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Finding Gold in the Wasteland

October 7th, 2009 | Posted by David Sahlin in Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

HL2 Developer CommentaryWhen Valve started to put ‘director commentary’ into their games, it opened the conversation of game design to a wider audience. Personally, it allowed me to enjoy the game even more than my first playthrough. It’s a wonderful bonus, and I’m very thankful to Valve for them.

Gerard Daleny, of the blog Binary Swan, is assembling ‘The Wasteland Commentaries.’  It will be a mod for Fallout 3, and will include locational commentary by the gaming community into the game itself – much like what Valve has done.  The comments will have a wide range; anywhere from “anecdotes, commentary, analysis or even humor relating to their experience with Fallout 3.”

This is a really nifty idea, and a fantastic way of serving a lot of particularly dense discussion into a more savory dish. A lot of people, including myself, can get lost or distracted while reading something that tends to be more academic in scope.  Adding an audio/visual anchor to the process could be a novel way of including folks who are stronger at learning things spatially.

(In the interest of full disclosure, he has invited me personally to contribute.) [And I'll have a bit more to say about The Wasteland Commentaries in TWIVGB this weekend - Ed]

Imagine the enormity of the task: to take one of the most fondly-remembered role-playing games ever made, a game developed by another studio, and craft a sequel with vastly different gameplay, advancing the world design and graphics for a new era of gaming while recapturing the ineffable spirit of the beloved predecessor. If that doesn’t sound like a losing proposition to you, then you are either an idiot or a visionary, and the odds are on the former. We owe some gratitude, then, to the splendid idiots at Bethesda for creating Fallout 3, now perhaps the prime example of a great open-world RPG. This is not to say that the positive impression is unanimous – writers and reviewers have critiqued the repetitive design, the dodgy shooting, and the wooden and unappealing non-player characters. Yet, given the innate difficulty of what Bethesda Softworks set out to do, Fallout 3 stands as a great achievement. It is, after all, too much to ask of any work of art that it inspire everyone. Fallout 3 is not perfect, and even those that love it have found much to criticize. Nonetheless, many have found that the game seizes not just their attention, but their imagination.

A wasteland rich in story materials

Although built from a relatively limited palette, the world of Fallout 3 feels vast and even boundless. In “The world’s your oyster”, Iroquois Pliskin compares this game with Oblivion and indicates that the key to its appeal is its ability to keep showing you something you haven’t seen before. The limited repertoire of objects and textures is skillfully permuted to create environments that gently inspire players to develop their own stories about the world, as Denis Farr describes in “Seven for a secret never to be told”. For an example of such a story, check out this example from Steven O’Dell. This effect seems to be intended – the Wasteland of the game is not an accessory to the main quest, but a setting in which that quest is just one of several important stories that are unfolding. As Mitch Krpata puts it, the game’s world is “a massive canvas upon which are painted scenes of depth and import”.

The seeming richness (and safety) of the wasteland confused Justin Keverne initially, because it seemed out of place given the apocalyptic setting. He found it to be more vibrant and alive than the landscape of Far Cry 2. By contrast, Steven O’Dell felt that Fallout 3 kept a sense of danger intact throughout the game, even as the player grew more comfortable and confident in the wastes, through use of dangerous creatures like the Deathclaw. Keverne eventually came to the conclusion that the appearance of population and life was an illusion, that the clusters of houses that he had perceived as tiny villages were really just the last few vestiges of enormous sprawling suburbs. The desolation and emptiness of this world enhances the apparent importance of moral choices, as Allen Cook describes in “Hero of the Wastes”. When there are so few people, killing even one feels like genocide, and saving even one feels incredibly important.

Of course, the Washington D.C. setting of the game provides a touchstone for the development of personal narratives. Chris Person, whose once lived over the spot Vault 101 would be if it existed, found the game deeply affecting because of its connection to his childhood haunts. Michael Abbott, who only visited D.C., detailed a similar experience in “Second Thoughts”, in which he also ponders his meta-experience of the game. Bobby Schweizer relates the Metro segments of the Wasteland to his own experiences of those sites and the larger context of RPG and FPS spaces, likening Bethesda themselves to the unintelligible announcers on modern Metro trains.

