Fallout 3 and its the persistent, unchanging world

Continuing on my long essays on the failings of my favorite game this year… also, spoiler alert.

Fallout 3 is far, far better than Farcry 2 and still manages to be frustrating in what turns out to be an important way.

First, I’ll talk about my Farcry problem and why it breaks the game. In Farcry 2, the main character is sent into Africa to kill Kurtz… I mean, some Kurtz stand-in, they don’t fess up that it’s all Heart of Darkness until quite late in the game. They become tangled up in an escalating civil war, which they resolve by killing everyone on the continent while taking on increasingly uncomfortable missions for two factions (really, it’s “go blow up this water purifier” “go kill this doctor” kind of stuff). So in the plot, there’s a persistent, growing tension and horror at what you’re doing that I kind of liked.

This is entirely wrecked by problems with the game, the biggest of which is the crippling roadblock problem. To get anywhere in the game, you have to either:
– walk, which takes forever, but you can avoid people
– drive, which means you get shot at at every intersection

Sometimes you can take a shortcut by bus and then steal a car. But largely it means that the game runs
1. get a mission
2. drive for 30s
3. change positions in the jeep to man the gun
4. shoot everyone at the roadblock
5. repeat steps 2-3 until you arrive at the destination

This is kind of cool for a while, because the way combat works in Farcry is pretty nice, and you end up anxious all the time, because a fight with a couple of schmucks can kill you, or escalate so fast you have to abandon a mission and run away entirely. But then it’s tiresome, and grating, and then you hate the game for it. The problem is persistence and the gap between any reasonable expectation and the gameplay.

The people at the roadblocks shoot at you no matter what side you’re working for, so it doesn’t matter if one side is winning or you’re favored or if you just killed a faction’s leader and they should be in disarray, or if you didn’t and they should feel secure. So instead of being part of the game and changing as you affect the game, they’re always-present enemy spawn points.

The roadblocks are restocked every time you turn your back. This is a game-breaker. If you’re on a mission that requires you to go A-B-A, you’ll go past roadblocks 1, 2, and 3, killing everyone at all of them, do the mission, and then run back 3,2,1, and every one of those stops will likely have an entirely new crew of moronic, heavily-armed gunmen who are way, way low on their lead dosage and are practically begging for the application of supplements delivered at high-speed.

Where do those guys come from?

No, really. The game is relatively geography-constrained in a low-population-density area where everyone who could has left and even the major cities are ghost towns. But after you kill ten people at a roadblock, someone crawls out of the bushes, puts up a “now hiring” sign, interviews and hires ten people, shows the “Welcome to the APR” video, hands them an assortment of weapons, and says “now go stand around and shoot at anyone who comes down this road”. Then they go hide in the bushes with the sign and wait for you to clear out the place again.

There’s a large checkpoint near the capital that I must have gone through dozens of times. But for all the explosions and death, the next time I’d go by, there were another set of militia.

Didn’t the place get a bad rep? Wouldn’t one of the applicants take a glance around and notice that the place had been shot up repeatedly, that hundreds of people had died there…that the brass casings ran three, four inches deep everywhere? Wouldn’t that affect recruiting in some way? No. Of course not. The depletion of what should be a massive portion of the country’s population doesn’t affect it. It doesn’t seem to staunch the flow of foreign mercenaries no matter how many of them don’t live to collect their next paycheck, and you’d think that sort of thing would make the informal rounds.

All game progress is lost in the absolute lack of world progress, and in something that’s supposed to be gritty and (relatively) realistic, a flaw like this that undermines the premise, the game world, and creates a frustrating experience ends up overwhelming and destroying what positive characteristics the game has.

Anyway. To Fallout 3. Fallout 3 deals with the same random encounter problem in a much different way: you’ll encounter small groups of enemies as you wander around. Their composition differs, and like Farcry 2, every encounter is potentially fatal, so there’s some tension (this does decrease when you get to be ridiculously bad-ass). It didn’t annoy me, though, for a couple of reasons:
– If your character’s observant enough, you can spot them early and avoid them
– Or if you’re sneaky enough, you can skulk right past them
– It fits into the world

It’s a lawless wasteland. It makes sense that there might be three or four people down by the river, or a giant scorpion on the next hill.

Now, there are problems with this. Later in the game, you can essentially figure out where the Super Mutants are coming from and clean that place out, but the Super Mutant problem doesn’t really ease. This is also a problem with the Brotherhood: they’re trying to figure out the answer to the Super Mutants, you-as-player can figure it out, but there’s no way to tell them (or at least none that I could figure out). So for much of the game, you’ll be fighting an enemy that could as a group be defeated if onlyyyyy…. and so I went into the climax thinking “I wish there was a way I could write them a letter or something… that would save as many lives as this climatic battle… shoot. I guess I’ll go on with the plot as I’m supposed to.” But this is tolerable, because you figure there are so many of them already out there, and the in-game content supports that.

