I’ve always found even crappy disaster flicks to be engaging, and not just because seeing Freddy Rodriguez get concurrently flattened, impaled, and then immolated is cathartic. Disaster films trigger a primal survival instinct that causes you to question what you’d do in the protagonist’s circumstances. With a tornado bearing down on you, would you try to race to a partially shielded underpass or jump out and strap yourself to a pipe with your leather belt? If a tidal wave approaches, will you hop on a moped and try to outrace 700 mph waves up a hill like Elijah Wood, storm into a solid library building like Jake Gyllenhaal, or haplessly mew weepy paternal anecdotes like Tea Leoni? OK, maybe disaster films that solely contain nonsensical gibberish don’t count.
But good disaster stories seem to draw you into them far more effectively than tales that are less threatening. I’m currently listening to the amazing audiobook version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (McCarthy was in the spotlight last year for writing No Country For Old Men). It’s a rare treat: a post-apocalyptic novel written by a top tier, 73-year-old author instead of a kid who still feels too nostalgic for afternoons spent croaking Lord Humungous lines after watching The Road Warrior for the tenth time. Navigating through The Road has been an affecting journey. It’s impossible not to ponder how you’d react to the dire events that the characters confront. Would you accept a stranger’s offer for assistance, or would you eschew human contact and forgo potential resources in order to ensure the security of your party?
The best roleplaying games similarly cause you to question courses of action, and encourage you to vest personality into your alter-ego. Modern RPG fans too often seem to define the quality of a roleplaying game by the number of character development choices, instead of the frequency of genuine roleplaying choices. The perfect roleplaying game would allow you to do anything that a character in those circumstances could possibly do, and have that character’s fortunes greatly depend upon creative strategies. Instead of storming a castle by trying to fireball through the front door, it might be more effective to spend some time in town and cull together some grappling equipment, or to trudge into the swamps looking for a sewer entrance. Rarely do RPGs reward or even permit such dynamic strategies, but the best ones like Fallout 3 do, and that’s one of the main reasons it’s clearly our RPG and Game of the Year.
Fallout 3 is also, of course, a disaster story, and one that we can imagine and relate to far more readily than a fantastical tale of an evil wizard crushing the dwarves. So we’re automatically more inclined to have empathy for the plight of our character, and to concoct survivalist strategies. Amazingly, in Fallout 3 those intuitive tactics regularly work. Charismatic characters can bargain their way out of predicaments, stealthy assaults on enemy encampments are rewarded, and goals can invariably be achieved through an array of methods that reflect the strengths and personalities of characters. More than any other recent RPG, or computer game, Fallout 3 legitimately gives you the opportunity to roleplay a character who could reflect your actual personality. You can even roleplay as yourself in Fallout 3’s world, and only make decisions that you personally would actually take in those circumstances. That’s just not an opportunity granted very often, at least in any meaningful sense without a ton of extrapolation. Fallout 3 draws you into its setting and allows you to walk your own road. Good Journey.
January 14, 2009