Duck...and Cover!

I like Fallout 3 quite a lot, so much so that I’m going to review it even though psu already did. This article might contain minor plot spoilers, but I don’t think they are anything you won’t figure out in the first 15 minutes of playing.

“Fallout 3 is great” is not exactly a controversial opinion. Apart from a few irredeemable nut-jobs, everyone in the entire world agrees that in Fallout 3 Bethesda Softworks accomplished what it set out to do: deliver a compelling game set in the post-nuclear Washington, DC.

What’s surprising to me is that some of what makes Fallout work are things I thought would work against it. Pete and I were chatting before the release, and I opined that I expected it to be, essentially, “Oblivion With Guns” and that the only question was whether Oblivion With Guns was fun or not. To a large extent, I was absolutely right: anyone who has played Oblivion is going to recognize Fallout as the exact same game with different trappings.

Perhaps the lesson of Fallout 3 is: trappings matter. A lot.

We’re pretty harsh here at Tea Leaves on people who claim to want realism in their games. Generally speaking, realism sucks and can only hurt a game. But some degree of contextual plausibility is vital. One of the things in Oblivion that always frustrated me was that the game’s narrative and its mechanics were constantly at each others’ throats. You’re in the seat of a world-spanning empire with a huge disciplined military and police force, and you take three steps out of the capitol city and can be mauled by a bear. It’s not just that getting mauled by a bear isn’t fun. It’s that getting mauled by the bear makes the narrative less plausible.

In Fallout, the mechanics of the larger world haven’t really changed: take three steps outside of a settlement, and you might be mauled by a 12-foot long scorpion. But the settlement itself is located in the irradiated ruins of a Washington, DC suburb, and its residents are locked in a daily struggle just for food and water. The narrative and the mechanics work together: the monstrous radioactive scorpion makes the plight of the wastelanders more plausible, not less.

There are a few mechanical distinctions from Oblivion that are worth mentioning. The psychotic skill-based leveling system from the Elder Scrolls games is gone, replaced by a much more straightforward system of stats, skills, and “perks”, bonus powers that range from useful to intentionally hilarious. More importantly, combat overall is much easier. While I suppose it might be theoretically possible to create a Fallout character who is bad at combat, you’d probably have to do it on purpose.

But I don’t want to get bogged down discussing the mechanics of the game. In the end, they’re not what makes it compelling. What makes the game compelling is the setting, art design, and writing.

Fallout 3 takes place in a future America that is different from our own, yet recognizable. The sensibility could have been lifted straight out of one of the pamphlets of the Church of the Subgenius. Imagine a world where technology advanced as in our own, but the culture, politics, architecture, and overall design sensibility were frozen in the 1950s. In the wreckage of Fallout’s Washington, D.C., we see the reflection of America as paranoid, patriotic, militaristic, and where apple pie, baseball, and the 3-martini lunch are sacraments. It is our own face, as seen through a glass darkly.

Younger readers, I hope, have never seriously had to worry about nuclear war. But when I grew up in the waning years of the cold war, this was something that still scared children, or at least me. Third graders of my generation believed that there were evil communists who might, at a moment’s notice, decide to blow us all to kingdom come.

The terrors of today are no less frightening, but are perhaps not quite so all-encompassing. When Fallout is firing on all cylinders, it taps into those fears deeply, and effectively. Often without words.

One of my favorite moments in the game takes place in a small suburb now called ‘Minefield”. A crazed sniper has generously larded the town with mines, which might explain why it is comparatively intact. After taking out the sniper and disarming the mines, the natural thing to do is to explore the ruined houses. Inside, the scenes are dark indeed: a child’s room, his toys littering the floor, the skeleton of the young man himself in bed. In the next room, you’ll find the remains of his parents in their bed; they are spooning, the husband’s skeletal arm draped casually over his wife’s pelvic bone. Next door, you’ll find someone met their end in the bathtub.

There is no dialogue here, but this is writing, and strong writing at that. It is the accumulation of these details that gives Fallout its brutal beauty. There is typically no game-driven reason to seek out these tableaux. Early on there is some incentive to explore to find guns and ammo, but I found that within a few hours I had enough weaponry to singlehandedly take on the Chinese army. The game rewards exploration simply by sketching out story after story, usually in an intentionally incomplete and mysterious fashion. The mystery doesn’t make these stories frustrating. It makes them compelling.

There are three competing sensibilities reverberating throughout Fallout 3. The first sensibility is the ironic, winking, ha-ha-look-at-the-silly-1950s- graphic-design vibe that the game inherited from its predecessors. The second is the Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic wasteland vibe. Both of these existed in the previous games. What Fallout 3 adds to the mix is the third sensibility: a sense of simple horror and loss, of empathy with the dead. This, to me, makes the writing in Fallout 3 much stronger than that of its predecessors. The acknowledgement of loss, without irony or mockery is, to me, the difference between adolescence and adulthood.

There’s one fault line in the writing that is worth mentioning. Fallout 3 essentially consists of two games in one. The first game is an open-ended post-nuclear world where you can wander anywhere and do anything in any order. Sometimes this may get you killed, but it’s your choice. The second game, which I’ll call, in a very minor spoiler, The Quest To Find Dad, is a linear series of quests that send you around the world in a very specific lockstep order.

The open-ended game is more interesting than the main quest, to the point where I spent a solid 2 weeks ignoring the main quest and wandering randomly. Several times, however, I ended up stumbling on to major clues or elements of The Quest To Find Dad way before I “should” have. Because I’m type A about not missing plot exposition, this usually resulted in my reloading an earlier save so I could avoid finding dear old dad before I was supposed to. This is the most visible seam in what is otherwise a fairly cohesive world.

Fallout 3 is not without its flaws, but dwelling on those flaws would miss the forest for the trees. It’s not the best game ever made – that honor goes to Portal – but it’s certainly a significant game well worth playing. How much you get out of it is related to how much you put into it.

There are comparatively few games that invade my dreams. Fallout 3 is one of them.

Oh, one more thing: several add-on sets have been announced for early next year. The second expansion, due to hit in February? That takes place in an industrial wasteland called The Pitt: the ruins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

As far as I’m concerned, February 2009 can’t come fast enough.