Fallout 3

Things I learned from the apocalypse

video game review

I played Fallout 3 on the Playstation 3 originally, shortly after playing Dragon Age Origins. I remember immediately loving the setting, being a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, and being amazed at the wealth of small stories being told in the game. Sure there was a main quest, but there were so many people with, seemingly, lives of their own happening as lots of little B-plots in the game I was playing. Looking back, I don't know how true that is or even how true it was for its time, but even so I was constantly being taken by surprise at how many people I could have meaningful (for a video game, anyway) interactions with.

I never did finish Fallout 3 on the Playstation, but since then Steam has come out for Linux, and I've discovered GOG.com, and I've given WINE and Proton a try, and so I started playing video games on my PC. I've been playing Fallout 3 again, this time the Game of the Year (GOTY) Edition with all of its DLC and, presumably, bug fixes and patches. I've always felt that New Vegas was a must-play game, and I've played more New Vegas than I have Fallout 3, and because of the proximity of their releases it's easy to conflate the two. New Vegas is just 3, set on the east coast, right?

As it turns out, no. Fallout 3 isn't just the game engine that for New Vegas. It's got its own story, its own attitude, and its own culture. And it is, every bit as much as New Vegas, required playing.

Here are 5 reasons, with a strong cultural bent, I think everyone should play Fallout 3.

1. You live in a bubble

The introductory adventure in Fallout 3 starts with you as an infant. That sounds absurd when you write it out, but it's actually an elegant and very natural way to handle the character building process, and the obligatory pre-game tutorial. Exposition is delivered to you from your father as you grow quickly from infancy to childhood, and you make some significant choices in the brief scenes of a life spent in a fallout shelter.

You're soon a teenager, with more complex moral choices to make as the fallout shelter falls prey to internal political strife, and when you inevitably leave the vault, you realise what hopefully we all realise at some point in our lives. You grew up in a bubble.

Comedy or tragedy, your youth showed you only a sliver of what the world is actually like. Also, as you grew up, so did the world outside your bubble, and so what you learned, right or wrong, about the world is outdated by the time you're old enough to wander the wasteland Earth on your own.

To some people, that's obvious. It's part of what's so exciting about moving out. But for other people, who for example may have been taught that there was no greater truth than the reality created by their parents' worldview, it comes as a great surprise. Fallout 3 doesn't try to play your character for you, so whether you're actually surprised or not by what you find beyond the vault is literally up to you and your own expectations. These may have been influenced by what you already know about Fallout games. Whether or not you expect to find centaurs and super-mutants, though, one thing is clear: vault life, or "childhood" as we call it here in the real world, isn't representative of the wider world.

2. Culture is important

It depends on how you play the game, but you probably had this experience at some point in Fallout 3. You've been idling around in one settlement for a while, until you're on a fetch quest or something and you stumble into Bigtown or Rivet City or some other location, and you're greeted with suspicion, threats, pessimism, and all out despair. Assuming you didn't blow up Megaton, it's a jarring welcome into the rest of the wasteland. Why are the people here so angry or depressed or afraid? What's wrong with everybody?

In the real world, creating the tone of a culture is important. It happens organically, of course, but anything that happens organically has to also be happening at the individual level, too. We are all part of "organic" growth. In Arefu and Rivet City and all the other locations in Fallout 3, the way the residents have experienced life has set a distinct tone for their culture. It's not always pleasant.

Of course it's simplistic to point out that your character's actions can influence this culture. It's nice that in Megaton you get free Iguana Bits from random residents after you've fixed some leaky water mains and maybe diffused a bomb. In real life, there are a lot of people, and inevitably some of them would be angry that you fixed the water mains and diffused the bomb, and they'd get angry at people who were happy with you. It gets messy, fast, the more people you bring into the equation.

And yet, it's worth noting that in the real world good and meaningful deeds do in fact influence the town where you live. It's worth noting that investigating the full story behind a conflict is important. Fallout 3 is good practise for dealing with people. It's only a simulation, of course, and not a great one. You often can't back out of one line of conversation once the computer has decided that you've committed to a specific branch on the dialogue tree. But it gets some broad strokes right, and it's fascinating to experience the differences in regional cultures as you wander through the game world.

3. Death cults are real

I don't know how comical the Children of the Atom are supposed to be. When I first encountered them back in '09 or '10 on the Playstation, I thought they were a form of absurdist humour, a funny idea taken to such an extreme that it bordered on silliness.

