Radio Silence

One of the most glaring differences between Fallout 3 and finally getting around to playing Fallout was, for me, not the visual perspective shift, the emphasis on the mechanics over story or even the abrupt start of the game. No, I was prepared for all that. I knew that they were radically different in those regards. What surprised me more than anything else was the silence. There is no background radio noise in Fallout.

It’s a subtle thing and not something I even noticed at first. I was enjoying getting into the mechanics, of how to get the most out of every turn. In my mind, I was building up what the politics of this time was and how different places ran internally. All of it was standard world building techniques: talk to the people, learn their ways, and figure out your role in this new world. I was going about all the normal routines of how to play a RPG. Then I noticed something was off.

I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. I thought it was the music, so I turned that up. No, I quickly decided. It wasn’t that either. I pulled up the settings and played around in those. I looked for something to clue me into the fact that I was getting the strangest feeling of missing something about the world, something obvious. Then it struck me. It was quiet. There was music, yes, but it was muted and more atmospheric than the dietetic or even thematic music I was used to hearing. There were no talking heads telling me about the journey or even what to think.

This may not seem important, but it suddenly occurred to me that the designers of Fallout 3 included President Eden, Three Dog and later Tabitha in Fallout: New Vegas not because they were particularly needed but because they reflect the modern day more than anything else. Our news is full of talk and the discourses shift constantly. We are told what to think and even how to think about events as they happen. The turn around time on flubs, gabs or misspeak is hours, if not minutes. Of course this would be reflected in the games. It’s a part of how we understand our world now. It’s not just that we do quests, they must now be confirmed by other sources.

In order for an event to have happened, for it to become “real” to us, it must be reported. Second-hand conversations tell us that something important has just occurred and that we should pay attention to it. The shift in how we, as consumers as media, are informed has moved between the time of Fallout and Fallout 3. It’s not just that the characters in the game might remark upon different plot events or even the occasion quest, it’s that they now know as fast as we do. The information ecology of our world is reflected in Fallout 3 and, as I began to think about it, it’s the same for Fallout.

In an inadvertent reflection of its time, Fallout has much slower pace and requires closer attention to how its world works to understand. Contrasted to Fallout 3, it is glacier. The plot moves slowly and, if not for the ticking clock placed on the player, very little would get done. Conversations move at the same rate, yet often seem meaningless. The dialogue is often didactic and concerned not about the larger world, but towns and local events. The other characters are informed, but it’s a much more localized knowledgebase. Information spread is slow.

Much to my chagrin, I realized that the seemingly anachronistic speed at which information is exchanged in games like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas is normal. It’s not that the speed at which people are informed does not match its technology in the games — which it often doesn’t — but more than it matches the expectations of how fast the player thinks information should travel. As they come to games, even open world games, they expect other characters to know about events as soon as they do. If they have done something, the world should reflect it immediately and the talking heads, whatever they be in the game, should discuss it; it should be reported.

That is the paradigm of our world and time, yet in 1997 this was not the case. It was starting to occur in pockets and distributed places, but Fallout‘s frozen slice of time is still one of traveler-telling and not traveler-told. The person moving between the cities can comment on their adventures or even beguile the locals with what it is like outside their islands of knowledge, but NPCs do not leave their towns. It’s a world of moving between events and places. The latest news must be sought out, it isn’t passively told.

The radio silence now seems odd. Where is the person talking to me (and others)? Why aren’t all my adventures advertised around? How come there isn’t a constant background of people talking about the world? The shift of importance, even between just a decade in the same series, is remarkable. The celebrated hero has no place in Fallout, yet is praised in Fallout 3. War may not ever change, but how it is recounted sure has. What was once an isolated tale is now an epic recounted; it’s less about the saving and now more about the savior.