Fallout 3

On Xbox 360.

I wish I could say that, while temporarily living the life of an anxiety-ridden, cold-weather-hating shut-in, I took the opportunity to complete an afghan or immerse myself in French New Wave films or organize the papers stacked on my desk or do something else productive, to quote my ever-productive mother. Sadly, I did none of those things. Instead, I spent an inordinate amount of time blowing the heads off terrifying, gun-toting mutants.

The Xbox is primarily Sean’s toy. Deprived as a child of all but the most educational computer games, I have no talent or affinity for the first-person-shooters he and his friends sometimes play together online. But occasionally, one of the video games hooks me in spite of myself, and I, too, am hypnotized by the screen, holding my breath, twitching my thumbs, and feeling very, very dorky.

The hook for Fallout 3 is the setting: a desolate, post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. I find an odd, Planet of the Apes–type pleasure in exploring familiar landmarks through a nightmarish looking glass, but beyond that, post-apocalyptic stories fascinate me. There’s a perverse kind of optimism in imagining a world gone utterly, completely wrong in which hope, somehow, still endures. The water may be radioactive, the mutants may be vicious, but people are still cobbling together communities—reduced in circumstances, perhaps, but surviving, in a bleak, sci-fi twist on the Little House books I loved as a kid.

And Fallout 3 gives you ample opportunity to explore its deliciously horrifying yet weirdly reassuring alternate world. It’s an open-ended game, the kind that offers a main quest line but does nothing to hold you to it, should you prefer to venture off track. The mapped story I could take or leave (though I like hearing Liam Neeson provide his warm, resonant voice for my character’s father). I’m most interested in exploring the ruined buildings, the bleak wilderness, the scattered pockets of humanity. The game has so much detail, so much variety, so many surprises, that it quickly becomes immersive.

And just as you can find a unique destiny for your character, you can build her (or him) to your style of play. (You also name your stand-in. Mine is called Miranda, after the female lead in The Tempest—“O brave new world” and all that—because that’s the kind of dork I am.) Hand-to-hand combat makes me nervous, so Miranda is a sniper. She’s not particularly strong, and she won’t last long if forced into the melee, but she can blow the head off the most fearsome opponent before it even knows she’s there.

Which brings me to the other great pleasure of Fallout 3: blowing the heads off your enemies is very satisfying. When you make a particularly good shot, the game even displays it in slow motion so you can relish it in all its action-movie-style carnage. I’m not proud of myself, but I’ve crowed aloud over some of those triumphs. My life might sometimes feel a bit frayed, but Miranda will kick your ass, damn it!

Fallout 3 is not without its faults. I’ve stumbled across some bugs (always frustrating), and the maps inside buildings layer one story atop another, making them difficult to read. On a more philosophical note, the moral choices your character faces are often too black-and-white for my tastes. At this point, Miranda has been all but canonized by her fellow Capitol Wastelanders, but that wasn’t really my intention; I just didn’t want her to be outright evil.

But these are small complaints. The richness of the game’s world (and the intuitiveness of its interface) more than make up for its blemishes. I’ll be frank: Fallout 3 is addicting.

Of course, I’m feeling better now, and I have every intention of returning to productivity and, you know, leaving the apartment for more than just work. But maybe not just yet. It’s snowing outside, and I had to wade through an awful manuscript today at work, and, well, Miranda still has a few asses to kick.