Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta: Is This the End?
I picked up Alien Captive Recorded Log 9 in the spaceship's genetic-experimentation lab. The woman on the tape had a queasy terror in her voice. "Oh God, what are you doing to me?" she yelled, and I felt the corners of my mouth tighten. I stashed the recording and looked around the lab. Nearby, a pair of unarmed, innocent "Alien Workmen" cowered in a corner, holding up their hands to desperately signal their surrender. I shot them.
Anyone who has played Fallout 3 knows what happened next. The Pip-Boy mascot popped up on the screen, and he was pissed: "You have lost Karma!" In the previous 100-plus hours I'd spent playing the game, I would have been hurt by that rebuke. I've always been the ultimate goody two-shoes in Fallout 3, resisting temptations to kill, steal, deceive and manipulate. It would be difficult to play a more virtuous game of Fallout 3 than I did. But suddenly, Pip-Boy and his precious karma meant nothing to me. Mothership Zeta had broken me and my sunshiny vision of "Post-Apocalyptia."
I wondered, is this how the story ends? Is Zeta, as the last new downloadable chapter, The End of Fallout 3? Think before you answer. Fallout 3 has had ending issues from, well, the beginning. If you have the original game with no add-ons, you could consider the closing cinematic an ending. People hated that ending, though. (I loved it, but the people who didn't were louder than I was.)
So Bethesda came out with Broken Steel. All of a sudden there's an argument to be made that the "Take it Back!" mission, which extends and then re-concludes the main story, is the "real" ending. Yet while I may be in the minority, I believe that Zeta's final recalibration of the Wasteland moral code provides the true thematic conclusion to Bethesda's great work.
Our culture has come to expect a lot from endings. We expect epic scale, punishing challenges, and seriousness. On the face of it, Zeta ticks none of those boxes. It's a pulpy rehash of the familiar alien-abduction standard. You're sucked onto a ship by a tractor beam. You're poked and prodded with sharp instruments. You're thrown into a holding cell with a stranger, and somehow, some way, you have got to get out of there. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Zeta knows it's treading trodden territory, and delights in its campiness. Like a "Simpsons" Halloween special, Zeta takes full advantage of the rule-breaking freedom that comes with the ludicrous spaceship backdrop. As you fight your way to the ship's bridge, you're joined by such central-casting stock as a cowboy, a plucky pre-teen girl and a samurai. Because hell, why not?
The loopy supporting cast of Zeta is woven into an experience that's more upsetting than dark, a slight departure from Fallout's trademark thicket of gloom. Your ostensible goal is to disable power conduits around the ship, but this is just a token premise for the real quest to make sense of the horrors you glimpse while exploring the flying saucer. An army medic (another member of your team) offers up all sorts of theories: Maybe they're making human clones to take over the world. Or maybe they were the ones who seeded life on earth, and they're checking on our progress.
The medic is a dreamer, and the doe-eyed way he spouts his ideas is, in the context of Fallout 3, a clear sign that they are wrong. There are no tidy explanations in Zeta. The only sure thing about the aliens is that they're aggressively incomprehensible, always yelling at their human captives in a screeching tone that grates on the ears. That maddening unfamiliarity, combined with the player's urgent need to understand, produces a special sort of hatred. I never had any affection for the Enclave soldiers I fought in this game, but at least they looked like me and spoke my language. The aliens of Zeta tap into that more volatile area of the human psyche that abhors the "Other."
Using spacemen from another world to explore the notion of foreignness is a trope as old as sci-fi. Zeta, though, is unusually committed to making the aliens feel alien. The extraterrestrials' backstory is told only in shards that never form a coherent whole. They've been performing awful experiments for centuries; they're creating genetic abominations from human subjects; they've built a "death ray." But to what end, and how does it all fit together? The answer never comes, and the aliens' impenetrable chatters and shrieks -- which are essentially the soundtrack of Zeta -- only serve to drive home their strangeness and the exasperating unknowability of their reason for being.
It wore on me. As I spent more time in the flying saucer, my irritation crept up into a quiet hatred. Without even realizing it, I came to despise those screeching aliens in a visceral way. Zeta inched me up to the brink and then, with Alien Captive Recorded Log 9, gave me a little shove over the cliff.
Recorded Log 9 is among the shortest of a couple dozen tapes you can discover on the aliens' ship. It contains the terrified last words of an unnamed woman who falls victim to a genetic experiment. Aside from an undertone of perversion ("What's that thing? Get it out of me!"), there's nothing unusual about it. The closing is what struck me. As the woman on the tape succumbs to the alien assault, she makes a helpless plea for her life, along the lines of "Please stop, no, that hurts..."
It's a generic damsel-in-distress script. Yet something about the confusion and panic in the audio clicked me into vengeance mode. The gun was in my hands. And while the perpetrators of the horrors on the recording were gone, those Workmen were a fitting proxy. So I acted, and not even rashly. I pulled up my V.A.T.S. display to pinpoint where my blaster would separate the pathetic, obnoxious, squeaking Alien Workmen from their skulls. "These men weren't complicit in the atrocities on that tape," I reasoned as my first shot reduced Utterly Harmless Alien Dude No. 1 to a pile of ash. "They've shown me no ill will," I considered as a slow-mo blaster beam split the face of Just Want to Go Home to My Wife and Kids No. 2 down the middle.
And I was well aware that the guys in the dark jumpsuits were not supposed to be touched. The little girl, Sally, tells you so from the very beginning. Leave those guys alone, she says, they don't want to hurt you. My targeting cursor stays green (instead of turning red) when an Alien Workman is in front of me -- Fallout 3 code for "this here is a decent bloke." So it was no surprise when, after I pulled the trigger, Scowling Vault Boy appeared to tell me what a horrible person I was. I knew exactly what I was doing: killing two good guys just because they looked like the bad guys.
Is that an enormous death ray in your pocket, or are you just happy -- it's an enormous death ray, you say? Ah.
It's unusual that Zeta even includes the Alien Workmen in the first place. There aren't any "good" Enclave officers at the Black Rock base, after all, nor any helpful Super Mutants aside from Fawkes, and he's a friend. The Alien Workmen aren't friends at all. They simply don't deserve to be hurt in the crossfire. It's a more subtle ethical challenge than the usual good-vs.-evil fare.
I'm not naïve enough to believe that "killing" a couple of non-aggressors in a videogame indicates some real moral defect, or, by the same token, that the experience is in the same emotional universe as harming a real human being. But my near-flawless record of good karma had been important to me; I'd worked hard at it. So it meant something when I threw it away out of a base urge to exact vengeance on the guys with the weird language and oddball looks. I paid for my impulse with a small piece of my character, literally.
Endings are subjective in Fallout 3. For me, Mothership Zeta is a fitting finale, not because it's so sweeping or bombastic (it's not), but because Zeta evoked something new in me. Specifically, it brought out my worst, and I'm grateful for it. My Fallout 3 experience has been peppered with little moments of insight into the human condition, and it was a pleasant surprise that Zeta was able to give this Lone Wanderer one final epiphany.
Check out more Crispy Gamer features: