"Is that one of mine?"
It's becoming a regular question as my goal creeps closer. I look down, and I see a chap with no head: did I do that? Was that my work? In this instance - somewhere between the toxic sludge of the Greener Pastures Disposal Site and the MDPL-13 Power Station, if you're interested - no. I know this because the headless body - neck-sockets are becoming such a frequent sight that I'm beginning to read rather redundant Satanic instructions in the creases of bloody flesh - contains a Stimpak, which, at this point, is like discovering you have a recently-deceased Nigerian trillionaire cousin. (Seriously, they said they're wiring me the money when the exchange rate improves.) I am so hard up in the health department now that, at what was quite possibly the nadir of this little saga, I burst into an abandoned power station just so I could kill the radioactive cockroaches inside and suck the meat out of their carapaces. Points of health gained: several. Boss.
I've learned a little something about pride: it's a waste of time. Remember the Regulators? The inept Chuck Norrii of the Wasteland? I scoffed at their initial assassination attempt, but now the filthy buboes are following me wherever I go, and with laser rifles. Same deal with cockroach - sorry, "radroach" - meat: at the beginning, I was loaded up with Stimpaks from Doc Church. Now that I'm perpetually one-foot-in-the-furnace, I'm finding there's an entire banquet of gastric delights rolled out before me if I'd just lower my standards a touch. Mole-rat heads, Brahmin legs, Scorpion breast, even bags of human blood - if only Jennifer Paterson were still alive! (I suppose I can still eat the other one. Or Nigella Lawson.)
This is a rather prolix way of saying that things are looking up. Not 90-degrees-up, exactly, but getting there. I really can't tell you how happy I am to discover an entire field of grazing Brahmin after heading West from Greener Pastures. A sledgehammer does the trick with most of the cows in my immediate vicinity, but a few bolt, so I hurriedly blow off their legs with a spare sniper rifle. Another charges at me, and sends my glacially rising health back down to loud-heartbeat territory, so I bash all its limbs off out of spite. After that, though, it's a meat fiesta. PETA's probably going to get Trent Reznor to admonish me for this, but this has been one of the highlights of my journey since escaping Old Olney. I have so much Brahmin steak in my post-apocalyptic bumbag that I'm probably set 'til I reach DC. I guess, technically speaking, the steak is bluer than blue, and I'm not traditionally the type of sick freak who likes to go to a restaurant and order something so uncooked it looks like autopsy offal, but it tastes good. And I can't even really taste it.
I've given up on reaching Canterbury Commons, by the way. It's a cute place, and its superhero problem has some interesting implications, psycho-killer-wise - and, most importantly, it's where all the now-dead travelling merchants store their stuff - but I can't for the life of me find it. So, for kicks, I head North-East, and wind up at the gates of the Republic of Dave. Dave, if you're unaware, is the president-slash-dictator of the eponymous, diminuitively-populated metropolis in the top-right corner of Fallout 3's map. Dave is also awesome. I mean, isn't it astonishing that of all the dispossessed crybabies Fallout's apocalypse deigned to spare, Dave is literally the only one who thought of creating his own love cult? (No, the Children of the Cathedral don't count.) He and his two wives reign over a bunch of kids and two adults who absolutely worship him and see him as the saviour of humankind. I don't know about you, but I'd be down with that.
In my original playthrough, I became concerned that Dave's despotic policies might veer closer to Warren Jeffs than Nirmala Srivastava, so I rigged his already-rigged election process so that he'd be replaced by his wife. (Girl power!) This time, though, I just stab him in the neck until his head falls off, and then I steal his rather impressive unique hunting rifle, Ol' Painless. Dave's acolytes go down rather quickly, and, as usual, the children remain breathing, albeit without parents, guardians, or food.
I don't know whether it's Inon Zur's pensive soundtrack or my own innate humanity that gives me pause - at this point, it's probably the former - but I do feel a tad blue as I leave Dave's commune. Is this right? Should I really be doing this? I'm almost certain there's a 13-year-old out there who's killed everyone in his big brother's copy of Fallout 3 for somewhat different reasons - Steam was acting up, probably, so he couldn't get on Team Fortress 2 and tell people they like to rape their own bums - but I'm an adult. It's different. I went through the arduous process of actually getting this game sent to me for free from a publisher, so don't I have a responsibility to have some decorum in my play-testing? And, more pressingly, should Bethesda Softworks really be permitted to make a game where one can violently slaughter an entire family and leave the juveniles to starve?
I'm going for a tentative "yes". If anything, this experiment has given me some perspective on how rewarding and difficult it is to be a good person. Of course, in our world, unless you're in a position of high political esteem, absolute evil doesn't yield significant returns, either; you can't really go around slaughtering people for too long before you're sent off for three square meals a day and a boyfriend called Spanner. But imagine it on a smaller scale: think how hard (and creative) it is to find mutually beneficial arrangements between two squabbling parties. Recall how intensely you worked once to get something you wanted. Drift back to the nigh-on Machiavellian courtship tactics you employed in the name of romance. If you want the right results, you need to bleed for them.
