… On the Wasteland. It hasn’t been ironically named. Picture the foulest shit-heap of a world imaginable, multiply by about twelve, and you’re still not close. Monstrous, flesh eating creatures and gangs of vicious scavengers battle it out over the ephemera of a long dead civilisation, fighting and dying for junk metal and dilapidated weapons and lumps of rotting, irradiated food.
In the town of Megaton, life oozes along. Its inhabitants are a broken and weary bunch, eking out an existence, of sorts, amongst the filth and decay. Those with money to spare will likely be found in Moriarty’s Saloon, where they can get hard booze, a room to hole up for the night and a few hours in the company of Nova.
Yes, Nova — daughter of the Wasteland, resident whore; the one port in an endless storm. She’ll do anything to help you forget the horrors outside of Megaton’s walls, providing you have the caps to pay for it.
Unless, that is, you’re Gob. Poor, pitiful Gob, hit with such a king-hell dose of radiation poisoning his hair has fallen out and his skin is gooping and sliding off his bones. Gob would love a night with Nova, but she refuses because she “won’t work with Johns squishier than she is.”
… And this is where Fallout 3 loses me. Up until now I’ve accepted the jilted dialogue, the glitchy scripting and the barrage of confusing stat choices. I’ve watched dead bodies jerk across and even through the floor, listened to appalling voice acting, hacked a computer terminal while the owner sat at it … but this business with Nova and Gob is a step too far.
The coyness, first of all, is insulting. Nova is a prostitute who can never be referred to as such, a scantily clad woman who “works” with “Johns”. The game allows you to hire her services for the night, yet all that happens is she follows you up to your room and lies down fully clothed on the bed. Interacting with her causes her to sit up and repeat the same dialogue options she spouts at any other time.
Why are Bethesda so embarrassed by sex? There is something nasty and cynical about an 18 rated product that can revel in decapitation and bloodshed, yet will only allude to sexual intercourse with blushing nudges and winks. Which is the more repugnant: eviscerating a woman with a high powered shotgun, or having sex with her [and for the love of God, “eviscerating a woman with a high powered shotgun” is NOT a euphemism. We have our serious faces on today, people]? The answer that Fallout 3’s writers provide says much of the skewed morality evident in many mainstream video games.
Language wise, we find the same template. Fuck, in the context of “fuck off,” or “fucking die you shit eating fucker,” is perfectly acceptable game dialogue, yet not once will you find the word used in terms of “do you want to fuck me?”
This is a cop out. Art should be about exploring limits. Like Bill Hicks, I want my artists to bleed for me. I want pain and beauty and despair and, above all, truth. My writers have to mean it, man.
But Bethesda don’t mean it. The caricature that is Nova says nothing of truth. She isn’t a questioning of stereotypes, only a reinforcement of them. With her curvaceous body and leather outfit and upbeat, sassy attitude, she is a teenage boy’s fantasy of a hooker. She flirts with and arouses the player, and the tacit assumption behind it all is that she actually quite enjoys being fucked for money.
And this, essentially, is the crux of the matter. Nova won’t let Gob fuck her because she has standards. You, the player, are a buff, muscled hero, and she’ll take you wherever you want to go, big boy. But Gob is a walking freakshow and Nova is repulsed by him.
Well here’s the thing. Prostitutes are very seldom picky. They don’t have the luxury.
Picture yourself as a teenage girl in the Wasteland, living on the edge of destruction. Ugliness and suffering and death around every corner. The only way you can survive is to agree to let half crazed men with the stench of whisky on their breath ejaculate inside you. You’re paid for the ordeal, but not well. A few coins thrown your way, almost as an afterthought. If you’d refused they’d probably have done it anyway, for free. Might as well make what you can. Every now and again some drunk or badly wired guy will get violent with you, though it’s the same either way. You’re distanced from your body by this point, it is a bag of flesh and blood and doesn’t belong to you. It gets ripped open then it heals. Perhaps it doesn’t. You carry on for a few years — just carry on, continue, run out the same patterns — not feeling anything on the surface, so institutionalised to the pain it becomes synonymous with “life”. Eventually the toll is taken on your body. You lose what looks you might have had, your sexual organs begin to wear out. You exist only to satisfy a need, and you cannot do that anymore. Maybe the saloon owner, if he has any traces of empathy in his black heart, keeps you around to wash stained clothes and mop blood and jism off the bedroom floors. Otherwise you’re probably thrown out the back door, finally broken and utterly defeated, left to rot in the mud and the shit and the rain. So it goes.
Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you develop a strange sense of attachment to your owner, like Swearengen’s whores in Deadwood. Perhaps you wind out your days with the wry, blasé humour of Martha in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. There are many stories floating in the ether, many lives waiting to be written. But what links the good ones is their ability to pierce beneath the surface, to reveal to us the burning diamond at our cores, the diamond of existence that we all share.
The writing in Fallout 3 floats on the surface. It could be that Bethesda were afraid of what lies beneath. It could be they were just lazy, or rushed, or their best work was cut for some reason or another. Whatever the case, their world is not lit with a burning diamond. Nova would fuck Gob. It’d all be the same to her. And if not, I want some reason that I can believe in, some reason that lights within me the flame of recognition, of shared consciousness.
Bethesda do not give me this. I cannot believe in Nova as a character, and so — despite everything the game does well — I cannot believe in Fallout 3 either.
Fallout 3, developed by Bethesda Game Studios, is a first-person role-playing game set in a post-apocalpytic dystopian etc etc etc. It has a third person mode but don’t bother with that.