With Fallout 4 on the horizon, and the Fallout collection releasing Fallout Anthology this past week, the post-apocalyptic wasteland has been on the minds of many for the past few days.
Fallout 3, as a whole, is made from compelling parts — interesting characters, detailed environments, consistent atmospherics — but the central success has everything to do with contingency. Unlike other games that shepherd players toward inevitabilities, F3 respected players enough to let them experience the consequences of their own choices. Bethesda made the game into a trigger-happy meditation on contingency. The horror of implied and witnessed violence was compounded by the sense that, yes, it could have been avoided.
From the moment players first leave Vault 101, they’re immersed in a world defined by a vaguely familiar, if irradiated, culture with different logic. Streets are filled with threats, in the form of mutated animals and desperate humans. The settlements are familiar, both because they’re built around landmarks and because they seem like modern tent camps. The music is nostalgic, working to bring back memories of the America that gave us Jello molds for dinner and the nuclear bomb. The world feels almost complete, but not quite. There’s room for another element, one that’s embedded in the gameplay.
It’s something that has a broader meaning, the meaning associated with psychological research, not button mashing. Fallout 3 makes the player choose how to react to the environment, how to deal with the mutated animals, and how to survive against bandits looking to take him/her out. And the decisions all have significant impact on the player’s story.
The physical embodiment of Bethesda’s openness to real participation from players is Dogmeat, a dog beset by drug-addicted raiders who killed his previous master. Should you choose to fend off his attackers, Dogmeat becomes a loyal companion. If you don’t, he just becomes a dead dog. As the great Ogden Edsl put it: “Dead puppies aren’t much fun.”
Each decision made is factored into the game’s Karma system, which helped foster a sense of in-game self identity separate from general consciousness. This point system revolved around good, neutral, and bad karma, with every level having a unique set of benefits that come along with it. Those with negative karma found it harder to interact with the remnants of the American military, the Brotherhood of Steel, while those with positive karma were captured and imprisoned for helping slaves escape. Results were unpredictable, which made the game feel like a living, breathing world.
Fallout 3 also incorporated historical context into various scenarios. There is Hannibal Hamlin, the organization named for Lincoln’s Veep, that enlists your help to recover artifacts from the Museum of History. Once again, a decision presents itself: Recover the artifacts for Hamlin, sell them off to a collector, or destroy them for the group of slavers occupying the Lincoln Memorial.
Sure, Fallout 3 had detailed environments. Sure, it had fantastic gameplay. And sure, it had memorable characters. But it was Bethesda’s decision to let players tie these elements together one choice at a time that made the game singular and important. Will Fallout 4 be good? Almost certainly. But it won’t be as radical as its predecessor. It won’t feel as shockingly open. It will be as big, sure, and as puzzling, but the element of surprise will be gone now that we know our actions have consequences.