Monday, December 15, 2008
How I learned to stop worrying and love Fallout
I can admit when I've been prejudiced. Everything I heard about Fallout 3 made me suspect it wasn't as good as the rapturous reviews would suggest. That's not a fair way to put it: I was pretty sure I wouldn't like this game, despite its virtues. Mostly, that's because I didn't like Oblivion, and nothing I heard about Fallout made me think it was going to be different. Massive game world. Long-ass quests. Karma. Conversations with creepy, dead-eyed characters who have retarded requests. This is not a recipe for the kind of game I'm usually into.
For a while there, I thought I was right. Fallout's first hour is pretty interesting, both for the way it sets the scene and for the way it goes about the usual RPG rigmarole of creating your character. When I played Oblivion, I kid you not, I spent about ten minutes paging through the classes, trying to figure out what I should be. I eventually settled on "Dark Elf" and spent the rest of my (brief) playing time wondering if I'd made a mistake.
That's what happens in these games. You can perform the good action or the bad action, and each one comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. But I can't think of it that way. All I can think is that I chose the wrong one, I blew it, and I've doomed myself to a less-than-ideal experience for the next 100+ hours, all because of that idiotic decision I made before I had even played enough to know better. This first happened in Fallout, by the way, before I'd even left Vault 101. I thought the Overseer was attacking me, you see. I thought it was self-defense! It wasn't until his daughter was yelling at me that I realized I'd messed up. I could have gone back and re-loaded an earlier save, but that's the coward's way out. A man takes responsibility for his actions.
Anyway, I did like the way Fallout went about its character creation. When you're born, your dad says "We're going to name you --" and then you get to fill in your own name. That's the same way you determine your basic attributes, and your appearance. I still am not sure why you get so many ways to customize your physical appearance. You never see yourself except in those slow-motion VATS sequences, and my face has been covered by a mask 90% of the time. Just more things to fret about and, later, regret. (Why, oh why did I pick the guy with the sideburns?)
Later on, you take a Wonderlic-like test that fleshes out your character fully. But again, I agonized over these choices. I was convinced I picked the wrong ones. Even when Levar Burton (that was him, right?) gave me a chance to change my attributes later, I said no. This was my lot in life -- my cross to bear. Off I went, into the wasteland, muttering to myself the whole time, "Why did I stick with melee and science? Why? I should have chosen guns!"
I was committed to playing as a good guy. I only wanted to do that which would earn me positive karma. So when Moira Brown in Megaton asked me to help her research a book, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I was like a brownnosing grad student working for a star professor. Sure, I'll run down to the grocery store and grab some food for you! (I made two attempts to get the medicine, too, but those Raiders were too much for me.) With that accomplished, my next task was to afflict myself with radiation poisoning so she could study its effects. Again, I accepted the job, a little more hesitantly this time.
It was only after I spent five minutes slurping down irradiated water at a nearby well that I first thought to myself, "This is fucking stupid." I felt the same way a little later, when I was circling a pillar opposite a minigun-wielding mutant waiting for my action points to build up so I could VATS his skull in. And when I found out the the world map is basically useless for helping you get to where you want to go, I could feel myself about to get self-congratulatory and preachy.
But somewhere along the way, those bizarre quest goals and gameplay irritations faded as the allure of the wasteland started to take hold. When Ryan was reviewing Fallout for the Phoenix and I asked him how it was, he put it this way: "If you're walking down the street and you see the Lincoln Memorial, you're not going to not go in there." That is exactly what happens. I can't think of a better way to explain it.
Admittedly, even this sometimes has its drawbacks. On my way to Rivet City to talk to Doctor Li, I came across the Jefferson Memorial, and figured I'd take a look. Inside, I found a bunch of records my dad had left in there. Presumably, Dr. Li would have told me to go back to the Memorial to find them, so it was just efficiency on my part. But I generally prefer to be led along a dramatic path in a game, instead of stumbling my way through. I'm given so much agency in Fallout that I can actually play it in a way I'd consider to be wrong.
But the flipside was what happened when I was trekking up to Arefu and discovered Vault 106. It wasn't part of any quest: just another miserable, tucked-away place in the wasteland, home to a few straggling survivors who had all, regrettably, gone batshit insane. Vault 106 was bigger than I thought, and when the lights started turning blue and I saw people appearing and disappearing, I thought my Xbox was on the verge of melting.*
After I realized that, no, this was supposed to happen, that was when everything clicked. There was no reason to go into Vault 106, except that it was there. Inside was an entire chapter of the history Bethesda has built for this game. That was its purpose: to show me this world. I had only to look.
*I've been having serious problems, actually, and I don't know if it's the software or the hardware. Fallout has locked up on me about three times, and once the audio turned ungodly staticky for about a minute before cutting out entirely. Not to mention the Megaton Settler with no head, and a beam of light shooting from her neck into the sky.