Hero of the Wastes
I am addicted to the apocalypse. I love it. Nothing makes my heart skip a beat like the notion of apocalyptic horror. Pre-apocalypse stories involve a ragtag group of unlikely heroes that are bound together by the secret, cryptic signs that the world is about to end. They always try to save the world with their newfound realizations. No one believes them, of course. How could the world possibly end? It's lasted this long, right? Then BAM, the bombs drop, or the plague hits, and only our heroes are safe. The future of humanity now rests solely with them.
Post-apocalypse stories are similarly driven by some singular knowledge. The Wasteland or zombie hordes are held back by the last bastions of civilization. Their secret knowledge of what came before, modern technology, science, and history make them all-powerful in a powerless world. The post-apocalyptic world knows nothing of the world that was, that perfect utopia. They know a poisonous, hostile world. Only the hero truly knows the breath of human knowledge. Can he use it to save them all?
In short, the apocalypse takes anyone with the right knowledge and makes them the most important person in the history of mankind. I can't get enough.
Warning: Fallout 3 spoilers at the end of the article
Fallout is the perfect example: The Vaults, the last refuges of civilization left, teach you the ways of science and technology and then usually send you out on some errand, to face the Wasteland alone. Stepping out of the Vault gate releases you into a weird, dirty, violent world where all of mankind's achievements lay rusting in the ever-present desert. From the first time you teach a farmer basic crop rotation, to the Brotherhood of Steel's advanced science hidden beneath layers of space-age Power Armor, Fallout delivers classic apocalyptic scenarios.
Though when I think back about all my favorite apocalyptic stories, Fallout has a special place in my heart. Because with Fallout, it's not just some charismatic everyman hero out there: It's me. I'm the man with the gun and the dog, walking down that decaying, dusty road. It's my story they're telling.
It's no accident then that the original Fallout, like its inspiration, Wasteland, is one of the most open-ended RPGs ever made. Just watching someone else's apocalyptic story simply won't do in a video game. No, a video game is unique in that it's not just the developer's story they're telling; it's yours as well. And the only story worth playing in the apocalypse is the story the man with the knowledge: The hero. The one who walks out that Vault door, armed with the sum total of human knowledge. The person who has to face the Wasteland and decide what to do with the bits of information in his head. Humanity's last best chance for survival. It's what makes apocalyptic heroes truly heroic, or--in some cases--truly villainous.
Choice is integral to the apocalypse. The entire point of being the most important person in the history of mankind is that you're now the most powerful person in the history of mankind. Every time you run into an inhabitant of the Wasteland, you've got one up on him. “I bet he doesn't even know who Abraham Lincoln was”, you say to yourself, “let alone how this plasma rifle I'm holding works.” With great power comes great responsibility, and great opportunity to kind of act like a dick.
When you're a villain in Fallout, you can truly revel in the epic nature of your betrayal of humanity. When you load a game and decide to wipe out a town in Fallout, you know that it's gone. That's it. There won't be rebuilding or regrowth, the world won't heal. The world is dead, and now you've made it deader. The satisfaction of shooting some guy in the face is that much more satisfying knowing there's not a lot of guys to shoot in the face anymore. If you want to be evil, the Wasteland provides ample opportunity.
Likewise, your good deeds are that much more meaningful when there's less good to go around. Something as simple as giving a bottle of non-radiated water to someone who is hurt seems like the equivalent of Oprah buying everyone in her audience a new car. “Clean Water? Really?” the man asks, “For free? I don't believe it.” You feel that you've contributed substantially to the well-being of mankind by simply handing some guy a cheap bottle of water. It's this epic feeling of weight to my choices that I love about apocalyptic gaming.
My addiction to the narcissistic nature of the apocalypse and games like Fallout has always contrasted for me with my utter boredom playing some of its contemporaries like Icewind Dale or Baldur's Gate. High fantasy always seemed just so bland to me by comparison. It always involves the chosen ones using artifacts they didn't make on things they don't understand. Someone stands cosmically a bit to the left, and the whole plan's kaput. It's about history and legacy, and as such I play the game feeling like it's already written. There's no magnitude to these events; I was chosen because I was there. And if I win, it's because it's destiny, or courage, or the fact that my spiritual package was huge. Something I was chosen for and really had very little control over, in other words. The history of the world is told to you by the author, and the history is more important than the man.
By comparison, the Wasteland is all about me and what I want. I'm the hero because I'm the one with the tools, the knowledge, the know-how. I know that a virus is what causes Super Mutants to be created. I can keep the virus from getting out, or spread it myself. I know how to fix that nuclear generator, or break the last working one in existence. I am the arbiter of history because I'm the only one who knows it, which means I'm the only one who can write it. It's the ultimate power trip.
Which is ultimately why Fallout 3's ending was so disappointing. Of all the choices that the Capital Wasteland provided the player, the only choice you had in the end was whether or not to kill yourself. The Master in the original Fallout offered a multitude of choices in how you face him. Almost every way you could do something in the game, you could use on the final boss. It was a truly satisfying ending because it was all about choosing what you wanted to do with the final villain. Fallout 3 gave you a binary choice: good or evil. Somehow, about ¾ of the way through the game, Bethesda forgot about that story you were telling, and decided instead to tell you their own.
The ending of Fallout was open-ended and was all about the player. Your choices in the game ultimately decided the fate of everything you touched. The ending told a tale of the Vault Dweller's exploits in the Wasteland, each town getting its own epilogue written by the player. Fallout 3 simply had a binary ending: You did or you didn't. Fallout 3 not only failed to provide any resolution to the various stories the player encountered in the Capital Wasteland, it failed to take into account all but one of the player's choices in the ultimate story of the game. In the end, the story of the Capital Wasteland was written by Bethesda, not the player.
It's not to say I didn't enjoy Fallout 3. I was glued to the keyboard. Fallout 3 is, in fact, a great game. The other ¾ of the game is a brilliant example of player choice and how to let the player have fun running wild in a fascinating world.
But in the end, Fallout 3 just forgot the central tenet of the apocalypse. It's my way, or the highway.