Friday, October 17, 2008

Leaving the Vault Means You Probably are Going to Die

Busy! I've been besieged with non-gaming-related business this week, like going on the job market and traveling back to visit Boston, my adoptive home town. It's hard to keep the blog up while you're on the road, and the steps needed to secure gainful employment at the conclusion of my PhD seem to trump my impulses to apply the later philosophy of Wittgenstein to Crash Bandicoot's Nitro Kart. But since I knew I be spending some quality time with the lappy whilst on the road, I brought Fallout 1&2 along.

Fallout makes me anxious. Anxious about failing.

Maybe this requires some explanation. I grew up playing Japanese role-playing games as a kid. While many of the other boys were out avoiding obesity, hitting on girls, and developing critical social skills I was in my bedroom leveling up Moogles. Strangely enough I have a great deal of retrospective fondness for this time. I can't help it. It was my childhood after all.

I began playing through Final Fantasy VI for the GBA during my last round of traveling, and though it's been totally enjoyable the thing I notice most about the defining game of my young adulthood is how structured it is. The early Final Fantasy games, in retrospect, seem like they are very safe and user-friendly adventures.

Paradoxically enough for a game with an amnesiac protagonist, FFVI excels at keeping the player to the path they are intended to pursue: your movements are largely restricted to particular areas of the world in the early going, and the hostile menagerie you find in those areas is always scaled appropriately. Even when you don't know where you're supposed to go next, you can be supremely confident that there is such a place. You're supposed to be someplace, and you know that Final Fantasy is going to do its damnedest to get you there.

Final Fantasy VI draws a set of well-defined boundaries when it comes to the incidence and relative difficulty of its obstacles. It's not that it lacks challenges; it's more that the challenges it sends your way are predictable-- monsters in the fields, but not in the towns. Bosses are at the end of the dungeon, not at the entrance. You know that victory will be in your grasp so long as you keep on grabbing at the next rung of the ladder the game feeds to you, and it's a cheering piece of knowledge to have.There are a definite suite of rituals to be observed : keep leveling up your Moogles, keep buying them better equipment, pack lots of potions, and everything will turn out fine.

So given that this reassuring brand of tightly scripted role-playing adventure is my primary frame of reference, Fallout makes me nervous. Here's the setup: A man tells you that you're supposed to get a new chip for your fallout shelter's water purification system, or they will run out of potable water in 150 days. You begin the game by shooting a couple of rats in a cave, which goes pretty well. And then you step out of the vault and into the surrounding wasteland. Now what?

I've played the game for hours and hours now and I still have no idea whether I'm making any progress. I've wandered from town to town, asking about this chip; nobody seems to know where to find one. I have no feel for whether I'm getting anywhere; I just don't know if I'm doing the right things. There's 94 days left, and though I know I've made some good moves along the way (I've cleared out some Radscorpions, I've killed some bandits, I've freed some slaves) I have no idea if I'm any closer to finding that water chip.

Sometimes, in the towns, you will say the wrong thing in conversation and somebody will just jump you. The next thing you know you'll be locked in a fight to the death with a crowd of religious zealots or petty criminals, because you've picked the wrong dialogue option. I was wandering around a new town yesterday and I was suddenly attacked by a monster-- a deathclaw, for chrissake-- that was entirely capable of killing me and my companion single-handedly. Random, unforeseeable death of this kind is a constant in Fallout.

Even though I find this constant sense of aimlessness and danger unsettling, there is something of genius in the way that this experience of aimlessness communicated by the gameplay dovetails with the setting and narrative of Fallout. Your character has spent his entire life sequestered away in a shelter, where a form of society has survived in complete isolation from the rest of the world aboveground. The surface world of Fallout has been obliterated by nuclear war, and in the wake of this conflict all the order and regularity promised by social life has been wiped from the earth. In its wake only the barest rudiments of settled living have taken root-- small, largely lawless settlements, linked by hazardous trading routes. In the absence of the social contract that makes life predictable you face a world governed by chance, a world that is only accidentally susceptible to your talents and foresight.

And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship. We're saving often.


Anonymous said...

I only played JRPGs after Fallout.

I couldn't cope with the linearity.

Fallout does ease you into the linearity nicely, though; it tells you go to Vault 15, and you do, and you end up in Shady Sands simply because it's en route.

But once you've done Shady Sands/Vault 15, it is somewhat open, and I think the way it separates your character's progression from the environment is important: no auto-levelling, no level-specific content. This of course means you can find slightly-too-big monsters from time to time, but the pacing of the game means that the way-over-your-head stuff is almost impossible to get to if you're too weak. The Deathclaws are a bit scary when you first encounter them; later, they become more regular monsters, but they're never a pushover.

What I found more interesting is that the social elements also aren't tied to level, and that leads to some interesting problems.

