Monday 17 November 2008

Fun and Loathing in Las Vegas Washington D.C.

Why is this not as funny as it should be?

Lately, I’ve been trying to play Fallout 3 in a way that doesn’t get me as angry and annoyed as the situation I described in my previous post about the game. I’ve started using a few mods that both improve the interface and make the ‘karma’ system more opaque. While welcome, sadly the changes are a case of ‘too little too late’ to enable anything more than a “meh” feeling about Fallout 3 in general. While the rage has died down, I can’t resist but add my .02c on what’s still bothering me.

Mostly it’s to do with the moral judgments the game makes and the attendant Karma system. One reviewer (I fail to recall who, perhaps Alec Meer?) in their write-up of Fallout 3 mentioned that whatever character you chose to play, the Fallout 3 world would resist the temptation to punish you harshly or judge you for your actions. Having only first hand experience with Fallout 2, I can’t speak for the whole series, but this seems quite consistent with the feel established by the first two games. If you wanted to kill random people and take their stuff, you’d be feared, naturally, but that was about it. There was really no judgment about what kind of person you were. Similarly, the villains were primarily cartoon-stereotype individuals, deluded madmen (and women) or brutish bullies. They conformed to typical archetypes that allowed them to transcend cliché and enter the realm of intelligent satire.

In Fallout 3 there is a character called Mr. Burke. He is a suit who works for a very rich man and apparently revels in nihilistic destruction. Let’s imagine how this character would have appeared in Fallout 1 or 2. He would probably be suited, probably comes with a bodyguard or two and would fit into the “madmen killer” stereotype. You understand him, and that he is meant to be a stereotype. You know that he is unstable, a ruthless killer, but also otherwise completely rational. He sees life as something that is made more precious by death, and so seeks to spread death in order to re-value life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. You understand his twisted and flawed logic, his broken personality and know that there is some kind of rationale for why he is this way, something in his past, perhaps. Maybe he just read too much Nietzsche, either way, you are never supposed to believe that he is inherently bad or evil, just misguided in the extreme. There is no presiding moral outrage here unless you choose it yourself, just impartial acknowledgement of the fact that he must be stopped or he will continue to kill. End of story.

Let’s contrast this with the character of Mr. Burke in Fallout 3. His voice and character says he’s some of these things, and his dialogue is written to make sense this way… but his voice actor (voiced I am sure by the same person who did the The Speaker for The Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion) inflects in his voice that, “I am slimy and evil”. His voice drips with “evil” and “nastiness”. You should hate me and be outraged by my actions, it says. This is not Fallout. This is too ham-fisted for Fallout. If Mr Bourke is to be serious, it should be more like the disturbing style of Heath Ledger as ‘The Joker’ than cartoon-villain Jack Nicholson.

The difference lies in that while my earlier characterization of Mr. Burke was intentionally simplistic, he was a parody of and commentary on that simple-minded, 1950’s aesthetic. His character manages to pose deep questions while being simplistic when the latter is a po-faced affair that lacks the same semi-aware playfulness that says “I know I am a stereotype and I’m playing up to it”. In short, Mister Burke pisses me off for taking himself too seriously. It would be fine if he did, except there is no accompanying pay-off in additional depth. He should be scary to be around, intimidating and edgy.

This picture also has nothing to do with this post.

I think most of this is a result of a combination of voice acting, writing and animation, and Fallout 3 to me seems to end up making judgments without asking the real questions with regards to the Mr. Bourke character. Instead of traditional morality being destroyed by the nuclear bombs that wiped out so much else of civilization, it has been dragged into the apocalyptic wasteland without a care for how well it fits. It fails to capture the levity of the original titles and loses the accompanying ability to contrast the whimsical with the horrific. It would be all too easy to blame this on the transition from cartoonish 2D sprites to full 3D models, but I think that’s a bit of an easy out.

I don’t quite know what the answer to this problem is. I have the feeling, though, that there’s something they could learn from Left 4 Dead’s ability to blend being constantly surrounded by death in the apocalypse (the serious) with the decidedly upbeat characters. The aesthetic at least seems closer to my taste than Fallout’s. That said, however, the beautiful wasteland remains pretty much the only place in Fallout that I can enjoy without cringing at something or someone every other second.

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