Digital Polyphony

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The Fallout of Fallout

Posted on September 28, 2011 at 12:50 AM

The Fallout of Fallout

Fallout 3/ Fallout New Vegas

"Well shit," I thought to myself as I scraped the mutant brain matter off my leather armor and kicked a severed head to the corner. "Now what am I going to do with all these vacuums?"

I had just traversed a good few miles to some decrepit little building in the middle of nowhere that somehow withstood time and nuclear holocaust to explore and raid it of goods. It wasn't on my agenda, I just happened across it and thought a little deviation would do me some good in my long journey west to some little dot on my map. Kill a few things, steal a lot of things, return home to the shanty settlement of Megaton to shove it all in a storage locker. That was the way of life in the wasteland, since he bombs fell.

Silence was in the air that morning. The cloud's broke around seven. I grabbed a box of sugar bombs for breakfast, the cornerstone of every morning meal, made sure I had plenty of room in my magical bag to store the dozens of items I would most certainly come across, just enough armor, stimpaks and ammo for the couple of guns I carried and I was on my way. Then that little speck in the distance beckoned me around midday.

"What was that?" I wondered. I had wondered it many times before. Sometimes it was nothing, maybe just some abandoned, burnt-out farmhouse or a tree that looked a little strange. As I grew closer I realized it was some old office building still standing thanks to the concrete foundation and walls that didn't blow away in the nuclear blasts many years ago like most of the towns in the area. It was a good three or four stories and probably infested with radroaches and mutant brutes that wouldn't like me trespassing in their territory. Then I looked in my bag...still plenty of space, still plenty of ammo. Yes, I'm going in.


After an hour of shooting, hoarding and bloody murder, my bag was not only full, it was overflowing and I still had plenty of rooms to check and things to nab for myself. Oh...those things you're picking up, all those vacuums and leafblowers and scrap might wonder what they do. The truth is, they do nothing. Nothing at all. You'll use them, maybe, three or four time to create some little weapon or device, but you didn't need twenty of them.

Well, I did, damnit. As it turns out, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas tapped into something in my brain: a constant sense of need and satisfaction in a never-ending cycle of rummaging and gathering and calling things "mine!" like one of those seagulls from Finding Nemo. It was a need to be fulfilled. No, I didn't need all or really any of those things. I didn't need thirty leaf blowers and 100 nuka colas and god knows how may steam gauges and robot parts, but I WANTED them. Fallout had me, and a lot of other people, hooked. Not through its storyline or plot or characters, but in its own devices. The devices that lent itself to our needs and desires to be pack-rats and always wonder what's on the horizon. Fallout  was a hoarders' paradise.

How did it get to that? Did the developers go out of their way to create this world that's structurally based on the notion of exploration and dot it with countless useless junk and items for you to collect?

Yes, yes they did. And I damn them to Hell for it because after hundreds of hours of gameplay, finishing every quest I could find and downloading expansion packs on top of it all to go even further and collect even more, I still wasn't fulfilled. I still wanted more.

Explore This!

From the moment you step outside of your Vault in Fallout 3, the only home you (or your avatar-esque character) has known his or her whole life as you were born and raised in this protect environment since the bombs dropped, you are greeted to the vast openness of the Capital Wasteland. Gone are those green-colored walls, sterile sensations of a cross between a hospital and 1950s canning factory, computers and clean-living, jump-suited vault-mates. Now it was horizons and sunshine. Sure, there's ruined towns, radiation and mutants abound all swathed in a lovely sepia tone, but now you have clouds and what appears to be grass. You haven't even seen those things until now.

Fallout 3, and New Vegas to a lesser extent, knows how to build and escalate, pushing you onward into the unknown world its created. It does this without you even noticing - a testament of great game design. You start small and it grows to the expanse of miles and miles of unrelenting post-apocalyptic environment. It's a great build up and easily one of the most satisfying payoffs I've experienced. All the stranger considering it's only in the first few hours of a game that will take you nearly a hundred to complete. Now the world was open to you and you could go anywhere and do (nearly) anything you wanted. You can be the evil bad man, the raider, the gunslinger, the scientist and helper or even the messiah if you wanted to. In any direction was opportunity.

That sensation of escalation and "growing" never ceases. For a lot of Western-developed role playing games, who's roots stem staunchly from pen-and-paper or dungeons and dragons where non-linearity, chance and openenss are key, this wasno different in implementation. However it is different in style: the whole aesthetic of you "being there."  The more involving, believable, hauntingly beautiful and immersive the world is, the more you can't wait to explore it. No matter how big it is, you want to lay claim to every single square inch of it, dot the locations on your map and get involved in whatever trouble (or cause some yourself) that might be arise.

