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Letting go of quest-obsession, and soaking in the world of Fallout 4

Turning off Fallout 4's quest markers revealed a trash-ridden world that's an exploration engine, rather than a quest engine.

@krisgraft is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra

As I’m shuttling to and fro across the expansive wastelands of Fallout 4’s post-nuke Boston, I keep an eye trained on my linear compass, which has a nice solid square smack in the middle of it, showing where I’m supposed to go to complete the next assignment.

Several hours in, I’m a bit bored of being the errand boy for this Pip Boy. I remember this GamesRadar story that I recently came across, uncheck all of my active quests, and stop fast-travelling. I shed the burden of the to-do list and meander my way southeast, following the broken roads, collapsed overpasses, and rusted railways, along the common routes travelled by the once-living.

Encouraging curiosity, not squandering it

Ignoring the clearly-dictated steps you must take to reach the goal of finding your son—Fallout 4’s main quest line—is counterintuitive at first. But once you get past that narrative dissonance (it’s not terribly difficult), you find that being an explorer who acts in service of self-preservation helps you appreciate the world to a greater extent.

When players use quest markers, their blinders are strapped on, and this big, open world all of a sudden shrinks down to a series of nodes, interconnected by straight, tunneling lines. Whatever happens beyond these quest-imposed tunnels is ignored. It’s only events that intersect these lines that are experienced by a player.

When players forego the conveniences of these systems in these big open world games, they peel back a layer standing between them and the world (which, don’t be mistaken, is a system in itself). What's exposed is a rawer, naked, more natural system: roads that lead past abandoned farmhouses, or railway stations infested with pitiful feral ghouls who carry toys and fancy hairbrushes in their pockets. These places, quite deliberately, have stories to tell.

And these stories are so much more gratifying when you stumble across them by happenstance. Waypoints do a great job of allowing players to keep a nice checklist of things to do and goals to accomplish, but they do this by sacrificing the surprise and satisfaction of exploration. That’s a pretty big sacrifice to make, when you’re spending time with a game that is overflowing with surprise, if only you allow it to surprise you.

Here’s a theory: the reason that some games don't allow players to turn off quest markers is because those games would fall apart if players turned that system off. The world design is simply too reliant on the conspicuous hand of the quest map, that if you turned it off, the game wouldn’t work as intended. Players would be lost and/or confused and/or stuck in a gameplay limbo. Instead of surprise, they'd encounter frustration.

Fallout 4 is designed to actually work without quest markers. There are clear landmarks that both beckon you to explore them, and also act as reference points for your geographic location. Your curiosity is frequently piqued. The campfires beckon you, but warn you to approach with caution; the overpass that stretches for miles into the distance makes you wonder, “where does it go?”; the tall, comforting red rocket that stands on its tail-end at a service station in the northeast tells you you’re almost home.

All of these points bring me to this, and it’s what separates a good open world game from a great open world game: In Fallout 4, questing wasn’t the design framework; exploration was. In other words, the game doesn't feel like it was built upon a quest system; rather, an exploration system with quests built into it. Fallout 4 encourages curiosity, rather than squandering it, and that’s what makes it a great open world game.

Environmental storytelling with value

One of the direct benefits of turning off quest markers in Fallout 4 is that by following your sense of curiosity rather than a dot on the screen, you tend to gravitate to the places that naturally call to you. I find myself pulled into little narrative vignettes that tell stories of dead people. Bethesda has historically been pretty good with environmental storytelling, but Fallout 4 has so many of these affective vignettes, it becomes clear that the game was narratively designed in a post-Gone Home world.

Bethesda’s designers have known for a while that dead humans in large volumes offer much opportunity for environmental storytelling. Posthumous footprints in Fallout parallel those of real-life: When most people die, they don’t leave behind many long statements about their existence. A will doesn’t consolidate or document a person’s entire existence, and only a fraction of people leave a daily diary or have a personal biographer. Even if a person does, the story of their life is still incomplete and unconsolidated.

Evidence of a dead human’s life is preserved or lost to varying degrees. Putting together a person’s life after they die is a matter of gathering documentation—physical and otherwise—and cobbling it together to form some kind of shape of a past human existence. That’s what Fallout 4 affords the player to do, through garbage (there’s lots of telling garbage in the Wasteland) and other personal remnants of the past.

What has set Fallout’s narrative design and storytelling apart from other RPGs is that there’s less of a focus on arbitrary, dense lore throughout the game (and throughout the franchise), and more of an emphasis on the immediate value of environmental storytelling. If you take a moment to check out the computer at the abandoned service station, you’ll learn that the previous occupants had been dumping drums of chemicals in a…cave…that is conveniently located nearby.

Explore to find the service station. Explore the service station to find the computer terminal. Explore the information on the terminal. Explore the service station grounds to find a cave entrance. Explore the cave. Find a fusion core and some other nice loot.

The value in that scenario isn’t tied to the vague writer-fantasy of “building lore” for the player’s “immersion.” Rather, it's related to the immediate, tangible satisfaction of multiple layers of exploration and discovery, followed by the warm fuzzy feeling of acquiring nice inventory. This scenario is light-handed, totally optional, and lasts only a few minutes. But such instances are sprinkled throughout the Wasteland, giving players a sense of presence not common in even the most visually-detailed open world games. It feels like someone lived here, which oddly is a feeling that many post-apocalyptic games are missing. In order for death to exist, there had to have been life. Fallout, for all the themes of death and destruction, doesn’t ignore life.

A joyous world of death and sadistic robot butlers

I’m getting a bit philosophical about a game that:

But for all its wackiness, Fallout 4 invites players into its joyously treacherous world—a world that you can’t know as well as you're able, unless you hit pause on the structure that we as players have become so reliant upon.

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