It’s not that the game is difficult or perplexing, especially for a grizzled Wastelander like myself—I cut my teeth on Fallout’s spiritual progenitor, Wasteland, on my trusty Commodore 128. (Never could save that darn dog in the well, but I did clear out Base Cochise.) And the game runs quite well on my Mac Pro booted into XP, so it’s not any technical issue that has hindered my progress.
No, I haven’t gotten very far at all because I keep starting over. And I doubt that I’m the only one afflicted by this malady of free-form gaming: Perfect Start Syndrome.
(Only the most minor of Fallout 3 spoilers follow.)
To be sure, I haven’t replayed the opening Vault sequences over and over. There’s a certain linearity to that section that channels the player, and as with Oblivion before it, Fallout 3 helpfully offers players the chance to reconfigure just about every stat and detail before heading off into the Capital Wasteland. But I’ve started over from the exit to Vault 101 more times than I care to recall.
Fallout 3 has been characterized as a sandbox RPG—a free-form, do-what-you-want game with few restrictions on player actions or direction. Want to abandon the main “find Dad” questline and run around helping strange ghouls find breakfast cereal? No problem. Want to pick up every tin can in Springvale Elementary School? Sure thing.
But, as they say, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Where, indeed, do you go next? For gamers afflicted with Perfect Start Syndrome, there’s a moment of paralysis upon leaving the Vault.
The quest directions say to head to Megaton, but there’s the ruined town of Springvale right in front of you on the way to Megaton. Surely, as an inquisitive youth tasting the sun for the first time and mesmerized by the sight of an Enclave Eyebot piping out patriotic tunes, you’ll want to explore a bit. And then here’s a raider-infested structure. Well, they shot first, so of course you should return the favor and clear them out.
Next thing you know, a day has passed in game. Would your character, who ostensibly is chasing after his or her missing father and who just left a Vault where Bad Things Happened, waste time picking through a linen closet? So you re-start the game.
This time, you’re determined to go to Megaton right away. But then you get there and get the sheriff killed or accidentally steal an Iguana-on-a-Stick that leads the whole town to start shooting and you load an earlier save. Traditional gamer reflex. But now you know what will happen. Your experience is no longer authentic, no longer a lived narrative, which is why you re-started in the first place. So you re-start again . . .
And this time, you figure that the whole notion of a “quest” is silly, that the Pip-Boy’s directions are an artifact that get in the way of your experience of the lovingly crafted and coherent world before you. There are secrets around every rock and in every charred building ruin waiting to be found. So you go back to the raider base, because that’s where your eye carries you. And the raiders drop a relatively rare piece of loot. Well, heck, if you hadn’t restarted, you wouldn’t have it, and it sort of feels like cheating, truth be told. So you re-start again . . .
Still insistent on a strategy of organic wandering through the wastes, you get acceptable loot from the raiders and finally make your way to Megaton, but then you note that you didn’t think out your skill selection very well and that Perk that looked awesome is really kind of useless. This is a long game, too. Better to re-do only a bit of it rather than be burdened with poor choices. So you re-start again . . .
And on the cycle goes, until finally, you get your perfect start (or close enough), that balance of good and bad outcomes, of authentic experience tempered with an understanding of how the game’s mechanics will play out. Eventually you get too far into the game to re-start, or you get sick of going through the same locations, perfection be damned, and you start to really play, accepting your choices, re-loading only when really needed, making your way through the Capital Wasteland, a survivor of Perfect Start Syndrome. Surviving the Super Mutants is, alas, a different story . . .