Falling out

When it comes to video games I am a man-child who knows what he likes. I’m not interested in shooters, I’m not interested in dystopian future settings, I hate RPGs, I don’t care one jot for gore and gibs, realistic characters bore me, open world environments with little to do but travel across them are tedious. I like simple, colourful games, with fun or cute characters, some challenge but mostly just rote activity, and general glucose happiness. So why in the world am I so addicted to Fallout 3, a game which goes against every gaming sensibility I thought I had?

This is not the fist time Bethesda has made me a traitor to my own desires. I have arguably spent more time on Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion than any other game in recent memory, even though I hate your usual orcs and elves malarkey. At the time I thought it was merely because it reminded me of what I saw in my mind’s eye when playing Ultima back in those long forgotten days of my youth, such as they were. Oblivion’s pretty environments were a dream become reality, though a decade or two too late. And here they do it again, giving me a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland for my semi-realistic character to traipse through in a tedious, repetitive grind. And I’m loving every second of it.

The sense of utter devastation as I travel through the wasteland that was Washington DC, the underground shelters, vaults, dotted around in between ruined monuments and ramshackle dwellings, the burnt out buildings that hint at a past life, burned books and furniture everywhere, the old-fashioned technology that helps me unlock doors, the rebels that scour the lands for Nuka-cola bottle caps, though slightly depressing, in a ponderous way, never before have I spent so much time exploring and surviving a believable world, each new area bringing both the joy of discovery and a sense of futility, both uplifting and depressing at once.

Combat too has grabbed me to an extent I had not anticipated; not playing it as a shooter, but each time opening up V.A.T.S. and carefully aiming my rifle at specific body parts to disable them, a system I haven’t seen executed so well since Origin’s Knights of Legend. And having a rabid dog jump at me, shooting its head off with a shotgun, and seeing its headless body fly past me carried by its initial momentum, or separating a mercenary’s head clean off his torso with a single sniper shot, may be gory as Hell, indeed much gorier than I want from my games, but is immensely satisfying. Part of this is due to the slow-motion sound and the echo my gun makes as the boom bounces around this empty landscape, and the physics applied to these dead ragdolls make the experience so visceral and demanding and somewhat exhausting, I truly get the sense I’m a survivor, protecting myself for the sake of living, rather than rampaging like a buffed-out roid-rage space marine.

Another reason I am spending so much of my time in this world has probably something to do with its achievable trophies (as I am playing this on a Playstation 3). Too many games out there still have ridiculous trophy demands; spend the entire game hopping on one foot, or beat every single person in the world in an online battle within 4 hours. Fallout 3, however, has trophies designed to make you explore the wastelands, do those cool side missions you’d otherwise ignore, and collect those rare items you otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with. Sure, two bobbleheads are one-off opportunities never to be reclaimed should you miss them, a design decision I loathe with a passion. This is exactly why Bioshock never got a deeper play-through; miss a few audio dairies and you’re boned, as well as those ridiculous “play the game on the highest difficulty setting without dying” trophies no sane man with things to do would attempt. Fallout 3 rewards you with trophies for doing things that actually make the game play experience better, which is exactly how it should be. I wish designers would pay a lot more attention to the heightened experiences well-designed trophies can offer.

The question I couldn’t escape while playing this game, though, is the obvious: would this game ever sell in Japan? The answer is obviously “no”, it certainly wouldn’t. Aside from the fact the gameplay is very “foreign”, ie. not suited to your average Japanese gamer, there is also that elephant in the room: the bomb. Part of the appeal is the what-if question of what would happen, more or less, if an atomic bomb dropped on America. Japan, of course, has the answer already, though Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never plagued by super mutants and feral ghouls, as far as we know. But so much in the game surrounds the nuclear attack, from the village called Megaton to the Nuka-cola plant, that it is almost a joke. Now don’t get me wrong, I think your average liberal lefty foreigner like myself is probably far more concerned about the sensibilities of selling such a game in Japan than our average Japanese youth. Don’t forget their own proud creation, Godzilla, rampaging and destroying whole cities to the delight of the local audiences. No, the Japanese like their fantasy global or national destruction, and few younger Japanese would probably care too much about nuclear attacks forming the background of a video game; a few psychopaths aside, the difference between reality and fantasy is well understood here.

