Welcome to Post-Apocalyptia!
War…war never changes. And neither do games, apparently.
All right, that was a cheap shot. But seriously, what is it about the post-apocalyptic wasteland that so greatly appeals to modern game developers? We’ve got Half Life 2, the Fallout series, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, Metro 2033, Rage, and—hmm. I’ll just stop there, because it looks like that list is going to be a lot longer than I thought.
So do post-apocalyptic environments require less of a design budget, perhaps? Has focus group testing proved they have a higher than average fun quotient? Is there, in fact, some deep-seated psychological need in all human beings that drives us to explore the gutted ruins of our future civilization? Is the blasted wasteland that once held proud cities an unconscious metaphor for our fears of a crumbling society? Or, indeed, the very embodiment of change itself?
I’m just messing with you; I have no idea. What I actually wanted to talk about today was the use of these environments in today’s games—specifically, what makes them fun, and what doesn’t. But first can we agree, in the interest of preventing a repetitive stress injury, that “post-apocalyptic” shall hereafter be abbreviated as “PA”? Yes? Good. Onward!
There are two PA games in particular that I wanted to examine. The first is Half-Life 2, which remains my personal favorite game ever. The other is Fallout 3, which was—to me—profoundly disappointing. Let’s leave aside Half-Life for a moment to concentrate on Fallout, seeing as it’s the poster boy for PA nowadays.
So why didn’t I like it? Plenty of reasons, actually: This game ran the full spectrum of bad design, from weapon degradation to sub-par voice acting, from stiff animations to questionable physics, and from general bugginess to Games For Windows Live. But all that really shouldn’t have made a difference; I was fully expecting all of the above problems (except GFWL), and I still ran out and bought the game just a few days after it was released. Because people were describing it as “like Oblivion, but with guns.”
And I loved Oblivion. Bethesda spent ages crafting this lush, enthralling, terrifyingly wide open world, and just dropped the player right in the middle of it. “Here is your playground,” they say, “go explore!”
It wasn’t until I put this game up against Fallout 3 that I realized what made it so much fun for me. With all the freedom Bethesda offers, playing one of their games is comparable to living in the game world for a while, and Oblivion’s world of Tamriel is a seriously awesome place to live. Every location strikes the perfect balance between pleasant and interesting: The Imperial City has majestic stonework and pristine streets around the palace, but its seedy underbelly contains all sorts of unsavory types for you to find—if you’re so inclined. Skingrad’s old-glory atmosphere provides an excellent backdrop for the city’s vibrant night life, but people looking for a quiet stay should avoid the palace at all costs. And Bravil…actually, Bravil’s a shithole. But the imbalance of wealth there just makes the rest of the world seem that much more authentic.
And then, a short way into the game, these giant portals into hell (the titular Oblivion gates) start opening up randomly around the world. You can avoid nearly all of them if you want to, but by this point you can see that they’re corrupting the area around them—threatening to destroy the world you’ve been living in. Dammit, that’s my world! I stopped caring about the main plot when Patrick Stewart died (ten minutes into the tutorial sequence), but I still wanted to keep playing because the world itself was actually worth saving.
Then there’s Fallout 3. It has all of the elements that Bethesda games are known for: The same wide-open world, the same exotic locales brimming with side quests, the same ugly NPCs. What it doesn’t have is someplace I’d actually want to visit, let alone fight for. Don’t get me wrong; the places you explore are still interesting—there’s a city built entirely within a beached aircraft carrier, another that’s been cobbled together from scrap metal in the shelter of an old bomb crater, and even a series of caverns populated by the foul-mouthed descendents of Chloë Mortez. Cool stuff.
But it’s still a wasteland, everywhere you look. Practically everything in this world is broken, charred, rusted-out, highly radioactive, or trying to kill you (and some of the more memorable stuff can be all five). What, exactly, was I trying to save again?
On top of all the destruction, half the people you meet are absolute bastards—and that’s excluding all the ones that just try to kill you on sight. By the time the “real” bad guys started showing up with their futuristic weapons and fancy labs, I was seriously hoping for a chance to join their side. Sure, they’re mostly just trying to destroy the world (again), but at least they know how to be civilized about it.
After a while I finally started to realize that I simply wasn’t enjoying my time in the Fallout world, so I quit playing. And booted up Half-Life 2. I think somewhere along the line I managed to forget that the Half-Life world is every bit as wrecked as the one I had just left…not sure how that happened. At any rate, I soon found myself trudging through yet another PA war zone…
…And having fun. Wait a minute, how the hell did that happen? Both games are first person shooters with a PA setting, but Fallout 3 has more depth because it’s non-linear. What makes Half-Life 2 better? Well, go back and look at that picture again; see if you can find the answer there. If you can’t figure it out, click on the picture and it’ll give you the answer that I came to.
Everybody got it? That’s right, Half-Life has actual characters in it. Believable ones, I mean; not those walking dialog trees you see in Bethesda games. Half-Life’s excellent cast takes the place of the game’s environment in the something-worth-saving department: There’s a variety of eccentric scientists, a really hot charming sidekick and her awesome robotic dog, and a salt-of-the-Earth former security guard who owes me a beer. No way am I going to let that group get slaughtered by aliens. I think I would have even saved Dr. Breen if I had the chance; he’s great fun to listen to. These characters and their interactions draw you into the game in a way the PA world never could.
Now, I happen to know that an awful lot of people really liked Fallout 3. That’s actually most of the reason I wrote this: It’s clearly an excellent game by most people’s standards, so I had to figure out why I didn’t feel the same way. It’s possible there are other people out there who didn’t enjoy it much either, and maybe some of them (reprezent!) are reading this blog.
But I’ll bet most of you feel right at home in Post-Apocalyptia.