Bethesda were part of the story. Fallout 3 previews, between explaining VATS and the Megaton dilemma, made sure to note the long-standing concerns over whether Bethesda could pull this off. Bethesda had inserted themselves into the history of someone else's series: Fallout, ardently mythologised as a classic although its commercial cachet had declined. After Bethesda cultivated their house franchise into a well-received cross-platform hit with Oblivion, they suddenly had everything to prove.
Their motivations find parallel in the story Fallout 3 tells about the player character's father, James. One day and without any specific impetus, James abruptly leaves home and the security it provides to risk everything on resurrecting a certain project commonly thought to be untenable after some recent failures. Why'd he leave, and why did Bethesda decide to do this? Fortunately they did, because at worst, Fallout 3 would have been an undetermined game; a cautious compromise between the varying design sensibilities of Bethesda and Black Isle and a half-hearted and restrained remake of the original Fallout.
That's not Fallout 3. Here's why it mattered to the post-apocalyptic, profanity-laden, morally vague wasteland that Bethesda make it this time.
Game worlds which exist in their fiction as monumental achievements -- like Rapture and Liberty City, grand and exhaustive -- can reflect their developers' real-life dedication to building a quality game. Instead of vicariously crafting in-game opulence, Bethesda recreated Washington, D.C. as a blasted shithole devastated by nuclear war and depressingly rendered in decrepit detail. BioShock was a toast to failed ambition; Fallout 3 a toast to failure.
Given Fallout 3's timing, reintroducing the series' conceit of war beginning with an Alaskan invasion is faintly hilarious. Now that the resultant wasteland exists in one of Bethesda's open and persistent worlds, you're forced to survey the full extent of the destruction. You can't ignore all the bombed-out highways, the bridges to nowhere, the irradiated waters, the torn-apart schools, the abandoned cars, the skeletal remains embracing on the beds of shattered houses, the random and meaningless firefights and explosions. That's the world, and you have to deal with it even when it has no quest relevance. No previous Fallout game has actually felt so plausibly Post-Nuclear, and if Fallout 3 doesn't seem as funny as its predecessors it's because there's really nothing funny about that. A video game has never been so appropriately painted in brown and gray; the thematic prerogative of Gears of War wasn't hopelessness.
The decision to set Fallout 3 in D.C. was ostensibly made to further distance Bethesda's game from the West Coast adventures of Fallout 1 and 2, and because the Maryland-based developer were more familiar with the Capitol. Workmanlike reasoning which doesn't hint at the massive implications the decision would have on the creative direction of the game. It's not until after the player leaves the pristine sanctity of Vault 101 in search of his father and makes it to Washington proper that you remember what's specifically important about D.C. Not until you march down the Mall, through the wrecks of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Museums of History and Technology, the National Archives and the Lincoln Memorial to the tune of the America the Beautiful, ducking the street-gangs and mutants further blowing apart the ruins that you can tell this is the dismal coda to American history. America as it was conceived in 1776 is in gradual decline and while some civilians still go about their lives it seems inevitable that the light will blink out sooner rather than later. When you're able to casually scavenge the Declaration of Independence, and sell it, whatever immaculate prestige American history once had is probably gone. On your tour of D.C. you're made to revisit all the initial promise inherent in that document while you're picking up the pieces and kicking around the ashes. The buildings stand remarkably intact, frozen in time, for you to look up at and think about how this all went to hell.
Sitting in the Museum of Technology's planetarium, you can watch the stars flicker across the ceiling from an antiquated projector, listening to an earnest narrator explains the great dream of mankind to explore outer space and some '40s nostalgia drifting over the radio. A pair of super mutants interrupt with lead pipes and miniguns, screaming about tearing your head off. That's Fallout 3.
It's a heartbreaking picture, even though Fallout is still decorated with contrarily cheerful '50s duck-and-cover iconography, replete with the perpetually enthused Vault Boy character. As much as that imagery serves as ironic commentary, it almost exists to leaven the psychological burden of walking around awake in this nightmare. If you can point to something out-of-place or ridiculous, then you can detach from the world rather than submitting to it as a reasonable state of existence. Even so, Fallout the third is the sober one in the family, and whether you think that's a deliberate choice or Bethesda's Achilles' heel, it works for this game. Fallout 3 executes its humorous interstitials as well as anything in the first game, while rejecting the broader pop culture excesses of Fallout 2's Monty Python prostitute showcase. It is, after all, the end of the world.
Far Cry 2, another sequel from a different studio, has absolutely nothing to do with the first game. The name is a vehicle for an unrelated design document and the game's called Far Cry 2 only because Ubisoft doesn't own the Mercenaries license. The new Far Cry team and the new Fallout team offer new perspectives. Far Cry 2's Africa abandons aliens for malaria, item degradation, civil war and all-purpose ugliness while Fallout 3's wasteland is deliberately and unremittingly tragic. To the history of their respective series, they introduce a conscience. They tell gamers that they can have their open-world shooter and post-apocalyptic wastelands, with their bloody conflicts, nuclear weapons, headshots, political intrigue and all the occasionally goofy video game accouterments, but they won't pretend anymore that it's all unreservedly awesome. You should feel bad in Far Cry 2 or sad just walking around in Fallout 3. That Fallout 3 is able to convey all this entirely through atmosphere rather than disadvantaging the player (a page out of the survival horror playbook) is a pretty remarkable achievement.