Ahem...well now...where to begin?

It's almost like a magic trick, though. It, somehow, taps into some instinctive quality and desire to discover - just as all the hoarding and gathering of unneeded junk did as well. You have a yearning, some weird, voiceless call, to explore, gather, and take it all home. Then explore more, gather, and then take all that home as well. You must collect, whether it be items, weapons, the sense of finding or just experience to enrich your character's stats from killing a bunch of mutants that, before you came along, were just minding their own business in some gully.

More importantly is that the games do an incredible job of just letting you go at your own pace. Sure, the main quest can unrealistically wait for you and that does seem a tad odd, but only if you think hard about it. At least in both cases of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, there is a quasi-explanation as to why things don't happen until you reach one juncture or why the world doesn't just leave you behind - both actually strikingly similar as they involve AI gone awry.

It's for the better because, even though I've played both games twice, I still feel like I didn't see every single settlement or did every quest. You need that time, as contrived as it may be, to do as your heart pleases. It's all about that sense of discovery and simply wanting to know what's on the horizon. "Just over that next hill" you might think to yourself or "I wonder where that road will take me." I'm not a completionist, but for some reason the Fallout games make you want to be one.

Some of that sense of wonder stems from my own rule to not use a guide. Games like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls are about discovery and I never like to know what's around the corner.  I love that sensation of you on your own, just your wits and a magical bag holding a quarter-ton of equipment and maybe one or two companions you were able to gather along the way. Like-minded companions, of course. The bad ones won't join my goody-two-shoes way of thinking, that's for sure. Exploration is such a difficult thing to capture in a videogame. Often you're pretty much set in some form of a linear path, many just hide it better than others. Not here. No sir. We'll have none of that in the Capital Wasteland of the desert surrounding New Vegas. It's literally a massive, open land with no boundaries. A proverbial sandbox for you to play in like a big kid and you get the same sense of glee finding and killing as you did when you were five and revving cars across your sandbox dunes.

Atmosphere is Everything

I had only touched on the previous Fallout titles before Fallout 3. I was never that much into PC gaming until about five or six years ago, actually.  Perhaps I didn't have the patience for it because now I can't get enough of it and have gone back to play the greats, such as Neverwinter Nights or Planescape: Torment, as dated as those may be. Perhaps I needed something with a little more of that atmosphere and immersion that I sought which, during the 1990s, I didn't see from the western-developed PC world and looked to Japanese RPGs which, at that time, were visually immersive despite their staunch linearity. When Fallout 3 and eventually New Vegas were released, I got exactly what I had been wanting  - to the point where I became endlessly lost in it. Hell, I might even call it overkill.

That difficult-to-create, "getting lost" sensation is really the defining trait of a western (as in not from Japan) role playing game. Atmosphere, thick in depth and world, is what holds you for hours upon hours. So if a role playing game has that, and not all do, as it's a perfect storm of story, graphics, music and gameplay, you don't even realize four or five hours have passed and you're still sitting in your chair or couch and have to remind yourself you need to eat something you might die someday.

And that's eating something in our real world, not the wasteland of Sugar Bombs and Nuka Colas you find scattered in the rubble. Lord knows where those had been, probably some fire ant orifice.

Atmosphere is created by a blend of many things, from items and beasts to characters and places...all together to make an unreal place as real as possible.

The Fallout titles take place in an alternate-history. It's modern technology, computers and robots found everywhere, but a blend of Mad Max, leather-bound inhabitants mixed with sharp, dapper suits and broken-down 1950s art-deco buildings with big-band music crackling from old radios in their foyers. Immersion is all about creating a time and place and in Fallout, it's all blended together. It's a different time mixed with different style.

Both Fallout 3 and New Vegas do an impeccable job of this, especially when it comes to that sensation of being real. Oh, it's fantasy (with science fiction elements and themes) but the conviction it has to creating stories in its world, populating it with interesting and distinct characters that you come in contact with in your travels and having you "discover" the history of this world alongside your own personal journey makes you forget it's all just made up. It never spouts it too much with exposition either. Though it is certainly dialogue-heavy, with your interaction and speech going in a number of directions and option depending on your character's morality, nothing every feels simply "told."

The Fallout world is populated with all sorts of people, has various classes (such as 'ghouls' versus 'normal' people) and settlements and shows various sides of humanity, from the powerful and ruthless to the quaint and quiet.

The sense of discovery carries over to the world's history through dialogue rather than some old codger telling story in the beginnings or the game saying "read this book to get the history of the world." You "get the hint" of this world through interaction for the hours you trek. You come to understand the people and the factions, what went wrong and why some people struggle to scrape by and others live in luxury. In hindsight, the ability of the developers to not pound this through exposition is remarkable.