My Major Fallout Anecdote (which I won't tell now) revolves around a scene early on, in a town, which required me to either engage in violence or hand over money. At the time, the amount of money seemed huge; within an hour, I would learn it was small change. My reaction to the scene was based on my character's poverty. Other characters might have been more cash-rich (or less financially timid) and shelled out, but for me, my lack of caps forced me to use my wits. Auto-levelling would kill that - it'd ensure the amount was always a reasonably risky investment for whatever money your character had, and it was actually important for the scene that it was chump change for most game characters, but big money for these cash-strapped NPCs.

I think you should not worry too much about outcomes - the game will give you separate endings for each area, and you can achieve overall victory despite some majorly negative endings in certain areas. Similarly, positive outcomes for some areas are not positive for the game as a whole.

It's something we shy away from in games: committing to an entire playthrough where we never regret the past, where we don't got back to old saves; we just make the decisions as we see fit. It's a shame, because Fallout thrives on the player really taking the role-playing to heart, and living in the world. Not as a "good" or "evil" character, not as "lawful" or "chaotic", but as a real, somewhere-in-the-middle person, for whom decisions are never that simple.

I had the anxieties myself; I remember when an NPC-party-member I cared about died (whilst useless Ian survived to live another day); it was a big loss for the party, but we progressed forward - so I just kept on. Regardless of the endings the game would give me, the NPC's death was another mark in the "debt" column of my particular run through Fallout, and it wouldn't be forgotten.

So whilst I understand the anxiety thing, I wouldn't let it get in the way of enjoying the game; if anything, it sounds like you're "doing it right": it's an anxious world to be in, where leaving the vault means you are probably going to die. That's the R you P in the G. Whilst your PC is still alive, you may as well press on. It's Fallout: everybody's anxious.

Nels Anderson said...

Very glad to hear you're appreciating what I always enjoyed most about the Fallout- that it makes absolutely no bones about what it is. It's brutal, it doesn't hold the player's hand in the least and it completely gives you the wheel. If you don't get a new water chip to your Vault in 150 days, there's no doubt everyone will really die and it will be no one's fault but yours.

There aren't many other games that makes the constant threat of high-stakes failure so incessant and palpable. This isn't somewhere where you can just reload a quicksave and keep going. If you fail big time, that's it. And as you say, given the aesthetic and emotion they're trying to create, it works wonderfully. Fallout 2 was actually a little gentler about the big consequences (probably for the better).

As an aside, I would suggest using all the available save slots. Having the start the entire game over is a bit rough, even for me. I've got a Fallout story about that, but it's spoilery, so I'll save it for now.

Savid Daunders said...

After having played (and LOVED) Fallout 2 many years ago, last week decided to give Fallout 1 a try.

I well tell you that Fallout 2 is SIGNIFICANTLY better than Fallout 1, in my humble opinion. Why? Because it has a gazillion more quests and they actually make sense. In F1, like you said, you are supposed to grab the chip, right? Any idea where it is? No? Well that's because no NPC knows either! I found it and I ONLY found it somewhat randomly; no NPC will point you in the right direction, so you're on your own.

In Fallout 2 you can actually equip your NPC buddies with new armor and give them orders and such, you can get silly side jobs (I was a porn star; but you gotta have high DEX for that one!), there are tons more towns and dialogues, lots of different types of enemies, and people's shelves are actually worth checking and stealing from.

In other words, it feels like a much more cohesive game. They both play almost exactly the same, but Fallout 2 fixes a lot of mechanics.

I understand that some people prefer Fallout 1 because the story is more raw/dark or something like that, but I thought that gameplay in Fallout 2 makes it a better overall game. If you're frustrated with Fallout 1, give Fallout 2 a try.

But you're right: Save and save a LOT. Get used to using F6 (quicksave), or you're gonna get your ass handed to you by random deathclaw encounters.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@tom: you bring up some really great points about the game, especially the way it frustrates your desire to play everything "perfect." Like in your anecdote about money, you really don't have enough information at the beginning to decide how much you should be willing to do for 800 caps or whatever.

though I talk alot about how Fallout makes me anxious, I tried to get across the idea that it's also this anxiety that makes the game compelling to me; even though the insecurity is tough to overcome I do think this uncertainty creates a really unique experience.

(also, I'm feeling more confident about killing deathclaws these days.)

@nelsormensch: I've been trying to save at a lot of different points, but like tom points out I'm also feeling sometimes like I need to try to drop my mania for doing everything "right" and just try keeping to the harsher and unforgiving style of the game. Right? At any rate you're right that the unforgivingness is what makes the game unique and interesting.

@savid: I have fall out 2 on the same disc, and I'm weighing whether I should play through it before I go for Fallout 3 now. (which is looking like a must-buy) I really like the combat in Fallout, and if they made the game more polished and easy to manage i think that'd be a plus.

Michael Abbott said...

Hi Iroquois. Thought you might appreciate knowing that I referred your essay to my RPG seminar students who are currently playing Fallout. Your early experience with the game reflects much of what they're saying about it - these mostly 18-year-olds are not used to dying in video games as often as Fallout pretty much insists you do.

