Fallout 3 is probably the best game of 2008. Judged purely on its scope and the level of its ambition, the game is an extraordinary achievement that delivers far more often than it falls short. As an RPG, it succeeds as an open world game without surrendering its narrative center, and it delivers the kind of individualized player-driven experience we say we expect, but rarely find in modern games.
Bethesda quieted most of its naysayers with a surprisingly bleak and uncompromising game. Fallout 3 has its moments of old-school Fallout humor, but its unrelentingly gray, rubble-strewn wasteland is a bold choice in a genre typically characterized by colorful fantasy-inspired environments. Without question, Fallout 3 is a big, ambitious, and gutsy game that deserves our respect.
But I don't love Fallout 3, and I've been thinking about why. My early impressions of the game were refracted through my personal memories of Washington, D.C., and I found myself almost misty-eyed at the devastating vistas that appeared when I emerged from buildings or turned certain corners. The starkness of the physical space in Fallout 3 can be overwhelming. Coupled with a constant sense of peril out in the open - raiders and mutants can appear quite suddenly, and the game excels at making you feel vulnerable and exposed - the geography of the game was immediately appealing to me, and I spent most of my time exploring, taking it all in, and getting killed a lot.
Sadly, when it came time for the storytelling to begin, Fallout 3 sent me back to Oblivion. Bethesda has made great strides with many of Fallout's design elements: combat, leveling system, new perks, Pip-Boy, VATS - all address problems or enhance features found in Oblivion. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find such improvements in Fallout 3's story mechanisms.
To be sure, Fallout 3 spins a better, less cliched, more coherent set of tales than Oblivion, but the old bugaboos remain: weak writing, animatronic characters with detached voices, and primitive interactions. With the exception of more variety among the voice actors, it's hard to see how Fallout 3 improves on Oblivion's most fundamental flaw: you're a 3-dimensional person in a high-stakes survival adventure...with a bunch of robots. I realize these things are highly subjective, but every time I engage a character in Fallout 3 - an essential aspect of playing the game - it feels like a tiny bit of air leaks out of the Fallout balloon.
Too often, the characters of Fallout 3 function as human-esque information kiosks. Hit the play button for a brief personality blurb on who I am and what I'm like. Hit the play button again to hear more about this town. Etc. I'm purposely avoiding the dialogue-tree debate here because it's been so thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on the more basic issue of quality writing. Dialogue can be presented in a cutscene, a triggered interaction, or a dialogue tree - I'm not stuck on one way or another; I simply want that dialogue to be conveyed believably by a character who owns those words, and I want those words to be more than functional. If we are to have talking characters, then they must have interesting things to say and they must feel alive, at least within the context of the game.
Given their lack of facial expression, limited exchanges are the best these rubber-faced characters can manage. When they are asked to convey emotion, things go even further awry. We hear an actor's voice crying, but we see a blank-faced robot staring at us on screen. These sorts of disconnects wouldn't be so jarring if Bethesda didn't insist on positioning these faces front and center in every single interaction. The game says these are real people, but our experience with them says otherwise. Contrast this disconnect with the palpably real sense of occupying the vivid environments of Fallout 3, or the way the game communicates the experience of launching a missile.
If you're looking for quality writing in a modern RPG - genuinely clever dialogue and interstitials with terrific voice-acting to boot - you need look no further than Fable 2. In fact, that's exactly what I intend to do in my next post. ;-) For now, I'll tip my hand (and bring on the Furies, perhaps) by noting that, all things considered, I prefer Fable 2 to Fallout 3; even though I concede the latter may be the better game. Thesis preview: one should never underestimate the seductiveness of charm. And good writing. And spirited characters. More tomorrow.