What's even more impressive is how different the world of Fallout 3 is with New Vegas, yet it all feels unified in the same universe. It's easy to see that Fallout 3's Washington DC environment is much more different than that of New Vegas both aesthetically and in gameplay style (New Vegas feeling much more vast and harsh and DC far more a labyrinth), which does nothing but show even more depth to the world of Fallout that's created. The people and factions in DC are far different than those found in New Vegas. There are different ways of living out west in the desert compared to scrambling through rubble in the capital wasteland, yet all deliver a sense of scope into one, centralized concept: North America is absolutely destroyed. I don't know about you, but that alone is a great atmosphere and to see it visually realized in two distinct setting with so much depth that you aren't even sure if you've seen it all is a testament to damn good game design and artistic capabilities. Games are art, and that art is through the immersion and depth and atmosphere found in games like these.

Throw it all in a bag...shake it up...and then play with it.

Nobody's Fallout experience is the same. The openness of the world and "go anywhere and do any quest" ideology allows for many gamers to have different experiences and to embark on their journey in any form they wish. There are a ton of things to do...but you actually only have to do a small portion of it. Fallout 3 and New Vegas have a single-threaded main quest that you could probably complete in 15 hours or so.

But that's not what this is about. That main quest and story is the glue that holds it all together. It's the hundreds of side quests and locations not part of your main road that make the games what they are and, as I mentioned, the incredible sense of exploration and atmosphere turns that 15 hours into a hundred without you even realizing. You dno't have to do any of the side quests, such as discovering a tree-worshipping cult or try to become a part of the Brotherhood of Steel - the morally-gray "just" faction that inhabits both the capital and the Mojave. You don't have to help some kids or take out those giant mutated ants. You don't have to try and bring unity between some ghouls and a rich mogul in his locked tower. You don't need to enter every single casino in New Vegas and could even decide to just murder everyone and be done with it and you don't need to save those kids from slavers either. Maybe those kids had it coming.

And even if you do decide to do all those things, the path through them is never clear. There's no one-way to do anything. That rich bastard in his locked tower? Well, he might just make you an offer to destroy and entire town to be his friend. Will you? Those casino's full of different and unusual people? You could either joirn them or kill everyone inside if you want to be truly evil...and even being truly evil is never that easy. Hell, you might even kill someone and that ends up helping someone hours down the road.

It's all a game of circumstance and chance. It feels random, but it's not, but that sense of randomness is what gives the games such a fantastic sense of discovery. It's all set for you to find and partake, should you choose to.

Thanks in its appeal to obsessive-compulsiveness, as gamers of this ilk tend to be just so, and engaging atmosphere, Fallout 3 and New Vegas seemed to just hit everything right for me. I've played other titles from the same developer, notably the Elder Scrolls games, which also get those elements right. The difference, though, is style. Fallout isn't about swords and sorcery but something completely different and set in a scarily-realistic and familiar world. You know...Earth if we all screwed it up.

Well, we might actually be a bit closer than that, the way this planet's going. Thankfully, all those hours lost in the desert and the capital wasteland, learning to refine equipment, scavenge, horde and shoot large mutants in the face has prepared me for that eventual apocalypse.

And don't forget, kids. Duck and cover.

As of this writing, there isn't another Fallout title planned. Even though I've greatly warmed up to western RPGs, and I'm looking forward to Skyrim a great deal, the pleasure of Fallout's design and aesthetic is unmatched in my eye. It's the franchise's defining trait, going well before Fallout 3's taking it out of the 2D plane it was in before. I practically admire it all, more than most due to its uniqueness.  I'm spoiled now. That's the "fallout" to my playing the Fallout games this generation. I've tried to get into so many other open-ended RPGs like these and have been unable to be as engaged. Entertained and enjoy them? Sure. Oblivion was great and the classic Bioware titles just as great. But they don't click like Fallout 3 and New Vegas did.

They're not perfect, of course: it's easy to "cheat" in these titles (find those loopholes or take advantage of a glitch) and the VATS system of fighting can take you out of the game's immersion a bit (and is a little clunky, especially early on where you feel you're trying to hit a penny on the side of a barn from a quarter mile away), but everything else with these titles just get it right for me.

I love to explore. To discover new things. To feel like I'm two years old and running around the house and getting into trouble. What better way than for a game to proved an seemingly endless world, vast yet detailed, with large planes or small, hidden drawers in a desk, to fit me so perfectly?  Maybe I just want to feel like a big kid in a sandbox again, only now to grab a shotgun blow the heads off those ugly mutants and kick their heads into the corner.

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