Still, one can’t help but think: Fallout 3 paints a bleak picture of humanity’s survival and corrupt governments in a barren desolate landscape filled with destruction, death and radiation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, your average Japanese gamer isn’t looking for such an experience from their entertainment, I shouldn’t wonder.

And though parts of the game are rough, buggy and badly acted, Fallout 3 is already a high-point in my gaming year and I can’t wait to see what Bethesda comes out with next. Whatever it is, and however much I’ll hate it on paper, I’m sure I’ll buy it, play it and love it. Damn that confounding developer!

17 comments:

  1. Uhh, Shin Megami Tensei had Tokyo wiped out by nuclear missiles about 30 minutes into the game, so unless something changed since 1992, I don't think the nuke thing would be a problem?

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  2. Well, it's still different... Fallout tries to paint a "realistic" picture. I don't know. It's still hard to figure out how the Japanese perceive such things, like Medal of Honor where you fight the "Japs" and such. Fallout is desolation and death, without giant robots and school kids being heroes, which is not your usual fare for Japanese gamers, which I think is probably the bigger issue.

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  3. Ah, so you haven't gotten to the giant robot yet.

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  4. I agree that the nuke thing might be null. Remember that Astro Boy's name in Japanese is Atom, and his sister is Uran, i.e. Uranium. A larger problem is the cultural distance in general. A post nuclear world that sort of feels like the 1950s is not something the Japanese can probably grok.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. I don't think Fallout would sell in Japan but do you really think that's because of the bomb? So many anime seem to start or end with a bomb and show a post apocalyptic future from Akira to Urotsukudoji(sp?) and a 100 others in between.

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  7. I'm glad you liked our game JC! You have a number of fans here at Bethsoft as well. :)

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  8. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was in fact released in Japan, and got very good reviews. Reviews praised the scene of landing on Omaha Beach, and how it played out, and had good things to say about the game overall, but kinda sidestepped the issue of "Japanese players are fighting representations of their ancestors", as I recall.

    So issues related to what you're bringing up have been touched upon, and apparently you're right: the younger generation of Japanese don't really mind something that's pretty much ancient history to them.

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  9. I played Oblivion, and was tremendously disappointed by it. When I was first playing it, it wasn't that bad. When I played through the main quest, the shine wore off and I saw a conventional, old-school (in many ways including presentation) RPG game with tons and tons of broken promises.

    The worst thing, for me, was the presentation. It just prevents me from enjoying the game... :(

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  10. Peter, when Tozuka created Atom not shortly after the bomb, it was precisely so Japanese could link atomic technology with something else than terrible weapons. It makes sense that most Japanese would fear or turn their backs on anything labeled "atomic", and he wanted to fight that.
    As for Fallout, unlike anime it is made in the U.S. and stuff like Nuka Cola could be interpreted as making light of the situation. Most probably won't mind, but it could rub a few people the wrong way.
    On the other hand, most Japanese feel that the U.S. can do no wrong, so it probably wouldn't ammount to much in any case.

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  11. ..and as the Raider's cranium explodes into a fine mist with meaty chunks, your Pipboy3000 informs you:

    "Raider's Head: Crippled"

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  12. @Dan Ross: maybe you could be so kind as to relay a message to the Fallout 3 team: I WANT MY LIFE BACK! :)

    Finally finished it (giant robot, heh), and it's truly an awesome game. But yeah, the bomb thing is probably not an issue (as I suspected it was probably more something for lefty liberals like me to get concerned over), but indeed the 50s Americana style is not something that can sell (or be understood) in Japan.

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  15. Interestingly enough, it seems as though Fallout 3 *did* do well, at least critically, getting 38/40 in Famitsu (the highest score given to a western RPG from what I hear). Does anyone have any idea how it did sales wise?

    I'm wondering why it did well compared to other western game. Certainly, it seems very against Japanese RPG styles, with it's open endedness, very brown palettes and gritty pseudo-realistic setting (a conceivable future, as opposed to a bonkers fantasy). In any case, lets hope some Japanese devs out there take some notes from the games design and incorporate it into JRPGs!

    Out of curiosity, how does GTA4 go down in Japan? To me, open endedness/linearity seems to be one of the biggest common differences I see between western and Japanese games, and GTA4 is about as open-ended as you get at the moment!

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