Over the past few months I’ve been spending a lot of time playing Fallout 3 and by a lot of time I mean almost 400 hours. This is actually the most time I’ve ever spent playing any game, so this week I wanted to share some of the experiences that really highlighted why I loved playing Fallout 3. Next week I’ll be doing the opposite of that and essentially discussing why I quit after a few hours and wanted to stop playing from time-to-time.
When is the beginning of Fallout 3? When does the game really start? For me, that moment is when you escape Vault 101. When you look into the destroyed, brown landscape with the wind blowing dust and dirt around you. That is when the game truly begins. Most games struggle with finding a good way to start. There have been so many spectacular games that falter during the first few minutes, but Fallout 3 nails it. The moment when you leave the Vault and suddenly the Wasteland is laid out in front of you to explore, that moment seems to stick in my mind as epitomizing everything that is Fallout 3. You are called “The Lone Wanderer” and at this moment there is no greater sense of loneliness and loss than when you first escape the Vault. On one level you successfully escaped, but on another you escaped into a much harsher place.
When so many games focus on white males, Fallout 3 must have one of the most diverse cast of characters around. One of the greatest accomplishments of the game must be the prominent role women play in it. For example, Fallout 3 has many women doctors; Red, Cutter, Madison Li, for example. The Wasteland is a place with little to no educational opportunities and these women are doctors. Women are also some of the coolest characters in the game being portrayed as explorers and soldiers. Sentinel Sarah Lyons, Star Paladin Cross, Reilly, Sydney and Machete are all women portrayed as warriors and soldiers. The racial diversity of Fallout 3 is highlighted even more when you look at the women I just named; Red is African, Cutter is Caucasian, Madison Li is Asian, Sarah Lyons is Caucasian, Cross is African, Reilly is Caucasian, Sydney is Asian and Machete is Hispanic. It’s as though somebody at Bethesda had a clipboard and was marking off as many different combinations of people they could come up with. The icing on the cake is that Sydney, who is one of my favorite characters in the game, may be a lesbian. It’s never explicit, but there are several indications if you spend enough time with her. It’s as though society crumbled, but so did any racial, gender, or sexual bias that was part of society.
Exploration has always been one aspect of gaming that I’ve enjoyed. For a game to truly draw me in there needs to be a compelling story or an emphasis on exploration. While Fallout 3 does have a good story, the exploration carries it through. Early on in my wandering I came across a group of people who believed they were vampires. I had actually been searching for a boy who I believed had been taken by Raiders, but when I was initially welcomed by the vampires my astonishment grew as it dawned on me who they were. The boy had actually killed his parents and fled with the group. Once I had discovered what was going on, I initially intended to kill the vampires, but I realized that they were actually fairly peaceful and not at all a threatening group of people. Exploration doesn’t always mean scenery. For me, it means setting out to find an adventure and that doesn’t always include fighting. After I had completed this early quest I realized what kind of a game I was playing. My expectations were about a daring rescue at gunpoint, but after looking at the situation it became a negotiation.
I’m sure everyone always talks about the atmosphere when they bring up Fallout 3, but I’m definitely going to do it again. One of the reasons people fall in love with Fallout is because of the detail with which the universe is built. The details that the designers went through to build the Capital Wasteland was immense. There are buildings that were destroyed in the nuclear blasts and then there are buildings that have simply fallen apart and become dilapidated. Bethesda had spent so much time crafting different sections and considering how they would appear to the player that while the game at a glance is a blend of brown and grey different parts of the city feel unique. Even elements like dirt and dust floating in the air while exploring a building add to the sense of decay. Each detail that was crafted into the game makes the experience more vivid. It is these details that encourages you to explore. When every new location could yield a variety of adventures it’s hard to stop playing.
Many people discuss the narrative and the overall story of the Lone Wanderer when they talk to me about Fallout 3, but this is a tricky subject. The story of my character always felt unique to me. I’m sure other players made similar choices, but the choices I made shaped the way I perceived the game, I was the hero. I was the One True Messiah and there was no doubt in my mind what choice I would make in any given situation. I would be the hero. In a separate playthrough I spent some time being the villain. I saw how my villainous actions affected the Wasteland and for me it was never as much fun as choosing to be the hero. That’s the defining feature of these kind of games for me. I really like having the choice between hero and villain, but even when I’m given the choice, I will choose hero, because that’s just me. The choice matters a lot to me. I’m choosing my own identity and that draws me into the game more than any other superficial choices about my character.
Choosing to be the hero is what brings me to my next aspect I love about Fallout 3; the moral ambiguity. When the game confronts me with a situation that really makes me think about what the “right” choice to make is, it encourages me evaluate and consider all the possibilities that the game has for me. It forces me to take action and then justify my decision. Most of the situations have a clear right and wrong, but there is just enough to lull you into sense of security for when a big one comes around. When you find yourself having to really consider the ramifications of your actions. The kind of situation that you regret. It is when you find yourself feeling justified in killing a mother and father and stealing their child. These moral ambiguities are what really bring the game into your life. It’s these choices that we think about long after we are done playing and what brings the game home.
Next week, I’ll be talking about all the things that I hated in Fallout 3 and most of them have to do with situations where the game suddenly stopped playing to these strengths. My favorite aspect of Fallout 3 is the exploration. Exploring the Capital Wasteland and wandering around the ruins of D.C. was amazing. Spending time hearing that haunting music accompany me as I see the sun rise is some of the best gameplay I’ve ever experienced. While part of me wants to dive back in for another 400 hours, the other part of me wanted to quit in frustration on a regular basis.
Dan Hoyt has been an avid gamer his entire life. When he’s not playing games, he’s working out by walking his dog, hiking and doing martial arts. He likes to try new kinds of alcohol and discuss politics. He’s a graduate of The University of Kansas and has spent years as a journalist.