Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fallout 3: Time Sink 2009

I feel compelled to spend some time in contemplation of the subject that's consuming the highest portion of my time. What's that, you ask? Is it research? Classes?
Ha-ha. Of course not. It's video games. Yes, video games. Because I don't alienate enough of my regular readers with the comic book entries. (Which reminds me: I will be getting to the latest issue of No Hero. Eventually.)

Specifically, I'd like to talk about Fallout 3. Fallout 3 is the third game set in an alternate universe, in which the world was devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Despite what you might think, the post-apocalyptic dystopia doesn't show up often in video games, especially in role-playing games--after all, there's something unsatisfying about saving the world if there's no world worth saving. But the Fallout series makes the most out of its setting, to create a reflection on society, a discourse on the pursuit of power, and an imagining of the new societies that arise out the ashes of civilization.

Also, you get to shoot mutants with lasers. (Now, I know what you're thinking: do you shoot lasers at the mutants or do the mutants have lasers? Both, of course.)

But despite the name, Fallout 3 is actually a child of two distinct series. It is the next game in the Fallout line, but it was developed by the guys who make the Elderscrolls series, Bethesada. What that meant in terms of gameplay is a huge graphical facelift, and an emphasis on do-anything, go anywhere gameplay, which makes it of interest to my scholarly research. Unfortunately, it runs into the same problems the last Elderscrolls game did, at least for me. For example, there's still a main storyline, and still a fairly linear path to get there. In Fallout, you can skip steps, by say, going to Rivet City first off after leaving the Vault, but since I stumbled on this route by accident, I just felt that I had deprived myself of the actual adventure part in between that I had been supposed to follow.

Another problem with the system is that if you can go anywhere and do anything, the question "why bother?" becomes bigger and bigger. Freedom is nice, but since most of the changes I can make are fairly superficial (if you make "good" moral choices, you are pursued randomly on occasion by a mercenary company sent to kill you; if you make "bad" choices, you are pursued by vigilantes called Regulators; same thing, but with different costumes.), I think the freedom actually pulls a person out of the immersive experience, since you can control yourself, but it doesn't feel like your choices matter. In the RPG experience (Role-Playing Game), Bethesda's failing has always been towards an inability to create a compelling story--the overarching universe the story takes place in is well-realised, but the story itself falls short, in dialogue and event. I realise that the player is supposed to then compose his or her own story, but... that only goes so far.

But let's talk about the awesome parts. Fighting is a great mix of action and turn-base,lthough it favours the latter a little more closely. And some side-quests are compelling and amusing, like the man-tree in Oasis. I also give full props to Bethesda for using the game's set location to its full extent, perhaps more fully than I've ever seen in a video game. Previous Fallout games took place on the west coast, but this one is set in DC. As such, players can go on missions to clear the Lincoln Memorial as a gathering place for escaped slaves, set up the Washington Monument as the transmitter for the last free radio station in the Wasteland, or head to the Pentagon to team up with the last bastion of humanity, the Brotherhood of Steel.

Being Canadian, I expect a lot of the geography was lost on me. But the juxtaposition between the symbols of American grandeur and their subsequent ruin is striking. And because I won't be a literary scholar if I didn't look into this, I was always fascinated by the rhetoric behind the fallout series. The second fallout, for example, is often accused of being too camp with its subject--although I'd like someone to explain to me exactly what is so camp about King Arthur showing up in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland along with his servant banging coconuts, asking for directions to Camelot. But personally, I think that was part of the point--making fun of how seriously we take the hero's quest in a typical video game.

Looking more at the series at large, Fallout usually accompanies its nuclear wasteland with a musical score that relies heavily on nostalgic tunes from the 2os to the 50s. Bioshock did a similar combination of nostaglia and dystopia, and I think the movie Wall-E uses them in the same manner. Fear for the future--which is always what a dystopia represents--usually goes hand in hand with clutching to the past. More specific to Fallout 3, it's interesting to note how the "enemy" has shifted. Originally, the fallout came from a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, it seems the driving force that created the war was a conflict between the United States and China--in fact, the first expansion for the game will be Operation: Anchorage, an attempt to take back Alaska from invading Chinese forces. (That's not to say the Chinese are in any way the big bad in the game--that honour actually goes to the Conclave, a remnant of the American government bent on wiping out the humans still living in the Wasteland areas, because of their genetic corruption via radiation.)

So lots to think about. Lots to do in terms of research. Very compelling area.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go finish the game's final mission. I believe it involves teaming up with a giant robot to storm the Jefferson Memorial.

Later Days.

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