I'm especially grateful for your observations about the game's weaving together of play experience and meaning. It's something I'm trying to communicate in class, and your account of how your responses evolved were very helpful in this regard. So, thanks!!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mike: Hey thanks! I hope your students like it, I'm really intrigued by the game, and I'm enjoying it much more than I thought I would. I'm going to try to write on it more in the next week.

One thing I tried to express (I'm not sure I found the best language for it in the post) is that the bewilderment and sense of precarious inexperience that is so powerful in the opening sections of the game is thematically significant. Your vault-hero has no experience of the outside world, and the very hostility and unpredictability of the environment, the omnipresence of sudden death, has this way of making you identify with your character. (tom put this well, in the comments)

Anonymous said...

Alas, pliskin, you just underwent an awkward experience called "playing": you see, in games, there are winners and losers, and removing the latter possibility entirely destroys the purpose of playing, which is intricately related to learning and improving.

Take the Final Fantasy games you played into consideration, prime examples of games that are not. Whether you have fond memories of them should not matter on a critical apprehension of the concept I just laid bare: when you remove as many obstacles as possible in a game, and direct the player to the next course of action and not let him decide which one is best, you’re creating an instruction and not a variable. Uncertainty of failure, or victory, for that matter, is the essence of games. Any Final Fantasy is just one big, intermission ridden movie.

Rejoice in the gem you just found. Fallout might be the first role-playing game you have ever played.

Anonymous said...

I came here after reading Michael Abbott's article and I must say, I enjoy seeing so many heads interpret a game and its encounters like you have done here. If a game by its own merit can invoke a passion or need to express what you have seen or found in it, or moreso in yourself while playing it, it deserves to be labelled as a great game.

I also disagree with garoto to an extent. While never having played any JRPGs save for Super Mario RPG all those years ago, I remember playing Half-Life; a game which is obviously linear given its genre. I found it to be one of the best games I have ever played, given the story and the gameplay elements. You can easily have a game that is linear but still provides enough challenge to rightfully be called a game, but I reckon just as easily have one that does not provide the same challenge or is simply dull because of repetetiveness. I think that was what you actually meant.

Also, if anyone could point me to more sites where I can find similar articles, I would be more than grateful.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@garoto: while i have to admit that the FF games were linear, and that a lot of their challenges could be solved through throwing a shitload of time at them, I have to disagree with your claim that the series is *not a game.*

If you want to say the possibility of failure is what makes an activity a game, well, a lot of the battles in the FF series, especially the old ones, were ridiculously difficult. You needed to strategize well in order to win them, and that included how you leveled up your characters.

If it's the linearity, then see sentura's point below, which is well taken.

Now if you want to get into what kind of game is more compelling, I think you have an argument on your hands.

@sentura: Hey thanks for coming by! I don't know if you're looking for fallout-specific posts or whatever, but the sites listed on the blogroll on the front page all are good examples of good games writing. Check 'em out.

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Anonymous said...

Savid Daunders said...
"In F1, like you said, you are supposed to grab the chip, right? Any idea where it is? No? Well that's because no NPC knows either! I found it and I ONLY found it somewhat randomly; no NPC will point you in the right direction, so you're on your own."

No NPC that will tell you exactly where it is, but there are several NPCs that will give you clues as to where you might want to look, some of them are right, some of them are wrong.

Ian in Shady Sands will give you directions to the Hub where you find the water merchants. If you ask the right questions, they will tell you about Necropolis and speculate that they have a water purifier because they don't buy water from them. This clue can be missed by not asking them why they don't deliver water to Necropolis or asking for work, which cuts off the other dialog options until you do a job for them.

If you did miss that one, in the Boneyard Library you find a ghoul in the basement. Talking to him, you find out he too is from Vault 13 and like you he was sent to look for the water chip. He will tell you he heard that Necropolis had a water purifier and he went there to check it out, but he was captured by super mutants and turned into a ghoul.

The first time I played Fallout, I missed the dialog with the water merchants because I asked about work. When I talked to the ghoul in the library, I brushed his clue off thinking that he already searched and didn't find it there.

In that first game, I talked to a girl in Adytum that told me about a vault to the south under a church. I had to take a break from the game right after that area. I had written down notes while playing, but when I came back after several weeks, I couldn't find my notes. The last thing I remembered writing down was the vault under a church. I found that church, but couldn't get into the vault due to getting killed by Nightkin. I was about to go check out Necropolis because it was the only location on my map I had not visited, but instead of roaming around randomly hoping to find it, I decided to start over when I had time to play without any interruptions. I had completely forgotten about the conversation with the Ghoul, but I'm sure it was in my missing notes.

It was years later before I came back and started over. I got the clue and location of Necropolis from the Water Merchants and wanted to slap myself for not finding that the first time.