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Games Without Frontiers: Bleak 'Fallout 3' Dazzles With Great Depression

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Games Without Frontiers: Bleak 'Fallout 3' Dazzles With Great Depression
I finally made it down to Washington last week. When I emerged from the subway station, what did I see? Millions of cheering Obama fans filling the streets? Happy faces and optimism?
No, I was wandering around in Fallout 3 -- a very, very alternative version of Washington, D.C. In the game, the city has been pounded by a nuclear holocaust. The Washington Monument is half-ruined, the Capitol Building has its roof blown apart, and the streets are filled with bags of human parts, irradiated survivors and post-traumatic children wondering where their folks are.
It's an incredibly bleak game. Critics have lauded it for its complex-but-intuitive gameplay, its intriguing story and a go-anywhere world that outdoes even the sprawling burbia of Grand Theft Auto IV. But for my money, Fallout 3's accomplishment is more subtle:
It's depressing.
Its mood is so quietly and painfully demoralizing that I regularly had to turn off my PlayStation 3 to take an emotional break. After playing videogames for 25 years, I'm accustomed to wandering around environments that are gory and dangerous, or creepy and scary, or puzzling and baffling. Many such games thrill me, but very few make me sad. That's precisely what Fallout 3 achieved.
At first blush, it isn't easy to figure out why. Sure, the game depicts a post-apocalyptic world, but that -- if this doesn't sound too straightforwardly psychotic -- isn't necessarily sad. Plenty of games take a campy approach to the end of the world, from the zombie-infested malls of Dead Rising or Resident Evil to the alien-ravaged landscapes of Gears of War and Halo. With those games, I tend to view the collapsed skyscrapers and burning cars as if I were a half-ironic, half-enthusiastic sightseer. Dude! There's a car totally sticking out of the ninth floor of that building!
The big difference with Fallout 3 is that it depicts -- with remarkable fidelity -- a city that actually exists, and that I've often visited. When I emerged from Tenleytown Station, I knew what it was supposed to look like: a bustling city scene of briefcase-toting wonks, trucks delivering packages, people buying coffee at corner stores. When I visited the location in Fallout 3, I saw nothing but the rusting hulk of a bombed-out blue car, with smoke billowing over the buckled asphalt and buildings as brittle as fall leaves.
I actually began playing a grim sort of game-within-the-game: Every time I found myself in a recognizable location -- like the D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland -- I'd google some images of it on my computer to compare the lively reality versus the nightmarescape of Fallout 3.
The game is also filled with scraps of surviving culture that suggest how people lived before the holocaust, dimly aware of the impending horrors. "There won't really be a nuclear war, will there?" is the title of a government flier aimed at a clearly nervous public. Most post-apocalyptic games do not seek to make you sympathize with the lost civilization. On the contrary, they usually mock the dead culture, as with the out-of-control kitsch consumerism and genetic tampering of Rapture in Bioshock. Fallout 3 possesses this mocking edge, too, but just as often, the game's designers seem to have genuine respect for the culture that died.
Probably the saddest part is the children.
They're all over the place, and your encounters with them are frequently incredibly depressing. There's a little girl who was found under a bed, and who's now living with a guy who rescued her, trying to avoid the pedophiles in her safe zone. And there's the mission where I was rescuing children from slavers, and tried to persuade a little girl to leave her friend behind -- telling her that "friends sometimes leave you." Then there's the ghoul I killed who, as I discovered, had been carrying around a teddy bear. What's more depressing here? That the ghoul killed a kid? Or that the ghoul wanted to keep the teddy bear?
Witnessing anybody caught in an apocalypse is tragic, but seeing a child in such situations tends to amplify one's sense of injustice. Fallout 3 hammers this home early, because you actually begin the game as a preverbal toddler, waddling around a gray nuclear bunker that your father -- who appears to love you quite deeply -- has tried, and failed, to make into a happy nursery. A few little red rockets hang in a mobile over your industrial steel crib, and that's it. It's about as poignant as anything I've experienced in a videogame.
Fallout 3 depressed the crap out of me, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Indeed, it's probably a great thing. The best works of tragedy seek to inspire that punched-in-the-gut feeling. I don't read George Orwell's 1984 or Cormac McCarthy's The Road -- or view Goya's The Disasters of War -- so that I can feel warm and fuzzy. The point is to trigger reflection through pain: At its best, Fallout 3 makes you think about the consequences of war.
Why don't more games do this? Likely because they don't want to. "Inspires sadness" is probably not found on the spec sheets of many first-person shooters. Also, fighting games tend to focus on action, and action -- even brutal action -- is an unreflective act. If you did nothing but pursue the main battle missions in Fallout 3, the game would be much less melancholy, because all you'd encounter would be sardonic rejoinders, brutal attacks and corpses to ransack for bad-ass weapons, precisely like every other shoot'em-up in history.
To their credit, the designers of Fallout 3 give you time to think. And it's during those moments of quiet that the game really comes into its own. You look around, pausing in the ruined silence of the city. You see what's happened to the world, and it hits you.
- - -
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive's observations on his blog, collision detection.

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