The Time I Went Mental in Fallout 3 - How sandbox games give you the space to make your own fiction
I didn't know who I was by the end of Fallout 3. After two weeks of only leaving my room to use the toilet and get more crisps, the connection between me and the Lone Wanderer had grown so strong that I still get mixed up between Liam Neeson and my dad. "Oh, dad's done a new film" I'll think when I see the poster for Taken 2. "I must remember to send Liam Neeson a Father's Day card."
My guy/I was called Rhodes and for 100+ hours he/I roamed the Capital Wasteland picking clean every location of all the profitable salvage he/I/we could find. Fallout 3 became my life; tearful bangs on the door begging me to put down the controller and "come back" notwithstanding, I was completely lost in Bethesda's fantasy world, staring at it starry-eyed like Gomer Pile looking at a gun.
It was just...immersive. Fallout 3 gave me so much to explore, customise and muck about with that I couldn't help getting lost in it. By the time the end credits rolled, I felt like I was stepping out of some sci-fi alternate reality machine, hair in a mess, joints stiff, unable to digest solids without a two-week reorientation course. I had to keep reminding myself to take money to the supermarket instead of bottle caps.
Megaton was my hometown and I kept my house in pristine order. Miscellaneous bits and pieces were kept downstairs, in the new drawers I'd had fitted. Clothes were in the cupboard by the bed; ammo and weapon parts in the chest by my work bench. Anything valuable was locked in the safe.
My mission was to scavenge every building on the map, hoarding anything worthwhile in the flat before selling it on in Rivet City. Between expeditions, I'd come back to Megaton, dump my stash, repair my guns, load up on food and get my hair cut.
Yeah, that was a bit weird. In keeping with my Fallout psychosis, I'd purposefully enter the character customiser every couple of in-game weeks to change Rhodes' hair to long and shaggy, just so I could go and get it cut later on. I'd also rotate clothing on each visit home, imagining my robot butler scrubbing up the duds in time for my next outing. As I said in the title, it was mental.
And it didn't stop there. Apart from ruthlessly organising my scavenger hunt, and giving myself regular, unnecessary haircuts, I projected an imagined personality onto the guy I was playing.
Rhodes was a good man but a drinker, torn apart by the death of his parents. Evening after evening he'd/I'd skulk bag to Megaton with the day's takings, only to sit and forlornly listen to old recordings of dad whilst binging on whiskey i.e. I'd replay the voice memos I'd picked up as part of missions while repeatedly selecting "Drink Whiskey" from the inventory screen.
Then I'd get in bed, usually around 11pm to be up in time for the 6 o'clock start.
If it looked like a hot day out (bearing in mind the weather never changes in Fallout 3) I'd wear a bandana to keep the sun off my needlessly shaved head. If it looked cold (it never did) then I'd put my jacket on, so long as enough time had passed for it to have been cleaned by the robot butler.
A lot of my time would be spent walking from place to place; Rhodes' default jogging pace seemed odd considering it was hot, so I'd just stroll, adding hours of boredom onto my game time because it felt like what my character/I would do.
Regular meals, grooming, a bedtime - there's no reason for you to do any of these things in Fallout 3, but the game somehow convinces you to add little touches like this.
Everybody has their fighting style, from the melee freaks who barrel in with a Shishkebab to the cowardly snipers with their Lincoln Repeater, but more than that, Fallout 3 lets you live a lifestyle, fashioning your character's daily grind and backstory to your mind's content.
It makes for some wonderfully quirky and personal moments, like the haircuts, and some darker bits too, like the time I...sigh, I haven't talked about this since Fallouts Anonymous.
See, aside from the OCD and the drinking, Rhodes' other big flaw was his rigid morality. It started with my determination to have Good Karma, since the game rewards nice players with free health kits and such. But as the line between Fallout and reality got blurry, that trite little gameplay mechanic became a full blown way of life.
I'd spend days tracking down Raider camps and planning my attacks. One such ambush, at a Raider camp called Evergreen Mills, really brought out my/Rhodes'/whoever the hell I was by that point's dark side.
I'd killed all the Raiders, as per, but it was getting late - my strategy had been to attack at dawn and catch my targets while they were still asleep, but Evergreen Mills was a huge encampment of about forty Raiders, so it had taken me all day to clear it out. I decided to spend the night.
It gets weird...
The first thing I did was remove all the Raiders' fingers. Yeah, that's something that Fallout lets you do. A secret society of lawmen called The Regulators pays ten caps per finger, so before I settled in to the night's drinking, I lopped off everyone's hands.
But as I'm sure you're thinking by now, something still wasn't right. Remember how I'd grown accustomed to organising my loot into different cupboards? I couldn't relax properly with all these dead, handless bodies strewn about the place, so I decided to tidy up.
The mill had a big central area where I decided to pile all the bodies and after about an hour - real-time - of dragging the Raiders in there, I had the place looking shipshape.
Except it seemed like a waste, all of that work, without leaving some kind of statement. I was a staunch Regulator, remember, and my mission was to cleanse the Wasteland of evildoers like these Raiders. If I could somehow strike fear into the hearts of bad guys, leave some kind of signature...
After several gulps of whiskey, I set to work removing the Raider's legs, arms and heads with my machete, neatly stacking their bodies like Delbert bloody Grady before lighting them on fire and dropping a toy car - which I decided would be my trademark - on the floor.
After a good night's sleep (bed at 11pm, up at 6am) I walked over to Paradise Falls, my trimmed head glistening in the sun, and did the exact same thing there. Then I went to Andale, and the Fairfax Ruins, and the bed and breakfast and the abandoned school - anywhere with Raiders or bad guys, I'd scope it out, pillage, have a few beers and go to bed. It was weird. It was really weird.
When I came to two weeks later, I'd had the best videogame experience of my entire life. Throwing yourself into character, warts and all is a luxury generally afforded to Shakespearian actors. But computer games, especially ones like Fallout give you enormous creative freedom to invent and live out your daydreams.
For some people, that means starting a family in The Sims or building a giant nob in Minecraft. For me, it meant being a drunk, self-righteous mass murderer with a bald head and a tidy house.
Mum and Liam Neeson must have screwed up somewhere.