Fallout 3: How Relationship-relevant Decisions craft Identities that Keep Bringing Us Back to Enjoy the Horrors of the Nuclear Wasteland

Alex Games

Whenever I’ve had a hard day due during my roles as father, husband, or professor, all I need to do to make myself feel better is spend some time admiring the dystopian world of the Fallout 3 nuclear wasteland. Right after, all I can do is think, yes, things could always be worse!

Indeed Fallout 3 depicts a reality so grim that it parallels (or should I say is based on) the rich and nightmarish post nuclear catastrophe world depicted in Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog or movies with similar themes like The Day After, and Mad Max. The realities depicted in these works are so harsh that I can remember shuddering at the thought of experiencing the destruction of nature and civilization, as well as the reduction of mankind to an animal-like state.

The horrors associated to fantasies of mass radiation, deformed bodies, charred landscapes, and near starvation, all come to life in this game of the year winner that is so carefully and painstakingly detailed that it undoubtedly deserves the title.

However, what is most remarkable about Fallout 3 in my opinion, is that even given it’s portrayal of a dismal reality, people love to come back again and again to play in it’s world. Fallout is one of the most successful game franchises of all time, with three instantiations of the game having been released over the past two decades (four if you count Wasteland, EA/Interplay’s original post-apocalyptic RPG game concept), and the franchise has sold millions of copies worldwide. It would then be reasonable for one to ask, “Why would anyone want to play in such a world, let alone keep coming back to it?”

In this piece, I try to give one of what I believe are many possible answers to this question, given the richness and depth of Fallout 3. I do so by reflecting on my experiences playing the game, and on my appreciation of one aspect of it’s design that is so carefully orchestrated that it manages to instill in its players a desire not only to tolerate exploring a world devastated by nuclear war…but to keep coming for the enjoyment it brings to them.

Narrative and Emotional Conflict

I have to admit that though I have been playing and designing games for nearly three decades and have seen nearly everything there is to see under the sun in this medium, playing the Fallout series -and Fallout 3 in particular - I have found myself in a state of emotional conflict so intense that I can’t remember any other game theme producing it. In this game, one plays the role of a dweller of an underground vault (Vault 101), a descendant of survivors of a thermonuclear war between the U.S. and China that took place two hundred years before the game begins.

The world of the game depicts an alternate reality to ours, where technology advanced much faster, but society remained stuck in the first half of the twentieth century, creating a world that feels like a future that would have been imagined by a science fiction writer in the fifties. The vault, as one can imagine, feels sterile, enclosed, suffocating. Spaces are small and crowded, and stainless steel illuminated by electric light is the only landscape one can see around. Life in the Vault is controlled by the overseer, a paternalistic and dictatorial character obsessed with controlling every aspect of the orderly life that vault citizens have experienced for two centuries, from their life long jobs, to their very thoughts.

While the earliest game stages introduce you to basic game control elements such as moving your character and picking up objects, the storyline in the game already begins giving you hints as to what the most fundamental play mechanic of the game will be. Just like in the “choose your own adventure” books of the eighties and nineties, Fallout follows on a long tradition of computer role-playing games where choices between multiple courses of action, shape the path that the players will follow as they progress through the game. These choices begin with choosing your character’s gender, it’s appearance, and it’s S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes (an acronym from values representing your character’s strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck), which in conjunction will define the results of different interactions your character will have with the world (e.g. a more agile character will be more dexterous and likely to pick a locked door). Here, you will also learn to interact with game characters by selecting responses to their statements or actions using multiple choices from a branching dialog. One of the most remarkable features of Fallout 3 however, is that unlike other RPG’s, even these very early decisions are framed within social situations involving family and close friends. This begins with the death of your mother at birth, right after you have just finished creating your character, and continues throughout different mini passages that depict your life during infancy, childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. During these phases, the game narrative takes care to show your father’s care towards you, as well as the friendship you have with the overseer’s daughter, Amata.

Your interactions with these characters become your earliest experiences with what I consider the most innovative and remarkable aspect in Fallout 3, the Karma system. This system works so that every action you take to help or hurt others will subsequently affect their disposition and actions toward you. More importantly perhaps, it will also affect the attitude of that character’s “social network” and thus the attitude toward you that characters you may not have even seen before will take. In this way, if you affect a character in a positive way, their friends may also have a positive disposition toward you, and be willing to help you later, or if you hurt the character, they might do the same to you.

