as i recently posted, i have been playing Fallout 3 a great deal lately. Currently, i’ve logged about 20 hours and have leveled up to a 13 (there is a level cap of 20 in the game). one of the things i love about this game is that i have been playing for 20 hours and i haven’t even started on the main quest yet. i have completed several side quests (power of the atom—i disarmed the bomb; blood ties—no, didn’t become a vampire!; tenpenny towers—apparently i insulted roy white one too many times, had to kill him; and i killed all the slavers in paradise falls—couldn’t get into the slaving thing; oasis—i stuck the heart with the growth serum). being able to play through the game without feeling constrained to move along the main narrative has been a very cool gameplay element, but it also makes it interesting to view the game as a text instead of just as a series of random battles versus super mutants, radscorpions, and mad max style raiders. in this sense, the textual nature of the game is relatively in line with traditional rpgs, but also an interesting example of a post-modern decolage of narrative.
even with the introduction of the karma system (to which some of the leveled in game perks are tied) the game retains its sense of moral ambiguity. players are certainly rewarded with items, goods, or reputation if they act a certain way, but this is true across the board—as a villain or a paragon. i have yet to meet up with dogmeat, the in game pet one can acquire, so i don’t know how that gameplay mechanic fits into the overall scheme of the narrative, or how it skews the isolationism of the game, either.
yet i can say this, for certain. i went into the game expecting there to be a more communal sense to survival and this is not the case at all. while you will meet up with npcs quite often, you don’t really develop a bond with any of them in any fashion. not only that, but there is nothing, so far, that is compelling the player character to continue along with his/her (her in my case) search for her father.
to put it succinctly, the apocalyptic vision of the world of the capitol wasteland is initially unnerving; it becomes a world that is intimately familiar; and finally one in which you are amazed by its unreal beauty. the world, in essence, becomes your companion. even though you have been in the world for a relatively short time, compared to the npcs who have been in the world for over 200 years, it is a world that has a familiar enough landscape and a unique beauty in its destruction. it is one to which the player character immediately clings after becoming used to its spaciousness.
This is one of the principal differences between cormac mccarthy’s novel, the road, and fallout 3. to those who have played fallout 3, the scenario of the road is a very familiar place. i’ve only just started rereading it now that i have advanced significantly into the game, but i was immediately struck by the similarities between the two. from the destruction, to the remnants of what essentially amounts to a lost empire, the two landscapes both share a karmic sense of possibility as to what could possibly happen in some future of horrific consequences. humanity has had longer to rise from the ashes of its destruction in fallout 3 than it has in the road, but it is essentially the same place. it even takes place in a similar local (virginia and maryland of fallout 3, versus tennessee the Carolinas).
the main difference between the two worlds (other than the relative lack of trees in fallout 3) lies in isolation. as I stated previously, even though you do not play with other characters very much in fallout 3, the sense of isolation is alleviated relatively quickly as you become accustomed to your environment. in the road, the characters, and the reader who identifies with the father and son as a textual ego, never become accustomed to the world in which they find themselves.
even for the boy, who has no real memory of a world that existed before the cataclysm, the world remains a strange and unfamiliar territory, hostile in almost every way. the boy learns, he accomplishes tasks, he watches his father, he engages in what is essentially, in the video game model, a process of leveling up. in the video game world, leveling up does not make you that much stronger, or that much faster. it gives you new skills, but they are skills that are acquired through practice. you don’t gain any kind of serious mutated abilities. but those skills let you feel at home in the world. in the novel, no skill will ever teach the boy to trust. no skill will ever replace his father. what is essentially an emotional connection in the road also becomes a visceral sensation.
in essence, as texts, fallout 3 describes an arc of world in which we would want to exist. the road describes the world in which we will exist. in the road, we know that the isolation for the boy, no matter what family he finds, no matter who carries the fire, will be final. in fallout 3, we know that the vault dweller will find her partner in the world around her.
why is this? primarily, i think the reason is because of the principal difference between the novel as textual narrative and video game as textual narrative. in the novel, we must be removed from ourselves. in the video game, we bring ourselves into the world. for all of the strangeness of any world encountered in the video game reality, the ego is subsumed into the world—in freudian terms there is a transference of id. in the novel, the world devours the ego, giving the id no place to play out its desires. we regain ourselves when we leave the novel’s world, but until then, the world controls us.