A Wasteland Revisited


It is dark and dank, and I hear something scuttle in the darkness. The last auburn glow of heat from the smoldering barrel of my Chinese Assault Rifle fluoresces in the dim light. My throat is tight, my ammo is dwindling and my heartbeat pounds in my ears. If only I could rest, get a little shut eye and hope the dreams of Megaton’s East-Coast-Supernova stay suppressed under the surge of stims that will heal me.

But no. A creature shambles in the darkness, rifling through what I hope is a two-hundred year old package of Salisbury steak, but what I’m sure is a human corpse. Another human corpse. I grip my firearm, creep around the corner and try to find solace in the wasteland.

As I play Fallout 3 for the second time, I have to admit that I got it wrong from the start. While everyone else seemed to easily access the immersive genius of Bethesda’s daring effort, I just didn’t get it. I stood on my tiny island of discontent, surrounded by an endless ocean, and died of thirst.

Months later, however, viewing the game with fresh eyes and a perspective a little less tainted, now finally I embrace the twenty-first century vision of twentieth-century catastrophe. I was wrong. There, I said it. Are you happy?

Fallout 3 doesn’t suck after all.

This is not news to you, I suppose. It is to me. I’ve belabored under an unpopular opinion for nearly one full trip around our dim, yellow sun. It is not a perspective that has won me many accolades except by certain traditionally disaffected corners, but it was one that I came to through completely honest means.

I wanted to love Fallout 3 when it was launched. I was not sitting around carping about Black Isle’s discarded isometric revival, Van Buren. I had accepted the fate of the franchise and its inescapable need to be a mass market product with multiple avenues of distribution. I am practical about the reality of the video game market.

Despite all that, the appeal was lost to me. Even as I fulfilled my obligation to a pretend widower-father and thirsty wastelanders everywhere, I watched credits roll and felt a like I had just given up too much time for something I cared too little about. The simple reality is I had played the game all wrong, and it would take months to come back and do the job right.

I had played Fallout 3 like it were a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. It’s the aimless wandering of an easily distracted homeless person in the park. Following Fallout 3 rigidly toward its primary conclusion is like asking your grandfather to reduce his World War II experience into a single haiku. No matter how clever it is, the full experience is simply too grand to be reduced to the form.

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I was playing the game as though I was in a hurry to review it, and I know better than that. There’s a damn good reason I have never wanted to be a reviewer. Fallout 3 isn’t about the endgame payoff. It’s not even about its primary story. Its about wandering across a derelict grocery store overlooking the Potomac, and fighting a group of squatting raiders just to do it.

Frankly, my wife would not be surprised to discover I had ruined my enjoyment of the journey by narrowly focusing on an artificial destination. On long car trips, I am _that_ dad – focused on the horizon and never stopping at the largest ball of paper-mache in Western Kentucky. I will grow impatient with a drive through while my wife looks longingly out the window at a local roadside diner.

Fallout 3 can not be appropriately consumed in this way. It demands to be savored. It insists that you spend dozens of hours exploring its world and that you adapt to its epic ways. It is an inflexible beast, fat and stubborn. It took me a year, but now I get it.

I still contend that at its core it makes for a pretty poor Fallout game. I can’t elevate my biases away from this truth. If anything I’d describe it as the best Oblivion mod anyone could ever hope for, which isn’t necessarily the meanest thing on the block I might offer. But even as I concede that it deserves the accolades it has received, I realize that playing it a second time through has taught me more about how I approach games than I might have otherwise expected.

Sean Sands is a writer and co-founder of the website Gamerswithjobs.com. He is also a little slow on the uptake from time to time, and probably should give that whole Grand Theft Auto thing another try someday.

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