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.