This didn’t work out for everyone, though. In “The Mutant Behind the Curtain”, Thomas Cross explains that despite the richness of the world’s many distractions it just doesn’t connect emotionally for him. As Susan Arendt relates in “A Different Kind of Treasure”, she found that the design of the world interfered with her experience of the game, particularly in the respect that she didn’t get the kind of loot she was expecting.

Some writers felt that Fallout 3 actually constrained them from their desired character narrative. Jorge Albor describes in “Role Playing in the Wastes” that his experience of the game simply didn’t fit with the character that he had conceived. The mutual accommodation between character and DM typical of tabletop role-playing isn’t possible in the context of a computer RPG, which may mean that players must be more flexible in their approach to their roles. Krpata felt reasonably comfortable with his character concept, but found that Fallout‘s inflexibility occasionally boxed him out of the karmic path he desired to take. The route to a desired moral outcome was at times needlessly obscure.

The game also seemed to have little flexibility in dealing with gender options. Simon Ferrari, among others, thought that the game did not do a good job of supporting the choice to play a female character, although it featured several positive female NPCs. Bonnie Ruberg felt that the game’s dialogue took too little notice of the player’s choice to be female. As she points out, “Whether we like it or not, even our most basic communication changes depending whom we’re addressing,” but Fallout 3 has no such adaptation. The game’s heteronormative attitude (as expressed in perks like “Lady Killer”) and paucity of options for sexual expression also troubled Denis Farr.

What you don’t know…

Several authors have identified ignorance as a key way that Fallout 3 draws the player into the creation of a personal narrative. Spencer Greenwood argues in “Ignorance is Bliss” that the decision to supply the character with a minimum of information encourages exploration and experimentation in the context of the game world, in this as well as previous Fallout games. Similarly, Justin Keverne found that his immersion in the main quest was strongest at a point when the game stopped telling him exactly where to go. In “Wasteland Detective”, he asks if the game might be at its best when it lets the player get lost.

In “The Wasteland of Forking Paths”, Travis Megill points out that the presentation of the main quest encourages the player to explore. Although the central storyline involves a somewhat urgent attempt to save the world, the game hides this until the player is fairly far along in it. This disguise makes it more comfortable for the player to meander. The apparent lack of urgency and potential lack of structure in the main quest changes the way you approach the entire game. In “The Sisters”, Duncan Fyfe suggests that these aspects make Fallout 3 less like a novel and more like a themed collection of short stories, explicitly comparing the game to James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Mitch Krpata puts forward something of an opposing view in “How I learned to stop worrying and love Fallout. For him, the more obvious RPG aspects of the game, and his uncertainty about what exactly to do next, created something of an anxiety that he was playing the wrong way. For him, it was the fine details of the open world that finally got him relaxed enough to realize there was no wrong way. Borut Pfeifer touches on this feeling in “Your choice, and your fault”, pointing out that players who forge an emotional connection with the game world may feel paralyzed by the unpredictable outcomes of their choices (and the feeling that the developers are out to screw them over).

Denis Farr, writing in “Birth of a role” about the character creation portion of the game, expresses some relief that Fallout 3 avoided a particular kind of ignorance, namely the “amnesia” trope. One of Fallout 3‘s strengths, in his view, is that the player doesn’t have to ask who he is, but rather how he came to be who he is.

Immersion failure at the NPC interface

In contrast to the widely-praised open world, Fallout 3‘s NPCs have come in for some harsh criticism. Michael Abbott contributes the core of the critique in “Genius Jilted” and “People drive me crazy”, which also cover some criticism of Fable II. The realistic feel of the world, for him, is entirely at odds with the behavior of NPCs who basically function as “human-esque information kiosks”. He calls out the sometimes poorly-written dialogue and the wooden facial animations as sources of his problem. Thomas Cross expresses similar sentiments in “The Mutant Behind the Curtain”, stating that the stilted interactions with NPCs are part of the way in which Fallout 3 flaunts its game-ness. Gamey behavior in the finale also troubled D. Riley, as he describes in “What about the oasis?” (for a similar take, see Ben’s RAAAAGE).

