Armchair Design, essay, video games

Armchair Design: How to make a better Fallout game – Part 2

[This is the second part of a set talking about the Fallout series through the last two games Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. This post is also part of the Armchair Design series, highlighting design choices and consequences in games that I question.]

After yesterday’s post about the mechanics of the Fallout games as it applies to the visuals — too empty, often boring — and leveling — enemies attack me, I kill them ad nauseum — I want to address something that is much closer to my heart as a writer of fiction: the narrative of the two games. To start this post I will ask one simple question that has a far-reaching potential to highlight something I see as a problem for both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. What is the plot?

This should be something very easy to answer. After all, I heave beaten both games several times now and in the case of New Vegas tried out all major story choices at some time or another. It should be simple to point out what the major events are and how they shape the protagonist as he or she makes their way through the world to the inevitable end of the story of the Courier. In the sixty plus hours I have played both games, I should be able to make a simple list of which events have changed the opinion of the protagonist, which have not and how the overall worldview of the character is influenced as a result. Unfortunately, I am having trouble coming up with those items. Here is what I have come up with so far:

Fallout 3 Fallout: New Vegas
The Beginning: The Lone Wanderer is born The Courier is shot in the head
The Climax: ? ?
The End: The Lone Wanderer makes a choice about
the water purifier system.
The Courier makes a choice about
the Hoover Dam.

Obviously, the point I am missing is the climax of the story. At what point does the protagonist confront the antagonist and is forced to make a choice? In fact, what or who is the antagonist in these games? Answering the later question will help a great deal in answering the other more important one, so let me take some time to suggest options that might be the antagonist.

Option 1: The world

This is both the least obvious and most obvious choice. Throughout both games, the player is forced to confront the region itself, the enemies that are in it and the various combinations of the two. The player must be able to read the landscape and direct the character. The player must be able to defeat any enemies that they come across. The grammar of the various mechanics must be mastered in order to complete the game and this, of itself, is a mastery of the world that the character is in as well. However, there is a problem with this choice: when does the player confront it?

In the example of Fallout 3, the player could be said to confront the world at the point where they make a decision about the FEV Virus in connection with the Water Purifier system. If the player makes the choice to poison the water supply, they have chosen to condemn anything that is not pure-human, a change that has major consequences for the world. The character has chosen to change the world in a very different way, to erase non-pure humans from the world. If the player chose not to poison the water, the very existence of a clean source will have a lasting impact in providing water for the people and beasts of The Wasteland, a rejection of the bleak world and a start toward a better future.

Option 2: Mr. President

If there is a leader behind the events in the games, it is either President Eden or Mr. House. For Fallout 3, President Eden is the driving force behind The Enclave and thus the person — computer — that is pushing for the soldiers and technology that has been trying to take over The Wasteland. Most of the other fractions, like The Brotherhood of Steel, are opposed to his ideas for how to rule over The Wasteland. He has been the main party that The Lone Wanderer fight against the most. In Fallout: New Vegas, Mr. House is the party that sets the whole game in motion with his delivery of the Platinum Chip. Without that action, The Courier would not even be involved in the fight of Hoover Damn at all.

So, it would make sense, given these two guys actions, that they might be the antagonists. For President Eden, he is confronted as part of the game’s main story, true. However, after that event, nothing truly happens. In other words, the game does not end there. Even if the player chooses to confront Mr. House, one of the many possible ways to start the ending of the game, he does not really factor into all endings. The NCR and Legion, the other two parties, will still fight it out at Hoover Dam. Thus, unless you want to dismiss the final battle and scene in each game, neither of these two can be the game’s sole antagonists. They may move pieces around, but they are not the true kings on the board.

Option 3: There isn’t one

This might not be what you were thinking once I got into this thread of thought, but I think it very well may be one of best answers from a player’s point of view. Since both games allow a very large range of choices about where to explore and when to explore said places, the time dilation between when the developer thought the game would end and when it actually does could be vast. In my own case, I spent several hours exploring the outer edge of the map just to see what was out there. In this case, the antagonist might have been the world but I was not really paying that much attention to the landscape around me. I was just walking the character around. I was not playing out any part of the story or following some narrative beat, my character was just exploring and picking up items.

Option 4: The player

This is the true answer, the best one. The game as a story is not actually about the player but the character. However, the character cannot express themselves in any true manner. In fact, the character has no control at all. Thus, the opponent that the player is facing is not the world or the enemies in it but themselves as a reflection of the choices that are made as the character. The character, as created by the developers of Fallout 3, wants to know more about their father after he goes missing. In Fallout: New Vegas, The Courier wants to know about the man who shot them and what they were doing to lead up to that point. Yet, the player intervenes and directs the character toward paths that are not conducive to this end.

By taking control and then eventually giving it up, the player serves as the very thing fighting against the forces of the world. It is the player that drags the character toward the goal that they, the player, wants. It is the player that sidetracks the narrative of the game and make the character take actions and follow through events that are not as the developer intended. The very presence of the player is a disruptive force in the world of both the game and the character.

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