I was surprised and impressed by how well the game supported this kind of play. The enemy patrol routes were well designed to leave no key passage unwatched for too long -but just long enough for someone to slip by. The broken walls of the hotel meant that I couldn't rely on the sight-lines of the next room matching the previous one, keeping things tense. Fallout 3 doesn't contain many of the trappings of a stealth game; there is no alarm system to call in more foes when you're spotted, no overhead map overlay to keep track of enemy positions, and you can't hide inside or under things. Yet any of these elements would have made the experience worse. All it needed to create tension was an appropriate layout and an enemy force that was (with this play style) extremely dangerous in open combat, but slow, lumbering, and easily fooled.
Part of the fun was in the willful subversion of the game's focus, akin to the thrill of disobedience.
Some areas were not as supportive of the never-knew-I-was-here approach. In an underground vault, with straight corridors containing locked cells and overrun by brutes armed with all sorts of death, it was obvious that my play style was a subversion of the developers' goals. With no place to hide, I was supposed to fight my way through. Instead I relied on the stockpile of stimpaks I had amassed, binding it to a quick-select slot and button-mashing myself full of painkillers as I dashed through a hail of bullets. Occasionally all enemies needed to be dead before the game would move on, but I had no qualms about hiring a support character to act as exterminator so long as I could keep my own kill counts at zero and one.
When each expansion DLC was released, I played through with another character first to scope it out. I had to pass on The Pitt, for example, because I would have found myself thrust into a cage match with no help available, needing to climb over a few fresh corpses to earn my freedom. (It didn't occur to me at the time, but perhaps with enough patience the mild radiation would eventually claim the lives of my opponents. This warrants investigation.) Operation Anchorage takes place inside a computer simulation but kills are still tallied and were therefore restricted. With suitable elocution, though, the enemy commander can be compelled to fall on his own sword, allowing completion with an unsullied record.
This experiment set out to answer two questions: "Will it be possible?" and (perhaps more importantly) "Will it be fun?" I am happy to report that the answer to both is "Yes." If we cast aside the radroach, it is possible to get through the main game and reach the original level cap without directly murdering anything. In doing so I discovered a side to the game I likely would not have noticed otherwise. New and interesting paths were opened by completely shifting the focus of character-building choices away from becoming the most efficient killing machine.
Part of the fun was in the willful subversion of the game's focus, akin to the thrill of disobedience. So when I tried the same style in New Vegas I found myself disappointed -not because I would have been forced to kill but because the game more easily supported me. For me, the enjoyment came from finding a new challenge in doing something unexpected. Did you ever climb up the top of a covered slide in the playground? Wouldn't be much fun if they put a handrail there.
I had gone a long way since leaving my father's protective care, and I had managed to survive the trials of the Capitol Wasteland without taking a single life. But perhaps that forced radroach execution permanently traumatized me. I had lied, cheated, and stolen. I had abandoned friends in their time of need. And at the end, when it came time to choose between delivering the salvation of the wasteland or condemning virtually all of its inhabitants to death, I chose the latter. But don't blame me: I was just loading the gun and giving it to the firing squad. It's not like I pulled the trigger.
Jeremy Peets has actually ended more digital lives than he cares to count. When not committing acts of (virtual!) genocide, he teaches English in South Korea. You can email him at [email protected]