October 30 will see the 10 year anniversary of a video game that IGN called “one of the most truly interactive experiences of the generation” and an experience that revised the limits of digital immersion. Fallout 3 even now, despite some easy to spot faults, is high on a pedestal alongside Halo and The Last of Us as one of the 21st century’s most important video games, as well as one of its best.
Bethesda, buying the franchise from Interplay Entertainment, effectively hit the reset button and designed the franchise to sit nicely alongside their already well established Elder Scrolls series. Elder Scrolls had become good at delivering what players wanted but there was a lack of variety. Almost all role-playing games sucked you into a pseudo-medieval fantasy that had you battling enchanted beings and conversing with dithery old wizards. Something new was needed, something that tapped into the deepest of insecurities in a post-9/11 world of conflict, advanced technology and nationalist rhetoric.
The first of the Fallout games, remembered now only by a small group of loyal and nostalgic fans, were well-received but unremarkable. It was only with Fallout 3 that the RPG genre was revolutionised in the eyes of the wider world. If you were tired of running around for days with a broadsword and a suit of armour, now you could navigate the remnants of a post-apocalyptic America equipped with a machine gun, some adventurer apparel and bottles of atomically enhanced fizzy pop.
In Fallout 3, the player is free to design their character as they see fit, based off various interactions within a tutorial level inside Vault 101 – one of many vaults built to allow (some of) the world’s population to survive nuclear Armageddon. After this, the player’s father goes rogue and leaves the vault, so you head off into the ‘Capital Wasteland’ to find him. From there you can either follow the main plot directly or go exploring and take in everything the radioactive skeleton of Washington D.C. has to offer, learning exactly how the world became a scorched shell of its former self. Fallout 3 has everything from robots spurting American propaganda to a talking tree that asks you to kill him. And let’s not forget the super mutants.
The game content ranges from the thought-provoking to the gruesome to the outright hilarious. For all these changes in mood, however, and the multiple different settings, it all feels coherent and part of the same world. Bringing together so many different ideas in a way that makes sense, and allowing the player to make these threads their own and complete them in almost any order, is the most remarkable thing about the game.
There are well-known glitches for sure – it is hard to make a game this expansive and not have some rogue elements creeping in – but these rarely detract from the spectacle. The openness of the gameplay, the detail and the imagination is utterly astounding even 10 years later. Bethesda has released many follow-ups since, including Fallout: New Vegas and most recently Fallout 4. These, however, are just evolutions of the template laid down by Fallout 3. Whether these sequels better their predecessor is up for debate (New Vegas especially is at least just as good), but none can claim the originality or significance of Fallout 3.
With Fallout 76 being released next month, Bethesda appears to be taking a slightly different angle with a much stronger focus on multiplayer modes (no, you have not missed 70 odd games in-between). However that works out, we have Fallout 3 to thank for leaving a permanent mark on gaming forever; a necessary step between traditional gaming and the fully immersive VR experiences catching on today. The apocalypse never looked so good.
Image: Rob Obsidian via Flickr