Whatever your opinion of Bethesda's hit fantasy role-playing game Oblvion (and it is an immensely divisive title), there is a moment in the game that is indelibly etched in the memory of everyone who has played it. After being confined to a narrow, and rat-strewn prison in the game's first hour (fulfilling the industry-mandated quota on first-hour rat-slaying in RPGs), you step out of the dungeon and into the the most impressive vista created in a video game. A glimmering expanse of grassland and forest stretched in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Even though the game would never live up to the immense feeling of promise that greeted your first steps out of the prison, to this day I have an unshakable conviction that Oblivion had achieved a wholly new experience of space in a video game, one that justified the technical leaps necessary to its achievement.
As much as I enjoyed the mind-boggling expansiveness of Oblivion, my enthusiasm for exploring its world eventually foundered on the game's patent schematism. Oblivion had an respectable variety of locales-- cities, caves, ruins, forts, castles and the like-- but once you had spent a good amount of time in the world you came to recognize that the world had been created by continually recycling a set palette; once you had seen one goblin-infested fortification you had seen them all. Even though you could walk for forty-five minutes in any direction, you eventually ran out of novel scenery. The designers' decision to scale the enemies to the player's level was a necessary hedge against the player's eventual exhaustion of the game's assets.
For me, Fallout 3 finally fulfills the promise of those first steps out of Oblivion's prison. Even though Fallout makes the same liberal (re)use of generic items (it's impossible to shake the feeling of deja vu when you unearth abraxo-cleaner-and-wonderglue-strewn room # 438), I have been continually impressed by how the game nurtures a sense of boundless possibility, a feeling that belies the palpable limits of the game's suite of in-game objects. For every cookie-cutter factory or sewer (and there are more than a few), there is something genuinely new and interesting-- a mercenary camp, an abandoned school, a decrepit power station, a high-rise full of prostitutes. Even the generic Metro stations (whose uniformity is excused by the fact that they are well-wrought simulacra of the actual D.C. Subway system) are strewn with small of unique content-- faux vampires, deranged clowns, and inexplicably well-defended wall safes full of scanty nightwear.
And due to my aversion to the main quest, I haven't even run across the truly ubiquitous features of Fallout 3's postapocalyptic D.C., like the crumbling, debris-strewn National Mall. For all its expansiveness and sheer density (I'm still impressed by the fact that you could read every book), the world of Oblivion was fundamentally uninteresting to me on its own terms: the races, creatures, and environments were such regulation Tolkienesque-fantasy fare. The wedding of the Fallout series' distinctive design aesthetic to the open-world design ethos of Bethesda is a happy one-- the signs, the style of the ruined automobiles, the radio stations, the whole faux-retro cultural imprint taken as a whole is just more compelling to me, and the sense of place is reinforced by innumerable apt details. Unlike a goblin fortress, it offers me something I haven't seen before.
The designers, seemingly inspired by Bioshock, have done a good job of telling a story through the player's mere experience of space. I went down into a shelter in the downtown area yesterday, and though it was barren of life, the disposition of the objects in the bunker spoke volumes: the head of a statue, a garishly illuminated flag, a set of female mannequins covered with plungers, a dessicated corpse on an operating table.
It's true that the character animations and voice acting are not the game's strong suit, but harping on this point too much obscures the fundamental fact that the game's most memorable character is the world itself. If the interactions with other people fall flat at times, my desire to interact with the irradiated landscape has yet to run dry; indeed, I'm beginning to wonder if there is any real upper limit to my desire to aimlessly wander the wastelands with my trusty pup Dogmeat, aiding the weak, scavenging ammunition, and gorily shattering the crania of the odd raider. For now, there's no end in sight.