Fallout 3 is a triumph and a failure.
It is both huge content sink with few game interactions and yet one of my favorite experiences from 2008.
Jonathan Blow is right. It’s hard to call the game challenging. Most of the interactions aren’t particularly interesting – much of the game revolves around balancing your inventory and dumping it in your house, and trying not to spoil all of your ammo in one place. Despite the skill set, it’s balanced to be played shooting everything hostile. You can’t talk your way through the set pieces, and the item acquisition reward system is mostly unavailable if you don’t kill things and take their stuff. There’s only a handful of enemies, a few kinds of traps, and the same ubiquitous items scattered everywhere. VATs is a gaudy failsafe technique that only serves to add a gory timer to the already facile combat. If presented at a pitch I’d be hard pressed to call it much of a game at all. The game’s desolate nature, combined with it’s sameness, impresses on me its own depression and bleakness. Post-play I frequently found myself drained, somehow the real world brought down by the nuclear wasteland.
And yet.. if you sit with the game a little longer, choose to push past and live only amidst these dark rules for a time, there’s something magical about Fallout 3 that few of the games this past year have captured. It’s the best spatial exploration game I can recall. It takes advantage of both the first person perspective and the content pipeline innovations of late to provide a truly massive yet varied world, repetitive in style and yet still personal. Almost a triumph of procedural narrative through brute force, its exploration masquerades successfully as user determined and user driven. Fallout 3 just happens to be preexisting rather then generated. Analog through the mind-boggling epic digital. In particular, Bethesda’s use of short landmarks on top of their long landmarks is defining. Everywhere, hour after hour after hour, there is another building to explore, another location you haven’t been to yet, another completely new society to discover, and layered beyond that you can see the major landmarks – Washington Monument, Megaton, or Tenpenny Tower – driving you even further onward. Just one more turn in Fallout 3 is another corner, another building, another landmark.
The immediate gameplay is facile because it shan’t interfere with the experience. Quick save/quick load keep the pace high and the world still deadly and unforgiving. VATs means the combat itself only needs the minimal level of balancing – if you wait long enough and restore often enough you will win. Useful items are plentiful throughout the world and easily horded, yet portrayed as scarce and valuable to maintain the mood. Because ultimately you have to be able to explore, no matter your gameplay choices. The goal is to see, not to overcome.
Jonathan Blow is wrong, because, as Ian Bogost put it recently, this is a different style of game. This game isn’t about meaningful gameplay, as contradictory as that might seem. It’s not about interesting systems, as enlighting as they are. It isn’t even about role-playing, as much as I want it to be. It’s a style going back to Colossal Cave Adventure and Pool of Radiance, a style Fallout 3 executed so adroitly that it deserves plaudits for that alone. It is about Exposure. Immersion. First-person and unrelenting consistent. When such games hit, the discovey itself is interactive, the exploration of spatial character significant. Text and speech and items become sources of historical illumination, the choice to discover depth or move on. The density of the choices inside the space in Fallout 3 makes them significant, and at their peak, even personal.
This is emphasized by the main quest, where chasing your father is a very deliberate choice, a choice as much about taking control and ending the exploration as anything else. The game wants, even begs you, to chase other goals, see other sites, explore everything but. Yet this is always a personal choice – will you ignore the distraction and help your father? What kind of help will you seek, or give? What kind of things or people will you value? The answers to these questions are places. It defines Fallout 3. I go here, for reasons that are meaningful to me more then the game. I go southeast, because I want to find my father. I go north, because I reject civilization. I go west, because I cannot survive anywhere else. Or I go there, because someone told me I would make friends.
The past few years I’ve been appreciating more and more how games and interactivity play different roles at different places in our lives. Players want social games, and competitive games, and puzzle games, and five-minute games they can play on the bus, and, yes, immersive games and storytelling games. These are different games that fulfill different roles. I think Fallout 3 is an immersive game, one of the best ever made, and it need be no more and no less.