In this opinion piece, writer Tom Cross lauds Bethesda's Fallout 3 for its expansive simulation of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. -- but also takes the open-world RPG to task for its imperson
by Tom Cross
December 16, 2008
[In this opinion piece, one of his a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch columns, writer Tom Cross lauds Bethesda's Fallout 3 for its expansive simulation of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. -- but also takes the open-world RPG to task for its impersonal characters and experiences.]
Playing Fallout 3 reminds me of the many difficulties I faced when playing Oblivion, also an open-world RPG by Bethesda, as well as many of the joys. It also makes the deficiencies of that gameplay model increasingly apparent. While Fallout 3 makes some impressive strides, in certain structural aspects, it is so backward that it makes other games look revolutionary.
Jedi Outcast and The Witcher take an entirely different approach to their worlds, and are much less obviously “open”. And yet, their common gameplay and storytelling goals are actually more ambitious and innovative than Fallout’s.
While Fallout 3 meticulously recreates a desolate, expansive landscape that is strangely full of activity and experience, it does so by a very specific and often narrow-minded method. Most reviewers have said that Fallout 3 is one of the most vast, varied and rich games of our time, but it is also possible to view it as flat and lacking in the things that actually make a game deep.
Fallout 3 simulates a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C., complete with subway stations, factories, a ruined downtown area, and many other locales to explore. It is consistently impressive, a game that easily surprises me, well beyond the 10-hours-plus gameplay mark. It succeeds through its depth and breadth.
It breaks the quest-structure of most RPGs by introducing random but persuasive and diverting gameplay opportunities in the game’s main transit-space, the blasted wasteland between cities and quest-locations. I'll be walking along (and you have to spend a lot of time walking) and be presented unobtrusively with several obvious opportunities to follow side-paths, whether in the form of quests, monster-killing, loot collection, or just checking out the often-beautiful level design.
I’ll be wandering through the wasteland, aimlessly looking for raiders to kill for ammo, when I’ll stumble across a toxic waste dump. Luckily for me, I have my radiation suit. I pop it on, and decide I’ll just wade through the mess so I can get to what I hope is a ruined town on the other side.
Halfway through, a mutated bumblebee attacks me, and amid the hail of gunfire I use to destroy it, I notice a small concrete building near a factory, on a hill nearby. Inside, I find the schematics to a “Railway Gun.” Right on the other side of the toxic dump, I find another bunker, this one containing a stat-boosting bobble head. And this was just from playing for an hour or two this morning.
Everyone says this, but I’m going to have to echo them on this one: I haven’t thought about the main quest in days of playing. Whenever I do think about it, I convince myself that I need to level up before I head into Downtown D.C.
That's Great, But...
In creating these brilliant and unexpected moments -- rather, in allowing me to create them -- the team behind Fallout 3 has decided to leave by the wayside a very important part of game design: Fallout 3 never tries to make you feel like you yourself are doing the things you are doing onscreen.
I would argue that Fallout 3 is a simulator, a brilliant way to accomplish various cool tasks in the wasteland. Other games try to make you feel like you understand or enjoy the goings-on onscreen.
Why is this? Fallout 3 succeeds whenever it tries to present you with the blunt, unimaginative side of its activities: you can kill anything, in tens of different ways, as long as you try hard enough.
You can harvest enemies for multiple kinds of items and goods, lay live explosives in their backpacks, cripple their legs with poison, listen to the lost travelogues of a doomed family, discover ancient communication towers, and basically soak up the wilderness around you.
However, what Fallout 3 completely fails to do is make any of these varied experiences feel personal, reliable, or “realistic,” to use a difficult term. I’ve never felt a moment of empathy, understanding, or connection with Fallout 3.
I am always oppressively aware of the bounds, possibilities, and failures of my world. They stare me in the face, never hidden, disguised, or integrated into the fabric of the world. This game flaunts its man behind the curtain, whereas other games try to dress him up or explain him away. Fallout 3 presents a boundless, versatile gameplay system, but also presents a bounded -- or nonexistent -- narrative system.
When I play The Witcher, the fiddly bits, the minutiae that so entrance me in Fallout 3, are merely part of what makes me like The Witcher; they are not the be-all and end-all of the game. Instead, what attract me to The Witcher are its core mechanics, and the way in which it depicts my journey through this world. It’s the fidelity with which The Witcher tries to emulate moments of visual, emotional, and experiential recognition that I love.
Yes, in The Witcher, combat is basically a rhythm game, but every style has different moves, every enemy has different animations. I feel that if I met a Drowner or Alp in the wilderness, I could anticipate how they would look or move. Conversely, if you asked me to describe the motions or feel of a Super-Mutant, I might say something about “big, yellow, orc-like guys.
In Fallout 3, the way one differentiates between experiences is always based upon and predicated by its “gaminess,” that particular element’s very nature as a piece of a fake world. Despite being a rather weird fantasy, The Witcher has the air of reality.
I could make the same distinctions between Outcast and Fallout 3, the same distinctions between what I enjoy in both games. In Outcast, I progress so that I can become a more powerful Jedi, but my rewards are the new ways in which I move and fight. My favorite moments by far are those where I accomplish an especially cool or difficult move in combat. The first time I weakened a Jedi warrior with a saber slash, only to throw him into a pit with the Force, was exciting. I wasn’t thinking of the game as a device meant to provide me with this particular combat experience.
Outcast doesn’t wear its desires and goals conspicuously. I’m not constantly aware that I have just been provided with a new way to deal with enemies. Instead, it’s a process, part of becoming a Jedi. It may be artificial and obvious, but it is not intended to be so. Fallout 3 constantly commits this sin: I understand that it wants me to explore and enjoy its world, but its attempts to reveal itself to me are consistently and blatantly ham-fisted.
