Loneliness in Fallout
In the early days of video games the most important thing that a game could do was be fun. Arcades and home consoles were full of games that didn’t have a complex story to them but provided copious amounts of fun for the player. Classics like Pacman, Super Mario or Pong weren’t worried about providing a deep narrative for the player to experience; they simply wanted to provide them with a fun time that they enjoy for as long as they wanted.
This experience changed as video games evolved and the gaming community demanded more from their games. Sure there were still plenty of games that delivered on fun, but there were also games that gave the player epic worlds to explore, gripping stories to experience and a plethora of different ways to enjoy their virtual worlds. Games began to tackle things that weren’t designed to be fun, and now games can make their players feel sad, angry, frustrated or even love. Games like Persona 4, Valkyria Chronicles and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons gave the player didn’t focus on making sure the player maintained a feeling of joyful fun throughout their length, but rather they provided an emotional narrative to experience and take something away from. Sure there were times that the gameplay and narrative of these games gave the player that feeling of joyful, blissful fun, but they didn’t focus on making sure that the player ONLY felt those feelings.
One of the emotions that is rarely been tackled however it the feeling of loneliness. Loneliness is something that sounds like a harsh negative emotion. It conjures up feelings of sadness and depression as you are shut out of the world around you. To be lonely is to be excluded from the experience of the rest of the world, and that is something that our constantly connected world actively fights against through the use of social media. Even in video games there is a push away from being alone through the use of things like online multiplayer, co-op and always online interconnectivity. Despite all this however there is one game that thrives off of providing the player with a feeling of complete isolation in a baron, unforgiving world, Fallout 3.
Fallout 3 is one of very few games that deliver on the unique atmosphere of loneliness without it crushing the player in its ever encompassing mass. When playing any of the Fallout games, especially Fallout 3, a large portion of the game is spent wandering wastelands. Large desert stretches with nothing in them aside from some hostile creatures or empty buildings. Wandering this wasteland is a large part of the game, meaning that a lot of your time is spent alone. For some this is a negative, but for a lot of Fallout fans this is why they want to play those games. There is an almost zen-like feeling to walking around the Wasteland at night, looking around and seeing no one for miles. You are free to do whatever you want in the vast emptiness, something relieving in today’s always connected society. Even if it is in a virtual world, sometimes it’s nice to get away from everyone and just be alone.
How Fallout Accomplishes This?
Bethesda understood that Fallout is a game, and there are parts of it that will break the immersion of the player. Things like the HUD or the Pip-Boy’s menu screen had the potential to break the games immersion, but the developers were very careful in how these potentially game breaking aspects were introduced to the player in such a way that it wouldn’t take the player out of the experience, allowing them to maintain a sense of immersion. As a result the player wanders the wasteland and is surrounded by the vast emptiness of the world around them, and when the game is forced to put up something that is more “video gamey” like a level up screen it doesn’t directly take the player away from the experience, allowing them to stay immersed in the world around them.
To understand this we need to look at the tutorial. In Fallout 3 players begin the game at the beginning of life, being born into the world and being immediately asked to create their character. As the tutorial continues the player is forced to upgrade their stats, learn how to fight and use the signature V.A.T.S system and learn how to interact with NPCs. Everything is taught to the character within the vault, and as players learn how to interact with the world, they learn that interacting with characters will change the world.
As an example take the tutorial quest Growing Up Fast. This quest is relatively short and very structured, but it does an amazing job at showing the player the game’s basic controls and interactions while also keeping the player in the game’s world. The quest starts at the player’s 10th birthday where people celebrate in one of the Vault’s kitchens. During the party, there are a lot of things and concepts introduced to the player that would normally break the immersion of a game. The Overseer of the vault comes to you and gives you the Pip-Boy 3000 and you are taught how to use it. When you use it, the character puts the Pip-Boy up to their face and the player learns how to properly use it. The Pip-Boy is a menu that tells you what equipment you’re carrying, what your character’s stats are and your character’s physical condition.
It isn’t very realistic for the world to pause around the player as they go through menus that show them what clothes they wear, what items they hold and what their personal status, but because it is shown to the player in a way that makes sense in the game’s world, it is accepted. As a result a thing that would normally break the immersion of the player is explained in the reality of the world which means that it no longer breaks the precious immersion necessary for the player to fully immerse themselves in the world around them.
Growing Up Fast has lots of little sections that show the player how they will play the game. Your character is given a Grognak, the Barbarian comic book, which after reading increases your melee weapons stats. The security officer Jonas teaches you how to use the VAT’s fighting system (a menu in the game that allows the player to select parts of an enemy to aim their weapon at before attacking). All of these things which could potentially pull the player away from the experience are explained immediately, giving context to their existence. This means that when they appear later in the game during moments when the developers wanted immersion, the player isn’t pulled away from the experience and they are allowed to examine the world around them as intended.
This is CRITICAL to Fallout 3’s tone of solitude in a vast world. To fully enjoy the loneliness that the wasteland has to offer, the player needs to be able to ignore the things that would pull them away from the experience. Things like game menus, button prompts, glowing HUDs or stats pop-ups are given context in the world around the player, so when they appear the player’s immersion isn’t broken and they can remain within their momentof play. When a player is walking through a vast, almost unending desert wasteland, they can focus on just how lonely their surroundings are rather than focus on other things. The player enters a zen-like state where they are totally surrounded by emptiness, and there is a certain calmness to it all which gives the person playing the game that feeling of loneliness that the developers desired them to feel.
