I first played Fallout 3 when it came out in October 2008. I played it for all of about 25 hours before it got put to one side in favour of playing through Bioshock again with its PS3 release and a sack full of other titles that released during the same fortnight like LittleBigPlanet, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift, Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2.
Fallout 3 fell by the wayside as I just did not find myself engaging with the story or with the character of The Lone Wanderer. That it got dropped in favour of Bioshock, which I had already played through twice before on the 360, because of that game’s compelling story-telling, led to Fallout 3 getting filed in the also-rans section of my gaming subconscious.
That’s where it stayed until this September. I became somewhat disillusioned with games this year and especially the pace with which we seem to need to consume them. So this year I have played fewer games than I have the last couple of years but I have tended to spend more time with them.
I have documented here before the, frankly, ridiculous number of hours I have put into Dragon Age: Origins this year. While Borderlands has been my online game of choice leading to me spending a significant number of hours on Pandora.
As what passes for Summer in the UK faded into Autumn and my daily commutes to and from work became conducted outside the hours of daylight, I scoured my game collection looking for something meaty to get my teeth into.
I settled on Fallout 3 and decided to give it another try, not because of the Cannibalism perk, but because it was a game that ticks all the right boxes for me. It is an RPG (tick) that like Borderlands is also kind of an FPS (tick) and it is set in a post-apocalyptic irradiated wasteland that sounds a lot like Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth (BIG TICK). Of course, all the New Vegas publicity had helped Fallout bubble back to the top of my subconscious too.
So I started playing again, with a new character, and about 20-25 hours in (I tend to play quite slowly, exploring and talking, so at this point I had just completed the Power of the Atom quest and had not yet visited the DC Ruins) I was starting to feel like stopping again for the same reasons; I just was not ‘getting into’ the game.
This time I decided to persevere though, and boy am I glad I did. I am now around 100 hours in according to the save file, though actual playing is higher due to deaths, bugs, etc. I have not kept playing because I ‘like’ my character any more this time around or because I am enjoying the story more.
I do not find the Capital Wasteland particularly compelling as a setting. To me it feels like a fairly generic post-apocalyptic world and not necessarily our world. Swap the raiders for bandits, the yao guai for skags, the rad-scorpions for spiderants and you may as well be on Pandora. I am sure I would feel different if I were familiar with the DC area, but I am not.
Nor is it that the game’s mechanics are particularly appealing beyond the RPG-trait of always striving to achieve the next level. I do quite like the VATS system though, which makes those all important head shots and sneak attack criticals easier to achieve, and places Fallout 3 combat somewhere to the left of Valkyria Chronicles on the line that runs from FPS (Borderlands) to turn-based (Final Fantasy).
What has kept me playing is stumbling across the human stories in the game that fall outside of the quests and contemporary story. These are the stories of those who were alive around the time the bombs started falling. Often they are not explicitly told.
For example, the first one I remember finding was in one of the houses in Minefield. While turning the place upside-down looking for loot, both usable and fence-able, I entered one of the bedrooms to find a pair of skeletons on the bed.
Now Fallout 3 is not exactly short of skeletons but this pair seemed to be a man and woman and appeared to be holding hands. Beside them on the bed was an empty bottle of pills and immediately I started wondering what their story was.
Had they seen that war was inevitable and decided to end things on their own terms rather than die in the coming nuclear holocaust? Had they survived the bombs, Minefield is relatively intact after all, and not been able to face life in the blasted wasteland that remained?
Perhaps they had become ill from radiation sickness and decided a quick death was better than a lingering, painful one? Or following the death of their loved one had the other not been able to go on? All these possibilities and more sprung to mind just from that one little vignette.
Others have included a couple sat on the bonnet (hood, for our American cousins) of a car on a rocky outcrop overlooking DC, surrounded by empty whiskey bottles. Presuming death was inevitable had they driven up their to watch the nuclear fireworks over Washington and spend their last few moments with the one they loved?
Then there are the audio logs that can be found such as those made by the trouble Keller family. In an attempt to get the family together different members are given a single digit of the code needed to get into a bunker.
Their, ultimately tragic, story begins before the bombs fall and continues, for at least a short while, afterwards. It also includes on of the very few (at least that I have found so far) eye witness records of the nuclear armageddon:
Oh my God, it’s really happening. I can see the cloud… it’s so big… Mom, I’m so scared.
When exploring the wasteland I also make a bee-line for any radio towers I spot as they often combine audio and a ‘physical’ story if you hunt around their location. The most heartfelt one so far being a looped transmission from a father who has taken shelter with his wife and son in a nearby drainage chamber.
They clearly survived the original nuclear onslaught and the radio message is his plea for help from anyone who might hear as his son has become seriously ill and they need help. On finding their shelter it contains two adult skeletons but no sign of the son, leaving open the question of what became of him.
If it was radiation sickness he became ill with, was it severe enough that he became a ghoul? Was the illness fatal and he was simply buried somewhere outside by his parents? Within the shelter there is also some great contextual placement of in-game items, such as a medical textbook beside the radio set.
It is all these little touching, thought-provoking snapshots of humanity that for me have turned Fallout 3 from being just a fairly uninspiring RPG with FPS tendencies into a game I am willing and eager to sink tens of hours of my free time into.