What an amazing, thought-provoking experience this game was. It’s been months since I finished playing it, but all of the following is still on my mind at the level of detail you see here. A lot of it has to do with what I brought to the experience of playing it, but that’s what’s good about an interactive storytelling medium. It did allow me to bring a lot to it, to find my own story, and play a particular character that I created through the act of playing the game over a long period of (game and real) time.
On October 20, 2008, I started playing Fallout 3. Several months later, on October 20, 2277 in the world of the game, I was escorting a band of freedom fighters on a long and dangerous path through the post-apocalyptic wilds around what once was the District of Columbia, on a symbolic mission to replace the head of Abraham Lincoln on the statue still sitting in its memorial.
October 31, 2277, in the dead of night under a bright moon, I won a community of ghouls the right to live alongside smooth-skinned humans in civilized housing. I could feel the end coming.
I had put the main plotline on hold for some time, determined to see as much of the world as possible. It shortly turned out that the main mission I put on hold some weeks before was the start of a fast-track to wrapping up the game, something I must have intuitively sensed when I decided to deviate from it. Integrating the ghouls was the last thing on my list of private missions to complete as I finished my wanderings.
It was around that time that I stopped leveling up. I’d maxed out at level 20, while still having a list of abilities and feats I intended to get when I leveled up a little more, but there was no more leveling up. I returned to my private residence in Megaton with a feeling of melancholy that was deeper than just this game. Actually, this was all happening to the Lone Wanderer, not to me, but I was deeply immersed in role-playing this guy’s existence. However, I had to separate myself back out of the equation and reflect on my own life. As the Lone Wanderer returned from his travels and put away his saved-up possessions — I had large stashes of food and medicine, extra weapons and ammo, and collections of stuff that could be traded for bartering to buy things. I was saving them all up, conserving resources, for some imagined future need. Some great series of trials that would use up all of these stored reserves. It was the same theory as worrying so much about leveling up, so that I’d be strong enough for some eventuality I was fearing lay ahead. But instead all that lay ahead seemed to be the end of the road. What use was all of this saved up stuff? By the standards of these ravaged peoples of the wasteland, I was dazzlingly rich. I was also rich in karmic terms, so rich that these poor people were giving me gifts from their meager stores every time I came into town.
Having nothing else to spend my stored up wealth on, I splurged on a laboratory workbench. I set an experiment to bubbling that was going to create some new item, and left my home. I, the Lone Wanderer never returned to find out how it turned out. Everything I’d stored for a rainy day was still neatly stored around the house, untouched.
A few days later, I freed an intelligent super-mutant named Fawkes from his cell in an underground laboratory. The date, appropriately enough, was the fifth of November, 2277. There was a trap waiting for me, so before it sprung, I sent away my invaluable, trusted companion, Paladin Cross of the Brotherhood of Steel. She said we’d meet again, and we did not. I looked for her, when I finally was able to escape the Enclave and return to the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but she wasn’t there. The Brotherhood had one more mission for me, and told me to let them know when I was ready.
I led the Lone Wanderer outside to the courtyard, then up onto a balcony deck that had a view of the setting sun. Poignantly, I just let him stand there and watch the sunset. It was the last he’d ever see. Then I played cameraman and did a lot of neat cinematic crane shots starting high above him and sweeping into a closeup on his face, then finishing with his silhouette looking into the distant fading sun.
The next time I played the game, he died and the story ended. As the epilogue recapped his story for me, I saw an image of Lincoln’s restored statue at the memorial, something I’d waited around to see when I brought the freedom fighters there, but they didn’t work on it while I was loitering.
The adventure with the statue head was the emotional and gameplay climax of the story for me and my gruff little wanderer. He had a violent launch into the world. The day he left Vault 101, he shot the father of his dearest childhood friend in the face with a pistol, and he fled as she screamed and wailed over the body. A couple of months later, with stories of his adventures starting to spread around the wasteland, and having worked hard to be karmically noble in all situations — he began to carry around clean drinking water specifically to be able to give it to the decrepit and thirsty, not to drink it himself — he returned to Vault 101. His former friend was in need, and was strangely welcoming. However, when a peaceful resolution of the situation (a parallel to the first crisis that made him a murderer) proved impossible — I tried to find one, tried several different ways, but none worked — he was banished forever from Vault 101, by the woman I suspect he loved.
We’d been to the Lincoln Memorial, cleaned it out of mutants, slavers, and other evils. Stared at the headless statue, wondering at what had become of the head. It was ages later when I came across the people holding the head safe, somewhere in the middle of the badlands. I told them I’d cleaned out the mutant problem at the memorial, and that it was safe to put the head back on the statue. They thanked me and told me they’d meet me there at the memorial, and I saw them head out. I ran ahead and arrived at the memorial, waiting most of a day, many hours after they promised to be there. Where are they?
Time rewound. Different choice. I walked with them a little bit, and they seemed to be on their way, so I jumped ahead again, and they didn’t arrive. I realized, then, that they would not survive the journey unless I protected them every step of the way. Very well.
Time rewound again, and instead of agreeing to meet at the destination, I became their escort. The journey was long and meandering, veering off from what started out as a direct line to the national mall at the river, and curving back into the empty wasteland. Not empty — full of scorpions, mutants, Enclave soldiers, wild animals, and general bad guys of the Mad Max variety. They had to be constantly watched, like children. There was no ducking out for a nap, or to trade in resources, or do anything, day or night, for most of a week, but keep an eye on this small party of people, a beast of burden carrying the statue head, and a dog. I worried that they might never get there, with the route they were taking, but I decided I would keep trying. They walked slowly, too, but that allowed me to run on ahead. I took to looking for high ground, so I could get a better view of what was around the next bend while still keeping an eye on the group, because sometimes danger snuck up from behind or from the sides. I became more and more serious about this mission, and what it meant to make sure none of them were hurt or lost. It required a lot. Patience, and genuine care, and real tactical ability. There were some really nasty predicaments, where danger triangulated.
In the end, with it finally accomplished, I genuinely felt heroic.
Right after that, in the far northlands, I found a hidden forest, where once again I was given gifts, including a special cloak with a hood, hand-made, far from the usual wasteland clothing. My character, who had for some time run around encased in armor and a head-concealing helmet, looking like a soldier-warrior, now looked like a mystic, a bit like a Jedi. I began to play him more and more like what he seemed to be becoming.
So when the last choice of the last mission came, where the Lone Wanderer had to sacrifice himself to save everyone else, it was a pretty easy decision to make. I tried to cheat this death, wearing a full radiation suit and swallowing large preventative doses of Rad-X and RadAway, but when the compartment flooded, that was it for him. It was fitting. It was the end of the story. I wish I could have had him live to see another day, but after everything that had led up to that moment, including taking the moment to let him gaze in silence at his last sunset, nothing else would have been as appropriate.