Taking the Negative Out of Loneliness
What makes Fallout 3 so unique is its ability to expunge the negativity from loneliness. The game’s developers have made a world where you can truly be alone. Whether it is exploring an empty vault or wandering through a bombed out building, the player can surround themselves with the ever encompassing sense of being alone. This is key to truly experiencing loneliness, because loneliness is something that needs to surround the player and engulf them to truly be experienced. Fallout 3 provides that feeling of complete isolation, but doesn’t make it something that is forced upon the player.
The player chooses when they want to be alone. If the player wants they can take their supplies, weapons and armor and walk out into the wasteland. They can spend hours wandering the wasteland searching the bombed out ruins of the world and be completely alone, but there are very few instances that the player is forced to stay alone. The loneliness of the wasteland can become fairly engulfing, and while that is the point it can make the player feel the terrible emptiness that loneliness can bring. Any time that that feeling begins to surround the player, they have several in game options on how to step away from the loneliness. If the player still wants to stay in the empty wasteland, but doesn’t want to be alone they can enlist the aid of a companion follower. There are a multitude of followers that will join the player 2 at a time and these characters will give the player a lot of different options for interaction. They will help the player fight, carry items for them and even have their own dialogue options that the player can go through whenever they want. Going through the empty wasteland with a companion fighting alongside the player eliminates the engulfing feeling of loneliness.
Another option that the player has while wandering the vast emptiness of Fallout 3 is to use the radio built into the Pip-Boy. The radio has multiple different stations that can be listened too anywhere throughout the wasteland. If the player wants to listen to music they can tune into any of the temporary signals scattered throughout the wasteland, or if they need to listen to a voice they can turn to Galaxy News Radio and listen to the character of Three Dog, spouting talk about “fighting the good fight” and often recounting events that the player has gone through.
The radio doesn’t affect the sneak skill of the player while it is playing meaning two important things. First the use of the radio doesn’t limit the player; it allows players to continue playing the game their way. If they want to sneak around while listening to the radio they can, meaning that players who use sneaking tactics will not be forced to choose between playing the game the way they want and breaking the crushing loneliness. Second the radio not affecting the players sneak, from a logical stand point makes no sense. The enemies surrounding the player not being able to hear the radio blaring right behind them as someone sneaks around them isn’t very realistic, and that gaming moment takes the player out of the immersion of the experience without ruining the gameplay. This will help the player step away from the games world, thus breaking the illusion of loneliness.
If the player is completely enveloped by the loneliness of the wasteland, they have the option of warping to a town. In these towns there are NPC’s who are available to talk to, trade with and work for. Here the player can socialize with anyone and everyone, getting interesting dialogue to listen to and little pieces of the world’s lore. Sometimes it’s important to just be around some people to expunge the loneliness, and Fallout 3 provides the player with a large number of distractions in the towns of the game. To ensure that players will not miss out on an opportunity to find one of these towns Bethesda cultivated a scenario where the player would immediately find a town in the wasteland. After emerging from Vault 101, the player is shown the world of Fallout, and directly in front of the vault’s exit is the town of Megaton.
The town of Megaton has a large cast of interesting characters, from a ghoul bartender, to a cowboy sheriff to an old man talking about the glory of the Enclave (one of Fallout 3’s major factions). The player can always travel back to Megaton and talk to the interesting people in the town and do interesting tasks like repair the town’s power sources or attend a mass at the Church of Atom, making the player feel like they’re a part of the town. They can even buy a home in the town, with their own robot butler who tells jokes and takes care of the place. Megaton is one of Fallout 3’s most interesting towns, and by finding it immediately the player always has somewhere to return to when the emptiness of wasteland becomes too much for the player.
Why is this Important?
Why is it important that Fallout 3 can give the player a feeling of controlled loneliness? Other sources of media like books, television and movies explore human emotions in their work, but why is it important that a video game looks at this? This is important because video games look at something that those types of media can’t look at, and that is the individual’s experience with the emotion.
Using loneliness as an example, authors and directors can carefully sculpt out their experiences with loneliness. They can create a scene where they can fully explain the way they understand loneliness, however this can be lost on their audience. If the audience doesn’t feel the same way about loneliness, or can’t understand what the author is getting at in their work, the exploration of the emotion would have failed.
Video game’s interactivity allows people to figure out how they personally understand loneliness. People who try Fallout 3 learn how they feel about loneliness because they are the ones that experience it. It isn’t a character in a show feeling lonely, it’s the player themselves feeling that crushing emotion, and they can decide for themselves how they like it. Some will embrace the lonely emptiness of the wasteland, some will need small breaks and they will enjoy the loneliness in small bursts, and some will completely hate it and reject it. This all happens to each person who tries the game for themselves, and each player can experience the loneliness themselves and decide what they feel about it.
Video games provide the interactivity that is required for individuals to understand how they can handle different ideas, ideals and emotions that the game’s developers weave into the game’s narrative.
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