One of the games that I've been playing obsessively lately is Fallout 3. Despite me having spent more than 60 hours in its post apocalyptic wasteland, I'm yet to get tired of the title's incredible narrative architecture. As Clive Thompson points out on Wired:
It's an incredibly bleak game. Critics have lauded it for its complex-but-intuitive gameplay, its intriguing story and a go-anywhere world that outdoes even the sprawling burbia of Grand Theft Auto IV. But for my money, Fallout 3's accomplishment is more subtle:
Fallout 3 indeed excels in creating an environment that is filled with stories of despair, struggle, violence, crushed dreams and hopes. Exploring the environment reveals countless little stories about life in the wasteland and life how it used to be.
Two skeletons lie next two each other on a bed in a destroyed wooden house, at the end the burned leftovers of their child.
An example Thompson gives:
There's a little girl who was found under a bed, and who's now living with a guy who rescued her, trying to avoid the pedophiles in her safe zone. And there's the mission where I was rescuing children from slavers, and tried to persuade a little girl to leave her friend behind -- telling her that "friends sometimes leave you."
"Ghoulified" characters reminiscent of their former beauty or social position, now they're just social outcasts. Every time I play, I come across something that impressively demonstrates the chilling horrors of nuclear warfare. This effect is likely to be bigger if one is actually familiar with the real Washington D.C. (the last time I went was in 1995 so many of the games locales don't have a huge impact on me).
If one digs deep enough one is even able to find documents of the tensions that lead to the attacks. Computers hold records about negotiations and safety measures. Still: The final strike must have been sudden, people even felt comfortable enough to go camping (judging by the burned out trailer I found).
One of the main differences to another masterpiece of narrative architecture – Bioshock – is that the people you encounter are not to blame for the situation they're confronted with. The erection of the Rapture and its social system was a conscious decision, a deliberate turning away from the rest of the world to create a place with its own ethics. It is consequently harder to feel empathy with any of enemies one encounters, their condition is merely the last consequence of their philosophy.
In Fallout 3 a whole world is suddenly confronted with the aftermath of the apocalypse. Now everyone has to cope with radiation, dirty water, anarchy and slavery; everyone is a victim of circumstances beyond their control which certainly adds to the emotional undertone of the game.
As Thompson points out:
Fallout 3 hammers this home early, because you actually begin the game as a preverbal toddler, waddling around a gray nuclear bunker that your father -- who appears to love you quite deeply -- has tried, and failed, to make into a happy nursery. A few little red rockets hang in a mobile over your industrial steel crib, and that's it.
Fallout 3 is an incredible achievement. If one takes the time to explore the vast, bleak world of the game – and not just pursues the action-orientated main quests – it is a very rewarding game which, as Thompson puts it, triggers reflection through pain. It is violent yet inspires more empathy than any other title I played before.