I've been going through some of my gaming backlog recently, partially due the to the magical appearance of a Nintendo DS Lite in my closet. I have no idea where it came from, I don't remember buy and none of my old roommates reported losing it. I've approached it somewhat apprehensively, lest it be the focal point of a plot by some supernatural force. Enough about The Lost DS though. I'm here to talk about something much different.
The backlog I mentioned included Fallout 3, which I bought about a month after it came out, played for about another month, and never finished. It's quite good, so I didn't stop playing out of disgust or frustration. I just got lost in the side content and put it on hold at some point. Bethesda games have always been able to completely envelop me in a way that nothing else has. I put about 150 or so hours into Morrowind, which was also my first real Western RPG. The sheer size of the world was breathtaking, and the amount of freedom I had was unsurpassed at the time. The much-ballyhooed followup, Oblivion, was a lot less magnificent, but it still kept my attention for a reasonable amount of time despite its problems. Then there was Fallout 3.
The game started out predictably enough, with a pivotal character voiced by a famous actor disappearing shortly after the game begins. The combat was more fun this time, but other than that it appeared I was in for a gunmetal black version of Oblivion. But things changed when I left the vault and reached the city of Megaton. Most towns in RPGs are forgettable pit stops to stock up on items and do some quests-little more than glorified gas stations. Not so with Megaton.
To date, Megaton is the only game town that has actually felt like a real place to me. After being born into an unfamiliar and desolate world, Megaton truly felt like home. The residents were all memorable for one reason or another, and the architecture was brilliant. Everything genuinely looked like it had been built from scrap into a safe haven from all the evils in the wasteland. Top that off with 28 named residents and lots of other nameless NPCs walking around, and Megaton achieves the one quality that most other game towns lack--life. The sense that everything around you is simply alive. Take a look around any reasonably sized city, and I think you'll understand what I mean. Obviously 30 or so NPCs isn't equivalent to a real city, but it's enough to make it feel like it is.
In games like Fallout 3 I usually play my first character as if I was playing myself, so my character (Armando) was mostly a do-gooder with the occasional nasty streak in him. He disarmed the Megaton bomb, and reveled in his goodness for doing so. Every time one of these stark moral choices comes up, I make a mental note to make the opposite decision on my next playthrough, just to see how the other side lives. It had been decided-Megaton would die.
Fast forward about two years. I never did finish the game with Armando, so I started a new character with the intent of playing a specific way. Viktorina was a cold, ruthless woman who only sought to find James and find out why the hell he left. Maker be with anyone who decided to get in her way. Naturally, when Mr. Burke offered her a boatload of caps to nuke Megaton, she was all ears. I waited a little while to actually do the deed, since there were obviously things to be had in Megaton. After all, Viktorina is nothing if not practical.
After Megaton seemingly had no further use, I armed the bomb and made the long trek out to Tenpenny Tower. I was reveling in anticipation of what I was about to do. I mean, how many times do you really get the chance to completely annihilate an entire town in a game? The level of sadism involved was somewhat out of character for Viktorina, but I didn't care. I wanted to see something go boom.
Burke and Tenpenny welcomed me warmly. I was shown the magic button, and Burke told me to savor the moment. I had been doing that since I left Megaton. I was ready. Ready for fireworks. It was time to blow some shit up.
Then, something happened. I opened the case with the button in it and stared at it. I had been anticipating this moment for almost the entire game, but something strange was holding me back. Suddenly it became clear-I cared about Megaton. All of its little intricacies, the habits of the residents, and the very nature of its existence as symbol of order in the middle of total chaos made me attached to it in a way I never thought would happen. I was having an emotional reaction to the prospect of destroying Megaton because I cared about Megaton. Despite all of Viktorina's badassery, she could not push that button.
Stunned, I thought about what I could do. Just walk away? No, what would stop them from pushing the button themselves? Needing to get her murder fix and having two guilt-free targets close at hand, Viktorina pulled out her trusty .44 Magnum and blew Burke's head off. Tenpenny met a similar fate seconds later. Still in a bit of shock, I killed everyone in Tenpenny Tower and felt absolutely no remorse.
I went back to Megaton shortly after the bloodbath and just kind of walked around. These people had no idea how close they were to being atomized. How would they? They were just NPCs, living out their little scripted lives. But it was fun to pretend that somehow, Viktorina had done much more than prevent her karma rating from dropping off the face of the earth. And that pretending is what games like this should be all about.