As you get older, the idea of being scared – truly scared – by a piece of entertainment is one of those nostalgic recollections you mentally file alongside catching fireflies, playground adventures, and the way you blushed after your first kiss. Being scared by a movie, TV show, game, or book is a symptom of innocence. You might watch a horror film or read a scary novel and flinch when a cat jumps in from off-frame or feel a momentary sense of dread when the heroine opens that door you begged her not to open, but most people will never again experience that feeling of all-encompassing dread after they’ve witnessed their first truly terrifying piece of horror entertainment.
There is one exception to that tragic consequence of emotional evolution. It’s possible to feel that old sense of pure horror from a piece of entertainment if said entertainment is able to convince you that it will not scare you. If it is able to invite you into its world and then pull the rug out from under you by slowly revealing itself as a harbinger of terror, then you just might find yourself being scared once again.
Fallout 3 is one of gaming’s greatest examples of such surprising horror. Nobody goes into this RPG classic from Bethesda expecting a world of sunshine and roses. Any game that bills itself as a post-apocalyptic journey through a nuclear wasteland is letting you know that you’re going to experience all manner of unpleasantness as you progress.
What’s more is that Fallout 3 is the third main Fallout title. Anyone who happens to be familiar with the series knows that the franchise has always utilized elements of horror. The very first Fallout game even ended with a showdown against a grotesque mutant/machine hybrid that made a convincing argument for his existence over yours. Between things like that and the wandering army of super mutants that occupy nearly every corner of the wasteland, you start to understand that the Fallout series is built on elements of horror.
The point is that nobody familiar with Fallout in even a basic way could possibly go into the game without expecting some traditional horror. However, that’s not exactly how Fallout 3 managed to exploit the expectations of even it’s most experienced players.
Fallout 3 was released at the height of what you might call the cinematic corridor era of game design. As developers explored the capabilities of advanced consoles, they began releasing more contained experiences like BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Heavenly Sword that exemplified more cinematic design. In other words, developers designed games to take you on a ride.
It was an exciting time for those who dreamed of games one day playing and looking as good as they did in those old PlayStation One cutscenes, but it came at a cost. What games gained in presentation, they lost in their willingness to let the player do wrong. Because more and more games aimed to offer a specific experience, developers became less willing to allow players to step off the beaten path and do things that might interrupt the intended pace or structure of a title. There was little to fear from a game in terms of it presenting you with something you weren’t prepared for.
Many Fallout fans thought Fallout 3 was going to be just like one of those titles. After years of waiting for a new Fallout game, some fans were dismayed to learn that Bethesda Game Studios (as opposed to Interplay) was handling the development of the long-awaited sequel. They worried that Bethesda would develop a kinder, gentler Fallout designed to please those who weren’t thrilled by the prospect of being intimidated.
In its opening moments, Fallout 3 looks like it might be that kind of game. You wake up in a vault, go through the character creator, and engage in a series of mini-missions that feel surprisingly contained. It’s a purely cinematic opening that seemed to set a tone for what was to come. However, it’s not long before you leave the game’s opening vault area and step into the wasteland. While you are given a general direction to head in – a shanty town called Megaton – you also have the option to wander in whatever direction pleases you.
Those that chose to do so likely had the great misfortune of discovering just what kind of game Fallout 3 really is. As it turns out, Fallout 3 is more than willing to let you get into trouble. The entire wasteland is open to you the moment that you step into it, which is nice, but it also means that the game’s greatest horrors can be encountered before you are even close to being ready for them. If you’re very lucky, that horror that alerts you to the dangers of this world will be a Radscorpion, a band of well-equipped raiders, or perhaps even a ghoul. If you’re not-so-lucky (as in my case), then you’ll encounter a Deathclaw.
There is no purer declaration of Fallout 3’s desire to make you shit your pants than the Deathclaw. Shell-shocked Fallout 3 fans will gladly tell you of the time they wandered off the beaten path too early and encountered their first Deathclaw. If they managed to enable the game’s V.A.T.S. mode, then they were able to slow down time just long enough to see that a Deathclaw is a nine-foot-tall hunchbacked humanoid reptile with body-length arms topped off with bloody claws.
Even if these unfortunate players managed to squeeze a shot off, they would have been left with nothing more than the chance to see a Deathclaw’s smile. Not only are Deathclaws significantly stronger than you, but they are so fast that some players swear they are able to chase you down long after you’ve exited the game. What’s worse is that it’s going to take quite a while before you’re well-equipped enough to take down a Deathclaw. Their mere presence makes you truly terrified of heading into the unknown.
While the Deathclaws are perhaps Fallout 3’s most effective and famous use of horror in an open-world title, they’re far from the only thing you have to fear in the wasteland. In fact, some of Fallout 3’s best uses of horror are the ones that — much like the Deathclaw — don’t strictly have to be encountered in order to beat the game. For instance, some players may run across a teddy bear locked in a cage. Decide to pick it up and you will soon witness a Super Mutant Behemoth (a 20-foot-tall instrument of destruction) sprinting towards you from just beyond a nearby hill. That incident alone will make you hesitant to pick up any item in the game again.
That’s part of the brilliance of Fallout 3’s take on open-world horror. It’s a lot like the scene in Mulholland Drive when Dan tells Herb about the nightmare he is having and how he is convinced that the monster in his dream is waiting to jump at him from around the corner. There’s a monster around many of the corners in Fallout 3 and you’re never quite sure whether you’re just being paranoid about its presence or whether that decision to turn the corner is the last you’ll ever make.
That fear is only enhanced by the rare occasions when Fallout dives deep into the world of traditional horror. Enter the now-infamous Dunwich Building and you’ll find an oddly ancient structure populated by Feral Ghouls who seem to be worshiping a Lovecraftian entity whose presence becomes strangely more tangible as you descend further into the Dunwich’s dangerous depths. It’s a voyage into the heart of terror that is as overwhelming as it is unprecedented. There’s nothing in the game that suggests you’re about to enter the mouth of madness when you enter the Dunwich Building. (Well, perhaps only the name, which is almost certainly a reference to the H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Dunwich Horror.”)
In fact, Fallout 3 uses traditional moments of pure horror so rarely and so cleverly that you’re never truly prepared for them. For instance, there’s the McClellan Family Townhome, an unmarked location that houses the remains of a mysteriously dead family and the robot servant that still tends to them by reading poems to the skeleton of a child and trying to walk a dead dog. Maybe instead you’ll find the town of Andale where two families are able to maintain their ‘50s lifestyle by killing and eating those who come near them. Of course, there’s always Vault 108, a vault filled with murderous clones who are only capable of saying “hahaha…Gary” as they pursue you.
So why is it that Fallout 3 is so rarely referred to as a horror game? Well…because it isn’t. At least it isn’t a horror game in the way we typically classify such horror games. You go into horror games — or any piece of horror entertainment — expecting to be scared. They are designed for that purpose and you welcome their efforts. Of course, the older you get, the less you walk away from that experience feeling as if you’ve just witnessed something that will scar you forever and more like you got exactly what you expected.
Ironically, it is the fact that Fallout 3 is so rarely classified as a traditional horror experience that makes it an incredible horror experience. It’s not that the game is significantly scarier than every other work of horror out there, but rather that it uses horror in such a way that makes it easy to fall back into an age of innocence when you were never certain whether the shapes you saw in the shadows were simply the by-product of an overactive imagination or something more.