Returning to the Wasteland: Fallout 3′s Half Life

Sometimes, inexplicably, you play games from your past. Not the major games of your childhood, the ones you remember so well—I’ll never apologize for replaying Chrono Trigger, despite practically being able to recite it—but instead the more incidental games, the ones you forgot.

That’s how I booted up Fallout 3 over the weekend.

I played Fallout 3 exactly once in the past: during a frenzied week or two after it came out. I was in my last year of college, with a very light workload that consisted of reading large quantities of World War One era texts, so nothing stopped me from spending hours upon hours playing Fallout.

I’d had no attachment to the series—the original Fallout had been an impenetrable mass of interface issues as a child—but I loved post apocalyptic literature and open world games, having thrown many hours into Bethesda’s previous Elder Scroll games.

Of course, now I’ve played near anything with the Fallout name on it—okay, I haven’t played Tactics, or the mid-2000′s console title that’s supposedly miserable—and never paid a whole lot of mind to Fallout 3. In retrospect it felt awkward, an odd fit into the franchise. Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout: New Vegas represent a degree of thematic unity, and Fallout 3 falls outside that milieu.

Actually, a more reasonable parallel is to say that Fallout 3 pairs with Fallout, while the other two couple as well. The first and third games give you a very virginal look at the wasteland, putting you in the shoes of someone whose only reality is torn from them. The second and New Vegas, meanwhile, make you a witting accomplice in the story, rather than just a surrogate.

Replaying Fallout 3, however, I find myself liking it just as much as I did once upon a time. I thought the game wouldn’t have aged very well, but that’s not really the case: it’s amazing how little of a jump Skyrim is from this, or, rather, how much of a jump Fallout 3 was from Oblivion. The world feels just as vibrant as Skyrim’s—so, not particularly vibrant, but interesting in places—and the incidental stories work just as well as they did five years ago. In fact, they work better: I rarely feel like I’m just spelunking randomly in Fallout 3, while most of Skyrim carried that feeling. Fallout’s buildings exist for reasons, while Skyrim’s exist as plot devices and caves of loot.

Fallout’s biggest problem, in retrospect, is how easy it is to build a completely overpowered character, but even that’s a minimal issue. The skills you generally want to take—small guns, lock picking, SCIENCE—are the ones you need the most, and the ones you ignore—barter, outdoorsmanship—are pretty pointless. Ideally some side skills would give you more advantages, like melee weapons being viable, but the majority of players, I think, prefer feeling like a god to feeling out how to commit to their character build.

And it’s not a big deal because the game scales with you reasonably well. At level ten, I’ll still get my ass kicked by a lot of things. In some ways this feels unfair—some encounters nullify my focused-on sneaking skill, while others have occasionally bad pathing—but for the most part it comes from the game having a good sense of balance, at least for the earlier levels. Sure, some of that goes out the window as you find unique items and get skills close to their maximum, but it works for a long while.

But what really gets me about Fallout 3 is that it feels like the first game of this generation. I’ve long cited Bioshock in this role, but the morality of Fallout 3 is slightly more nuanced—you lose karma for stealing, which is surprisingly rare—and the world is more open, while still telling a series of interesting tales. Like any good open world game, Fallout 3 resembles a collection of short stories, a lot of pieces that aren’t especially noteworthy on their own but which come together to make a quite impressive whole.

More than anything, though, Fallout 3 makes me feel nostalgic for five years ago. It makes me feel old, in a lot of ways, to see this game I once thought so modern be reduced to something that’s five years old. It’s kind of depressing, too, to know that five years ago big name developers were making games about as good as the ones they’re making now, as opposed to the past’s leaps and bounds. Fallout 3 is an enigma like that: a strange, wonderfully odd ode to the future.

  • Dan Cox

    I’ve been thinking about going back to Fallout 3 too. Even after investing hundreds of hours across multiple playthroughs and writing tens-of-thousands of words about its systems and people, it still manages to call to me. Unlike Oblivion or even Skyrim, it remains my favorite open world game.

    Most of my reasons are the same ones you wrote: the This World is Messed Up feeling and unique encoding of the god-machine into the karma system. I’ve never been comfortable with the “you have a destiny, go do it” vibe of the Elder Scrolls games and New Vegas’ “go get revenge ’cause reasons” gave me narrative nightmares — don’t even get me started on the problems with the Lonesome Road DLC and its promise of closure.

    No, like you wrote, it’s the feeling of being in the “shoes of someone whose only reality is torn from them.” As only Fallout and Fallout 3 do, you start in innocence and, by crossing the threshold into the bleak world, you are forever changed. You cannot go back; the very exposure you brave prevents your return to that now closed (and ultimately flawed illusion of) utopia.

    It’s a powerful message, and one I feel the Elder Scrolls games will never be able to have. Because magic can, and depending on the DLC and game /has/ already, change the world, there is always this rechargeable nature to bending reality in those games. In the Fallout world, you must survive at all costs. Time will not, in fact, heal or give you back powers.

    You aren’t out to save the world; it’s already broken. The best you can hope for is small changes: maybe clean water, at most. And no matter your level or even maximum skills, the very landscape itself will kill you if you don’t pay attention.