because the game trained my brain into thinking that all Super Mutants were evil; because I shot first and asked questions later, I no longer had access to whatever story or plot this random uniquely named Super Mutant had attached to him. Once I killed him, my karma points in the game dropped.
Another comparable experience I encountered on my journey was with the dogs. The Wasteland if full of Viscous Dogs that love nothing more than to eat you. While exploring an inlet just west of a town called Arefu, I encountered a dog, reacting in much the same way as my previous Super Mutant tragedy, instinctually I opened fire and gratuitously blasted the dog’s head off. Unfortunately, the dog was a pet that belonged to a typically friendly trader, whom under different circumstances would have bought and sold goods to me. Due to my over zealous actions, instead of a friendly discourse, the trader wanted me dead. Justifiably he confronted me with a steel pipe and revenge in his eyes intent on bludgeoning me in the head for the murder of his beloved pet.
The previous two examples were more or less a slight of hand trick the game plays on your experience in order to get you to question your own judgments. As the game progresses the choices become more questionable. The game begins to force you into making decisions that have no clear right or wrong outcome.
One of my first encounters with a questionable dilemma was on a mission to an area called, “Point Lookout”. During one of my many explorations between quests, I had stumbled upon a ferryboat. On the pier to the boat there was a woman that seemed relatively harmless, so I approached her to see if the game would allow an interaction. Not surprisingly it did; she was in a panic about her runaway daughter, rambling on about how she had run off to “Point Lookout” and begged me to go there and retrieve the young girl. Following the good-natured instincts of the heroic character I had been attempting to develop, I agreed to look for this woman’s daughter. So off to “Point Lookout” I went.
While most of the missions on “Point Lookout” were relatively straight forward, there was one specific task that was more difficult to navigate the moral fibers of good intentions. The title of this quest was, “The Dark Heart of Blackhall”. It began when you stumbled into Blackhall Manor while exploring a more desolate area of “Point Lookout”. As you worked your way through the rooms of the manor, you meet a sickly old man named, “Obadiah Blackhall”. He tells you a story about how the local crazy-redneck-zombie-thugs called, “The Swampfolk” stole one of his prized family heirlooms, a book called, “The Krivbeknih”. Obadiah requests you to repossess his book for a monetary reward. With no reason to question the intentions of the mission, under the impression that I was doing the harmless act of reclaiming stolen goods for a defenseless old timer, I set off on the task of book collection.
As you approach the area near where the book is supposed to be, a woman named “Marcella” stops you, she tells you old man Obadiah is not the feeble character he appears to be and he is planning to do some evil business with the book. She continues to say that the book must be destroyed and to not return it to the old man. The question that popped up in my brain was, “Can this woman be trusted?” The game does not clue you in, as there are many characters in the Fallout 3 experience trying to take advantage of you. In the end, I chose to destroy the book, this route grew into a much more difficult journey that had me travel back to the Wasteland and venture into a new area of the map I had not yet explored called, “The Dunwich” building.
The highlight of the Point Lookout story for me was all references to various H.P. Lovecraft stories. Lovecraft had written some of the most insanely creepy pulp horror stories ever put to paper and it’s a sign of decent storytelling when you can tell the writers have done their homework.
The two last stories I will write about are the events that occur in the “Oasis” and experiences to be had in the “Pitt”.