To an Outcast player, just as exciting as the various pirouettes and flips that my character expertly performs, are the story and characters. Like Geralt, Kyle Katarn and his plight do nothing but reinforce my belief in his world.
Try jumping in Fallout 3, or opening a door, or having a conversation with your father, and tell me that any of it reinforces anything but what you are trying to forget: that what you’re playing is a simulation, and a stilted, painfully mechanical one at that. The people I meet are never people, they’re quest givers, sellers, doctors or enemies.
Enemies and friends alike serve no purpose but to talk to you or attack you. Their lives, such as they are, are completely dictated by your every move. Never do they attempt to trick you into believing in their autonomy or self-sufficiency. When you stumble upon a suspicious underground cult of a “Family” in Fallout 3, you stumble upon a bunch of talking heads: they couldn’t be less like the “Family” they’re supposed to be.
Their existence is such a transparent justification for your exploration and gratification that one has trouble caring for their desires or actions: you know that once you complete their quest arc, they will sit in their tunnels, wandering around and saying the same three things over and over to each other.
And Yet It Gives Me All This Stuff to Do
In Fallout 3, it is never the act that excites me, but the overwhelming display of depth and detail. The way one subway station leads me to another, the way the minor character in the Vampire quest becomes a guy I can sell food to, the way I can constantly upgrade my weapons; these things are my reward. But I would never say that I found Fallout 3 to be a game that made me believe in the genuine tangibility or depth of its fiction.
On the contrary, what is fantastic about Fallout 3 is its ability to create opportunities for me to impress myself, to create my own fiction. I rarely take joy in its art or fluent recreation of human (or other) life, but I am often blindsided by its willingness to give me a ridiculously complete set of my own creative tools. The experience of creating is not like life is, though; the only thing it’s “like,” in fact, is itself -- a video game of a very particular kind.
Thus, your appreciation of these two kinds of games stems from what you like more: do you like being provided with an experience to revel in and savor (or rush through), or do you want to be given the tools to create your own experiences?
My argument is not a terribly revolutionary one: Fallout 3, Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto IV, Gothic III and other more freeform games forgo strong narrative and structural boundaries in the favor of player freedom and opportunity. The bountiful variety of their worlds is thought to obviate the need or desire for a world that reacts to my presence and inflicts its will upon me in comprehensible, unobtrusive (upon my sense of immersion) ways.
It’s actually unfair of me to label Fallout 3 lacking in authorial presence or intent. On the contrary, it is a game that, in its very openness lack of restrictions, practically screams out its makers’ intentions.
Perhaps it’s that I’m not as creative as I should be. Some people enjoy taking a more or less blank slate and coloring it in. This is the problem that I had with Dead Space. Despite the fact that its world and plot were very much in line with Outcast’s style of narration and presentation (albeit with cleverly disguised cutscenes in the case of Dead Space), its character presentation and development were more in keeping with a game like Fallout 3.
I know that it’s practically a staple now -- the silent, barely seen protagonist -- but in some ways, it seems like an idea wrongly stolen from old RPGs. We have the ability to flesh out characters as much as, or more than, their expansive surroundings. Why don’t we?
Maybe, in the end, this article is just a companion to my previous entry. In a world where we can depict a ruined, nuclear D.C., or a simulacrum for the ill-fated Sulaco, why must we settle for characters and worlds that makes Clash of the Titans look fluid and natural?
I love choice, and I love expansive worlds that provide me with a multitude of experiences. But more than that, I want people and things that remind me of their real or fictional world approximates, I want a way of moving through and interacting with the world that strikes me as “natural” or “immersive” (problematic words, those, but for me they describe the promises and goals that Fallout 3 leaves unfulfilled).
Again, it comes back to presentation, and the thickness of the wool covering our eyes: I don’t want to see through the deception, even if it means it’s a rather simple or thin deception. I put up with the more unnatural, robotic worlds like GTA IV’s and Fallout 3’s, because I enjoy the opportunities they provide me.
People may laud Nico Bellic’s deep and sprawling city, but it’s a city of robots without lives, with talking heads that emerge from their apartments to partake in terrible approximations of socialization.
This may be the inevitable consequence of the kind of freedom GTA IV offers, in some cases —- could every citizen of Liberty City have a back-story? But that might be a reason to consider the value in the other side of the trade off, the value of more narrative depth. And it might also be a reason to consider cutting down on breadth of simulation, in some cases, for depth of emulation, even if a game has to play fast and loose with the fullness of the game world to do it.
Closer to Vizima than to the Capital Wasteland
I don’t necessarily want a brilliantly told story; I don’t need every game to be Mass Effect (a game that offended me to no end with its boring, barren, uninteresting explorable worlds). I just want a little believability, maybe some actual complexity of character (or just character presentation).
I’m not talking about Final Fantasy here. 500 plot twists and a guy who could so totally be a triple crosser does not make for a good narrative, or a good character. Likewise, expansiveness and thoroughness of coverage (in the areas of gameplay options especially) do not make for a lived in, convincing world.
Instead, I long for games that go out of their way to trick me when I least expect it, games that go to unusual, “unnecessary” lengths to maintain the illusion of existing in another world.
Off the top of my head, I can think of a few examples: NPCs who talk about something besides “gossip” and quests (Oblivion fails in this case, The Witcher succeeds). Or, as in the new Prince of Persia game, main characters that have personalities and odd habits, like any real person. What I really want to do is play a game without having to censor my misgivings and wishes, my better judgment.