A flash of light, and I burst free from my mum’s love-cavern. Straight outta the womb and into the arms of Hollywood royalty. Liam Neeson is my dad (and can batter your dad). My tiny eyes adjust to the hospital light while Daddy talks to me about what my name will be. Then, jarringly, a text input screen appears so I can enter my name (I choose Mund, for reasons few will understand). The personalisation aspect is a nice touch, but isn’t there more seamless ways to incorporate it? Neeson rabbits on, mum has some ominous health problems and the scene ends.
I move forward in time. and I’m being taken to a playpen. Further character customisation begins. I escape the pen and, after throwing some toys around, find a book. This book, drawn to look like a normal kids book, is key to choosing your character’s aspects. I up my charisma, intelligence and strength. If only real life was so easy (+10 Writing Points). Neeson reinforces that mum is definitely dead (ah the subtlety of game narrative), and I’m time jumping again.
It’s my tenth birthday. Yay. I get my first Pip-Boy, a portable inventory, map, radio system. I’m immersed in the game by now, but a dialogue scene brings me out. Some old dear gabs away to me. Over her shoulder I can see three youngsters. I notice one, and can’t figure out if he has frozen as the dialogue runs or is just very still. Then I spot the boy seated beside him. He’d obviously been mid-drink when the conversation started, so the cup has frozen at his mouth. For the duration of the dialogue I can’t help but look at the boy taking the longest drink ever. From then on I pay less than full attention in any conversation with a visible background character. I’m too busy watching to see what they’re doing when the dialogue starts. Combined with the strange camera moves when dialogue starts, this stops me being completely absorbed in the game.
The frozen youngsters from the party come back to life. They’re bullies; it’s obvious that I’ll have problems with them later. There’s a girl at the party who I obviously have a fondness for. I’ll no doubt see her later. That sounds a mite stalky.
Now I’m 16. And look, there’s the bullies from six years ago. They’ve grown and are in a 50s style gang. This sounds ridiculous (to be honest it looks it too) but is fitting for Fallout. This is the post-apocalyptic future as imagined by the populous of the 50s. Not ours, but a hepcat future. The gang is harassing the girl from earlier. I step in, of course, because I am noble. But I fear a whooping.
For those unfamiliar with Role-Playing Games (RPGs), the games often give you the chance to act in a number of characteristically differently ways. Roughly speaking, you’re given three different options of either speech or action. You choose from:
- The Nice Option. You take the heroic choice, you do the right thing
- The Middling Option. You choose neither the light or dark side, and go grey, often with boring outcomes. This has little effect on your character’s development
- The Ass Option. You are a selfish ass
I always arrive at a paradox. I want, desperately, to be an ass. But I can’t bring myself to. If you give yourself to the ass (not in a Human Centipede way) you should do so fully, and continue down Ass Road for the entirety of the game. Mixing some ass choices with nice or middling just seems wrong. You need full commitment. And I can’t bring myself to be an ass forever. I think this is a subconscious desire to align my real and virtual personalities so I can further empathise with my in-game character. I always choose nice. How dull.
So I can’t help but defend the girl from the gang’s harassment, though I’m cognizant enough to know that my combat talents (as defined by the game) probably aren’t high enough to deliver a whooping. I start dialogue in the hopes of finding a ‘act nobly but avoid violence’ option. Of course there isn’t one. Fighting starts. I opt for the rather unusual ‘punch, run in a circle, punch again’ strategy. Fallout 3 gives you two combat options: standard real-time battle, or use of turn-based system called VATS. VATS gives you a number of ‘hit points’ to use, then takes time to recharge. So I throw a few blows at the closest gang member, then run around until it recharges. It’s surprisingly effective. The gang bow out, the chick respects me. I am god.
Later on, it all kicks off. Sirens sound. Radroaches (radioactive cockroaches) are swarming in the vault, attacking people. And, oh yeah, my dad’s escaped the vault. For some reason this means that vault security are trying to kill me. I have no choice but to follow in Neeson’s footsteps and leave. Up to this point, the game has repeatedly mentioned how no one leaves the vault. It’s blatantly obvious that you’re going to leave, even if you knew nothing of the Fallout series. One criticism of game narrative is that it never incorporates foreshadowing. Fallout 3 has too much.
A guard appears and tries to kill me. He dies by my hand. His body becomes the first of many that I loot. I take his helmet and uniform. I assume that, Hitman style, I can use this as a disguise. Yet I’m immediately fired on by the first guard I see. Maybe they can see my mohawk through the helmet.
I soon bump into Butch, the gang leader. His mum is being attacked by the radroaches and he’s too scared to fight them off. He asks me to save her. I recall saving her on my initial play-through, and wonder what other options I have. After a few dialogue choices I realise that I can give him my BB gun to kill the roaches himself (I now have the guard’s pistol as weapon of choice). Handing the gun over, the change in Butch is visible. He’s emboldened. Now more man than teenager, he races off to save his mum. As I go to leave I hear shots. I wonder if it’s Butch. I follow the sound and also hear a woman’s screams. I see Butch killing the roaches, protecting her. It’s time like this I realise how great games are. Not only could this event have played out in various ways, but in this case this scene would probably play whether I was there to watch it or not. It’s moments like this that engage you in a world, and shows the power that RPGs have that most other games don’t.
I wonder if this will have repercussions later in the game. Will I meet Butch again, and would he be different depending on how I managed our encounter him? Would he be nobly protecting people in the outside world because of me? Would he be a despicable criminal if I hadn’t helped, traumatised by his mother’s death, and irate at me for not helping? Could my arming of him make him all the more arrogant and power hungry? Imagine if he turned out so evil because I helped him, that it would have been for the best if I had let his mum die. What a horrible and brilliant scenario.
I move on, killing a few guards. I see the girl being interrogated. I burst in to help her (again). I realise that her dad is involved. He is the vault overseer, and the man I need a key from to escape the vault. After saving his daughter from harm, I then threaten to hurt her. Her dad somehow falls for this ruse and offers up the key. I’m almost out of the vault when she appears again. She can’t leave with me, her place is here. That’s unsurprising. Fallout 3 is a game that reeks of isolation. At least when I first begin to wander the Earth’s burnt-out carcass, I know I will do so alone. I leave. There’s a nice moment of character AI where more guards appear and fire at me as I near the exit, but are too scared to follow me.
The eye-blur motif kicks in again, as I am briefly blinded by my first look at the sun. The ravaged world stretches out before me. The vastness is the first thing that strikes you, the ruination is second. Everything is destroyed, buildings, cars. A road snakes around a hill, then descends into dirt and rubble, never to resume its path. I stand and take in the view before moving down and onwards. Here I come, cruel world, try not to kill me too often.