For example, during your 10th birthday party, Amata organizes a surprise birthday party for you where a variety of people are invited. In this group are included people like the overseer, people who are friendly to you, such as his wife and Amata, and people who are unfriendly to you, such as Butch, the local bully. When you interact with Butch, he tries to bully you into giving him your birthday present, to which you can respond either by giving it to him, by rejecting to do so, or by playing a trick on him. If you take the first path, he will make fun of you and leave you alone, if you take the second, he will threaten you, and if you take the third, he will challenge you to a fistfight. Should you take this last path, you will have made enemies not only with Butch, but with his gang as well.

Make no mistake, the fact that the game let’s you choose your actions in different situations does not mean that Fallout’s designer will show you a “better” or “worse” way to play the game, as it happens in most other RPG’s. Rather, it is precisely the dynamic way in which the virtual world adjusts to your decisions as players that makes the game so interesting and one important aspect to why I believe people keep coming back to it’s horrors. Taking an action, whether positive or negative towards a character in such a highly detailed virtual world renders it meaningful in the same way that an action we take in the world is rendered meaningful: through consequence. In Fallout 3, consequence is made visible to you in a myriad of modes, from the physical (your character could be maimed, scarred, or even experience mutations), to the social (your character may become famous or infamous, and attract resentment or praise from different groups). In this way the game lets the player enter a highly immersive experience, and in my case, this experience led me to project something about my real identity as a person into the virtual identity that I was playing in the game (a psychological phenomenon that James Paul Gee, in What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, has called the Projective Identity).

Very commonly, when people talk about immersion in virtual worlds such as the one presented in Fallout 3, they tend to place quite an emphasis on the graphic and physical simulation nuances that can be found in them. While I also believe these to be important, the sort of detail and immersion elicited in this game is special because it has less to do with them, and more to do with something as difficult (some would argue more difficult) to accomplish in games: character depth.

Bethesda accomplished this in Fallout through an orchestration of many things including physical locations, textures and visual effects, but primarily through a painstakingly detailed and interconnected system of dialog choices through which players explore the content of conversations and interactions different characters in the world of Fallout.

In my play experience I found that exploring the virtual world through these interactions, led me to a degree of awareness about the deep implications that a thermonuclear holocaust could have on our human condition in a way that graphics simply can’t convey. For in these interactions, one gets to explore the mental life of people for whom the traditional institutional, social, physical, and even mental structures that one would associate with “civilized society” have been obliterated, and new ones are desperately being sought and built from the radioactive ashes. In this way, Fallout 3 becomes a space full of opportunity to explore not only its world, but ourselves and what it means to be human.

Fallout 3 allows this in many ways, which I think will resonate with different audiences in a variety of manners. Beginning with the simple fact that one could choose to play the game as the most vicious of creatures, dealing with characters in the most selfish and violent manner possible should one wish to do so. In this scenario, the player could mimic a breed of player characters that the game calls raiders, who move around the world attacking the unaware and/or weak, doing all manner of atrocities to them (some of which I will let the kind reader explore on his/her own, for I do not mean to hurt sensibilities), taking what they want from them. And this would be close to the identities that post apocalyptic stories like a boy and his dog and Mad Max have imagined for humans living in such a hellish world.

However, this is not the only way that one can play the game, for there are many other identities that one could develop. And here I am not talking about the well-known role of the hero who, like in numerous other titles, travels around the wasteland saving oppressed people (which can be done). Rather, what is interesting about Fallout 3 is that it allows one to choose at any moment from a spectrum of possible responses from the civilized to the violent, and in the process to examine some of the deep complexities that underlie human ethics and moral behavior. To explain what I‘m describing, I will refer to an experience I had with a part of the game where I was asked by a girl in a town I visited if I could deliver a note to her brother, who was living in a town settled on the top of a ruined freeway. Upon getting there, I discovered that the few settlers living there were in constant fear of a sinister group called “The Family”. In talking to the settlers, one would get the sense that The Family is a group very similar to the raiders, but with a very peculiar custom, they come to towns at night and knock on people’s doors. When the unfortunate inhabitants happen to respond to the call, they are taken away and never
seen again.

