Archive for September, 2010

The Spatial Rhetoric Of Oasis

Hidden away in the far north of Fallout 3’s game-world, the area called Oasis is quite a contrast to the rest of the dry Capital Wasteland with its scraggly trees. Here, the mutant tree-hybrid Harold has extended his roots into the ground, and spread his life-giving spores. The trees in and around Oasis are green, healthy and abundant. Oasis is a distinctly different space than the rest of the dessicated landscape

Oasis is also the focus of a moral choice the player must make. Harold wants to end his wretched state and die. His worshippers, the Treeminders, are split: one faction wants to extend Harold’s influence beyond the shelter of Oasis, the other wants to keep Harold alive but limit his growth. The player is given the opportunity to help one of these parties, but also has the option to attack and burn Harold if they’re feeling particularly malevolent. If the player does choose to aid one of the parties involved, the consequences are clear. If Harold’s influence is extended, the green trees of Oasis will likely spread across the Wasteland, bringing it back to life, but this will reveal the existence of Oasis, and expose it to the predations of the Wasteland’s inhabitants. If Harold’s influence restricted, Oasis will remain hidden and safe. But if either of these options is chosen, Harold will remain alive, and endure further pain. If Harold is killed, Oasis’ greenery will end, but so will his suffering.

There is no option which will satisfy all parties. Each option is presented in such a way as to emphasise who will benefit and who will suffer as a consequence of each option. So the player must make the choice based on their own inclinations. The choice comes down to the player’s own judgement of whose need is greater, who deserves most to benefit.

This imbues the player’s experience of Oasis as a space with associations of philosophical and moral choice. This atmosphere is heightened by the religious behaviour of the Treeminders, but also by the green surroundings that convey a sense of being apart from the wider world. Because the player enters Oasis as a functionally separate game-world zone once they pass through the door at its entrance, the underlying mechanics of the game reinforce this separation. That the world outside Oasis lacks greenery and is dry and dead means this separation links morality and growth, as represented by the plants found only there.

What this means is that the ‘spatial rhetoric’ of Oasis presents an argument that the option to stimulate Harold’s growth and expand this area into the wider world is the most moral choice. This is despite the lack of impact on the player’s karma points for any option other than burning Harold. In addition, linking morality and growth, by extension, links morality to pure water, a connection which is reinforced elsewhere in the game world, and has ramifications for the player’s choices as part of the game’s main quest. In a sense, Oasis serves as an argument by analogy for how the player should make the larger choices Fallout 3 presents.

But Not A Drop To Drink

Lately I’ve been musing about water in Fallout 3, particularly the significance of contaminated water. Sure, water’s a crucial element of the main questline, but I’m more interested in the part that the contaminated water you find in the game-world plays in shaping the game’s spaces.

While pure water’s scarce in the game world of Fallout 3, contaminated water is a hazard the player-character will encounter frequently . Even setting foot in contaminated water for a moment causes you to accumulate radiation points. Not enough to be immediately deadly, but enough to communicate that water = bad. From the small pool of water around the bomb in Megaton to the contaminated Potomac River that separates the western Capital Wasteland from downtown D.C., this contaminated water is encountered often enough that you learn to avoid it where possible. This leads to a heightened awareness of the landscape as youwatch out for water where it might collect in dry riverbeds, or in semi-flooded caves and Metro tunnels, and also motivates wider exploration as you search for ways to avoid these hazards.

Contaminated water also forms part of the natural border of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland. On the southern edge of the Wasteland, this contaminated water acts as a justification for the game-world’s borders consistent with the fiction, much as the cliffs on the western border do. Because it’s consistent with the game-world’s fiction, using the contaminated water as part of the boundary makes it seem more like a barrier that could, in theory, be crossed, but which you’re simply incapable of crossing. The game does in fact provide you with enough protection against radiation from stuff like radiation suits and radiation meds that this barrier can actually be crossed, and if you do cross it, you’ll just find the same invisible wall, with its message to turn back, that you find elsewhere on the borders of the game-world. However, the hazard presented by the contaminated water will prevent most players from even attempting to cross it. The association of contaminated water with danger convinces the player that the barrier is impassable without disrupting the fiction of the game world, even though it’s functionally passable within the mechanics of the game.

When you get to the area added by the Point Lookout expansion, things get even more interesting. The landscape of Point Lookout diverges significantly from the dry, desolate landscape of the Capital Wasteland. Though the water is no less contaminated, it’s everywhere in the swamps of Point Lookout, rather than found only occasionally as it is in the main game-world. Point Lookout is full of trees that look – if not healthy – living and growing. It’s full of long grasses with at least the suggestion of greenness. The overall impression is of stark contrast to the Capital Wasteland, which helps to convey a different sense of place. Water is still a danger here, and it defines the landscape to a much greater extent, by limiting the player’s movement to islands of higher ground. This breaks up the space of Point Lookout’s swamps into discrete areas that often contain some noteworthy feature such as a shack or an abandoned car, or a bubbling pool of mud.

The separation of these islands by water means that crossing the water becomes a necessity for traversing and exploring the landscape of Point Lookout. Because the area is populated by tough, dangerous enemies, the player is unlikely to attempt significant exploration of the area until their character is well-equipped and at a high enough level to survive such encounters. This should also reduce the threat posed by the radiation in the water. The prevalence of water in the area and the necessity of crossing it to explore serves to reduce the player’s aversion to water, to retrain them and accustom them to their new capabilities. Having to cross the water teaches you that, as a high-level character, water is less dangerous to you. Consequently, when the player encounters quests such as ‘The Velvet Curtain’ which requires them to swim out from the shore to a sunken submarine, spending so much time in the water will seem less dangerous. Without this retraining of the player, such a task might seem impossible, or not worth the effort. So, the prevalence of water in Point Lookout actually serves to change the player’s expectations and experience of water within the game.

This is a great example of how the game’s spaces serve what might be called behavioural functions. I’m not sure the landscape of Point Lookout was designed for this purpose, and it seems unlikely that the whole swamp was put there simply to retrain the player. But it wouldn’t surprise me if these behavioural functions played at least some part in the design of the game’s spaces.