Gob hits me. Not literally, of course - he's much too kindhearted for that. But as he runs away, clutching his bleeding head and begging for mercy, I am genuinely struck by a deep, genuine remorse. Here's a Ghoul - not an undead monster in the traditional sense, but one of the residents of the Capital Wasteland whose appearance was deeply disfigured by radiation - who has spent his long, painful life beleaguered by intolerance and various physical ailments. He spends his days mixing drinks at a sleazy bar in Megaton, constantly harassed and mocked for his condition by his boss, Colin Moriarty. And now I've strolled in, dismembered all his friends and coworkers, and am chasing him through the dingy building while he tries - in vain, naturlich - to hide. Gob won't be the last person I mercilessly slaughter in Megaton this day, but his death will stay with me the longest.
Which may seem surprising, as I've already ploughed through old ladies, overworked doctors, and starving beggars with my trusty sledgehammer. (Well, it became my trusty sledgehammer after I clubbed one of Megaton's sledgehammer-wielding citizens to death with a baseball bat.) I'm on a mission - not to praise Jesus or ensure that every child in Namibia has a netbook, but to kill every single living vaguely human-like character in Fallout 3. Kids are off the menu because a) Fallout 3 doesn't let you kill them, and b) I couldn't do it, anyway. But everyone else, no matter how friendly, helpful, or beneficial to my completion of the game, must be put into the ground.
I'm doing this because I want to test the simu-limits of Bethesda's most accomplished softwork. Oblivion left me cold, but I adored Fallout 3 on release, and will quite happily place it on a pedestal next to Interplay's first two instalments in the series. The first time I ran through it, though, I, like most other people, played a hero. I did get to watch Megaton explode, but only because I'd quicksaved just beforehand, and could easily go back and Do The Right Thing. Which, of course, I promptly did. (Videogames 1, Real Life 0.)
The deliciousness of a great open-worlder is not so much in going back and doing it all again differently - because, really, who has the time? - but in knowing that you could, if you wanted. If the game doesn't trigger that sensation at every step, it's a waste of time and money. Thankfully, Fallout 3, like its canonical predecessors, delivered - I was always acutely aware of at least a dozen little ghosts running around my pure-hearted self, doing the whole thing with a more avaricious, hedonistic, or just downright evil bent. Blow up Megaton, turn in the android, request "protection money": I saw it all happen in my mind's eye. A bit like Sliding Doors, but with Super Mutants and exploding craniums.
But this is something else entirely. This isn't even mass-murder. This ain't rock 'n' roll. This is genocide.
Before we go on, I should clarify that my mission has another, slightly more snooty, objective: anti-videogames pundits love to describe games like this as "mass-killing simulators", and whilst I'm reasonably confident that the vast majority of Fallout 3's buyers (and rascally downloaders) wouldn't dream of playing it that way, I want to know if there's any merit to the practice. Is it any fun? Will I feel like I've been missing out on something? Or perhaps Dale Dye's and Eliot Spitzer's doomiest predictions might come to pass: will I end up chasing my wife around the house with the business end of an umbrella? Time will tell.
So where were we? Yes, Megaton. Well, as you now know even if you haven't played the game, it's entirely possible to detonate the unexploded warhead sitting at the centre of the Wasteland's most welcoming municipality. But that's boring: it's been written about too many times, and while it was a brave step on Bethesda's part in terms of player agency, it doesn't require that much initiative to pull it off. And what's more, to go through with the quest would be to revoke my status as an equal-opportunity sociopath: as Moriarty's pub explodes into claret-coloured pandemonium, the sinister Mr. Burke sits in the corner, having conspired with me about levelling the town. He's smug: he thinks that because we are both evil, I will let him live. Not so, Mr. Burke: I shoot him twice in the chest with the now-limbless Billy Creel's Scoped .44 Magnum, and then knock his head clean off with a lead pipe I happen to be carrying (I am an RPG collectophile). Hilariously, this act gives me a slight whiff of positive karma: one suspects Bethesda feels two wrongs do ultimately make a right.
As I step outside, the chaos continues. Some of Megaton's remaining citizens have positioned themselves at various vantage points throughout the area, and are now attempting to ferry me off to the Malebolge. I pick off the most dangerous, sniper rifle-wielding one long-distance, and take a moment to watch one of his eyeballs roll off a ledge onto the dirt below. After that, I sprint along Megaton's raised walkway, frantically disassembling anyone with the audacity to aim a fork at me.
