Thursday, January 15, 2009

(Press X to) Blow Up the Outside World

All stories of the post-apocalypse come from a desire to burn the sin out of the world. Call it a yearning for Sodom and Gomorrah, a need to purge by fire every liar, politician, captain of industry and snake oil salesman. It’s the dream of standing atop a pile of rubble, looking down at the smoking ruins of civilization and saying yes, this is right, this needed to happen.

Fallout 3 revels in death by fire. I smell a whiff of decadence in the level of detail Bethesda Softworks invested in rendering the post-nuclear D.C.-Metro area, which is only proper – think of the Bible’s Book of Revelations, with its lavish visions of marauding locust-demons and falling mountains of fire, or Dante, with his vividly imagined hellscape. Bethesda does justice to both, and anyone who’s ever been in a D.C. metro stop will agree – their Armageddon is rendered down to the irradiated soil. The-End-Is-Nigh street corner prophets will go limp with delight.

But there’s something airless about Bethesda’s entry in the hallowed Fallout franchise. I’m 25 hours in, and about 60 percent through the main quest, I think. While the game floored me several times – really, when you first step onto the Mall, you can’t help but stare for a few minutes – there are enough jarring inconsistencies to delaminate me from the narrative. When your pet dog rises in thin air and hovers for a few seconds before slamming back to earth without explanation, you stop taking Fallout 3 seriously – and when you stop taking Fallout 3 seriously, you tumble into Oblivion, if you catch my drift.

Shameless pun, I know, but don’t worry: this is going somewhere. Let’s start at the game’s beginning. Fallout 3 has the most seamless character creation system I’ve ever encountered, plucking me from betwixt my mother’s legs and making me crawl, walk, get in fistfights and pass my fallout shelter’s equivalent of the SAT. All of my childhood actions determined the set of statistics with which I began the game.

Eventually, I had to make a hasty exit, and after an intense escape, I prepared to break the Vault’s seal and emerge into an unknown world. As a gamer, I was there. I was totally absorbed. Then, right as I pressed the button to forsake childhood for post-apocalyptia, a thoughtful green box popped onscreen and asked: Was there anything about my childhood I’d like to change?

So much for drama. Don’t worry – after two minutes in the Capital Wasteland I forgave and forgot the intrusion. The VATS targeting system was cool. I was dismembering dogs and mole-rats and bees the size of footballs with abandon. I went to a place called Big Town, where I did a good thing; I went to a place called Megaton, where I did a very, very bad thing. But before the bad thing, I committed the lesser sin of breaking into someone’s house. While rifling through the fridge, the resident walked in with an AK strapped to his back. Needless to say, he was displeased with my presence.

He started shouting at me. Because I naturally panic at the first sign of conflict, I ran up to him and pressed A. We proceeded to have a civil conversation. I flattered him. I asked about his adopted daughter. I inquired about his town, his job. I practically asked his favorite color. I had him smiling. I’m a smooth operator, I thought. Figuring myself off the hook, I said farewell.

As soon as the dialog box disappeared, the resident scowled, said he had warned me for the last time, and splattered me all over his kitchen.

I’m pretty sure I got the last laugh. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Bipolar property owners are everywhere in Fallout 3. They get in a tizzy when they find you pillaging their pad, but a press of the A button and a few minutes of brainless small talk is enough to soothe them into resuming their place on the couch, talking to the wall while you steal the rug from under their feet.

Things really got weird when I found Dogmeat. If you really want a canine companion, he’s in the scrap yard; but beware, he’s a trip. My pooch had the tendency to pinwheel on his axis, get stuck on pixels and scale cliffs in a single, baffling leap. He would disappear for a half hour, only to reappear by my side, panting like a moron. Once, dear Dogmeat blocked a doorway. As I attempted go get by him, he helpfully levitated seven feet in the air, allowing me to pass underneath. Shocked into silence, I obliged him. When I turned around, he was no longer floating. He wasn’t there. He was already behind me.

While poking around a hamlet, I sent him to fetch some ammo. Ten minutes went by, and no Dogmeat. When I ducked into a grocery store, a handy green dialog box popped up and said: Dogmeat has died.

No small part of me was relieved.

Seasoned gamers are used to jarring bugs or design flaws, and can usually manage to swing themselves back onto the horse with minimal disillusionment. In the case of Fallout 3, though, being shaken from suspended disbelief has an unfortunate, possibly permanent, consequence: It becomes Oblivion with guns. The more I become aware of its game-ness, the more I see Oblivion lurking in the graphics, the mechanics, and the eerie refusal of any NPC to break eye contact. It’s like tracing a hereditary facial flaw through generations of family portraits. When you’re looking for it, it’s the only thing you see, and once you know about it, you can’t stop looking for it.