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On Fallout 3

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Fallout 3. It was one of the first games that I picked up when I first bought my Xbox 360, having only a laptop at the time that was unable to meet the required specifications for the PC version. It had come highly recommended, not only by professional reviewers but from friends as well. I also have a soft spot in my heart for post-apocolyptic settings and was eager to see where it would go.

And yet, the game failed to live up to expectations. On my first playthrough I strictly proceeded with the story missions, only to reach a point where the level of enemies greatly outweighed my skill. Friends told me that I should have explored and completed some of the optional missions first: it was the exploration of the wide-open world where the fun lay. My second playthrough featured a lot of wandering, to the point where I accidentally skipped a large portion of the story and found myself trapped in a boss battle without any of the NPC support I had the first time around. My third playthrough was an experiment to see how flexible the game was: having been told that “it’s a completely different game if you play evil”, I decided to blow up Megaton for the first time and made a character focused on combat (as opposed to the “smart” character I had played in the past). Yet despite the promises made of a completely different game experience, I found that not a lot had changed. The friends I had spoken to back-pedalled: “Well we didn’t say it would be that much of a completely different game experience”.

Was it all a case of the word of others raising my hopes too high?

What really frustrates me is that I can see just why Fallout 3 is such a highly-regarded game. The world that has been created is incredible in both its depth and detail. An impressive amount of flexibility has been built into the game world, allowing multiple methods to proceeding through the game; how many games would allow me to skip a large portion of the story simply by going to the right place at the wrong time? The mood swings between sombre fatalism and sardonic humour without missing a beat: one minute you’re listening to an account of a starving family on the brink of death, and the next you’re listening to a cola addict describe how a radioactive isotope in a certain brand makes your piss glow blue for a week.

But I just can’t bring myself to like the game.

My main problem is with the Karma system. The Fallout 3 team have put a lot of effort into making a game with a lot of ambiguous morality. The Karma system ruins this by effectively putting “good” and “evil” labels on your actions. It also falls prey to the usual problems with morality-based systems: the utter lack of middle-ground between saintly good and Hitlery (it’s an adjective) bad; a calculation system that balances giving 500 gold to charity with killing five innocent old ladies; and the lack of motivation in your actions, making it impossible to do a good act for an evil reason. The first time I played the game, I played as a selfish bitch whose only goal was to be reunited with my father. I was rude and sarcastic to everyone, but I was also pragmatic: if a bum asked for pure water and I had nothing to lose by giving it to him, I gave it. If given the chance to be cruel for no reason (or when there was nothing to gain), I put my knife away. Yet despite my attitude, the game saw fit to christen me the second coming of Christ: a pacifist who spared everyone and loved all of God’s creatures. I think the only time the game correctly assessed my Neutrality was when I played two characters against each other and took the rewards from both.

What bothers me the most is how the amount of characterisation in the game conflicts with the very worst “evil” choices. While your life inside Vault 101 is not idealistic, you have a loving father and a devoted friend: it takes a large leap of the imagination for your character to emerge as a mass-murdering psychopath who would willingly set off a nuclear bomb and wipe out one of the few remaining human settlements in the game. The same problem is evident in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption: the main character consistently insists that he is trying to turn over a new leaf (hence the “Redemption” in the title), yet the game presents the option of carrying out so many crimes that it makes him either a psychopath or someone with a severe case of split personality disorder. I know that the main thing players love to do in “open world” games is piss about, but introducing that element will inevitably weaken your story’s integrity. You can’t create a character in a game and then allow the player to completely contradict that character without ruining suspension of disbelief. It’s a problem I consistently find in Bioware’s games, with the notable exception of the superb Mass Effect games.

Maybe there’s no “right” way to play a game like Fallout 3. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with it. Whereas games like Just Cause 2 and Fable 2 are willing to set you up with an excuse plot and a wide-open world to mess around in, Fallout 3 tries to have its cake and eat it too. I would have greatly preferred a threadbare set-up with room for imagination and emergent gameplay instead of the shoehorned backstory that only serves to irritate and hold me back.

  1. Gil
    August 24, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    That’s truly an interesting way to see it. I guess I loved the game primarily for the gameplay as opposed to the story. Then again I typically play the good guy first playthrough and so it did coincide with the story. I think the inherent flaw in trying to create a game with 2 (or more) distinct endings is that you would have to create entirely different games for each ending. There seems to barely be enough time to create a single game let alone 2 at the same time. This being true, I think game programmers try to create the a pseudo alternate story line that really doesn’t veer too far off from the primary story. It’s trying to trick us into feeling like there is an alternate path when really it’s the same with minor changes.

    With Fallout 3 I think the biggest alternate path of the moral choices is the destruction or salvation of Megaton. Either choice still leads to the overall conclusion of finding your father. The difference is pretty much on where your storage house is. A very minor change in the story actually.

    • August 25, 2010 at 12:23 am

      I wouldn’t call it a minor change since you’re essentially wiping a settlement off the map. What I found really disconcerting is that when you meet up with your dad, he tells you that he knows you blew up Megaton and chastises you for it. This is the guy who single-handedly raised you and instilled his values into you… yet one of the first things you do when you leave the Vault- to look for him specifically because you love him so much- is act completely contrary to everything he taught you. And he lets you know it.

      I feel like if they had allowed you to alter your father’s personality while in the Vault, it would have given a lot more creative freedom. Maybe he teaches you that the ends justify the means, or to survive first at the cost of others. A small change like that- it would only be a few lines of dialogue- would have gone a long way to at least setting up an “bad karma” character.

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