Armchair Design, essay, video games

Armchair Design: How to make a better Fallout game

[I’m starting yet another series with the introduction of the Armchair Design posts. In these, I will try to highlight things about how and why design choices and consequences in games have bothered me and what I think might be a good solution.]

I’m on a Fallout kick again. Starting from this morning’s post, I have been thinking about the ways the little details in the two latest incarnations of the Fallout series have bothered me. Since I was already talking about the small flaws that I found with “Lonesome Road”, I thought I would extend my list of problems into three main problems I have with both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.

Clustering

Something that really bothers me about The Wasteland in Fallout 3 is that it is, well, a wasteland. There is very little detail outside of the buildings that you can enter and the various places you can explore. The inside of places are full of interesting things, backstory beats and various items to be picked up or ignored. The outsides though are not colorful or inviting. Nothing makes me want to enter any of the places other than those that stand out and I grow curious about. Those places like Megaton, with its fences and big doors. Those places like Rivet City — it’s a ship! The world is bleak but occasionally there structures to look at, things to go investigate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that this is post-apocalypse and that most of the Old World with its idealize and bright colors have been washed away. I understand that. But people still exist and would, after decades had passed, started to build up and shape the world around them. Take some notes from Borderlands and some us how people have constructed dwellings out of the things around them. “Lonesome Road” has some great areas that are nothing more that railings, office roofs and broken buildings. If these handful of people can build up their small areas, so can others with more materials and populations. Fallout: New Vegas has, for the most part, taken this idea to heart and improved Fallout 3‘s big emptiness of the other world.

While Fallout 3 had a few gems to go looking for, things you would see in the distance, New Vegas does a great job breaking up the monotony of the world. Off in the distance are the lights of New Vegas as you explore the Mojave desert. Novac has a dinosaur. Helios One, once you complete its quest, lights up the night. Even if the area around the character is boring, and it very often is, there is something to look toward, a lighthouse to draw you closer. There might be rocks, enemies to fight off, but there is a light calling to your curiosity.

This is what I find so annoying about playing Fallout 3 and, to a lessor extent, New Vegas for many, many hours: the world becomes more about the desert or wasteland, navigating the physical limitations of the world, the plot gates that the developers have put down, than wanting to explore anymore because it will mean looking at the same textures over and over. My eyes grow tired and I get a headaches from looking at the same things, the same desert or wasteland hills over and over. By condensing most of the quests to a handful of areas, the player never needs to wonder around and explore. And, should they even try, they find nothing but the world of the game, the actual landscape, to fight against. I am giving you permission to make the worlds smaller if it means I get richer moments in the few areas I have, not just an ocean of bland that contains a few pearls worth finding.

Make it worth it

If I choose to explore a path that the developer has placed with the game, some long winding way through a building or across a landscape, there had better be something at the end of it for me. More often than not, my own exploration in the various areas within both Fallout 3 and New Vegas have nothing but occasional materials that have no real worth to me, either as weaponry or as part of the economy. Didn’t people live here at some point? Did they leave notes? The terminals in most of the buildings of Big MT have messages to each other, sometimes in the same buildings. These story beats, even if they are unrelated to the quest or plot of the player, help breathe life into the world. I want a reason to venture away from the clusters of content and into the bigger areas, something to draw me into the bleak and repetitive landscape.

One of the better ways this idea is used — for good — is in the distribution of unique weapons and items in both games. There are a small number of weapons like Fisto! and Vengence, the later found deep in the Deathclaw Sanctuary. Fighting your way past the toughest enemies and deep into a cave brings the player a prize for their effort, something that does not always happen. If a road exists in the world, there should be a reason for it. Some part of the overall narrative should support why the road, this path, exists and it should lead somewhere. Put weapons or armor there. Put more story connections there. The world does not have to have something in every place — see Clustering — but there should be a reward for walking deep into a cave or exploring all the corners of a building other than just the experience of fighting — see Threats!

If the world is going to be filled with the various artifacts of the Old World, have something there to find. I spent many hours in Fallout 3 looking at tunnel after tunnel. Every once in a long while there might be evidence that people had been there but most of the exploration was in the dark recess of repetition. They were most empty, why is that?. Where are the marking of ways like in Borderlands or “Lonesome Road”? Where is the wall writing that exists in “Honest Hearts”? Where is, to make it even simpler, evidence that people had ever been at the place the character is standing?

Threats!

This point deserves an exclamation point to show how tired I am of it. Everyone is out to get my character. Fiends, in New Vegas, come out of nowhere to harass my companions. Mole and Super Mutants seem to be everywhere in The Wasteland of Fallout 3. There has to be a better way to demonstrate to the player that the areas that these two games take place in are dangerous. By using humanoid enemies against me, the games are making the point that life is not valued. I get that. However, after killing hundreds of people, the verisimilitude of the places gets called into question.

One of things I am growing tired of in the many games I play is the reliance that most games have idea of “Kill everything for x” for a central mechanic. Maybe you can call it the result of playing things like Planescape: Torment where the beats of the game are fights that are surrounded by long periods of exploring a space and a society. Trying to take that same lens to the Fallout games means that, from just a mechanics standpoint, the game is more about killing things than anything else. That might be why, for example, leaving any towns and walking for a short while produces enemies who try to shoot or otherwise maim me just on sight.

This, just the Clustering, is born out of a need to have the player gain levels through the use of encounters that give experience. It is part of the role-playing gaming roots. However, it is also very strange. Why do people want to kill me? Not just try to scare off or intimidate me, but actually kill me? This makes sense for creatures that are just acting out of instincts of territory or to gather food. For them, this is understandable. I might even allow those enemies like the fiends who are drugged out of their minds to attack me too. But what about bandits or otherwise human enemies?

This is something that I feel New Vegas does better Fallout 3. If there are no universal laws across the country or area and I have wronged a group of people, it would make sense that they are wary of me. It even makes sense, if I have committed numerous crimes against them, that they would want to kill me or at least drive me off with force. For the various factions, the use of weapon is a perfectly valid way to stop a threat to you. This still leaves various enemies though that have no real reason to attack me but still seem to do so out of just the fact that the game wants me to fight against something.

Put more people in the game who are not threats, at least not initially. Maybe I could come across some people who are traveling, like the merchants in both games, that have their own faction and who get to make a decision about me that is more granular than just that they hate or like me. In fact, the best case would be an individual faction for every one where the decision to even sell me something, for example, is measured as a result of both whatever factions that individual is a part of, what they know about me and what experiences they have had with me. People, in real life, do not always agree with their neighbors or even completely with all ideas of a political party they might be a part of. Show us this. It’s okay to have less people, just make them matter more.