Fallout 3 is a "memento mori"
Fallout 3 is a memento mori, one of those pieces of art that mediaeval
artists drew with skulls and rotten fruit to remind us that we will
all die someday. Maybe it's a sign that the 20th century has ended and
we can admit now that our modern civilisation maybe won't live
forever. We can think about what it will be like after we're gone.
That makes Fallout 3 a frequently wistful game. Well, frequently for a
50-hour game, at least. It was about every other hour or so: I would
be set upon by bandits who had nothing to live for. Or talk to some
hopeless villagers relying on their inadequate walls to keep the big,
scary world at bay. Or sneak through the crumbling hallowed places of
American democracy, while quiet horns played in the
background, evoking patriotism for a dead country. Or just looking out
over the crumpled remains of a civilisation's corpse.
At a higher level Bethesda reinforced the wistfulness by the four (or so)
factions, all in some way claiming to be legitimate heirs to the
mantle of the United States. Some of them military, by right of force
(most of them really), some by right of possessing artefacts, holy
relics, of the old republic.
In a way the game is more about the resurgence of the mediaeval, life
after the fall of a civilisation, than specifically life after the
fall of the US. The shape of life in Fallout is clearly inspired by
the European dark ages. The game gives the player a picture of what
post-civilisation life would be like, and in fact would have been
Of course the setting is still uniquely American in its details --
even if the details are clearly satirical. Do you remember Motel of
the Mysteries? In it, the amateur archeologist Howard Carson/Carter
visits America almost 4000 years after it is buried under a 100-foot
layer of junk mail. He discovers a buried hotel room and begins to
misinterpret the contents as fast as he can. Motel of the Mysteries
could have been the inspiration for Bethesda's obsession with in-game
In actuality, I suspect it was an obsession with providing enough loot to
populate a post-apocalyptic world. Bethesda's previous games were
well-populated worlds where you couldn't possibly loot everything
without becoming some kind of Broom King. In Fallout, the mundane
items are not only worthless for trade, they're actual junk.
Otherwise it wouldn't be realistically post-apocalyptic.
It fits the fiction, even though I think this is another case of
Bethesda succeeding by mistake (see also:most of Morrowind). Fallout
is set 200 years after nuclear war, but it gives the sense that most
of the devastation wasn't from the nukes. It was from the fall of
civilisation that resulted. We got so good at producing stuff that
even 200 years after we stopped, the survivors do little but fight
over the remnants. Scavenging is the main method of survival, not
farming or hunting or commerce.
Fallout is a memento mori for RPGs as well. RPGs are not dead yet, but
it's not long before it will make sense to ask "Who killed RPGs?"
(much like Old Man Murray asked "Who killed adventure
games?") What this
really means is that games are growing up and nearly all games now
incorporate RPG elements.
The same thing happened to adventure games much earlier -- all that's
left of adventure games today is (1) nostalgia (2) Capcom and (3) the
good parts that live on in other genres. The story-telling of
adventure games was their primary innovation, and their primary
legacy. The actual gameplay of adventure games was an odd sort of item
management and puzzle-solving, which in its extreme form is
essentially insane (see again Old Man Murray's essay, this time
looking for references to Moon Logic), and in its mild form, not that
So why are RPGs the next to go? Let's step back and look at what makes
games unique: interactivity. Games started with tiny interaction
loops, story-free--nothing but the joy of pushing buttons and getting
a reaction from the machine. In contrast, adventure games focused on
the long loop -- so long, in fact, that it was essentially the
narrative arc found in other kinds of narrative art. RPGs, then, are
the original medium-loop game genre. That is, they were the first
genre to give the player something between twitch gaming and
thoughtful (?) stories and worlds like Zork. In replicating table-top
gaming, they created a gameplay loop measured in minutes, not seconds.
And the loop offered a sense of progression which could be tweaked and
tuned, unlike the simplistic short-loop systems of the 80s, where the
only progression was More Speed Until You Die.
Because of sense of progression, RPGs had the first narrative arcs
that emerged from gameplay. Ultima 4 is a good example: the
medium-loop, RPG gameplay is similar to Ultima 3, but the dungeon
questing and dialogue are in service of a overarching, vaguely stated
narrative. The real genius of Ultima 4 is the way that most of the
narrative emerges through gameplay mechanics instead of through
Fallout is an interesting case in which the emergent narrative
conflicts with (or at least doesn't support) the explicit narrative.
The explicit narrative is a really boring Hero's Journey that's about
as floaty and disconnected as Bethesda's combat systems. There's,
like, scientists and water purifiers and neo-American military, and
... I just didn't feel any connection. What's worse, they throw in a
non-sequitur (charitably: "twist") ending which makes it really
obvious that they played Portal (2007) a bunch of times before
releasing their game a year later.
But the emergent narrative -- well, I already talked about it. It's the
story of Mediaeval America. I think it's a story we need to hear, and
I think Bethesda meant to tell it. In Morrowind, I felt like the
emergent narrative was there by mistake. In trying to make a
"realistic" world, Bethesda inadvertently tweaked some variables just
far enough in one direction to not only model racism, but make it an
issue that players would have to encounter. I think that Fallout
forced Bethesda to outgrow their purely "realistic" aspirations.
Without that, they would have continued to make detailed games that
are good by mistake. (I haven't played Skyrim--maybe Fallout is a
fluke. Which would be sad.)
But back to the original question: if RPGs are so good at emergent
narrative, why are they dying? Well, if we look at RPGs as they
developed, the truth is that, while their medium-loop gameplay was
innovative, their short-loop gameplay was dismally dull for a long
time. At best, they had a simplistic rip-off of Stratego; at worst, a
simulation of choosing Copy and Paste from OS 7's Edit menu over and
over again. Bethesda's games have always aimed to improve this, but
even there, if you compare the stealth in Fallout to that in Metal
Gear or Splinter Cell, it's pitiful. If you compare the swordplay to
Demons' Souls, it's double pitiful, because Demons' Souls also has
the numbers. You just can't win on their strength alone.
But games have grown up. They have huge teams working on them, and
they can afford to give you great short-loop action, great medium-loop
systems and a great long-loop story. And it turns out to be easier
to add RPG elements to an action game with sound short-loop gameplay
than it is to add action elements to an RPG. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe
RPG designers spend all their time modelling an entire world with
numbers, while action-game designers spend all their time making sure
their characters feel awesome when they move. And unless you're an
idiot savant, it's easier for your brain to appreciate exciting moving
things than it is to appreciate a numeric model.