Fallout 3 takes place 200 years after a nuclear exchange between the United States and China has transformed most of the US into a wasteland where the only thing the player will find is slaves, opportunism, death and the last bastions of the former society. Throughout the game, the player will experience the Bethesda company’s version of the Fallout Universe. A few things have changed since the transfer from Interplay, mostly texture and game art, and of course the obvious change from the top-down view to a new third-person/first-person-shooter view. Otherwise, the company has stayed very faithful to the canon of the Fallout games. The hardships of humanity that continue on even after the world has been blown away in a nuclear firestorm.
An imperialist war sets off the events leading to the Wasteland, as explained in the famous introduction to the first game of the franchise:
“War. War never changes. The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes.”
From this intro, we learn that a World War was started by US imperialism and Chinese social-imperialism over resources, including petroleum and uranium. The war was started with China invading Alaska and the United States annexing Canada. The game effectively shows how imperialism works by expanding into new markets.
Before the war, the corporations of this alternate universe created large underground safe havens built before a foreseeable nuclear war. They sold spots to the super-rich and privileged as well as chosen participants, acting as gatekeepers to the new world, a group of “Noahs” only allowing those selected onto these arcs. Ultimately of course, nuclear war does break out, and those who were selected are saved, and those who weren’t (the proletarian and poor) are left to burn. This is where the player starts his/her life, the child of a doctor (Liam Neeson) who was able to buy his way into a local Vault (unlike the other residents who, after 200 years are the children of those chosen by these long-dead corporations).
Character design and customization takes place right after the protagonist is born. You can customize your face, hair and general appearance, even down to how your nose looks. Your father will have similar facial features. Your character can do anything and be anything—a slaver, trader, hunter, killer or savior. All of these choices can be made throughout the game. These choices affect gameplay to a great extent.
For example, drugs give the player strengths but at the same time can cause the player to become addicted, so that if he doesn’t take the drug regularly he’ll suffer from losses in character stats. While this doesn’t show the true repercussions of drug use, it is an interesting system. The player has a lot of moral choices, however unlike other games, Fallout 3 doesn’t just present the player with grandiose decisions such as whether to save the world or not. While this does play a part in the story, there are hundreds of smaller decisions that will affect the player morally. Despite this, Fallout 3 doesn’t provide a morality scale like other games. Fallout 3 merely has the Wasteland react to your decisions. You can choose to become a slaver or choose to wipe them out. If you wipe out the slavers, all slave traders in the Wasteland will hear about this and whenever they see you they will be hostile. If you choose to help them, it has bigger consequences with the people who aren’t slave traders. The same goes for if you choose to wipe out a small town or choose to save it. I think this is probably the best cause-and-effect I’ve ever seen in a game.
The Enclave: A Fascist United States
The primary antagonist, known as the Enclave, are the remnants of the United States government and military which, oddly enough, have not changed their policies even after two centuries and a nuclear war—the game acknowledges that imperialism never changes and cannot be reformed. The Enclave, much like the United States government, attempts to squash all resistance throughout the game of both the player and the organization called “The Brotherhood of Steel,” a group of techno-religious soldiers dedicating themselves to the preservation of lost technology. The Enclave is lead by the enigmatic and genocidal President John Henry Eden (voiced by Malcolm McDowell), who you find out by the end of the game is actually an amalgamation of previous US presidents built into a “Zax Super Computer” ruling from behind the scenes.
The Enclave is working to stop the spread of mutagens from the previous nuclear exchanges. While this may seem like a good idea, the fact is that those who were not super-rich or super lucky didn’t make it to the fallout shelters, leaving the majority of people to suffer the side effects of radiation, along with their children and their childrens’ children. The President’s plans will result in the death of everyone exposed to this radiation, which is primarily the common laborer. Only those with no radiation or mutation (such as those in the Enclave and those privileged ones brought up in Vaults) will not die from the virus. This is reminiscent of the treatment of Native Americans during the time of Manifest Destiny. Eden’s name comes from John Henry Eaton, the Secretary of War to Andrew Jackson. The quest that contains this secret is called “The American Dream.” The computer even says, “The leaders of the government had a similar idea” when you ask them where the plan came from.
As the player explores the expansive “Wasteland,” he/she will run into mutants of all types, and while most just want to eat you, there are also mutated humans who have become known as “Ghouls”—people who were overexposed to radiation and/or survived the bombs and now have deteriorating bodies. Ghouls are either treated as second-class citizens or just killed on sight. There is even a mission in some of the newly updated downloadable content in which you exploit these “Ghouls” economically for a promised miracle cure. The majority of Ghouls in Fallout 3 are treated horribly due to a wedge driven between themselves and the common people by superstition and assistance from groups like the Brotherhood of Steel. In game, Ghouls are said to emit low levels of radiation, which would prevent someone from living close to a Ghoul for a few decades, but would not really inflict any damage on someone who would have an everyday experience with them.
Primarily, Fallout 3 is about survival and examining the true human condition. The need to survive is emphasized, and the lengths people will go to to survive in a world torn up by war that is no longer “protected” by an all-seeing US government. Throughout the game the player not only experiences searching for food and water to survive (water and food provide health though “stimpacks” are easy to come by), but ammunition is always scarce and friendly communities are far in-between. These communities, much like the world itself, have been reduced to a more primitive state, although there is a basically merchant market economy based on exchanging bottle caps as currency.