Thursday, June 28, 2012

How We Learned to Get Along After the Bomb

I've been spending most of my free time playing video games instead of reading the news because fuck you and fuck your election. And while I drift between indie platformers and good ol' war porn, I always find myself drawn back to one game in particular -

Fallout 3.

Pictured - 90% of the game and you'll never mind.

It's been out for almost four years now, a dinosaur by current standards. It's been patched, it's got half a dozen DLC packs, and it's not on anyone's radar. And it's still magnificent.

Basic premise - the Cold War went hot and Earth got nuked silly. That's been used as a fictional setting for seventy years now but it works brilliantly in Fallout for a number of reasons. First, the setting is an intentional throwback to both the cheesy optimism and slow-boiling paranoia of the 1950s, right down to the grimy clothes and burned billboards extolling the wonders of Tomorrow. This would just be background if the creative team behind Fallout didn't have a brilliant satirical awareness, leading to atomic cars that explode into mushroom clouds, a rump state president constantly broadcasting his plan to revitalize civilization through baseball, and a lovable old man who cheerfully declares, "God bless the USA! And nowhere else!" Add in dozens of little adventures to have in this post-nuclear hellscape - from battling mutants to freeing slaves to collecting radioactive cola - and you got one of the most original and vast games ever.

And a dog!

The game kicks off with you being born - literally, bloody placenta and all! - into this world and running through aquick tutorial grafted into the milestones of childhood such as birthdays, BB guns, and standardized tests. Then everything goes to hell and you have to escape from the subteranean vault of youth into the bright, scary world of adulthood. Where you go from there is up to you but the game has dozens of side quests across the Capitol Wasteland, in addition to your primary quest of tracking down your dad. I've played the main storyline of this game half a dozen times and the side stories about as much. And I still can't get enough of it.

And these really are stories - you don't get a "Bring me X scalps of Y monster," but characters with their own drama to resolve. Sometimes you resolve said drama with lots of explosions but just as often you'll have to talk to people, saying just the right things to get them on your side. Screw it up, and you've blown your chances with those people and whatever help they could've provided down the line (assuming you don't just re-start from your last save like a cheap pansy-ass).

Or you can murder the bajeesus out of everything you come across. The game provides ample weaponry to do just that - up to nukes! - without any boundaries other than a "Karma Meter" you can safely ignore. Drop too low and the Regulators, Old West-style lawmen, come to take you down but rise too high and it's degenerate mercs doing the same. It's like they're saying, "You're screwed either way, you gonna be an asshole about it?"


Nice metaphor for life, that. And it makes playing Fallout 3 into a sort of Rorschach test. Grand Theft Auto is the go-to for hand-wringing over violence in video games making people into monsters, but you can't not play GTA without being a mass-murderer - similar to every first person shooter ever. In contrast, Fallout provides you the opportunity to do the same but whether or not you do is entirely your own choice.

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