Dec 172008

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now, mostly so I don’t have to keep digging things up. Now, finally, I’m going to try it for Bethesda’s Fallout 3, and if I like it, and other people like it, then I’ll probably start doing it for more games, new and old. What is it I’m doing? Well, look at the title. This is a critical thinking compilation.It is not a review compilation. I am not interested in anything that provides a “score”, explains what the writer loved/hated about it, or tries to tell the reader whether the game is worth the $60. Those are valuable services, but they are also incredibly easy to find using Google. This is something different. I am trying to make it easy for me, and my five six readers, to find analysis, which does not Google quite as efficiently. It can be about the theme, the plot, the mechanics, the art—anything as long as we’re going beyond “well, I liked it”. The goal is to compile a set of links to quality dissection and discussion from bloggers and other web voices. So, here we go. Expect this page to get updated regularly as long as I remember to do so.

I decided, after looking at a couple of formats, to arrange this post by a series of general topics that have formed core areas of the discussion. Obviously these links will be chock-full of spoilers, so be wary if you’ve yet to finish the game.

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.

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. Michael Abbott details one such experience in “Second Thoughts”, in which he also ponders his meta-experience of the game. 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. Scott Juster 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. Mitch 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, which he found otherwise forgettable.

As a counterpoint, one can consider D. Riley’s 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 extensively critiques the logic of this quest, the options available, and the game’s moral judgment of your choices in “Tenpenny Tower”.

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.

So, I hope you’ve found some good things through this list, perhaps things you hadn’t seen before. I’m certain some good pieces have been written that I’m just not aware of or have lost my links to; please point them out to me in the comments. Also, I’d like your opinion of this idea, this format, etc. Should I do this again, or was it a big fat waste of our time?

Last Update: 4/6/09

  10 Responses to “Fallout 3”

  1. Wow that's a fantastic round-up. I've long thought that it was a terrible shame that there's no one place to go for a big summary of all the different takes people have on a game.

    It's a thing I'd love to see a bit more of!

  2. I agree with Ben, this is a great idea.

  3. This is a brilliant idea. I would love to see it take off and turn into a full-fledged website/database. There's a lot of potential here.

  4. I have been behind on my blog reading for the last few weeks, so just came across this.

    This is fascinating. Having read most of these, it's also useful to more concretely see and compare how they relate to one another and what this means for the game we are all playing.

  5. I would love to see more of these. A centralized 'critical thinking on games' database would be incredible. I would love to see this kind of post for any of the year's big releases– GTA4, MGS4, Fable 2, Mirror's Edge, LBP, World of Goo, Braid, etc. Essential.

  6. This is fantastic! I found your writing through the Brainy Gamer holiday podcast and I would love to see more of these.

  7. I have to agree with the others, pretty useful/cool to see all the collected wisdom, you know, collected.

    I'll pimp my own post relating to Fallout 3, but it's less criticism about Fallout 3 as it is critical thinking about the design problems it exposes:

  8. That's a really interesting post, Borut. Glad you liked this, and hope you're glad to be in it now.

  9. Thanks! :)

  10. Just stumbled across this on google…what an excellent resource. Thank you for putting it together, it provided lots of interesting reading and stimulating thought.

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