Duncan Fyfe, on the other hand, feels that most of the NPCs work well enough for what the game is trying to do with them. In “Friends like these”, he explains that the NPC interactions really start to break down once you bring the companions into the mix. Their failure to react to the discoveries that give the open world its emotional relevance highlights the fact that they are little more than walking gun turrets. Only Dogmeat, who we don’t expect to have emotions, is a convincing character. Mitch Krpata found that immersion broke because the scripting of the game led to the NPCs noticing at once too little and too much, making an example of the Lincoln Memorial quest. Similar encounters with psychic NPCs and restrictive response options left David Sahlin wondering if Bethesda could have done more than they did to anticipate alternative routes between narrative nodes. In “Prototyping Story” he wonders if an in-house interactive fiction system could have improved their preparations.

Beyond “good” and “evil”

The NPC writing didn’t just foul up the immersion, it also fiddled unpleasantly with the game’s approach to morality. In “Fun and loathing in Las Vegas Washington D.C.”, Ben Abraham identifies a tension between the portrayal of certain characters and the feel of the game. In his opinion, Mr. Burke comes across as a very cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain that is inappropriate in the context of the gritty, realistic game world. The game seems to make judgments about characters, sometimes without asking the real questions.

I express a similar complaint in “There’s nothing in it for you”, arguing that the game doesn’t provide the NPCs or the player with reasons to be evil beyond sheer insanity. In particular, the relative abundance of supplies in the Wasteland seems to defeat the feeling of desperation that might make an attractive core for such a personal narrative. Shamus Young had similar problems with Mr. Burke’s quest, as he describes in “The Power of the Atom”, where he critiques the flimsy writing behind what may be Fallout 3‘s most affecting visual sequence. David Wildgoose, in contrast, found that the information he dug up on Megaton’s citizens from Moriarty’s computer, painting them as “sleazy losers”, helped him see Burke’s side of it. For me, the chief reason for evil comes not from any of the writing, but rather from the V.A.T.S. system. In “Power’s joy and sorrow” I opine that the system presents killing as an empowering pleasure, and in that way makes a case for war.

The case for selfless helpfulness, in my view is much stronger, but the narrative of the good character ends up “Falling apart at the end”. The conclusion of the main quest, in my view, suffers because of a weak antagonist and moral confusion. The middle road also becomes problematic, as Denis Farr found in his quest to play a neutral, judging character. The paucity of truly neutral options means that in Fallout 3, the only way to remain neutral is to avoid quests entirely or vacillate oddly between good and evil.

Justin Keverne critiques the game’s explicit karma system in “A measure of morality”. The fact that the karmic result of a particular action is made explicit is at odds with feeling of ignorance mentioned earlier. He also points out that almost everyone thinks of himself as a decent person, and that this slippery moral perspective is absent from the karma math. Malcolm Ryan, in his essay “On Moral Detachment” argues that explicit karma systems eliminate moral force by giving every choice a gameplay consequence. He actually felt more moved by an incidental moment in the game Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, which he found otherwise forgettable. Nick Dinicola felt that the quest in Oasis was one that called for a more nuanced view of morality. In his initial playthrough, he navigated it without gaining or losing karma, and felt that he would be less inclined towards self-examination and criticism had the game given him an explicit thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

The existence of an explicit morality system also leaves that system open to critique. D. Riley’s provides one in his discussion of “The Situation at Tenpenny Tower” in which he describes a quest where even the “good” solutions leave a bad taste in your mouth. Shamus Young also extensively critiques the logic of this quest, the options available, and the game’s moral judgment of your choices.

What does Fallout 3 tell us?

One of the persistent complaints about video games is that the lack of authorial control diminishes their artistic merits. Much is wrong with this view, but it has a certain resonance in light of games like Fallout 3 that work by allowing the player to construct a personal narrative. Obviously a game can use particular mechanics in order to reinforce certain behaviors, but this can create as many questions as answers, as Justin Keverne mentions in his short post “Its own reward?”.

Nonetheless, some messages can be read into any personal narrative that gets built into the game world. Duncan Fyfe opines in “Escape from Vault 101″ that at its core Fallout 3 is about the worthlessness of inaction, and the futility of safety, connecting this to Bethesda’s own story. As he says, “It’s about not staying in the vault.” The open-world context itself can also convey a message. In Bellum omnia contra omnes I argue that the wasteland, by depicting the state of nature as close to Hobbes’ vision, says certain things about humanity. The game’s fictional history connects the desperate struggles of the wasteland with wars that may be coming in our own.

Last Update: 12/5/09