Fallout 3

by sandersn 10. March 2012 11:03

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 like.


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 junk.

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 interesting.

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 traditional story-telling.

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.

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