October 30, 2007

Fallout (1997)

1997! I'm catching up fast.

First of all, I would like to note that Fallout is one of my favourite games. Secondly, it hasn't aged very well. Literally every mechanic dealing with your party is so outdated as to be embarrassing. I know the SMG-burst issue is so infamous at this point as to have become part of the game's charm, but it's really awful. Anyway: Fallout!

Fallout's ending -- spoiler alert!! -- is often mentioned as one of those "can a video game make you cry?" moments, or more specifically, "well, this didn't make me cry exactly, but it was kind of sad." Unfortunately the ending isn't on YouTube, so I guess you'll have to conjure up the memory while you read the rest of this post. Try not to choke up.

Essentially, you, the hero, get exiled from the vault because, having spent the length of the game out on the strange, dangerous surface, you're tainted. Cue the Ink Spots and "Maybe" as the hero marches, forlorn, back to the wastes. It's a laudable enough twist in a genre that (even today, but more so circa 1997) is mostly about jerking you off every five minutes to reassure you that you are the most important character in this particular power fantasy. This is significant. Even though Fallout grants you typically massive influence over the settlements and people you encounter, you're denied your final accolade.

This ending doesn't work. The entire game is about discovery: for the first time, you're seeing the world outside of the vault. Nobody from the vault's ever been out there. You assume it's going to be this anarchic wasteland, a total nightmare. It even sort of is. But although in all the entropy you don't find as many pockets of sympathetic or pitiable humanity as you do in a Deus Ex or a Planescape: Torment... they're still there! The whole game has you outside your comfort zone, and I think that while, yes, there are scorpions and raiders and mutants, it is still a really interesting place, the place you should have been all along. It is better than the vault. While you're less likely to get murdered, there's absolutely nothing interesting there. It's conservative, repressed and closed-minded, a point well made by their iconography so evoking the 1950s, not to mention their casting you out. Who played Fallout and was saying to themselves, you know, this is really great and all, but what I really want for Fallout 2 is to stay in the fucking vault?

The game experience is not about making you homesick (you've never been home) by making you trawl through some horrorscape. It's kind of like that ER episode where those Amish kids go through that rite of leaving home at 18 to check if the outside world's for them before going back to their Amish ways. Maybe that happens in real life too. I'm not an expert. I did see Witness, and now that I think about it, I'm really embarrassed to admit that I saw a late-period ER episode.

Fallout doesn't create even a perfunctory emotional connection between the player and the vault. It's not "home". Even if it was, who cares? The outside world is by far more attractive. Yeah, it's a risk, but that's life. I don't even feel bad on behalf of my character, because he's the typical RPG blank slate. Dude feels bad when I tell him to feel bad. (Side note: Fallout 3 is apparently rectifying this by starting you in the vault proper and then having your dad get kidnapped. For more, see the excellent Shacknews preview written by the famous Chris Remo, a.k.a. the most successful ex-Idle Thumbs staffer. So far.)

This is why I was fully on board with Fallout until that ending. Pathos was completely the wrong note to play. You did me a fucking favour. And because during this game I did so much good for so many people, they're practically obligated now to set me up for life.

I wish she didn't have her eyes closed in this shot.

I'm perfectly willing to admit my interpretation of the game is the wrong one. But it's the better one.

Finally, having majored in international relations, I can tell you that war actually does change.

Next up -- a game from this century!


Steve gaynor said...

You said you weren't going to mentioned Idle Thumbs again!! ;-P

Duncan said...

I'm sorry for failing :(