I've been thinking about the apocalypse a lot lately. It's partly because of the intense drought in California. But mostly, it's been because of Fallout fans.
For the last few months, there has been one thought keeping many Fallout fans afloat: maybe, just maybe, Bethesda will announce Fallout 4 on October 23rd—otherwise known as the date when Fallout's Great War occurred. For those of you that aren't Fallout buffs, according to Fallout lore, that date is when the cataclysmic event that sent the world into nuclear war happened, sending a small sliver of the American population into deep, underground vaults. In Fallout lore, the day happened in 2077. We know that the actual date came and went without a peep, but with people talking about Fallout, I couldn't help but start playing Falout 3 again.
The introductory level to Fallout 3 is really good. It's always stood out to me, and now that I've replayed it a couple of times recently, I'm even more convinced than ever that it's one of the most memorable tutorials in gaming.
Let's break down why, shall we?
The game starts with a song, or perhaps it's more accurate to call it a haunt.
I don't want to set the world on fire, The Inkspots croon. I just want to start a flame in your heart...
A sweet song. Sort of heartbreaking. It reminds me of dancing with a honey—a nice memory, but in this context, as the camera pans out and reveals the radio, and the derelict vehicle that houses it, it becomes clear that something is profoundly wrong. As the camera pulls out further, you see that you're in Washington D.C.. A soldier in a suit of power armour looks straight at the camera. Then we hear the words that everyone knows: "War never changes."
Oh, but war has changed. I remember the old days. I remember finishing Fallout 2, hungry to know more about America gone to hell. I remember crawling through Fallout forums for any scrap of news of where the franchise would go. I remember downloading sketchy files that purported to be Van Buren, the project that the original Fallout developers, Black Isle studios, worked on as a follow up to Fallout 2 before being laid off in 2003. I remember the heartbreak—of not being able to get the file to work, of thinking that this franchise that I loved so much was dead in the water. And I remember playing Fallout 2 over and over, reload after reload, all in the hopes that at some point, my teenage brain could game the challenging turn-based battle system. If I just saved enough bullets. If I just had the right build. If I just made the right choice. All the ifs in my head, orbiting a bigger lament: if only someone would save this franchise.
I remember, years later, learning about Fallout 3. The news was incredible to me—and yet, I was sceptical. I didn't like the changes I saw, and the seemingly brainless move to turn the franchise into more of a shooter. Still, I preordered it. Still, I stood in line at a midnight release. Still, I felt a sense of relief opening the special edition lunchbox for the first time, and still, I remember the sense of disbelief as I played the intro for the first time. It was all very dramatic of me, I know. Fallout was the first franchise I genuinely cared about as a young adult, was the first game that showed me what gaming could be. I think we all have a game like that.
Little boxes made of ticky tacky need their white picket fences and picture-perfect families, after all.
In any case, playing through the intro again now, I can't help but laugh at how smug I was when I first played it. I remember feeling so cool because I knew all about the story, and had played the original games—whereas most of my friends seemed new to the franchise. Lots of people were, back then. And look at it now: possibly one of the most, if not the most anticipated game coming up has to be Fallout 4, right?
The first time I'm granted control in the game is during my birth—the game's intro wasn't joking about all that new beginnings stuff, eh? My father, taking a page straight out of Professor Oak's handbook, asks me if I'm a boy or a girl. Then, he pulls up a machine called a Gene Projector, which can display what a baby will look like when it's all grown up. Mechanically, it lets me determine what my character will look like as an adult. Thematically, it's some GATTACA-level stuff—the type of invention a society with the values of the 50's might genuinely come up with. Little boxes made of ticky tacky need their white picket fences and picture-perfect families, after all.
The game defaults your character to "Caucasian," which I suppose could be vaguely problematic, in that standard video-game kind of way, save for the fact that everyone in the game sort of looks like trash anyway. Look, as great as Fallout 3 is, the engine has absolutely not aged well. The game looked kind of horrible back in 2008, when it was originally released, and it only looks worse now. There are mods, but...they can only do so much.
I digress. A few moments after I finalize my looks, my mother dies—and then the game fast-forwards to a year later. My dad tricks me into crawling into my playpen, and so I occupy my time with a book on the floor.