Moreover, it's the work that gives life, and videogames, its meaning. The first time I played through Fallout 3, I was riveted. The find-your-Daddy plotline struck me as a little staid until the bit where he gets turned into a dog, but some of the characters I met along the way - Gob, Tenpenny, the goth girl in Big Town who looks like an ex-girlfriend of mine, even John Henry Eden McDowell himself - kept me joyously immersed in the nooks and crannies of this delightful little hellhole. Now they've all been reduced to big red target circles, though, it's impossible to care about the finely-crafted world they're inhabiting. It's all so much normal-mapped scenery: less of an experience, and more of a challenge. And whilst that might excite people who like to play obscure, impossible Japanese shmups, I'm just not comfortable in that particular basket.
On the other hand, though, by not violently deviating from the game's will as I have done, you're basically a slave to the games designer's screenwriting ambitions, but more on that later. Right now, Canterbury Commons. Yes, I finally got there, by heading due south of Davetopia. And gosh, am I happy to hear the familiar threats of the Machinist and the AntAgonizer. If Fallout 3 passed you by, I'll wax brief: they're two crazies who've decided to fight each other with armies of robots and ants and, basically, turn their miserable, humdrum lives into a comic book, inadvertently creating chaos for Canterbury's sane citizens. The second I show up in town, I'm tasked with ending their tyranny. I accept, and then murder everyone over three feet tall. Joe Porter, the guy who owns Canterbury's diner, actually figures out that hiding behind his counter might be a good idea, but a well-thrown frag grenade transforms him into a gore geyser. Having stolen all the merchant goodies in storage, I proceed up to the Machinist's factory.
This is one example where being a monster really does have its advantages. The Machinist, you see, is a very typical incidental RPG villain. You know what I'm talking about: the prick who's only tied to one quest, and exists solely to give you an opportunity to flex your good/evil muscles. He's in some abandoned tower, and sends thousands of minions roaring in your general direction before you finally make it to his sanctum. There, he suddenly becomes adorable, and starts droning on about how he only did it because he's trying to make sense of a harsh world and SHUT THE F*** UP. ONE OF YOUR FRIENDS JUST TRIED TO SHOOT ME IN THE EYE WITH A MISSILE, YOU WORTHLESS SACK OF TAPEWORMS. I take great pleasure in not having to worry about being Lord Merciful in this instance. I kill him, and then don his superhero costume - an irony for which I'm sure Frank Miller would congratulate me before resuming drawing Batman having sex with Osama bin Laden's ribcage.
That business finished, I continue in a southerly direction. No more bumbling around: I'm aiming straight for the Washington Monument. The heart of Fallout 3's DC is an unforgiving conglomeration of super-mutant armies, feral ghoul-infested subways and sewers, and, of course, the technology-worshipping, heavily-armoured members of the Brotherhood of Steel. I'm not going to say I'm excited about doing this - for one, I'm only level nine, and will probably be dissolved before I get my first glimpse of molested American iconography. (Seriously, why do you happy little puritans love doing that to your tourist spots? It's not like the English ever came up with a song about London Bridge falling doh.) I do have one radioactive ace up my sleeve, though - somewhere in the west of the Capital Wasteland, I stumbled upon a miniature powerhouse called the Alien Blaster. I've never tried it before on an enemy - it uses a unique, irreplaceable form of ammunition, and only carries 120 rounds - but from what I've heard, it's a useful tool, in a kill-enemies-in-a-single-shot kind of way. So beware, George Washington and associates, for I am packing heat.
There is another reason I'm not big on Downtown, though: in my opinion, it's one of the worst-designed sectors in the game. After hours of being able to wander around the post-nuclear openworld with impunity, you're suddenly forced into navigating Bethesda's first stab at a corridor shooter since Terminator: SkyNET, just to reach quest-relevant NPCs. Who thought was a good idea? Infinity Ward, probably, but it's not like anyone plays their games anymore!
I'm going to bear the subways, ghouls, and Mirelurks (horrible), though, because I think this journey needs a suitably explosive conclusion. Essentially, I want to kill Three-Dog and all his Brotherhood of Steel protectors. If you want to know what an Appalachian chestnut-picker in the twenties thought black people were like, Three-Dog is a rough approximation. The Wasteland's only living DJ, Three-Dog is the voice of all the civilised, peace-loving denizens I've exterminated; unfortunately, he communicates his message of love and brotherhood in a series of wisecracks and dog-howls. Actually, sorry, that's just the hormones talking. Three-Dog isn't entirely despicable. In fact, at times, it's almost comforting to hear him jive-talking while you're held up in some Super Mutant-plagued office complex. You feel like you're not alone, and that, I think, was roughly the idea of his inclusion.
