Getting out of Vault 101 into the nuclear apocalypse of Washington DC is an experience all its own. The contrast of the dark claustrophobic underground tunnels to the emptiness of a sprawling aftermath of a nuclear war is one of the most jarring moments that can only be communicated through the interactive form of videogames.
Yet as game reviewers and enthusiasts talk about the Fallout 3, many seem to over look the vast empty world which is the majority of the game. While in many cases this would be a demerit on the Metacritic score, Fallout 3 actually uses it as a tool to convey an atmosphere of a post apocalyptic world. In fact the use of isolation in Fallout 3 is so special; it sets it apart from its peers.
While Fallout 3 might not be the first to explore the idea of isolation in a game, Metroid holds that honor; it is however the first to actually implement it flawlessly throughout the core experience. Fallout 3 achieves this ebb and flow of seeing no one in long stretches which makes you appreciate when you even stumble upon a friendly NPC or populated town. This effect of isolation is established early, from the very moment you are born in Vault 101.
Initially Vault 101 is meant to be a place where the player can learn the mechanics of the game, but also it is utilized as place where you gain a sense of community. Even though your experience within Vault 101 can not be more than five percent of the whole game, you can’t help but feel like you are part of that community.
Fallout 3 initially gives the player the sense of social and community interaction early on in the game, that when you are forced to venture out of the vault for the first time, you can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed. What adds to this “punch in the gut moment” is the landscape of Fallout 3.
When you are growing up in the vault, the area in which you can explore is always very limited. But immediately as you step into that piercing sunlight and look out into the aftermath of a nuclear war, you soon realize that your possibilities are limitless.
The best way to describe the feeling is that of a being a goldfish having lived your whole life in a small fishbowl only to be thrown into the ocean. You begin to realize that you are truly on your own out here. As you walk through this desolate wasteland, this is where you soon start to feel that sense of isolation in the world for the first time. At first it might seem empowering coming from the claustrophobic corridors of a dank vault to the limitless wastelands of the game, but in truth it has instead taken something away something very special; the sense of being part of a community.
The idea of empowering the player in a certain aspect then getting that taken away is nothing new, but it has never been executed so conspicuously. Usually when a game tries to pull that trick it is very obvious to the player, yet in this case the game had elegantly achieved this by meeting the same people over and over again throughout your life.
Thus without even knowing it you had a gained a connection to the NPCs, making the first time when you leave the vault so jarring; but to say that substantive connections could not be made outside the vault would be false. In fact, since there are not that many people in the world of Fallout 3, your interactions are made more substantial. What makes your interaction even more meaningful is the occurrence of permanent death to NPCs in the Fallout 3 universe.
Permanent death in games is a very “hardcore” characteristic that many developers put in niche titles. Games like Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series as well as other turn based strategy games have experimented with it in the past. Yet, the vary nature of these games does not require the player to have real attachment to these characters other then to their experience points.
In Fallout 3 that is not the case. Since in the majority of the game you are traveling alone, when an NPC does decide to travel along with you, you gain an emotional attachment to the character almost immediately. This can be shown through the dog you find in the middle of the game, Dogmeat.
Dogmeat is not necessarily a very useful companion in the game. Once in a while he will fetch you some ammo or a stem-pak (health) or two, but that’s about it. Majority of the time he is more of a burden then anything else on your quests. So why is it that when he died fighting a super mutant in the game, I actually rebooted my game to an earlier save? Because it is lonely out there in Fallout 3, useless or not a companion in your travels is always welcome.
What Dogmeat actually did was give back that sense of community which the player had lost early on. No matter how small your entourage was, it made long journeys more palatable when an NPC was present. The theme of isolation had become such a big part of the game experience that it actually changed the way you interacted with the game.
In most cases, if an NPC is not helping in combat or your progression through the game, death is not really that big of a set back to your overall experience. In this case however through the game’s use of isolation, the player feels the NPC can be helpful as a companion of sorts to cut down on the feeling of loneliness.
Once again Bethesda, the developers of Fallout 3, might not be the first to use the theme of isolation in games, but they are the first to use it in such magnitude that it actually alters how you play the game. Such elements as limiting NPCs and vast environment really do make the difference in engulfing the player in the Fallout 3 universe.
Yet the real mastery in Fallout 3’s case is that it does it so seamlessly without it being so obvious; which is a lesson other games could learn. At the end, the theme of isolation is a small part of a greater experience, but it does end up being the most memorable.