I’ve finally figured out why Fallout 3 always fell short for me, despite having such an interesting story and world. The problem, for me at least, is that I never am able to feel like the character is my own story and story-telling.
The premise of Fallout 3, for those of you who have somehow managed to not play it yet, is centred around the son of a scientist named James (voiced by the amazing actor Liam Neeson, though that’s not at all relevant, and I am just a Liam fan). James and his scientist wife Catherine were working on a project that would be able to purify all the water of the wastes when she dies giving birth to the player, who in typical BethSoft fashion can be male or female and either white, black, asian, or hispanic, with James’ race changing accordingly. With Mom’s death, James takes his child and petitions to Vault 101 to let them inside in exchange for his services as a doctor.
Seventeen years later, James breaks out of the vault, knowing his child (now an adult) will be safe in the vault and that he was raised well. The player breaks out of the vault as well, and pursues his father, who left to gather his team and pick up again on purifying the waters of the wastes, now that his job of raising a successful, well taken care of adult child has been finished. That’s the basic overview of the story without spoiling precisely what happens. It’s a good story, and I like it for what it is, though at the same time, I hate it.
For me, one of the bigger and more enjoyable aspects of roleplaying games is the length of time before even starting the game where I create my character’s backstory. That’s the best part of the experience for me, and it helps me to attach to the story and feel more involved with the character. In Fallout 3, the player has a story spoon fed to you. You’re of a specific parentage who have a specific career, and you’re story is tied directly into their life in a rather specific way, and that’s the way it is. There is no possibility of being creative with the story for roleplaying purposes, unlike with Fallout: New Vegas, or the Elder Scrolls games.
Take a look at Fallout: New Vegas for a second: No reference to your life, aside from your initial career as a courier, which gets shot to hell (rather literally). In Morrowind, all that’s known to the people in-the-know about the Nerevarine is that your parentage is unknown. In Oblivion and Skyrim, it’s not mentioned at all. You’re just an unnamed prisoner who through sheer dumb luck escapes the justice system. These are the stories I like, because it gives the player all the freedom in who their character is and why they are motivated to act like they do in the world.
If I want to say that my character in Fallout: New Vegas was raised to a junkie father who abandoned him as a youth, leaving his son/daughter doing whatever odd-jobs it took to stay fed and on Jet as he grew up, that’s my choice. As a role-player, I get to say “Okay, he’s a junkie, and he found out that (Insert random F:NV junkie NPC) is his father, and he is at (location). When I am in the area, how would he respond and interact with this NPC, who left him to pursue his own drug addiction while leaving his child to suffer as a youth?”
If I want to say my Skyrim character was an Imperial born into a family of Legionnaires, and that the near execution of the PC and Hadvar’s arguments that the Legion felt nothing for the citizens of the Empire, leading to the PC’s changing his outlook on the Civil War, that’s my prerogative.
The point is, it’s easier for me (and maybe for all role-players, though I have not performed any research on the matter) to feel attached to my character and have a more enjoyable experience if I can nitpick over little things like this, and that is where the story to Fallout 3 fell short to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, and I love the story itself. I just feel that, given how the characters respond to you and given the fact that it’s centred around following Dad’s footsteps to heal the wasteland by giving it clean water, you are pigeonholed into the role of an altruistic scientist who purifies the entire wasteland’s water supply. The open-ended aspect of the game means there are darker paths to take, but they don’t feel so natural to play, given the player’s upbringing and morality that’s etched in by Dad’s talk of helping others.
So, that’s my little string of thoughts for the day: Fallout 3’s strict view of who the character is takes away from the experience of roleplaying the game.