on Feb 26, 2013
I’m really starting to admire Fallout 3. It’s like this perfect case study on how to do everything wrong when telling a videogame story. Here we are at an awkward mid-arc turning point where the villain is suddenly introduced with no build-up, payoff, or greater meaning. And then he’s apparently killed off so that we’re sure to think he was a useless extra and not worth remembering.
Why are they trying to seize control of a water purifier that doesn’t work and has never worked? Why are they suddenly here now, ten minutes after we arrive, since the place has been up for grabs for twenty years? How could this device benefit them, even if it worked? Why does dad kill himself and destroy the project to keep it from them? It’s not like you can malevolently clean water. Yes, there are sort of answers to some of these questions that can be devised, but you’re supposed to establish the stakes before the confrontation, not hours after.
Then we have a long escort section / sewer level where our charges are incongruously abrasive, confrontational, or angry with you. Even though you’re the one doing the escorting, you’re never told what your next goal is or where you’re going. Dr. Li just bosses you around like a child and you have no say or stake in the proceedings. The freshly minted antagonists are trying to kill you for no other reason than they’re the Bad Guys.
Then there’s the awful and arbitrary no-stakes moral choice jammed into the middle of the escort mission where you can choose to save someone’s life by giving them a stimpack. Stimpacks are plentiful in this game, so it’s not a big deal to save this guy’s life. (Also: Stimpacks can stop heart attacks? Is there anything they can’t do?) On the other hand, this NPC is worthless, shallow, has no history with the player, and their life or death has no impact on the proceedings either way. This isn’t a choice, it’s a popup asking if you want good karma or bad karma.
Then you arrive at the Brotherhood base, which is probably new to the player. The game has to introduce the base, Elder Lyons, and the relationship between the science team and the brotherhood, all while trying to portray the characters mourning James. How many times does the game lock you in place, grab your camera, or otherwise jam exposition down your throat?
When the game manages to spark some tiny flame of emotional investment with all of its impotent flailing and railroading, it douses it a second later with nonsense, hand-waving, or plot holes. It’s all wrong. All of it. None of this works.
I know we really bashed Mass Effect 3, but I think the storytelling here is much worse. I suppose Fallout 3 got away with it because it’s mostly self-contained. This game wasn’t wrapping up a three-game arc and answering Big Questions posed in earlier titles. It was just a dumb, goofy story. It got away with being stupid by being inconsequential.
As someone who loves to see his opinions reinforced, I was delighted to see this:
The Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage guy steps up and asks the One Question I’m always asking when I play Fallout 3.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.