Fallout 3: A structural analysis of participation

In order to effectively analyze the immersion aspects of a video game, I felt it was important to consider which of the games I had ever played that truly ‘sucked me in’ the most. It didn’t take me long to narrow it down to the Bethesda games I played and more precisely Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Both games caused me to genuinely reconsider what I was doing in my life. These two Fallout games combined, kept me playing for up to 300 hours.
…and counting.


Using Murray’s 5 aspects of immersion, I will inspect in what ways the digital reality of Fallout 3 can be experienced and how exceedingly intense player involvement is achieved.
Fallout 3 is an action role-playing open world video game (available on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3), which takes place during the year 2277, 200 years after the ‘Great War’ of 2077, which forced many of Earth’s inhabitants to live in underground vaults due to the nuclear devastation above. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic Washington DC, and the deserted land surrounding it, known as the “Capital Wasteland”. The game has two main story-lines in it, and many varying side quests.

The start of the game consists of your father James (voiced by Liam Neeson) helping to ease the trauma of the game’s opening in which the player character is awoken bleary eyed and bloodstained having just been born and having killed the player’s mother in the process. The player is at this point expected to come up with a name, gender, race and future appearance, which is a lot to ask from a traumatized new born baby, but suitably immerses the player from the start.

The character creation sets the scene by having you play through various key points in your despondent childhood in a small underground densely populated vault. This is fairly effective at drawing the player in and when the player’s father James mysteriously disappears one day, the (now) grown up young adult player is forced to escape the vault too and journey into the Capital Wasteland to track him down. Along the way the player is assisted and hindered by the various human survivors (most of whom have their own stories and personalities) in the wasteland, as well as battle different enemies that come in all shapes and sizes (from mutated animals to ghouls and scavenging thieves). The gameplay, through its skill, attribute and perks system, gives the player great freedom with regards to how they interact with the virtual world provided.

The immersive visit that Murray talks about is present from the start to finish, but experiences an interesting mutation as the storyline is moved forward from the vault to the outside world. Once in the wasteland there is a vast terrain to explore, where every location must be travelled to on foot before a fast-travel option becomes available to avoid repetitive hikes across the same scenery. The Non Player Characters (NPCs) are numerous and many have interesting and revealing information that can help the player character in their various quests. Additionally, supplies and useful items are randomly scattered around the virtual game world that further enhance the engagement in this visit. Imagination and active participation are also required while playing in order to effectively complete the challenges presented by the game. Imaginative immersion is triggered from the start as the player’s childhood is spent in an underground vault, with the perpetually mentioned looming mystery of what lies above, which is able to trigger a second visit later in the game. This suggests that even when the player is relatively passive (in or outside of the vault), the world and characters around it are still “dramatically present”, Murray illustrates this is one of the easiest ways to attain immersion (Murray, 108).
Creation of belief is another important tool for immersion according to Murray, he indicates that the fact that the player actually wants to experience immersion helps them to reliably “focus attention on the enveloping world” and the mind is used to reinforce the immersion rather than question the rather obvious false reality being displayed on a screen (Murray, 110). Mäyrä further mentions that the act of surrendering yourself to the multisensory stimuli on the screen, combined with this imaginative immersion and the challenges faced, allows players to be immersed even more (Mäyrä, 108). Essentially the mind knows what is going on but wants to be ‘sucked’ into the new reality. This is strongly tied to the aspects of role and arousal and the concept of the ‘magic circle’ since any significant breach of these respective concepts disrupts the creation of belief and the mind’s willingness to stay immersed and ignore the flaws of the virtual reality. In Fallout 3, learning about humanized emotional NPCs by talking to them through dialogue options and the ability to heavily influence these conversations with different speech levels and perks, adds to the belief that the player’s interactions matter. Additionally an in-game economy system as well as decisions regarding right and wrong, in a (admittedly relatively shallow) morality system, further aid to the creation of belief and immersion, since nothing in life is free and people like to contemplate right and wrong.

Murray’s immersion aspect of the mask is also highly applicable to Fallout 3. As mentioned before, the very first thing the player character must do is choose a gender, name, race and future appearance. The face customization allows the player enough freedom to design a face that they like, and though it seems difficult (at least for me) in this game to design a face resembling anyone remotely healthy, Murray indicates that this does not necessarily matter: “they can still provide alternate identities that can be energetically employed” (Murray, 113). This player character can then act however the player wants it to within the scope and limitations of the game. The player can choose dialogue options they would never say in real life, steal things they would never steal in real life and hurt people when they normally don’t hurt people in real life. The mask allows them to be immersed and explore various fantasies and act differently to witness what an alternate life in a different reality might be like.

The aspect of roles is also important as the narrative of the game places the player character within a certain social role which becomes apparent through the dialogue encountered. The fact that different dialogues can be chosen and that some NPCs adjust their behavior to the player character if he acts in a certain way (good or bad) keeps the roles consistent and reinforces immersion and the magic circle. The excellent writing of the story itself and the human quality of the NPCs keeps the roles in place throughout the game. Considering there is one main goal (to find and help your father) the player can act with relative moral ambiguity and still stay in touch with their core motive. Murray calls roles a “theatrical illusion” (Murray, 116).

Finally, Murray mentions arousal as an aspect of immersion that should serve to deepen the trance the players find themselves in, rather than get them exceedingly aroused in one way or another (Murray, 119). Too much arousal would break the magic circle and by extension the immersion. For Fallout 3 that really depends on the person. There are certainly scary parts of the game that could freak players out. There are also vivid cinematic moments of heads flying from bodies in a haze of blood. Combat and skill requirements also increase in difficulty as the game goes on, so should the difficulty outmatch the player’s abilities this could spark strong spurts of arousal that could negatively impact the gaming experience and the immersion felt. Bugs and glitches can also inspire a lot of arousal. Especially if the game freezes and you need to restart the console from your previous save point which was 3 hours ago, your immersion may experience a hairline fracture.
Works cited
Mäyrä, F. (2008) An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. London: SAGE Publications, 2008. Print.
Murray, J.H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: Free Press, pp. 107-153.