I'm a big fan of the SPECIAL book, which breaks down every character stat in the game with short, nursery-school like rhymes. I can easily imagine it as a real book back in the 50s, and I definitely appreciate its significance now, in 2014. As a millennial, I was constantly promised I was so fuckin' special. I just needed to take the right classes, pass the right tests, and do the right extracurricular activities to mould myself into that special person, right? Like building an RPG character or something...
I break out of the pen, I look around and think, wow, a vault is a sort of grim place to grow up, huh? Harsh, sterile metal everywhere.
But before I can dwell on that for very long, my dad comes back and remarks that I'm quite the explorer, and my escape serves him right for trying to pen me in. Get it? The game is foreshadowing the fact you're going to leave, eventually.
My dad goes on to read me a bible passage. I don't really pay attention, even though it was apparently my mum's favourite passage. Who has values when the world has ended? That's not what this game is about, really—though the passage does give a vague nod to the eventual main quest, which revolves around water.
The game then fast-forwards to my tenth birthday. This is a significant milestone in my vault-dweller's life, because that's when I'm given my first Pipboy. I equip the Pipboy, which strikes me as a more invasive, yet retro take on the iPhone (especially now that Apple is dipping more into health stuff). The Pipboy can tell you the time, it can give you a map of your surroundings. It also never detaches from your arm, and it can tell you when you're suffering from radiation. Neat, eh?
Looking around, I'm struck by the edicts hung side-by-side next to my HAPPY BIRTHDAY signs. They read: ACHIEVE PERFECTION! HARD WORK IS HAPPY WORK! And in the background, I hear chatter that makes it makes it clear this is artifice, and maybe the people in Vault 101 aren't as happy as the overseer would like you to think.
Amata, the overseer's daughter, informs me it's a surprise birthday party—and she has a gift for me. It's a comic book. I can't help but wonder how long everyone has been locked up in this vault—how long have they been reading the same comics, consuming the same media? How doesn't it drive everyone insane? Does the isolation change them? How can they go on with their lives like this, pretending everything is okay? Don't they ever wonder what is outside of the vault?
Video games are good at this line of thinking. They're good at making you feel like you're the only normal person in a world full of zany, crazed characters. And walking around in the introduction to Fallout 3, it's hard not to fall prey to it as you watch everyone walk around with the same blue jumpsuit with the numbers 101 stitched onto the back.
I open the Pipboy for the first time. Fallout's mascot Vault Boy stares back at me with a smile. There is something profoundly off about this character. He at once symbolises the off-kilter tone of the series, but also embodies the sort of perfect citizen that a vault society would want to foster. His smirk is almost cynical. It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
Since it's my birthday, there are more gifts. Old lady Palmer gives me a sweetroll. Butch, another boy in the vault, bullies me into giving it to him. But not before some hijinks...
Moments later, Andy the robot offers to cut the cake. He ends up destroying it—or in my case, makes it disappear. Remember how glitchy Fallout 3 is?
I get sort of annoyed at this part of the game. People won't stop asking me if I'm enjoying myself, as if my cake wasn't just destroyed and I didn't just get hella bullied. Cripes, people.
Thankfully, my dad offers me a way out. A surprise! It's a BB gun, because every young man should celebrate being one year closer to death by learning how to murder other things. Radroaches, in this case.
Before we get to the shooting range, a character named Beatrice stops me and gives me one hell of a poem for my birthday.
It's a testament to the fact that life down here isn't as perfect as it might seem, and that some people do in fact start to crack.
It's hard not to be struck by all the dialogue options thus far, too. You can be polite, you can be a dick, you can be charming. Whatever you'd like!
We make our way down to our reactor, which, according to my dad's assistant, is dangerous. That's why kids aren't allowed down here, and presumably also why we've set up a mini shooting range down here, too. The fact my dad gives me a BB gun makes me feel sort of weird. It's so American. But I'm American, too, daughter of immigrants, and this sort of rite of passage is wholly alien to me.
My dad's assistant takes a picture. The family, together.
The game fast-forwards again. It's the day of my GOAT test, and my character tries to pretend he's sick. My dad, being a doctor, doesn't fall for it. It's easy to see why your character would try to weasel their way out of the test, though. The GOAT determines the rest of your life. Everyone takes it when they're sixteen to figure out what sort of job they'll have in the vault. Think of it as a more intense SAT or ACT.
My dad offers me some words of 'encouragement' right before the big test...
Thanks, dad! I make my way down to the classroom, only to find Butch bullying Amata right outside.