Then the world started to shift a little, or my own perceptions got less hazy maybe, and it occurred to me that a bunch of people worshipping a bomb as a god wasn't all that absurd. There are a good number of people in the real world who earnestly believe that the best path to a peaceful and bountiful existence is through literal destruction. Humanity is imperfect, in their view, and so the answer to humanity's problems is the end of existence. Not just their own existence, but everyone's existence.

Back in the old days, these groups were called "death cults." They were niche communities who, eventually, drank poisoned punch and killed themselves off. That"s the extreme version of the phenomenon, so it's easy to see. The Church of the Subgenius lampoons exactly that, and yet the Church of the Subgenius recently had to release a documentary and press statement to warn people not to take it seriously. A satirical "church" had to clarify to people of 2019 that its "obviously" silly doctrines were jokes.

Death cults exist in many forms. Some of them are antagonistic, others are borne of depression, some want to bring everybody down, some just want to bring easy targets down, others just want to confuse stuff so everybody suffers. You can join them, you can be beguiled by their messages of aberrant hope, you can ignore them.

Or you can fight them. It's harder in real life than in the game to fight against harmful people. In the game, the baddest people have guns. Bad people in the real world also have guns, and like the ones in the game they tend to be easy to identify. But there are other kinds of baddies, and some don't want you to feel threatened by them. They might want to guilt you into joining up with them, or promise you a better life, or invoke myths of the past to convince you that their ways are the best. In both the game and in life, you've got to develop skills to see the deception, to disarm the bomb, to hack the system for good.

4. The world is complex

Fallout 3 doesn't always get it right. Its karma system is awkward at best, and there's a fair amount of judgement baked into the game. For instance, there's no way to be ambivalent about Dukov's lifestyle, or at least there wasn't when I encountered him. That strikes me as odd, especially in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. His two friends repeatedly tell you that they're safe with Dukov, but the game makes it clear that you're meant to disapprove and even "rescue" one of them. Eventually you can get to dialogue that reveals that one of them, Cherry, wants to leave, and you can help her leave by escorting her through the wasteland to a different dismal location. But she isn't fleeing Dukov, it was just that she was too afraid to brave the wastelands alone.

Its stance on drugs are also conflicted. You're rewarded for bringing sugar bombs to Murph so he can manufacture drugs, but penalized for giving Psycho to people who ask for it.

But even when Fallout 3 fails to be consistent or objective, it manages to raise an interesting point about the real world. This place, the real world, is complex. Everybody here has a unique stary, they're living in their own circumstances, with hidden context and unknown history. You have to decide how to treat people and situations, and you have to do that based on your own special circumstances and context and history. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you get it right for where you were then, and that becomes wrong later in life. It's constant and ever-changing, the way you navigate through your own life, and how you touch the lives of those you encounter along the way.

Fallout 3 doesn't always get it right, but it demonstrates this much: It's not easy, and there's nearly always room for debate. You can learn from your experiences, and try to do better the next time around.

5. Everybody needs help

This is a hard lesson to learn in life, and it's not always clear in Fallout 3 or any video game, but pretty much everybody needs somebody else's help. I grew up in a country where it's very much part of the culture that you must not require help from anyone, ever. You earn your self-worth by being a rugged individualist. You're supposed to "forge your own path" and "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" and so on.

It can be easy to feel that in Fallout 3 everybody needs your help, because you get quest after quest no matter where you go. You might think this makes you the most rugged individualist and bootstrappiest wanderer to ever walk the wastelands. But if you stop and think about it, you might start to notice that you need other people's help, too. It can be hard to spot, because all the people who help you are pre-programmed NPCs, but you need medics and repairmen and clues. You have to interact with societies and individuals. You need people to be civil to you, at the very least, which is asking a lot in a world where deathclaws and mirelurks and ghouls exist. And I think it's strangely a lot to ask in a world where those things don't exist, too.

Play it

Fallout 3 is just a game, and there are lots of games out there. But if you do play it, I think you stand to get a lot of unexpected observations about life, relationships, and choices. Also, you'll learn a heck of a lot about the fictional effects of radiation on roaches, crabs, and moles (or rats? I never quite understood the combination),

Images from Fallout 3 owned by Bethesda.

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