She's sitting in that living room waiting for me right now, but I don't dare visit her. Choices not only bring characters to life in role-playing games but also keep them alive, and after one hundred and fifty seven hours of wandering the Capital Wasteland together, Vault Girl and I have almost run out of things to do. She's explored almost every location on the map. She's finished almost every quest. If choices and adventure are what keep Vault Girl alive, what happens to her when they're all gone?
Fallout 3 used to have a definitive ending. Your character made a choice to sacrifice themselves, or force another character to take your place, in order to complete the work your father had fled Vault 101 for: To provide clean water for every man, woman and child in the Capital Wasteland. When presented with this choice, Vault Girl stepped up and did the right thing, of course.
I hadn't visited nearly half the locations on the map at that point, and had more unfinished quests than completed ones. I couldn't believe the game would really kill Vault Girl and end with all that content left over, so when the game cut to the closing credits I was incensed. So were a lot of other Fallout 3 players who felt robbed of all that content they hadn't finished. Imagine how angry a player who hadn't chosen to sacrifice their character would have been when the game ended anyway?
Seven months after Fallout 3 was released, Bethesda Softworks released a downloadable content pack called Broken Steel, which enabled players to continue past the original ending of the game. I was ecstatic the day I bought Broken Steel on Xbox Live because it meant being able to adventure with Vault Girl again! More downloadable content like The Pitt and Point Lookout kept the game going even longer, but eventually I arrived at the point where Vault Girl stands today, with that mostly-filled-in map and short list of unfinished quests.
One of the basic rules of fiction is that stories need endings. Characters can then live on in the imaginations of the audience. Vault Girl's story never ends. Even when all the content that makes her world feel alive is gone, Vault Girl will sit in that living room waiting for me, forever. And if I dare pay her another visit past the point of the content being used up, it will only be a matter of time before whatever life I breathed into Vault Girl is also gone. There will be nothing left to do other than wander the Capital Wasteland killing the same creatures and going to see the same merchants who'll say the same things when I buy more ammunition to go kill more creatures until I need more ammunition. Vault Girl will be reduced to a shuffling zombie motivated purely by instinct.
Vault Girl won't be able to live on in my imagination unless she's truly dead, and the only way to make that happen will be to pull the plug on her, reducing Vault Girl to just a few kilobytes of data to delete from my Xbox 360's hard drive. That's not how I want to remember the end of my adventures with the video game character who has come to life more than any before, or any since. When Fallout 3 had a definitive ending I was furious because I wanted more time with Vault Girl. Now that I have all the time in the world with her, I think being left wanting more was the better choice.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.