Criticism

Notes on Fallout: New Vegas

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If Fallout 3 is a game about spaces, then Fallout: New Vegas is a game about people.

This can be seen in the way that it informs the world design of both games. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a vast, sprawling space with huge distances in between points of interest. The game wants the player to forge a relationship to the Capital Wasteland itself as they navigates its reaches. The Mojave Wasteland of New Vegas, on the other hand, is a lot smaller. There are several points of civilization in the wastes that are (almost) all connected by a singular road that loops around the map. In fact, this is how the game structures the first act of its main questline: you start in Goodsprings, head south to Primm, then the NCR outpost, then loop round and up to Novac, and finally New Vegas itself, all following the I-15/I-95. The distances between these pit-stops is shorter than the distance between any two locations in Fallout 3, especially without any train tunnel mazes to meander through, and there’s not much scenery in these interludes. It’s all wide, indistinct expanses of desert and the occasional valley. The Capital Wasteland always has the Washington Monument visible in the distance, drawing the player continually back to that frame of reference and forging a relationship between player and space. Not so in the Mojave.

What this does mean is that greater emphasis is put on the interactions that the player has with those pockets of civilization when they do reach them. The player is encouraged to stick around for a while and seek out all the Stuff that the developers have packed in. This is achieved through the quest design itself, which makes connections between settlements for the player to tap into. There are lots of side quests in New Vegas that simply entail bouncing between settlements to talk to different people.

Ranger Ghost in the NCR Mojave Outpost asks the player to go to Nipton to check out smoke coming from the town. When they get there, they find it has been sacked by the Legion, and Vulpes Inculta gives the player a separate quest to spread word of the Legion’s actions to strike fear into the NCR. Back at the Mojave Outpost, the player tells Ranger Ghost about Nipton, and in return get some dialogue explaining the significance of this event in terms of the conflict between the NCR and the Legion. They can also talk to Sergeant Kilborn in the Outpost to complete the quest given by Inculta.

These are quests that overlap, establish relationships between individuals, factions and locations, and also involve only travelling, observation and conversation in terms of gameplay. Rather than emphasising the movement of the player through the space of the Mojave itself, these quests ground the player in the geopolitics of the Mojave that they then become a part of. There are shades of this in Fallout 3, especially in the Broken Steel DLC, but they aren’t as well realised, nor are they as integral to the way that the game is structured as a whole.

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Criticism

Notes on Fallout 3

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I’m not sure what to think of those rare moments of quietude when the game’s music and visuals work in tandem to create a rich atmosphere of loneliness, the background threat of the wasteland intermingles with the strange beauty of the desolate landscape, and the imaginary ruins of Washington D.C. become a solemn, dignified capriccio. Whilst these moments are all constituted from Bethesda’s deliberate design, they feel at odds with the main storyline of killing successive Bad Army Men and the traditional RPG (capitalist) narrative of player progression as detailed in Stephen Beirne’s essay here.

They could be accidents, or maybe I’m not giving Bethesda nearly enough credit and it’s all meant to add to the experience of occupying the space of the Capital Wasteland, alternating the adrenaline heights of combat with the nadir of exploration.

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I know that this is something that everybody else realised upon or shortly after release, but it’s just coming to me now so bear with me.

The problem with morality in Fallout 3 isn’t so much that it’s built around this dichotomy of good and evil, but the way that this dichotomy is expressed through violence. In Fallout 3, an evil act is the killing of a good person, and a good act is the killing of an evil person. As a result, killing itself has no inherent moral property. What makes an act of good or evil is to whom the otherwise inert act of killing is directed. To put it another way, the game treats good and evil like opposing teams. One dead Evil Person is a point for Team Good, and vice versa.

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Archive, Design, Games

ARCHIVE: Connecting post-mortem

This was originally posted on tumblr on 30th August, 2014.


1 – The theme

The part of “Connecting Worlds” that interested me the most was not necessarily “Worlds”, but “Connecting”. It suggests liminality, something that exists between worlds but is not a part of either.* So my game, then, would be about being between, about being in a constant state of connecting – connecting being a present tense verb, so the title in a way suggests that sustained liminality. From there it wasn’t a difficult leap to “airport”; travel is one of the most obvious and popular forms of the liminal that we can all recognise.

“Connected” also suggests a relationship, not just the actual connection itself but what that connection represents to each part. Naturally I went for a very literal definition of “relationship” and decided to make the game about communication between partners. Texting was the best way of displaying information about the relationship to the player in an interactive way, and continuing with the idea of liminalities, the phone can be seen as something facilitating the relationship between the player and Sam without being in the relationship. I mean, obviously. That would be weird otherwise.

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Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: There Are Two Marstons

This was originally posted on tumblr on July 4th, 2014.


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One of the Indie3 panels I was self-aware enough to watch live was Solon Scott’s interview with Arden Ripley about her upcoming game, Date or Die! Their discussion eventually worked its way around to talking about visual novels and games writing in more general terms, and how to write a protagonist who at once functions as the player’s ambassador in the game world and a fully-formed, individual character in their own right:

’[I]t’s really challenging, but fun, writing a protagonist who is their own character whilst still trying to give the player choices and options and stuff. I don’t want them to feel like they just don’t have any say in what’s going on at all, but at the same time I don’t want them to be able to say things that are wildly inconsistent with Hero’s character, because that just makes her a bad character and then the player doesn’t have any fun with that if their character is inconsistent and all over the place. That’s no good for anyone. […] Usually in some games you might get an option where you can say something nice to someone or be a jerk to somebody, and Hero’s not a jerk. She’s just not that kind of mean person. But what you might be able to do is accidentally pick an option where Hero says something insensitive or thoughtless, as opposed to her actively antagonising anybody. So it’s about how you approach making options for players that are meaningful whilst making her a consistent character.’

The challenge here is crossing a gulf between the aspirations of system design and narrative design. In fact, my describing it as a ‘gulf’ already plays into that view of gameplay and story as being two forces pulling in different directions – not necessarily completely opposed, but very rarely aligned. Whilst trends in game design lean towards choice and increasing player agency, the narratives that are imposed onto these changing structures are the same as ever; conflict-orientated, good versus evil, often linear. The result is that at some point, these narrative models will not be able to accommodate the expansive aspirations of the game’s systems, and the former will suffer as a result. My go-to example of this is Red Dead Redemption.

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