Pay attention to where you are, or you will miss your stop. Metro drivers only announce the stations half the time, and when they do its usually unintelligible. I personally believe they like to fuck with the people riding the train for their own amusement.
- Z, Everyday Reasons Blog
Bethesda Softwork's most recent release, Fallout 3, is set in the bombed-out ruins of post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. As a resident of the DC metro area for 23 years of my life, the experience of walking through the Wasteland is my Baudrillardian simulacrum--a mirror construction of a world that never existed. It is at once DC and yet a completely fictional space.
It took a bit of time to connect to this world on a personal level. The game begins in an underground vault, the first major city in the Wasteland is the fictional Megaton (which has no real world referent), and the first quest I went on involved a nondescript supermarket. Exploring the wasteland I saw the outline of the Washington Monument in the distance, but that was a mere landscape landmark at the moment. Much like the suburbs I grew up in, there was nothing distinguishing about the space.
But as I made my way south I had my first surreal moment. I came upon the Falls Church Metro (subway for those unfamiliar) station. As a rider of the Orange Line, the Falls Church stops were just a natural part of the ride to and from the District. This station in Fallout 3 was outdoors, like the real Falls Church, though it was labeled neither East or West (I suppose the creators are allowed a bit of creative liberty when it comes to mapping space). It was also infested with Super Mutants who promptly ended my journey with their assault rifles and sledgehammers. Clearly I was not meant to be there, but it piqued my interest in seeing more of the Metro. It is interesting to note that my desire to explore was curbed by the kind of level-based barring Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Morie, and Celia Pearce describe in "A Game of One's Own" as a characteristic of male-gendered spaces.
I moved in a more guided direction following that incident--making my way across the irradiated Potomac River into the city. I ended up coming across the Georgetown station, going inside, and seeing a familiar walkway but unfamiliar platform. Those who have ridden the Metro system in DC recognize its tall concrete coffered barrel vaulted ceilings, and whatever place I was in was clearly not representative of that definitive architecture. I continued exploring.
I eventually came across the Chevy Chase North area and the Tenleytown Station, which was the metro platform space I was hoping to find. The ceiling, the escalators, the ticketbooth, the rails, the signs--it was all there. But what I ended up finding wasn't as interesting as the means by which I found it. Fallout 3 lets players experience the Metro in whole new way. When people speak of the Metro, they refer to a few structural things. There's the rail line's symbolic color which indicates its path, the trains which are a means of conveyance, and the stops which are the nodes of action. The purpose of riding the Metro is to commute in more or less direct paths that need not adhere to the layout of transportation paths on the surface. It's supposed to be a seamless transition from one place to the next. This is not so in the game.
Fallout 3 uses the Metro in a number of ways. Though it is a transitional space between areas (some of which are inaccessible over land due to the debris of collapsed buildings), it is anything but seamless. The Metro not only simulates the real life space of mass transit infrastructure, but it also simulates the video game convention of the dungeon. While Fallout 3 does not use the Tolkien-fantasy themed environment that Pearce uses to characterize the most famous dungeon-based game Dungeons and Dragons, it does use some of the structural conventions the dungeon as space of adventure and conflict. In earlier video games "dungeon" is generally a location indicated by some entry point that needs not represent the geography of the space once entered. Think of Dragon Warrior, as an example. A single block on the world map represents a deep multi-level cave in which to slay monsters and collect treasure. The player enters, explores, and either returns to the beginning or makes their way to an exit. The relationships between spaces in these examples are topological.
However, as technology has improved we have seen the dungeon grow into a more geographic space. This puts the Metro of Fallout 3 in a unique position: it can serve the traditional role of the dungeon while also traversing distances. Often cited as an easy example of what topological space is, the London tube map collapses representations of space into utility. Walking into a Metro station in Fallout 3, players can often find a map of the train routes. And yet, these maps are nearly worthless from a game perspective. The player is traveling along actual space with distances that correspond to the surface world, though they can become directionally disoriented.
In a reversal of real life, there is no fast-travel (the ability to jump to a part of the visited map instantaneously) underground. The Metro is an extremely traditional game space. It's underground, full of monsters, comprised of closed drab corridors, and way to expand the space of the world. Most of the Metro tunnels (which include both the rail and worker service tunnels) look the same. Yes, it makes sense contextually for them to have a consistent aesthetic, but it also is a reflection of the standard corridor space seen in the history of first-person shooter games.
There are very few other people in the Metro tunnels of Fallout 3, and it is most often talking to people that reveals the narrative of the game. Is this a missed opportunity to employ the kind of mise-en-scene embedded narrative describe by Jenkins in "Game Design as Narrative Architecture"? Perhaps, though there are a few bits and pieces of narrative strewn about the Metro network. More important, in my opinion, than any sort of narrative imposed on the space, is what the organization of the space actually means.
Metro stations are either stand-alone enter and exit through the same door dungeons, or connected mazes--labyrinths of danger. The layout of the space is supposed to be confusing. In this post-apocalyptic world the purpose of the Metro has not only been uprooted, but it has gone unreplaced. It is the domain of monsters and outcasts. It surprises the player by dumping them out in a part of the overworld they might not have expected, opening up new spaces for more narratively meaningful exploration.
I conclude by reflecting on the opening quote which seemed to be unrelated to the topic of the post. The Metro in Fallout 3 simulates the real space of Washington D.C., the space of travel in the game world, and the spatial conventions of the video game genre. What I have found enjoyable about the exploration of these spaces is that I'm never sure which one I'm going to get, as if Bethesda is the unintelligible Metro conductor telling me that this is Foggy Bottom and the doors open on the right but when I get out I'm in Rosslyn and it's 15 minutes until the next train. In a good way, of course.