A Note: This entry contains spoilers - just so that you know.
On Sunday I completed Fallout 3. Only, it doesn't feel like I completed it.
There are effectively two games in Fallout 3 and I think that my problem is that I started playing one of them, but finished playing the other. These two are a rather short, very linear, and slightly clunky FPS or a sprawlingly massive, exploration based, 3rd person RPG with a gruelling early grind that resolves into a fairly shallow but hugely customizable combat/encounter resolution system. (What I mean by this is that you get a lot of choice over who you are and how you act, but that the mechanism that implements those acts resolves in a very basic manner - the game is located in the player much more than it is located in the console, which actually makes it functionally quite close to tabletop roleplaying games.)
Now, obviously for some people the combination of these two games is going to be great, I know a fair few people who absolutely love the game, and it is part of the game's strength that those players can leverage its inherent customizability to arrive at a system of playing that fits their style and fulfils their gaming/play requirements. This is great and as it should be.
I have a feeling that my problems started long before I even tried to play Fallout 3. Already I came to the game with baggage; Fallout is a game I started a few times but never got very far into, and Fallout 2 is a game which I genuinely feel guilty about not playing, so high in the canon of Revolutionary Computer Games That People Have Told Me I Must Play does it sit. To play the third in a series of games before I play the earlier games - when I actually have access to those games as well - just feels wrong. It would be like watching Attack of the Clones and thinking that I know all about Star Wars. I know that the story is not essential and unbroken, but there is a continuity that I feel cut off from, and that cutting off is my fault. I am a narrative completist, and yet here I am, wilfully obfuscating a whole chunk of storyline.
The first Fallout is aggressive in it's total rejection of what a CRPG should be. From what I remember, once you get past the opening sequence and exit the vault the game completely stops telling you what to do. Not only that, if you ask it what you should be doing it effectively shrugs its shoulders and asks 'what do you think?' Unfortunately, whatever the answer you want to give, it then says, 'ok, but first you're going to have to kill an awful lot of low level but surprisingly deadly animals before I let you do that,' (which coincidentally makes it, again, functionally very similar to tabletop roleplaying). It was this aimless early grind with no sense of actual progress in sight that made me give up on Fallout after an hour or two both times I attempted to play it. I have been told that there is a very rewarding game in there if you keep going, but even as a student I didn't have the time to find it. (The fact that I apparently did have the time to play Pools of Radiance is another matter entirely, and one I may visit again later.)
Fallout 3, then, is very similar in approach to Fallout, although as I mentioned earlier you can play it as a relatively linear shooter, because they decided it might be better to actually allow the casual player a scripted, prodded route to follow. Nonetheless, the question 'what do you want to do?' is still intially and freely asked and with exactly the same caveat attached, because basically, whatever you want to do, the game forces you to take a few levels in badass before you start.
And I did start like this. I decided to ignore the main story and explore; only doing so just meant that I died repeatedly, until I found a laser pistol just hanging around and ground out a few levels against some raiders, who were shooting at me anyway. And then, all of a sudden I had a narrative attached to me, which was some kind of crazy-ass good guy. Except, I was only killing the raiders because they were trying to kill me and every time I attempted one of the quests I'd managed to pick up instead I was slaughtered by overpowered, low level fauna. (It is a truism in tabletop roleplaying games that animals are more deadly than unnamed, armed humans - In D&D a badger can kill a first level party outright if they aren't careful.)
Now, I don't mind narrative - I like it. I think that it helps CRPGs immensely. While some people hate being railroaded along a story and told that their character is fundamentally this or that sort of person I find it gives the game meaning, helps smooth over questions about how you suddenly got so good with complicated weaponry and can provide the dog-killing early section of the game with a semblance of rationality. For me, Fallout games just don't make sense - which is a real problem for a series that purports to a more naturalistic style of role-playing, and it isn't that the setting is fundamentally unlikely, it's that the player character's response to the setting that I find so jarring.
The most satisfying moments for me, as a roleplayer rather than as a console gamer, were when I would emerge from a subway and immediately be executed by some mercenaries who had a contract on me because I was a goody two-shoes who'd been killing off raiders. That seemed most fitting, and most likely as the resolution to a story that starts with a sheltered kid who's only ever know the security of a small and enclosed community being thrust into a violent and irradiated wasteland with no law. The frequent instances of futile, violent death - the hundreds of versions of me that never made it - those felt like the real truth. Across the multiverse there is only one version of events where this character could triumph, and I was eking it out through probabilistic attrition, discarding all other versions of reality due to some selfish monomania.
Anyway, after a while the exploration was getting samey, and the lack of variation or challenge in actual gameplay was beginning to tire, and I realised that I didn't want to spend months immersing myself in this world. The fact that the character's responses to people are (purposefully I imagine) underwritten, and don't seem to be mutually exclusive (you can run a lot of conversations multiple times, saying different things, without either changing the end result or preventing you from re-running it with different responses) so as to allow for more projection by the player just made him seem like a sullen jerk to me, uninterested in the world around him except as a set of objects to be gamed for advantage. And so I switched on to the main storyline - and altogether very suddenly the game was over.
Not only this, but it effectively played itself in a lot of points - with big battles happening between computer controlled opponents, and, at one point, what seemed to be the main enemy in the game talking itself into committing suicide without my dialogue choices seeming to make any difference whatsoever. So I completed it, but I still don't feel like I actually completed it. I feel like I completed a game that was programmed in so that people who aren't really Fallout players don't feel that they wasted their money. Because I gave up on the main game - the Fallout game that was in there - the programmers are basically pitying me. The say: 'if you can't cope with freedom, then have this wind-up trinket to play with.' And I have once again failed to complete a Fallout game.
But, of course, to complete the game you have to go through the main quest - eventually. You can explore the entire map, complete every sub-quest and all of the DLC, but the credits don't roll until you've shot an unarmoured man in the face and stepped into a radiation chamber that will always kill you (even if you're dosed up on Rad-X and in the best radiation suit that bottlecaps will buy) because it's in the script of the game. (Or you can make someone else die in your place if you like, but that seems a cheap end). Ultimately, maybe this is the thing that makes it one of the closest times a game has come to simulating a real life: the sense that whatever you do, you have lost, and that all of your work is ultimately in vain. That in the grand scheme of events you are insignificant, but that searching for your own way, and living your own life, is itself a proof of your insignificance. You are only made complete by the machinery of the world.