Still, who better to knock off than the Wasteland's beacon of hope? And which more appropriate faction to decimate than the one that's most likely on the side of righteousness - and worryingly puissant, to boot? It's right up my alley. So on I trot. The city yawns before me, and I can hear the sound of some raiders skirmishing with a few Super-Mutants. Several raiders catch sight of me, and start shouting out things like "Ooh, fresh meat!" and "I'm going to make this hurt!" - outbursts that sound somewhat overdone in context, but hilarious if you close your eyes and pretend you're at a Skin Two Rubber Ball.
After finishing them off with Ol' Painless - I'm not wasting any Alien Blaster ammo until I find something that can actually hurt me - I head down, into the increasingly irritating Washingtonian subterrane. There, I'm confronted by more raiders, then ghouls, then mole-rats, then ghouls again - they're all pretty interchangeable, though, because I can't actually see them in the mood lighting. Entrails fly, I'm a little redder than when I started: you know the drill. After a while, I finally poke my head out of the DC subway network and meet my first Brotherhood of Steel unit. They're taking aim at a Super Mutant squadron, and, unsurprisingly, wiping the floor with them. Relaxing again, they offer me a friendly greeting.
This is beyond thrilling. I put Ol' Painless away - your time has passed, mein leibling, but you served me well - and whip out the Alien Blaster. I'm concerned: will this live up to my expectations? Resolutely, I take aim; the Brotherhood goons don't look particularly concerned. And then, I shoot - one, two, three, four, each in the helmet. One by one, they erupt into balls of blue flame, and then disintegrate into an oddly delicious-looking white powder. Just like that. No weapons being withdrawn, no, "Hey, buddy, that was my best periwig," just death. Pale, pulverulent death. This gun is breathtaking.
The Blaster is similarly effective on the hordes of mutants and Brotherhood soldiers that follow, and everything goes swimmingly until I run into Sarah Lyons. Lyons is the surprisingly youthful and hot-bottomed daughter of the scraggly old Elder Lyons, boss of the Brotherhood's East Coast wing. She's the most attractive character in Fallout 3, too - not that that's saying very much - so it pains me to have to kill her. I do it anyway, of course. Except, unfortunately, she gets right back up and continues ordering her squad around. I've been warned about quest-flagged invulnerable NPCs in Fallout 3, but this one really catches me off-guard. I decide I'll just deal with it, because I know what's coming: a heavily-scripted scene where a Super Mutant Goliath - a giant-sized, nuclear warhead-wielding version of the common-or-garden Super Mutant - crashes the Brotherhood's party, and not-so-very-subtly invites me to be the big, day-saving übermensch.
I'm kind of resentful that I'm being shunted into a set-piece, but I plough through it, and take a moment to study the dismembered beast on the ground before me. We're not all that different, are we, comrade? I stare into the abyss of its now-severed torso, and am reminded of Neitzsche's famous proverb. Then I turn around and head straight into the Galaxy News Radio building, where Three-Dog lies in wait. I bypass the Brotherhood guards at the front - patience, my pretties - and make a beeline for Three-Dog's studio. And sure enough, there he is, and despite the fact that I've significantly depleted his show's listener-base over the past few days, he seems happy to make my acquaintance.
In main-quest terms, I'm supposed to be here to ask him about the whereabouts of my father. The dialogue options present themselves thus, and I am suddenly overcome by cynicism. Does it really matter if I ask him nicely or rudely? That I threaten him with violence? Would it even make a difference if Three-Dog were actually a five-year-old girl in pyjamas, holding a one-eyed teddy? At the end of the day, whether the conversation becomes heated or not, I'm still going to get the same quest to fix the same bloody satellite dish, and I'm still going to get the same information I need to find where my father is hiding.
Everything else is window-dressing on an otherwise linear quest-line - all roads lead to the Ultimate Sacrifice, it seems - and so when I do finish my compulsory conversation with Three-Dog and rend him to ashes with the Alien Blaster, I feel somewhat disempowered. I can now skip the satellite quest and go off and find Dad on my own, sure, but the second I do, I'll just become part of the system again. Ordinarily, I wouldn't mind, but ever since I've been gleefully carving up the Wasteland, I couldn't imagine anything more dispiriting. So I decide I won't. This is it. I'm making a stand.
I exit Three-Dog's compound and void the rest of the Building of Brotherhood scum. Then I stop. Walking outside, I summon up the fast-travel interface and visit a few of the places I metaphorically, if not literally, wiped off the map. There are still several isolated areas to be extinguished - not the least of which being Rivet City, the smaller-than-it-sounds town inside an ocean liner - but it doesn't matter anymore. For as far as the eye can see, I am king. Drink to me.