Still, it’s frustrating. You’d expect that they’d attempt to retake their most important location, resulting in a larger fight, or that they’d scatter, or something different would happen.

Similarly, if you make a certain early-game decision, the Talon Company takes up a contract for your head with a reward of 1,000 caps. You pretty quickly make this a poor value proposition, as each time you encounter a team the team ends up dead and you get a set of weapons and armor to sell off. But consider it a sunk cost proposition, where each time they think “hey, we could use a quick thousand caps and it doesn’t look like teams A through H are going to show up for the team-building exercise, so let’s go pop the kid from Vault 101.” But I got annoyed about the constant encounters and cleared out Fort Bannister, which took some doing and a lot of ammunition.

Nothing. No reaction at all. They didn’t start throwing more stuff at me in revenge, or leave me alone entirely out of fear. There was no escalation or resolution here, either.

At the same time, the Enclave enemies are really well handled and it makes the game a lot better. Once the Enclave intervenes, and it’s established they have technology and soldiers to burn, they become a new enemy you encounter. It helps to tie the story into the larger world: they’re here, in force, they’re making running around significantly harder (if also a lot more potentially lucrative). You see the contrast.

Now compared to Farcry 2, the handling of random encounters is much less of a game problem, for two reasons:
– they provide a “fast travel” shortcut on the map you can use that takes you directly to the destination (where you may encounter enemies anyway)
– even if you hike there the long way, or have to travel on foot to discover the location, it doesn’t totally degrade the experience and make your life miserable. It would be more satisfying if there was some kind of storyline at work there, and the world changed, but they’ve at least done you the favor of not having a set of the same enemies regenerate every thirty seconds at common intersections you need to go through every ten minutes.
– the mechanic doesn’t degrade into “Stop the jeep, shoot everything, drive through carnage, stop…”

This all leads up to the wider problem, which ultimately contributes to the frustrating nature of Fallout 3 and why it fails to fulfill all its promise. If you decide to rampage through Paradise Falls killing slavers, you can entirely clean out the place and free the slaves. But the next time you come back, the slaves will still be there, asking you to free them and talking about how scared they are.

“You’re free!” you can tell them, and they’ll acknowledge that but not move. Or they’ll run around for a second and then stop.

The world goes the same way. You are in important ways reminded of things you do, which is satisfying. There’s progress within some particular places, where you’re regarded differently and relationships change depending on larger achievements. And Three Dog reports the news on what you’ve been up to, good or bad, at least until he glitches and goes back to reporting generic items again.

Paradise Falls isn’t torn down, or resettled by the slaves. If you resolve Arefu’s problems, Arefu doesn’t recover. Tenpenny Towers can potentially change permanently, and even if it’s because you screwed up, that’s a dramatic and satisfying event. But overall, there’s almost no indication that your actions affect the world by making the wasteland safer, or more dangerous, for the people in it. For me, this was a nagging problem with the game, where I felt all the freedom accorded me to run around and get into trouble and do good deeds none of it ever mattered to the world.

The point of playing video games (at least sometimes) is to be part of something beyond our everyday lives. To do epic, world-changing things. In a strict linear plot, this can be easily achieved: you start in location one, you win boss fight one, now you’re in location two with slightly raised stakes… I think of Final Fantasy VII here as a great example: it’s almost a rail shooter for a while it’s so linear, then the plot goes one direction towards the ending. But when you’re let loose to go run wherever you want, you’ve been part of some serious world-changing events that you can see the aftermath of.

I might have been okay with Fallout 3’s failure there if the climax hadn’t been the greatest example of that possible. It’s the small issues written large, taking over the game entirely and making the ending unsatisfying. Say that you crank up the water purification project after rescuing it, at the cost of your own life. What happens?

No idea. We don’t know. Presumably the wasteland turns into a land of milk and honey or something. But I have no idea, and as a result completing the game is a meaningless trophy. Does the final sacrifice make the difference that all your actions can’t? You’d like to think so… but why? Why would you have any confidence that it would, given that all of your in-game actions up to that point generally do nothing to affect the world?

Fallout 3 is a victim of its own ambition here, and I don’t want to run it down needlessly (though clearly that’s not stopping me). But this is a great example of how the desire to grant the player freedom of action without also implementing consequences devalues that freedom and ultimately makes the game’s conclusion less satisfying.