Thursday, 6 September 2012

Games: Welcome to the Wasteland

In a world where John Lydon advertises butter and Iggy Pop has become an insurance salesman, one would be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse has already passed without so much as a murmur. Our collective fear of the apocalypse and its many causes has been a subject of curiosity and intrigue in world culture for millennia. From the Book of Revelations to The Matrix, our vision of humanity’s survival beyond its destruction is a theme which is as vital today as it is frightening. Fallout 3 (360/PC/PS3) is one of the latest incarnations which draws on the post-apocalyptic theme to startling effect.

Fallout 3 is set in the Capital Wasteland: the ruins of Washington DC and surrounding areas. The story begins in 2277 after a war between America and China has left America a desolate wasteland where the earth is scorched and dead trees remain, blackened and twisted. The game begins at your birth, the blurred and confused images and the immediate death of your mother in childbirth set the scene for what follows. Your character is raised in Vault 101, a radiation-proof vault (somewhat reminiscent of a Dhama station in Lost, retro computers and all) which was built before the war and is the permanent home of a number of families who have been told that nothing survives beyond the vault.

Over the next hour of gameplay you are taken through a series of key events in your characters development, including your tenth birthday (where you receive your first gun), and your exams (which help define your character’s key attributes), to the climactic scene where your father James (voiced by Liam Neeson) leaves the vault and you decide to find him. The first hour seamlessly blends character creation and tutorial aspects with storyline. The way in which you conduct yourself, how you communicate with other vault-dwellers and choices you make on your exam all have direct consequences upon the development of your character.

After you leave Vault 101 you realise that the world is a big and dangerous place. Everyday is a fight for survival for you and its inhabitants, who are as varied and intriguing as the Wasteland itself. The Wasteland’s residents have made improvised homes and communities out of what remained after the nuclear war. Communities are found across the Wasteland: from shacks built on ruined highways to old subway stations and the town of Megaton. Megaton is a community of shacks built from old aeroplane parts and surrounds an unexploded (and still active) atomic bomb. I got talking to some of the town’s residents, enquiring about Megaton’s history and discovered that the town was initially set up by a religious sect called The Children of the Atom who worship the bomb and see the war as a positive and cleansing event for humanity. As my investigations deepened, I discovered that, far from being a cleansing symbol, the bomb was actually leaking radiation and polluting the town’s water supply. I spoke to the town’s sheriff, who commissioned me to deactivate the bomb. I agreed and went searching for information on how to deactivate the bomb and was offered 500 caps (‘Nuka-Cola’ bottles caps have replaced money as the currency of post-apocalyptia) to activate the bomb – I declined the offer and deactivated the bomb. This is what is so great about Fallout 3, you are given a number of moral choices, many of them not as clear-cut as this first one.

The core of Fallout 3’s gameplay involves exploration and dialogue, coupled with brutal violence and adrenaline-fueled action. You can charm, smarm, or lie your way through life, or you can try and be intelligent, helpful or funny – the choice is yours and you have to live with consequences. Fallout 3 evolves the moral causality of Fable (Xbox/PC), with its clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actions having a direct impact upon the world around you being replaced in Fallout 3 by a more subtle and ambiguous ‘karma’ level, which has a direct baring on your reputation: opening up or closing dialogue options, information and available quests. One such dilemma occurred at the small settlement of Arefu. What began as a simple delivery task developed into a complex storyline involving a town under attack by a vampire cult called The Family (they are not real vampires, just people who think they are vampires – visit a goth club and you will probably meet a few examples of these in the real world.) After a number of Arefu residents had been murdered by The Family and one of the settlement’s teenagers had gone missing I went to investigate. Finding their hideout in a disused subway station, I quickly learned that The Family were not as evil or brutal as they initially appeared. They offered a place for outsiders and the misunderstood, living under a strict moral code which revealed that they had not actually committed the murders in question, but the murderer was actually the boy who had gone missing (and wanted to join the family). This being said, they still drank human blood. So you can see the dilemma that emerged: do I leave the whole thing alone, allowing The Family to continue striking fear and terror into Arefu’s residents or do I blow them to bits? But, of course, I want to do the right thing. Drinking blood is bad, but then again The Family do provide a home for the disenfranchised... I ended up negotiating between the residents of Arefu that the residents would provide blood packs to The Family in exchange for their protection. Looking back, I’m not sure whether I made the right truth, perhaps a bit of shotgun diplomacy would have worked better, who knows? And who knows what consequences this had for the development of the game?

Fallout 3 is a game which has a very consistent and bizarre mythology. The game is set over 250 years into the future, but creates the sensation of ‘retro’: with large whirring computers, green-screen monitors and a graphic style which screams 1940s. One gets the impression that the game is somehow playing with the notion of an alternative history with its reality diverging from our in some time during World War II. The 1940s feel is reinforced by the game’s soundtrack which comprises of oddly sentimental Big Band tunes and vocal groups with songs by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots. The music is played on one of the Wasteland’s many radio stations, Galaxy News Radio, presented by ‘Three Dog’ a tireless DJ ‘fighting the good fight’ to ‘bring you the truth, no matter how bad it hurts’. Three Dog reminds me of Super Soul, the blind DJ from the achingly underrated existential road movie Vanishing Point (1979), who’s role, as is Super Soul’s in Vanishing Point is to act as narrator and commentator on the development of the story, both adding to the mythology of the narrative and celebrating the protagonist’s achievements. Galaxy News Radio isn’t the only radio station in the Wasteland, occasionally you will stumble across localised talk radio stations, distress signals and the sinister Enclave Radio, which broadcasts a mixture of reactionary patriotic talk-radio voiced by the ‘president’ John Henry Eden (voiced by Malcolm McDowell) and American anthems such as Hail to the Chief, the Star Spangled Banner, and Yankee Doodle. All of these stations create a real sense of emersion in the gameworld which very few games can do (BioShock and GTA IV being two other examples).

If the action, narrative and mythology were not enough to secure Fallout 3’s legacy, then it is the vastness of its beautifully rendered landscape should do so. Visually, Fallout 3 is stunning. At one point in the game you are asked by Three Dog to help increase Galaxy News Radio’s signal to broadcast across the Wasteland. After scavenging a satellite dish from a lunar lander in the ruins of the Museum of Technology, you make your way up to the top of the Washington Monument. At the top you can survey the Wasteland in its panoramic vastness.

In Fallout 3, Bethseda Softworks have created a game which perfectly fuses the elements of some the best RPGs on the market with the action and intensity of a first-person shooter and fluctuates between cheery hopefulness and a bleak sense of existential crisis. With its open gameplay, non-linear structure and a multitude of choices which directly influence the progression of narrative, Fallout 3 will stand as a defining moment in videogame history for years to come.


This article was originally featured in Art Fist issue 7








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