Apparently, Butch has created the Tunnel Snakes, a shitty gang with nice leather jackets that terrorises Vault 101. I end up getting in a fistfight with bunch over his bullying, but he gives up right away. It's so very high school (and appropriate).
I sit down to take the GOAT.
Like the SPECIAL book, I'm a big fan of the GOAT. It captures the spirit of the vault society well, and it's a clever, fun way to mask how the player chooses their skills. And then, at the end, once you're done taking the test, if you don't like what you're assigned, the teacher simply lets you cheat and choose whatever you want. If you're gonna be stuck in this damn vault your entire life, you might as well have a job you like, right?
And in case you weren't convinced that the overseer is kind of the worst, just take a gander at the final, most important question in the GOAT.
Here, the game does its final fast-forward. You wake up years later, and everything seems to be going to shit. According to Amata, your dad is gone from the vault and the overseer wants to kill you. It's worth noting that, while up until now the game has made you wonder whether or not it's possible to leave the vault, much of the terror and excitement of this moment comes from the idea that maybe you're going to have to leave the vault, too. Much to the dismay of the overseer, I'm sure—he's lost his grip on reality, because his perfect little community can now officially be seduced by the idea of departure. That's no good.
Amata gives me her dad's pistol. Once she leaves, I survey my room—choosing to pick up the baseball bat, a comic, a baseball cap, and some extra jumpsuits. As if I was going to freakin' camp or something. Still, I make my way through the vault, killing guards along the way. Not because I want to, but because I have to. I even rip the clothes off them, so that I can equip better gear and survive. As I go further into the vault, I can't help but notice all the radroaches running amok—the entire vault is going to hell, all because a single dude left. The alarm booms overhead. Grandma Taylor, an elderly vault dweller, has been killed by radroaches. Great.
Eventually I find Butch, who, for once, isn't being a giant dick. This time, he's frightened. Apparently the killer radroaches are trying to make dinner out of his mum, and he's too scared to intervene. So I help out—because really, it's hard to stay mad at Butch. Tunnel Snakes rule! Also, it's not his mom's fault Butch is the worst. So, yeah, I help out.
After that close encounter with death, what does Mrs. DeLoria do? She sits down, and starts drinking vodka—all while the vault goes to hell around her. Yup.
The vault escape also serves as an good excuse to really take VATS for a spin. As you might know, VATS lets players pause the action and target specific body parts. You could go for the head, or you could cripple certain body parts. Truthfully, I'm conflicted about VATS. I've long held that Fallout games make the player vastly overpowered, and all VATS does is make the gratuitous, calculating violence more cinematic. VATS is there for show. Still, I use VATS just the same—always aiming for the head, always pulling the right trigger as many times as my AP will allow. Not because I have to, but because I can. Despite all the savagery of the world, I can be calm, I can strategise my way out of a pickle. We built the vaults and survived, didn't we?
In any case, once you get close to the end of the level, you watch as vault security guns down innocent people. You watch Amata's dad simply stand there as a cop grills her and threatens her life. You think to yourself: man, this is a fucked up society. You then have a choice: you can either keep going, or you can interfere and kill Amata's dad—and then risk having her hate you forever. Neither of these seems like the right choice, but that's Fallout for you.
Personally, the last time I played I sneaked past Amata, and I picked the lock on the Overseer's chambers.
Here, I am given a chance to look at the inner-workings of the vault—and sure enough, my suspicions about the overseer turn out to be true. I find out just how manipulating the overseer his, and how he keeps tabs on everyone. His title never inspired much confidence to begin with, of course, but still. It gets worse: this is where I find out that the vaults are actually a part of a wider experiment, and the overseers aren't tasked with everyone's safety, but rather with keeping the conditions of the experiment intact. In this case, while the vault turns out to be a control group, the vault isn't given the tools necessary to rebuild society once enough time has passed on the surface. No wonder the overseer is so invested in keeping things the way they are in the vault—it would be easy to feel there's no future on the surface, especially when the surface has to struggle to survive. A vault dweller, by contrast, leads a pretty comfortable life.
Regardless, I open the tunnel. I make my way down to the vault opening. I activate the control pod. I listen to machinery come to life with a whir, I hear an alarm boom in the distance. Security is on the way to get me, but it'sno use. I kill them, and I make my way outside.
What do I find out here?