Interactivity and Narrative in Fallout 3

Jesper Juul’s essay, “Games Telling Stories”, offers insight into the relationship between narratives and games. Juul’s central question revolves around whether or not games tell stories. However, he notes that ‘something can be presented in narrative form [but that] does not mean that it is narrative’ (383). Most games will have a back-story or introduction to a story on a manual or introduction, as Juul notes. Narrative cannot be straight, structured, or linear; Fallout 3 offers players the chance to decide the ending and choose their own path throughout the game.

Fallout 3, a role-playing game (RPG), is set in the year 2277, 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse tore through the world. The player character is forced to escape Vault 101, a survival shelter, after their father disappears into the ‘Capital Wasteland’, an area outside the Vault. The game starts with your birth and the creation of the player character (I believe the game asks you what you’ll look like when you’re older; here, you can customize your appearance). Eventually, it moves to your 1st birthday, where you can choose base attributes that will lead you through the rest of the game known as S.P.E.C.I.A.L. (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck). These base traits influence your player’s identity and skills. Would you rather use your Strength and pummel/beat your opponents? Or would you rather be Charismatic and charm them? From there, the game moves to your 10th birthday.

Then what?

Then you decide. Fallout 3 is unique in that, while there is a thinly set narrative (based on a main storyline seen through the player character’s progress in main quests), your decisions will determine the outcome. As the game manual says, ‘you’re completely free to make your own destiny’. The game incorporates ‘karma’ based on your player character’s actions and choice of words. For example, when talking to other characters, you as the player can select what to say. When talking to your father, you may say something like, “There’s my dad, I’m happy to see him, I’ll help him save us all.” or “Thanks for leaving me to die in that hole. I’ve got my own thing to do, I can’t help you now.” Fallout 3 stresses that it is YOUR actions and YOUR story. You can choose to do or say things that give you ‘good karma’, ‘bad karma’, or ‘neutral karma’ (which all add up). You can shoot someone and rob them, or help them out of the goodness of your heart. In the end, the cut scenes that play reflect what your character’s karma level is; this is the cornerstone of how the narrative will turn out.

This game has been the most interactive game I’ve played in that they gave me the chance to play the way I want to play and make the choices I want to make. The producers have done an excellent job in guiding players through the basic narrative by offering choices that are good, neutral, or bad; these are pretty much the only choices available, but this meant the producers did an excellent job at anticipating what players might do. The environment itself is interactive in that players may go anywhere in the game and find quests to complete at their own pace. In the end, though, the idea of a linear, structural narrative does not exist in this game. There is also no continuously interactive story (once the game is over, or the quest is over, you can’t do play it over anymore!).

Interactivity and player decision have made it much more enjoyable for the player. This is not a new concept but one that is continuously refined and remediated (Fallout 3 itself is remediated by its own creators in Fallout New Vegas). If this is the direction that games are going, Fallout 3 is a giant step forward for player interaction and player influence on the ending of the narrative.

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2 Comments

  1. This is a really interesting blog post. I had never heard of the video game “Fallout”, nor did I know that a video game existed whose narrative was entirely based on single players choices. From my understanding of your description of the game, I would have to disagree with you in saying that Fallout 3 is “the ending of the narrative”. However, I would say that games such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect are revealing a sort of “end” to the typical video game narrative. (One that is similar to the narrative found in literature and film).

    I would agree with you in the sense that games such as these are moving away from the linear and structural narrative. However, I believe that there is still a narrative within the basic framework of the game. For example, in Fallout 3 each quest offers a narrative that the player must accept or chose to participate in. Even if the player chooses not to accept a quest I still feel that there is a narrative present. Instead, this narrative is one that involves the survival of the main character within the game.

    Games such as these remind me of the “choose your own adventure” novels. Much in the same way as Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, the reader gets to choose which actions to take, which can lead readers to new choices or to their untimely death.

    In the end, I think that games such as these still prove to be narratives, however, they are bending the rules/characteristics of what we deem is a narrative. I think it is essential for game creators to bend these rules in order to create successful and profitable games. (Otherwise, we would be stuck with the same “story” over and over again).

  2. I think kairos88 may be misinterpreting burningtangerine13 here; bt13 isn’t arguing that Fallout 3 signals the ending of narrative, but rather, that players have a greater control over how the specific narrative in Fallout 3 ends, or turns out. (And to add a bit of historical perspective to the discussion, I’d point out that Fallout 1 and 2 offer the similar decisions and choices that allow the player to direct the game’s ending.)

    In a way, Fallout 3 is not so much about an entirely free narrative as presenting the illusion of a free narrative; though you’re free to go about the game in a number of different ways, if you want to access the game’s ending, you still have to go through some set plot points, and you still have to get to the same end point. It’s impossible, for example, to actually kill your father in the game. The Choose Your Own Adventure comparison kairos88 makes is rather apt. The game is an expanded narrative, but the player still chooses from a set of possible narratives, rather than setting off on something different entirely.
    –MH


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