They begged me to help them find one of their groups, a young man, who apparently was taken a few nights before. The young man, by the way, happened to be the person to whom I was supposed to give the note.

Upon accepting the quest, I visited the young man´s house, only to find his parents dead inside, the blood drained out of their bodies. Following the trail of The Family led me to encounter a series of sites where I found dead creatures that had suffered the same fate, and this led me to immediately associate the Family with vampires. After searching the area for a long time, I was finally is able to find The Family’s hideout, and one of the most interesting exchanges with non-player characters I have found in any game.

Upon entering the hideout, I found several characters roaming its underground rooms, as well as several computer terminals with information about them. I learned that they only would come out at night, and look for people in the wasteland on which to feast. This made me think that the young man I was looking for was probably dead, as these monsters would undoubtedly have feasted on him. However, upon talking to The Family members I found, I learned that their leader, Vance, had actually “adopted” them, brought them to live with him, and introduced them to “the ways” of the Family.

I decided to go find this Vance, since I was convinced that, being a vampire, he had probably taken the young man to suck his blood and convert him into a vampire like himself. I was ready for a fight, “knowing”, like we all do, that vampires are evil, and wanting to make them pay for what they did to the poor young man and his family. I was completely surprised when I found a well-dressed and well-mannered fellow (at least compared to the rough folk one can commonly find in the wasteland), and was even more surprised at the dialog options I found when I engaged him in conversation. First, he told me that this place, which he called Meresti, was the last bastion of hope for the downtrodden and misunderstood. He claimed he had brought all the people with him in order to save them, and teach them his ways. Not the sort of response I would have expected from a vampire, but I still thought what he said meant he was converting people to vampirism, like him. I confirmed this and felt repulsed when he said: “Men of science would call us cannibals, eaters of human flesh. Society labels us as monsters, demons and the unclean.”

At this point, my first dialog choices became available. My first choice would have been to stop him from talking and attacking him. I must admit that I was very tempted to take this choice, since I felt that what these people were doing was terribly wrong. While destroying vampires is an act that I would have normally executed without much thought in any other game, the eloquence with which Vance presented his description compelled me to choose my second option, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and let him continue to learn more information.

What followed completely threw me off, for I did not expect a monster to say this. He said “I think of my teachings as more of an improvement, a way to transcend our cannibalistic nature”, and this sparked something in me that is so purely human, and so powerful that it made me forget that I was talking to a potential enemy: curiosity.

In the dialog that followed, I was given the choice of doing a thought experiment, by saying “If I accept that you’re no longer cannibals, what do I call you?” to which he appeared genuinely surprised, and responded that he found my open mindedness rare and fascinating. He then went on to explain to me that every day, The Family held a ceremony, in which every member had to speak one of the laws. That member was then responsible for remembering that law, and enforcing it upon herself and the others if she wanted to remain in the Family and not go back to living like an animal in the wasteland, for he saw The Family as the last remnant of civilized society. He then said that before telling me more about the young man I was looking for, I had to learn about each one of the laws, and then come back to him, for in this way I would understand what The Family really was.

I must admit that by this point I was fascinated, for I had never considered that a cannibal or a vampire in a game would be presented with such sophisticated a view of himself. But more than this, I was fascinated by the fact that Bethesda would have designed into Fallout 3 –either deliberately or not, I do not know- a quest that in the real world would have closely mimicked a mini-ethnographic study of the cultural norms of a people. I decided to play along with Vance’s request out of curiosity of the level of depth and sophistication that Bethesda could have given to this code of laws, half expecting it to be a simple set of sentences regurgitating vampire clichés. What I found could not have been more different, as each member told me about his or her respective law, and as a whole I came to realize the sophisticated system of conduct they represented. They were:

The First Law “Feast not on the flesh; consume only the blood.
This is our strength.

We do not eat the flesh of those we kill for food. We will only drink of their blood and leave the body intact. The consumption of flesh is filthy and unclean. This action is what causes the humans to treat us like animals. We are not animals, we are The Family.

The Second Law “Bear not the child; welcome only the exile.
This is our fate.