It's gruelling work, actually, especially since health-giving Stimpaks are hard to come by early on in the game. Handily, the remaining denizens - all members of the Church of Atom, who were apparently oblivious to the horrors unfolding outside - are asleep, so it's just a matter of stabbing them to death before they have a chance to crawl out of beds and cry for sweet mercy. Finally, I notice a grazing Brahmin cow just outside what was Doc Church's surgery about 20 minutes ago. Following several unsuccessful attempts to penetrate its unyielding hide with a combat knife, I give up and obliterate its two heads with a Bottlecap Mine.
Standing in the mess of internal organs, severed forearms, and discarded firearms, several strange things occur to me: first and foremost, this play-style is so completely alien to everything I understand about open-ended gameplay that I will have to radically rework how I approach the game. Collecting, for instance, is out: it slows me down, and, well, who's going to buy all my junk? They're all dead. This, I must say, is oddly liberating: I can forget about collecting bottlecaps (Fallout's currency), because if I really want something from a shop, I can just set the vendor on fire and steal what I need.
The second thing I realise, perhaps a little too late, is that I can no longer rely on anyone. No doctors, no ammo-salesmen, no henchmen - no one. This usually isn't much of a problem, but now that I'm a ruthless killer, I've found I need help more than ever. The utterly insane firefights that result from walking into a well-populated town and beheading the nearest bystander are a serious drain on my health supplies, and I've found that, unlike in my first playthrough, I've been needing to chug down Fallout's wide selection of performance-enhancing substances just to survive. Which brings its own issues: I'm now addicted to three separate drugs (Med-X, Jet, and Buffout), and without a physician around to cure me of my dependency, I wonder whether it's actually going to be possible to achieve my objective. (I think this is how Bobby Gillespie feels every day.)
Last of all, I must let my steely facade slip for a moment and confess: this is horrible. Really, really horrible. If you think the detail with which I have described my deeds above is some kind of indication of the relish I felt when committing them, you're mistaken. It's just that the depth of the simulation lends itself to such verbosity. And, in fact, I very nearly grimaced with every kill. (I say "nearly" because I've just finished re-watching The Sopranos in its entirety, so witnessing gore has become like sneezing.) This is not like mowing down zombie space marines, or even zombie strippers: Bethesda spent what was clearly an enormous amount of time injecting as much pathos and tragedy into the Capital Wasteland as possible, and inflicting further cruelty on these beaten-down, hard-bitten little computer people feels like a real-life moral transgression.
Is it fun, though? I'll have to get back to you on that. It's certainly creative. I'm ignoring every scripted path the game offers - after all, whenever a quest is thrust upon me, I shoot the messenger's arms off - and that's not as simple as you might think. I'm burning every bridge with Fallout 3's story designers that I come across, and it takes quite a lot of skill and forethought to make sure those bridges burn just right.
Speaking of bridges, I should tell you about Arefu, because it illustrates what I'm talking about. I'm already on my way to the most luxurious destination in the Wasteland, Tenpenny Tower, but on the way, I take a little detour. The location of this tiny hamlet - sitting atop a dilapidated, cloven bridge that once led straight into DC - was given to me by Lucy West, who is now an amorphous mass of bloody flesh, and will need to be mopped off the floor if Moriarty's dive is ever going to pass another OHS inspection. Arefu has a population of four, and that number looks set to dwindle thanks to the recent arrival of a bunch of nasty Edward Cullens. The second I arrive, Evan King, the village guardsman, requests my help in protecting the area. I agree, he thanks me, and I shoot him in the eye.
Arefu's inhabitants aren't as approachable as Megatonians, but they're certainly more intelligent. After hearing the commotion outside, they all lock their doors. Unfortunately, I spent too much time back in the Vault trying to kill Liam Neeson to bother learning how to lockpick. I try banging on the doors with a lead pipe - "Free hugs!" - but they just tell me to go away. One woman does eventually slip out with a hunting rifle to try her luck, but in the end, I have to leave Arefu not-entirely-destroyed.
I'm not going to let it get to me, though. As I trudge through the grey mud on my way to Tenpenny Tower, the sun rises, and I begin to plan. The Tower's residents - a sizeable group of pureblood humans who've sequestered themselves from the rest of the world so as to live in pre-war luxury - like to think they're safe from the horrors of the Capital Wasteland. By the pricking of my thumbs...
Natural Born Killer will return soon.