I’ve never been much of a video gamer, but when my husband picked up a used Xbox last Christmas, I admit I got hooked on Fallout 3. Yes, I know the game’s heyday was about 4 years ago–I seem to discover everything late–but I enjoyed it immensely, and it was a great way to blow off steam after working hard on writing or historical research during the day.

In case you don’t know the set-up and (loose) plot of Fallout 3, it’s a first-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. The player creates a character, who you get to name and choose characteristics for. In the game, the character is the son or daughter of a scientist (voiced by Liam Neeson) who’s living in an underground bunker, Vault 101, and working on some sketchy project to fix the irradiated water supply of the city in an attempt to make it livable again. Your father leaves Vault 101 and you must follow him out into “the Capital Wasteland,” a Mad Max-like landscape of ruins teeming with raiders, slavers and murderous monsters called Super Mutants. There are numerous quests and sub-quests within the game, or you can simply explore the rich virtual world on your own.

The official trailer for Fallout 3 is at the top of this blog.

I have a writer’s mind. Asking me to create a character, as the player does in Fallout 3, means creating a personality, a back-story and a whole host of factors that aren’t explored in the literal game itself. I found myself adding to, embellishing and even changing the story of the game in my own mind as I played through it.

In Fallout one of the statistics your character has is “karma,” which measures how “good” or “evil” you are. Actions you take in the game affect this measure. For example, early in the game it’s likely you’ll happen upon a ramshackle town called Megaton. You can trade with the citizens and become friends with them–resulting in good karma–or you can take out your weapons and massacre them for no reason, obviously resulting in evil karma. Various options later on in the game change based on your karma score.

For my first play-through of the game I created a character called Morten (a traditional Norwegian name). In the early days I didn’t really know what I was doing or how to play the game. I didn’t realize you could trade for medical supplies or find them free if you were friendly to various other characters, so when I reached Megaton, I found the local clinic and murdered the town doctor with a baseball bat so I could steal all his medical supplies. My karma definitely got off to a bad start. As I got more proficient at the game, however, Morten started to become less of a savage. No one had witnessed my murder of the doctor, so the rest of the townspeople didn’t turn against me, and when I started to cooperate with them the gameplay got a little easier.

By the end of my first play-through, which took about five months, Morten had almost perfect karma. He’d gained a sidekick called Fawkes–a reformed Super Mutant–and I did just about every do-gooder quest there is to do in Fallout 3, such as rescuing captured kids from evil slavers, fixing a radio antenna on top of the Washington Monument, etc. In my back-story I imagined that the legend of Morten and Fawkes as post-apocalyptic Robin Hood and Friar Tuck had spread across the Capital Wasteland, instilling both admiration and hatred. But the murder of the doctor bothered me. I couldn’t go back and undo it. It hadn’t permanently affected my karma score because I made up for it, but in real life it would hang heavy on Morten’s shoulders, especially if no one else knew about it. There wouldn’t be a day that went by that he wouldn’t see the terror-filled eyes of that doctor just before having his head bashed open with a baseball bat. How would that affect a person?

Now here’s a story! The doctor of Megaton turns up murdered. No one is sure who did it. The murderer, Morten, is lucky to have gotten away with it, but he’s burdened with the guilt of having done it. He decides, as an act of repentance for the murder, to rove around the Capital Wasteland doing good and rescuing the downtrodden. Even his own father (the Liam Neeson character) doesn’t suspect the conflict at the heart of his son. At the end of the game (spoiler alert!) Morten sacrifices himself to rejuvenate the water supply of the Wasteland, thus bringing life to lifelessness.

This would make a pretty good novel, don’t you think?

Midway through my first play-through, before Morten met Fawkes, he meets a female character–Paladin Star Cross, a member of a paramilitary organization called the “Brotherhood of Steel.” (One reason I love Fallout is the numerous heavy metal references. There’s even a character that resembles Eddie the Head, the legendary mascot of Iron Maiden). In my game, Paladin Star Cross decided to tag along with Morten, but after a desperate battle in a monster-infested bunker called Vault 87, they were separated when Morten was taken prisoner by the Enclave, another cadre of bad guys in the Fallout universe. When this happened it changed the entire way I played the game. In my developing back-story, Morten and Paladin Star Cross fall in love. When he’s captured by the Enclave he must fight his way out not only to achieve the object of the quest within the game itself, but to find Paladin Star Cross and be reunited with her.

In fact, this motivation became more important than the actual quest within the game itself. I added a shade of complexity to this story–a cliched one, to be sure–by deciding that Paladin Star Cross had become pregnant with Morten’s child during their brief affair. Now, not only must he do good in the Wasteland to erase the burden of guilt for murdering Megaton’s doctor in cold blood, but he must safeguard his legacy so that his and Star Cross’s son will grow up thinking his father was a hero.

Thus, my game of Fallout 3, which lasted about five months, became something much different than the game-makers intended. Instead of an adventure story in a post-apocalyptic setting, it became a character drama!

I even found myself imagining a query letter for this story. (That shows you what a writing geek I am!)

Morten may be armed to the teeth with a minigun, a plasma rifle and a flamethrower, but he’s got a lot more on his mind than just slaughtering raiders and Super Mutants in the post-apocalyptic rubble of Washington, D.C.

He’s fighting to be reunited with the woman he loves and the baby–his  son–that she’s about to give birth to. The day Morten and Paladin Star Cross were separated while in the midst of a desperate battle with the minions of Enclave’s evil President John Henry Eden was the worst day of Morten’s life. Except maybe that other day–the day when Morten bludgeoned a doctor to death in a fit of irrational pique–which is a day he wishes he could forget. Even Star Cross doesn’t know the burden of guilt Morten carries over the murder, or why he’s driven to undertake a hazardous mission to bring the beleaguered citizens of the Capital Wasteland the one thing they need more than anything else: fresh, clean, non-irradiated water.

But right now, with an army of Enclave soldiers and Super Mutants standing between him and the last place he saw the woman he loves, Morten has no choice. He has to strap on the bandolier and gas up the flamethrower one more time. Only this time he may not make it out alive.

Fallout 3: For The Love of a Paladin is science fiction with a lot of action and a romantic twist. It is complete at 85,000 words. Thank you for your consideration.

Of course, this is just fantasy. I would never pitch this. (For one thing, Fallout 3 isn’t my intellectual property, it belongs to Bethesda Games). But you get the idea.

People say video games aren’t art, or that they stunt creativity. I take extreme issue with that view. Sometimes the most compelling things about video games are the back-stories we construct in our heads while we play them. I turned Fallout 3 into a character drama. With some awesome, pulse-pounding action and gory monster slaughter to boot! Maybe I’m even more of a geek than the typical Fallout player, but I had fun doing it.