Because we carry the stain of our past in our bodies, we can never let it pass to our offspring who would in turn carry out those foul actions beginning the cycle anew. The Family must seek the Wasteland for others of its kind in order to maintain itself. That is our fate.

The Third Law “Feed not for pleasure; partake only to nourish.
This is our dignity.

We only kill the humans when we are hungry or when we must defend ourselves, we never hunt for sport or pleasure. We do not prey on children for they are not yet tainted by society’s view of us. The Family will not tolerate murder.

The Fourth Law “Seek not the sun’s light; embrace only the shadows.
This is our refuge.

Because we are creatures of the night, we must not set foot in daylight. We move silently across the ground only under the watchful eye of the moon above. At the rising of the sun, we must seek the embrace of the shadows and never again gaze at its brilliance. The Family seeks the dark as its refuge.

The Fifth Law “Kill not our kindred; slay only the enemy.
This is our justice.

Above all, no member of The Family will ever take the life of another member without the consent of the current leader. Anyone disobeying this action, the most heinous of all our crimes, will be exiled from this place forever. We must not let our own inner demons cause us to fight amongst ourselves. We number only in the few, and we cannot risk extinction.

A perspective began to form in my head upon learning about these principles. Was this Vance just a cannibalistic lunatic trying to pretend to be some sort of twisted, vampire messiah? And if he wasn’t, what had they done to the young man? Had he brought him and others to indoctrinate them to become like him? I decided to go back and ask him about it, to demand that he release the one I was looking for. Surprisingly, after hearing that I had learned the principles, he said that I was welcome to talk to the young man, that he had never been held against his will, and that if he was isolated from the others it was because he was in a moment of reflection. This was not the answer I expected, since I thought from the beginning that the young man had been taken away.

What happened next made me realize and appreciate the level of sophistication and complexity of the relationship between narrative, dialog, and the social relationship mechanisms in Fallout 3. When I reached the young man’s room, I found him sitting alone, silent, thinking. I told him who I was and that I had come for him, to take him back home. He responded he didn’t want to leave cause he felt so ashamed of what he had done, and that this place was the only one where he felt “normal”. I probed further, and he decided to tell me his story, which went something along these lines: Long ago, when he was just a boy, he and his sister had been out in the wasteland tending to their animals, and were being harassed by a scavenger. When Ian tried to stop him, the scavenger pushed him and he hit his head on a rock. At that moment, something powerful came over him; something that had lain dormant inside of him took over. Before he knew it, he had jumped to the assailant’s throat and torn his throat open with his teeth. It was all his sister could do to pull him off, and she made him swear they would keep the incident a secret. However, the hunger remained dormant in him, waiting to come out in a cannibalistic frenzy. He was able to control it until his sister decided to leave for another town, and then, one night, the hunger came back, took over him, and he killed his parents.

And here, another decision moment that would shape my projective identity came into play, for at hearing the horrible thing this young man did, conflicting emotions filled my soul. On one hand, the man in front of me had murdered two people who had cared for him. On the other one, the fact that he had come to The Family gave me a realization that not only did he do it purposefully, but that as with many other horrors of the wasteland, he was just a product of the circumstances in which he had grown up, and an unfortunate victim of something he could not control. At this moment, the genius of the design in Fallout 3 became clear as the light of day to me, for at this moment I could shape not only the future of this young man’s identity in the virtual world, but also my own future both in and out of the game, through an awareness of the complexities that underlie the surface of the human condition. In the end, this second perspective touched not my projective identity, but my real one as a person, I felt truly sad for this kid, and decided to give him the note from his sister. In it, he read that she missed him, and wanted him to come back to his town to meet her and be a family once more. The young man, who had come to the colony of vampires to seek shelter in the night, had now found a glimmer of hope, hope of redemption in love.

Is feeling sad for a virtual cannibal proof of the power that Fallout’s design brings into its play experience? Perhaps some would disagree, and for some others it might be just one more narrative trick used to produce emotions in players. For me, the mixture of storyline, interaction, environments, and episodes like this one, produced an experience of self-reflection and reflection on what it means to be human, and like all great art, allowed me to explore within myself, what lies beneath the surface of the human condition.