Armchair Design: How to make a better Fallout game – Part 3

[This is the third 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.]

Okay, I am going to admit something: yesterday’s post got very messy towards the end. I started it and then got side tracked by some code I was waiting to finish compiling. Once I came back to the writing, hours later, it was nearly midnight and I already had over a thousand words worth of a post. I went ahead and posted it without the additional conclusions and remarks I was going to make. This — hopefully final — part of this set will serve to point out something I meant to get around to in that last post: the games are not about you.

In the search for the antagonist, I was going to every corner to find things that both the character and the player confront together. From a character’s point of view, several of the non-player characters could be the antagonist. Using New Vegas as an example, it could be Benny, Mr. House, the NCR, The Legion or even the world itself. However, from the player’s point of view, the choices are more limited and basically contain both the virtual world and the character him or herself. In my listing of all those options though, I lost sight of something I wanted to make as the point of that whole exercise: The Lone Wanderer and The Courier are not the protagonists.

In both games, you cannot be the protagonist. You do not change. Even extending the model to more options like, in the example of Fallout 3, the Super Mutants and other corrupted entities, still does not bring about a change in the character. Sure, yes, the player, through the character, can make a choice about the world — water in Fallout 3 and, well, water in Fallout: New Vegas — but the status of the person of the main character is not changed, cannot be changed. In order for the character to change, the character would need control. He or she does not have that, the player has it all. Therefore, with the player in charge and the character unable to act, who exactly is the story about?

I have a radical idea for you. In the explanation, it is going to get a bit strange so stay with me till the end. Here is what I think the stories are about:

In Fallout 3, the story is about the father, James.

In New Vegas, the story is about whatever humanoid companion is with The Courier.

The narrator (the player) is telling the story of a first-person account (the character) of how some events happened in two different narrative accounts. Neither game is strictly about the character — remember, he or she does not change — yet a story happens. So, obviously someone must be changing as a result of the narrative. The person changing is the result of the catalyst of both worlds, the player-character combination.

In Fallout 3, James would have never (permanently) left the work he was doing in Vault 101 if The Lone Wanderer had not been born. That birth, resulting in Catherine’s death, prompted him ultimately to leave Vault 101 and start the retelling of the events, as the character comes to understand them, through the use of the player as the narrator and a form of director. The twist that starts the story — the literal someone coming to down, someone leaving town — was not James’ leaving of Vault 101 but the birth of The Lone Wanderer. All of actions within the main plot of the game concern the finding of James and the continuing of his work, even after his death. The climax occurs when the James finally realizes that his and Catherine’s dream can come true through the player-character. The character only becomes part of the story at the very end in the decision of using the FEV or not. The game still ends once James’ work ends. It is his story.

In my playing of New Vegas, I have spent the most time with Veronica (voiced by Felicia Day). Her journey through the story of the game serves as good example of the path of a companion. Once the character comes across her, should she decide to follow you, she leaves her posting at 188 trading post and follows the character around. However, interaction with her will eventually prompt the character to seek out the Hidden Bunker and start a series of quests that will, in the end, prompt two choices for Veronica: either leave The Brotherhood or stay despite knowing they are not going to change. This choice is the culmination of the conflict that is part of her and creates the climax of her, through the player, making that final decision. The ending of the game, the decision of Hoover Dam, makes no real difference to any companion. Each, once they have had their catharsis, goes on to have a happy life despite whomever controls The Mojave.

So, the question then becomes this: why tell the story from within the mind — first-person — of someone in the game? Why not, as many other games have done, have someone tell the story and then have the player enact events that happened before? Why not have the player control the character from a top-down view, like Fallout 1 and 2, directing the story from a literal on-high view? The answer to this, and why I think both Bethesda and Obsidian chose first-person perspectives for the two games, is that they wanted choice to outweigh the narrative.

In a very good case of the divide between  ludology (mechanics) and narratology (story), both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas attempt to thread between both but end up landing on the side of ludology. By the use of a first-person perspective, they have chosen to present the idea of player as catalyst. Both developers have wanted to present the player with a rich and full world in which they can communicate and interact with in turn. This is the use of a simulation (purest ludology) and does not give over itself to the use of any narrative. Thus, in order to have some narrative, they needed a vessel to deliver it, the camera or first-person perspective of a character that interacts with the world of the game but is not part of an overall story.

To make the narrative of the world interesting, they have beats that act as events that should direct the player toward the intended goal. These beats are dialogue interactions, talking with the various non-player characters. However, success in many conversational options is based in statistics that the player can “game” with skill magazines, leveling or even drugs. This makes even the delivery of exposition and information a part of the mechanics of the game, yet another level of simulation to which the player can interact. If all these dialogue events, combined with the fighting mechanics already in place, make the player in control of the process of the story, the player cannot be, as the director, part of the story itself.

This is the consequence of wanting to give players choice. As long as Bethesda and Obsidian want to create a better degree of verisimilitude and simulation, the narrative of the player as protagonist is diminished. There is an inverse proportionality to the two properties. By allowing more choice, they remove the player from the story. The greater the role of the player-character, the less the world of the game is real. Each is tied to the other.

In trying to answer who is the protagonist and antagonist of Fallout 3 and New Vegas — ignoring my own opinions on it — a critical reader of these works has to look beyond the controllable character. For as long as the player has the ability to delay the story as designed by the developers, the protagonist cannot be the player or the character. They do not change and are nothing more, in a extreme sense, than a floating camera and a director that goes to a certain place to see an event and maybe throw in a choice or two that may or may not have meaning. Through playing neither experiences is bad in my opinion — sixty plus hours each and I bought all the DLC too — their narratives are a mess viewed through anything but a personal telling of a single player’s interpretation of events as they direct the story.