The Oasis is a very secluded remote area on the map that requires quite a long journey to get there. Waiting for you at the door are a group of friendly tree cult members. They tell you that their “God” needs to meet with you, but that you first need to undergo some sort of ritual. During the ritual they ask you to drink some kind of sap that causes you to blackout. When you come to, you are in a forest facing the backside of a large tree. As you move around the tree, you come to realize that it has a humanoid face. Once you engage the God-tree-with-a-man-face you quickly learn that it is in fact not a god but a human that has become the victim of the “Forced Evolutionary Virus” named Harold. Harold was a victim of a botched scientific experiment that caused a tree to grow on top of his head. After many years wondering around in the Wasteland Harold’s tree (Which he named Bob) grew too big and rooted itself into the ground. After being rooted in the same position for decades Harold was eager to meet an outsider, so that he could convince this outside to help him commit suicide. Once he makes a very strong convincing argument for your to help his assisted death, you are approached by the village leader, who tells you that in order to protect the village you must stunt the growth of the tree so it does not spread out of the walls of the Oasis. This seems a bit odd, but the argument is that if word of the Oasis gets out to the common grounds of the Wasteland, raiders and looters would destroy the village and kill the tree people. Once you placate the old man, you are approached by his wife who offers a yet a third option; to use a special ointment that will stimulate the trees growth into overdrive and pollinate the dried ruined earth of the Wasteland. This third option seemed to me to be the best option, but you still have to face the fact that in order to help the greater good, you will cause a friendly helpless tortured soul an existence of misery.
The Pitt is the story of a slave camp. You receive a strange S.O.S. radio signal on your personal computer that you are given the option to investigate or not. I decided to check it out so I made my way to the marker spot on the map. Upon my arrival a fellow named, “Wernher”, greeted me and proceeded to tell me the story of a group of raiders that have enslaved a large group of innocent folks and force them to work in a steelyard for personal gain. Of course playing the narrative of, “The Heroes Journey” I was more than willing to accept his mission to free a group of innocent people forced into slavery. So off I went, traveling down the train tracks to The Pitt. I had to sneak in to raider’s city in the disguise of an escaped slave. When I got to the front gates, a raider took all of my belongings, so that I was pretty much defenseless. I was still on a mission, I was going to free the slaves. A woman approached me and informed me that there was some sort of sickness in the city, and that the source of control and power the leader of the raiders had was the cure for this sickness. I was told that I needed to work my way into gaining the trust of the leader so that I could get close enough to steal the cure and bring it back to the slaves, thus ensuring their freedom. Once I worked my way up the chain gang in the slave pits, I finally met the leader and discovered the elusive and mysterious cure. Unfortunately, this is also where Fallout 3 forces you to test your moral compass. It just so happened that this cure was also a little baby, the daughter of the leader. If I decided to bring the cure back to the slaves, I would have to kidnap a baby! The choice was not very cut and dry at all, either I kidnap an innocent baby from the arms of a loving mother and father, or I free a group of people forced into slavery so they can unwittingly help rebuild the city for the betterment of everyone.
Fallout 3 does an amazing job of sucking the player into an intricate web of drama, horror, and deception. The development of the character and the story based upon your choices and actions in the game is pretty brilliant. The fact that a game can force you to question your moral fiber is pretty genus. Just the little details of the option to input your name at the beginning of the game, so that characters in the game refer to you by name, if you use your real name in the game, personalizes the experience, so that when mercenaries are hired to kill you, they are carrying a contract with your name on it. No one wants to see a contract killer holding a note with your name on it; it’s a terribly unnerving.
I have only highlighted a few of the stories buried deep within the gaming experience. There are many more deeply fulfilling narrative threads throughout the Wastelands and beyond. Stories of vampires, and lost children, a “Lord of the Flies” inspired narrative, kidnapping, robots and dozens of other very well thought detail rich plots.
The only real week point of the game is the character animation, constant freezing, and massive amount of glitches and bugs. My character would slip between texture maps on the game field and I would become stuck inside a rock. If an enemy was around it would not let me “fast travel” to another location in the map, I would have to reload my game, loosing any of the experience points I had earned sense my last save point. The terrible character animation can be over looked if you play the game in the “first person” mode. The freezing was the biggest issue when it comes to disrupting the flow of the experience. I believe it was a software update from Sony that caused the freezing to occur and it does not look like either Sony or the game manufacturer are willing to resolve the issue.
Over all, Fallout 3 is a fantastic interactive narrative that offers a rich, fulfilling gaming experience, with massive amounts of story and content. Although, at times it can be difficult not to get pissed off at the damn thing when it freezes in the middle of a dramatic moment.