Cutting edge gamers might have picked up a few post-apocalyptic references here and there over the past few days. The reason’s simple: I’m playing Fallout 3, Bethesda’s sequel to two of the greatest RPG games ever made. And post-apocalyptic gaming tends to fever the brain.
It’s a conflicting game. Like Bethesda’s previous games, it is a flawed masterpiece, but Fallout 3′s failings seem more starkly contrasted by the nostalgia-filtered perfection of the previous games… which, of course, were flawed masterpieces themselves, games so riddled with bugs at release that fans are still patching them.
But the reason Fallout 3 seems so different from previous Fallout games is because it is — above all else — a quintessential Bethesda game. Sure, gone is the staggeringly beautiful fantasy realm of Oblivion, replaced by a nuclear wasteland of unrelenting but wholly captivating scenic bleakness. Bethesda knows how to build a world. It’s world execution is flawless. What it can’t do is convey actual people as anything besides soulless, patrol-route jerk puppets.
Here’s the one example I’ll make right now. In Fallout 3, you are given the opportunity early on to hire a prostitute and take her to bed. It costs 120 bottle caps, which is reasonable at Berlin rates. But here’s where Bethesda becomes Bethesda.
Once you hire her, she follows you to your room, and any other game developer would have injected some life into the scene. Rockstar would have given you some Lukewarm Coffee, pulling you out of the scene to serenade you with smutty pillow talk and the ululations of the orgasming avatars. The God of War developers would have done a close up of a bedside lamp and presented you with a rhythm mini-game. There’s the Fable series, which has the participants heads’ off-screen, where they emit naughty noises indicative of mildly unpleasant British sex. And then there’s Black Isle, the previous Fallout developers, would have given you a dialogue tree, full of options: pillow talk, romantic seduction or simply a humanizing conversation with a woman of the wastelands forced to sell herself night after night to feed herself.
But what does Bethesda do? The prostitute NPC mutely follows you up to your room and lies down on the bed beside you like a fetal lump. You then get to sleep on the bed beside her. And that’s it. The next morning, you wake up, and she patrol-puppets out without a word.
In short, Bethesda is the company that can totally drain the fun out of fucking a post-apocalyptic prostitute. They don’t know how to do anything different. For Bethesda, humans are just less interesting orcs (or super-mutants) that they have to go through the bother of writing dialogue trees for. But there’s one thing a game set in a nuclear post-apocalypse should be, and it’s human… the struggle of people skittering through the dank decay of civilization like cockroaches, yet still occupying themselves with their souls, whether to embrace or reject.
I love Fallout 3. It’s totally grabbed me. But it’s Bethesda’s wasteland… and, a fan of the previous games, I can’t help but wish they’d called their game anything but Fallout 3.