Monday, November 10, 2008

The World's Your Oyster

Whatever your opinion of Bethesda's hit fantasy role-playing game Oblvion (and it is an immensely divisive title), there is a moment in the game that is indelibly etched in the memory of everyone who has played it. After being confined to a narrow, and rat-strewn prison in the game's first hour (fulfilling the industry-mandated quota on first-hour rat-slaying in RPGs), you step out of the dungeon and into the the most impressive vista created in a video game. A glimmering expanse of grassland and forest stretched in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Even though the game would never live up to the immense feeling of promise that greeted your first steps out of the prison, to this day I have an unshakable conviction that Oblivion had achieved a wholly new experience of space in a video game, one that justified the technical leaps necessary to its achievement.

As much as I enjoyed the mind-boggling expansiveness of Oblivion, my enthusiasm for exploring its world eventually foundered on the game's patent schematism. Oblivion had an respectable variety of locales-- cities, caves, ruins, forts, castles and the like-- but once you had spent a good amount of time in the world you came to recognize that the world had been created by continually recycling a set palette; once you had seen one goblin-infested fortification you had seen them all. Even though you could walk for forty-five minutes in any direction, you eventually ran out of novel scenery. The designers' decision to scale the enemies to the player's level was a necessary hedge against the player's eventual exhaustion of the game's assets.

For me, Fallout 3 finally fulfills the promise of those first steps out of Oblivion's prison. Even though Fallout makes the same liberal (re)use of generic items (it's impossible to shake the feeling of deja vu when you unearth abraxo-cleaner-and-wonderglue-strewn room # 438), I have been continually impressed by how the game nurtures a sense of boundless possibility, a feeling that belies the palpable limits of the game's suite of in-game objects. For every cookie-cutter factory or sewer (and there are more than a few), there is something genuinely new and interesting-- a mercenary camp, an abandoned school, a decrepit power station, a high-rise full of prostitutes. Even the generic Metro stations (whose uniformity is excused by the fact that they are well-wrought simulacra of the actual D.C. Subway system) are strewn with small of unique content-- faux vampires, deranged clowns, and inexplicably well-defended wall safes full of scanty nightwear.

And due to my aversion to the main quest, I haven't even run across the truly ubiquitous features of Fallout 3's postapocalyptic D.C., like the crumbling, debris-strewn National Mall. For all its expansiveness and sheer density (I'm still impressed by the fact that you could read every book), the world of Oblivion was fundamentally uninteresting to me on its own terms: the races, creatures, and environments were such regulation Tolkienesque-fantasy fare. The wedding of the Fallout series' distinctive design aesthetic to the open-world design ethos of Bethesda is a happy one-- the signs, the style of the ruined automobiles, the radio stations, the whole faux-retro cultural imprint taken as a whole is just more compelling to me, and the sense of place is reinforced by innumerable apt details. Unlike a goblin fortress, it offers me something I haven't seen before.

The designers, seemingly inspired by Bioshock, have done a good job of telling a story through the player's mere experience of space. I went down into a shelter in the downtown area yesterday, and though it was barren of life, the disposition of the objects in the bunker spoke volumes: the head of a statue, a garishly illuminated flag, a set of female mannequins covered with plungers, a dessicated corpse on an operating table.

It's true that the character animations and voice acting are not the game's strong suit, but harping on this point too much obscures the fundamental fact that the game's most memorable character is the world itself. If the interactions with other people fall flat at times, my desire to interact with the irradiated landscape has yet to run dry; indeed, I'm beginning to wonder if there is any real upper limit to my desire to aimlessly wander the wastelands with my trusty pup Dogmeat, aiding the weak, scavenging ammunition, and gorily shattering the crania of the odd raider. For now, there's no end in sight.


Denis said...

My Dogmeat ran off and managed to get killed. So far this has happened to two of the three followers I've also had. One decided to get into a one on one brawl against a Deathclaw. When I came across her corpse I just stared, raised an eyebrow, and shook my head. The AI is just plain ol' stupid.

That said, even if the palettes are recycled, I'm constantly constructing my own stories. Such as the person in a bathtub, surrounded by empty liquor bottles. The damaged garden gnome in the bathroom of what appears to be an all male academy, with the faculty bathroom having all sorts of cherry bombs in and surrounding a destroyed toilet. There are all these stunning little details that constantly remind me that this was once a world that flourished, and I'm only seeing the devastated Reconstruction that has occurred.

