essay

God of the Father: Fallout 3 — Still and Broken

[Yeah, standard spoiler warning here. I’m going to talk about the “Broken Steel” DLC and, of course, the ending to Fallout 3 some more. Oh, and this is the last part too. 7,000+ words is probably enough said about this for awhile.]

While this post is still going to be in the “God of the Father” series, it is going to deal more with my frustration on a personal level with how Fallout 3 turned out including the DLC and how my reading of the game, something I feel most of the quests support, starts to unravel when considered against the DLC and “Broken Steel” in particular.

Basically, part of me wishes that “Broken Steel” had never come out at all. There, I’ll say it. While I appreciated the raising of the level cap from 20 to 30 and the additional of enemies, I do not feel it added much to story (killing Enclave soldiers was already old hat before I spent a whole add-on doing it) and, more importantly, it ruined something I felt was very necessary: an ending.

I know that other players do not feel as I do. I know that many people were angry that their game ended and, once it did, they could no longer prance and parley across the Capitol Wasteland. I can still remember reading users being outraged that a story had an ending. “How dare you! I spent 150 hours in the Capitol Wasteland. It should never end!”

For me, that’s a problem because I fall on one side of the hyphenation more than the other. The term for these games is open-world. Players can explore both a vast physical and navigate intricate mechanics. Because it is big (in both contexts), interesting accidents happen as the player interacts with the mechanics. There is a constant tension between the narrative that emerges and that which is embedded. Little moments between the player and the world either deny or affirm what the player knows to be “their” story compared to that which the game is trying to tell.

That’s the problem, actually, that the Fallout 3 developers ran into with their game. They tried to tell a story of a child trying to live in the world of a father (everything I have talked about so far in this series) and then, when the players wanted that removed, the developer did. That’s the open part. While I believe and appreciate such a part, when trying to create and arrange a critical reading of a work, it’s a major pain. With a fluid text, I cannot tell which part is in which order. (That’s the same frustration, by the way, many people feel in trying to say something about a game like this. If the order does not matter, you always end up with a personal interpretation of the events.)

Worlds end. There is a necessary arc to stories where events happen and a progression between an initial state and a final setting occurs. Things change. Yet, in open-world games, this rarely happens. There is no change for the protagonist or even most characters. They exist without ending and often without beginnings. The metaphor of “a purgatory without purpose” is extremely apt in my opinion for most open-world games. The one exception to this, I’ve found, is Fallout 3. The Lone Wanderer has a father.

I’ve written at length in the past about how this single fact changes everything. The characters in OblivionMorrowwind or even, in a less open example, the Mass Effect series do not have families. The player supplies their pasts. The games do not mention what happened in their childhood, who their friends were or what they studied. They just are. This is what makes Fallout 3 so special in that regard. There exists not only a shortened childhood but also a father. There is a connection into the story of the world. Not only does the world has a history, as is evident in the physical artifacts of culture and civilization in the world, the character does too.

By having the character have a father (and mother), it sets the stage for a more complicated plot. It’s not just Man v. Nature, as most open-world games have, but the more complex moments of Man v. Self as the player, in the role of the character, has to decide, quite simply, if they care for this fictional father. They have to make a choice about James. Do they follow this role model of the Good Karma or do they do what they want? Do they go to save him and, if they have done that, do they follow his lead and continue to restore Project Purity? It sets up a series of decisions that deal with the internal conflict of a child (and player) thrust into the harsh reality of a Wasteland (after the father leaves) and then reunited with said father.

The death of James is necessary in that it, yet again, puts the choice on the player. As I mentioned yesterday, its the shift from the ‘god’ continuing to ask the player “What would you father do?” in the repeated instances of running into people who knew him to the more complicated “Now that your father is gone, what will you do?” The blessing passes father to child with the knowledge that the cost of one’s life for a future is inevitable. A sacrifice is needed for progress.

Without the ending of the game giving the player this choice, of having to go back to the place of his death and choosing to embrace this or not, James’ earlier death loses meaning. He is no longer a faithful father trying to protect the future but less than that, an obsessive who could not find a better path or escape — as Colonel Autumn does. James’s exit from the story retroactively loses meaning if his child faces the same choice with the knowledge that the world continues either way, that the sacrifice is not permanent. If the child can survive and the father cannot, what does that say about the father? What does that say about the game that allowed it?

“Broken Steel” moves away from the father. More than “Operation: Anchorage”, “The Pitt” or “Mothership Zeta” which can, depending on the player’s choice, be done either before or after the ending, “Broken Steel” does more than just move the story away from the journey of a child in the shadow of a father, it erases it completely. “It sucks that your father died, sure. Hey, you mind going to kill some more things for me though?” It is not only more child-oriented in is approach but father-less in its outcome.

Fallout 3 serves as a great example of giving the playable character some story. It’s one of the very few games I have ever seen that is so committed to such an idea. It’s part of everything the player does from the Karma system to plot points. The player is a child who enters the world of a father, a world of science, and finds it to be a bleak wasteland of mutations and technology gone amok. Dare to use science to change the world and there is a cost. This theme is carved into the landscape and people.

Most major characters in the world have heard of the character’s father. The shadow cast is long and hard to escape from for the child. Yet, many in-game hours later, the father is found and he demands that his directions still be followed. What started as a journey of darkness into light, including the moment of blindness, ties together in either choosing to work with the father or not. This same choice is in the very core. The father is Good and, as his child, you must also be Good. His ‘god’ judges all.

The ending collapses all the threads into a singular moment. Science demands a price and the future needs a sacrifice. Once again, the child must pick up the path of the footsteps of the father or not. If approached from Evil Karma, this is the redemption and returning. Good Karma turns to Evil in this decision. It is the capstone and its importance is paramount.

Without this moment, the world remains. It is stillness without reason. “Broken Steel” may attempt to leave the world open but fails in how well it succeeds. It removes the father for the sake of the child. The world will now never end. If the player is effectively immortal, all-powerful and, with perks, gear and mutations, unstoppable, what good is a ‘god’ now? If Karma can be changed on a whim, what good is an all-seeing judge for it? To remove the father is to remove the ‘god’ and the purpose for the plot too. The ‘god’ now dies with the father.