Fallout 3's weirdest moment has two costumed crusaders fighting on the outskirts of a remote town, calling themselves the Mechanist and the AntAgonizer. It's a moronic premise, albeit one right in line with Fallout. When you talk to the AntAgonizer, though, and persuade her to knock it off, the game treats her with completely dignity as she presents a reasonable case for how she wanted to help the impossibly lost inhabitants of the wasteland before running away in tears.
As Fallout's setting is such an unnatural mode of existence, it's especially worthwhile to observe how the residents of the wasteland choose to live their lives. What are you supposed to do when all of civilisation's institutions have been erased? Everyone you meet has written their own self-help book on post-nuclear living. Most subsist on vice, as murderers, dealers, slavers and prostitutes. Skilled fighters hire themselves out as mercenaries or anarchically pillage towns. Others go flat-out insane. Personal survival can be so insurmountable a bar that few rise above self-interest and do what's right for what little remains of the world. Some try, like the semi-righteous order of knights, the Brotherhood of Steel, but even they're divided on how much they want to help out humanity. The Capitol Wasteland lacks any government or ideology and as chaotic and sociologically fractured as it is, it's a perfect setting for an unfocused open-world game. There's exactly one person in Fallout 3 who will sacrifice for the greater good and you can follow him if you want. It's impossible though to believe that in this world enough people like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison will emerge; a small number of smart people who, though ideologically divided, could do something as immense as drafting and ratifying the Constitution. You can't expect any such coherence or drive from the people of Fallout 3.
Most interesting among the populace are not the raiders or the samaritans but those going on as if nothing happened. Isolated in private zones or secluded in vaults, they run restaurants, sweep floors, nurse high school crushes; reintroducing domesticity to the post-apocalypse. You have to wonder how responsible that actually is. Are they doing the right thing in rebuilding familiar societal constructs, or should they accept that the world's in decline and do something about it?
You're an actor in the wasteland like the rest, with more agency and influence than all of them combined, which prompts you to consider what you are going to do. In Fallout, making moral decisions isn't a feature designed to encourage replayability, it's arguably the entire point. Fallout is distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games like Mass Effect (or Oblivion, for that matter) since their worlds are never believably imperiled. The world is in pretty good shape for the entire game; the danger is theoretical and only ever exacerbated by the player allowing the linear plot to progress. Here, the world is already a write-off. You can't fix the wasteland or the war but there are so many people whose lives you can affect, and that in turn determines what kind of person you are. All that really matters is the quality of your character. If you help whoever you meet you won't get anything out of it, not really, not the world or power or glory or any kind of meaningful relationship. All it is is karma.
In a weird way, the wasteland is an inviting avenue for change. There are no rules, no institutions, no laws. What do you do when nobody is watching and you can't be held accountable? If you try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that's a statement in itself: you want those structures to endure. The place is already so desolate you don't even have to do much to improve it. It reminds me, tangentially, of reading about post-invasion Iraq and the early stages of the occupation when the country, bleached to a dreamlike blank slate, so briefly overflowed with possibilities, and an influx of bright young graduates headed out to the Green Zone to reconstruct the country. I remember thinking, for one dangerously unguarded moment, that wouldn't it be great to move to Baghdad. A place where there's so much to achieve and you can finally have an impact even though you'll probably ruin everything and get murdered.
When the Ink Spots' shiftless anthem "Maybe" is broadcast over the in-game radio, the song being the first thing you heard in Fallout 1, it invokes the series' own memory. Bethesda inspire nostalgia for something they had nothing to do with and recall how unlikely it once seemed that they'd be the ones to restart this thing. The lyrics -- "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that I were near/Then maybe you'll ask me to come back again/And maybe I'll say 'Maybe'" -- contradict what this game is all about. Fallout 3 is about making a decision. It's about commitment. It's about doing something. If it seems like an overly general theme consider Bethesda's own history with this game, how, out of unspecified desire, they left the safety of the Elder Scrolls for this, and how many development studios are factories for endless variations on popular franchises or uninspired sequels nobody cares about. Fallout 3 is a tribute to intent. It's not a rallying cry for any cause or even a cautionary tale about the hypothetical horrors of nuclear holocaust. It's a statement on the worthlessness of inaction. It's about not staying in the vault.
In the spirit, then, of conclusive action and definitive answers, we are at last able to resolve every question we've ever had about this game. Does it work; did they pull it off; was it worth all the time, the money, the effort, the mistrust and the suspicion; with everything that this game says and everything that it achieves, well, finally, is this Fallout?