I want to post on this particular topic more, but have forced myself into a Fallout 3 embargo after posting about it twice already. Perhaps next month... Will give me time to breathe when I finally manage to complete it and then go on and have a bite-sized snack on another game before trying it again.

shoinan said...

Just like you, I found Oblivion to be overwhelming at first and then eventually dank and uninteresting. Partly for those reasons but more because of the silly season we're in right now, I decided to avoid Fallout 3 and try out the wealth of other games on offer. The problem is, as usual, that everyone and their Dogmeat are telling me about how damn great it is. I'm not sure I will be able to hold out until the mid-December lull...

Michel said...

For me -- and many other lifelong gamers -- this moment came in the opening minutes of Morrowind. Oblivion was technically bigger, but I think most people agree that Morrowind felt larger and more overwhelming. There was no compass arrow pointing you where to go, just an NPC saying "go to Balmora". Where was Balmora? Walk down the road and read signposts.

If you haven't playedMorrowind you reallyshould, if just to compare it to the latest Bethesda games

Ben Abraham said...

I'm in a weird position - I absolutely adored Oblivion, and I was sure that it was all about the beautiful world Bethesda had constructed.

And yet I can't help but find fault with the world that Bethesda have now created in Fallout 3. I'm beginning to feel like a prophet of doom so often it is that I now say "I just don't really like it". Maybe it's aesthetically not as attractive to me.

Maybe it's because even though, as you rightly point out, while a lot of love and attention to detail has gone into the Capital Wasteland, I can't help but find it jarring that after some 50 odd previous scavenging I can now come along, find and clean-out nearly every building and location in the world. It frustrates me, to say the least, and the eventual overabundance of "stuff" I accumulated before I finished (at lvl 20 of course) meant that F3 had none of the sense of 'lack' and 'struggling to survive' that the earlier games had.

Or maybe it's just me...

Julian said...

For what it's worth, by the end of Fallout 2, I had so much crap I didn't know what to do with it all, power armor for my whole team and fancy weapons enough to take down the Enclave. It got so bad, I spent a good chunk of the last quarter of the game struggling to find people with enough money or stimpacks to buy my crap off me.

Nelsormensch said...

Every time I think I'm about to be disappointed by sameness in Fallout 3, Bethesda surprises me. Earlier today I was scouring the Arlington Library. I expected it to look a lot like the Museum of History or the National Archives.

It turns out the place had been taken over by raiders and it was plainly obvious. Tortured, broken bodies, ammo and bottles of hooch cascaded throughout the library's halls, in contrast to the broken emptiness of the museums on the Mall. I have yet to be disappointed by the environs of the Capital Wasteland.

The one bit of weirdness is I haven't come across a single follower (that liked me anyway) yet. Granted, I've spent most of my time in the DC Ruins where things are a lot less friendly.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@denis: I had this same problem with my treasured dog running into firefights and getting himself killed; the companion AI is, if anything, less manageable than Fallout 2. You're right about the environmental storytelling though, I hope you'll write about it.

@ben: As I mentioned back in my Survival Horror post, I liked the feeling of scarcity that I had in the early portions of the game. for the first few hours I found myself short on ammo, but by now (level 16) I have more ammo, caps, and stimpacks than I know what to do with. And I was frankly offended when I ran into a Super mutant early in the game and it failed to kill me.

But as Julian points out, the previous Fallouts also had a definite point where you reached escape velocity. In both Fallout 1 and 2 I hit points where I no longer had to worry about ammo and health and the like.

What I like, though, is that after reaching escape velocity in Fallout 3 I still feel this great incentive to go out and explore the world, just discover locations and kill raiders. Admittedly, your interest in keeping on will depend on how the world suits your tastes.

@nelsormensch: I totally agree w/r/t the creativity of the environments. It's possible to get pretty far without getting followers (I ran into Dogmeat accidentally, early on), but i've heard there are some great characters out there later on in the game.

Brando said...

Very good post on Fallout, and my feelings regarding it and Oblivion pretty much mirror yours. By the time I got to around 20 hours in Oblivion, I was pretty bored. Impressed with the world, but bored with the game. I'm about 15 hours into Fallout and loving it.

They've also managed to create a sense of dread and depression, yet punctuated with bright flares of humanity (like Moira's cheerful research). That contrast really makes it feel like a post-apocalyptic world where the human race is trying so very hard to survive and rebuild.

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