Fallout 3: Unsettling images of the destroyed landmarks of Washington, D.C. are only part of the story of how this game gets into your head.
Tour around the various online and print videogame publications, and you'll come across a game that's making all the Best of '08 lists. That game is Fallout 3 — a post-apocalyptic RPG in which the player roams the radioactive core of Washington, DC in the wake of worldwide nuclear war. A nice theme to explore as we switch administrations.
Fallout 3 is state-of-the-art game design, and I can say this with confidence because (a) I've followed the industry professionally for many years, and (b) the game has completely devoured my free and not-so-free time for the last month or so.
I would also contend that the game is the final winning argument — if one still needs to be made — for videogames as art. Not everyone agrees about this. Film critic Roger Ebert has been sparring with the gamer community for a few years now on this; whether videogames should be considered alongside literature and film from a critical point of view.
An argument for Fallout as art, after the jump...
Wiser heads than mine will continue to hash this one out, I'm sure, but in my book, the world of Fallout ranks right up there in the annals of vividly imagined sci-fi dystopia. Since I was a kid, I've had an obsession with post-apocalypse stories. (I blame the infamous 1980s artifact The Day After — the made-for-TV movie that launched a million nightmares.) Over the years, I've read pretty much every book of this sub-genre in the science fiction canon — Earth Abides, The Stand — and have seen all the doomsday movies, too.
Fallout has gotten into my head (and dreams) more than any of them. A big part of that is the nature of the videogame medium. Fallout is a first-person RPG (role-playing game) — the most immersive of the various, blurrily defined videogame types. When you play, you are the hero; you are there — wandering the wastelands, dodging mutants, getting radiation poisoning and otherwise enjoying the end of the world as we know it.
The images of the decimated DC skyline are genuinely haunting, and console graphics have now evolved to the point where you're having a very-near-cinematic experience. The game is scored musically, just as a film would be, and the various cut scenes and combat reenactments follow the tropes of action cinema in a knowing "wink-wink" kind of way.
You can find all of these elements, employed to varying degrees of success, in plenty of other games — but Fallout brings everything together in a game experience that is both visceral and satirical, and ultimately quite artful.