May 262009

Most games, even particularly interesting ones, are hamstrung by the fact that they end too soon. I don’t mean that the gameplay itself ends too quickly; indeed most games would be served by chopping out a few hours. What I’m talking about here is that the story gets cut short. Whether RPGs, shooters, or brawlers, the finale of most games goes like this: climactic boss battle, short non-interactive cutscene, The End. Sometimes the short cutscene gets replaced with a long one, but the basic pattern is widely accepted. This hurts game narratives because it forces the player to assess the implications of the game’s climax while almost entirely outside of the game world. It is left to the player to imagine what the world of the game is like after, and while this occasionally fits a narrative design it does not always do so. Fallout 3 reached a positively manic climax with Liberty Prime’s assault on Project Purity, then dove right into an abrupt (and almost inexplicable) closing sequence. The recent downloadable content, “Broken Steel”, feels like an attempt to add a real denouement to the Enclave arc, and in this it largely succeeds.

Most quests in “Broken Steel” differ from those of the main game in that they are essentially devoid of meaningful moral choice. The events of the add-on represent a single infiltrator’s actions in a military campaign, and as such most of its quests amount to extended dungeon crawls. While a number of new and extremely powerful enemies appear across the Wasteland, none of them take the form of Enclave soldiers — the new Hellfire Trooper is not significantly more effective than his compatriots — and when this is combined with the elevated level cap, the effect is a slow reduction of tension throughout the adventure. Sure, things can get a bit hairy during some segments (particularly the harrowing encounter with Reavers in the Presidential Metro), but every time you face the Enclave they feel weaker than before. In the final act of the add-on, I infiltrated the Enclave’s mobile base and single-handedly took down their elite Sigma squad in the space of a few seconds. Things never really got any harder after that.

Broken Steel doesn’t have any grand finale to match that of the main story, but that’s not the point. The new content isn’t about a heroic charge against overwhelming odds to conquer a fortified position; it’s about stomping bugs. There’s no new antagonist to confront, nor even an old one, as the new segments don’t seem to notice if you let Colonel Autumn live. All you have are progressively less dangerous firefights, gradually easing off the pressure until you demolish the Enclave’s last stronghold with fire from the sky.

The accessory quests don’t add much in the way of gameplay or new areas, but they do allow the player to consider the non-military impact of freeing Project Purity. Notably, the Wasteland still has problems — cleaning up the water didn’t immediately eliminate the widespread contamination, mutation problems, or raiders. Solving some of those problems simply created new ones: now the challenge is to ensure that the distribution of the pure water goes smoothly. These quests don’t really have much in the way of interesting moral choices, but they help put the player’s earlier decisions in perspective, allowing him to reflect on the implications of the choices he made earlier.

The weakness of “Broken Steel” is that it has little to offer beyond violence. The quests are mostly straightforward battles, and allow none of the flexibility inherent to some of the main game’s more interesting missions. The player can’t side with the Enclave, or even use his powers of persuasion to help destroy his enemies from within. The only choice the player can make is to shoot or die, and while that approach has its uses it’s unfortunate that players who take advantage of the full range of character customization available in the game aren’t rewarded with interesting alternative routes to victory.

The impression one gets from interviews is that the developers at Bethesda believe players reacted negatively to the fact that their game ended. For me, at least, this wasn’t the case at all. It wasn’t that Fallout 3 ended, but howit ended that felt unsatisfying. The assault on the purifier didn’t feel like a personal triumph, the conclusion of the adventure came as a surprise, and the in-universe reason for ending it was contrived and ridiculous. After the events of “Broken Steel”, however, I feel like the game could have stopped without any trouble. The powerful weapons and increased level cap slowly deflate the tension of the narrative throughout this episode, and the final crawl through the Enclave’s mobile platform feels like the player’s expression of personal dominance over their military engine. Despite its weaknesses, this aspect of “Broken Steel” is quite welcome: it makes the player feel like the story really is at a conclusion, by moving the end of the game away from the climax of the story.

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