Monday, December 1, 2008

Fallout 3: Part 1

So I've been intending to make a post about Fallout 3 for a while, but I keep getting sidetracked by actually playing the game. That alone is probably sufficient to indicate that I'm enjoying it quite a bit, but what I find interesting about Bethesda's games is that while I thoroughly enjoy them, I also come away from them with a list of complaints long enough to form the basis of a doctoral thesis. I guess these are just two aspects of the same thing - obsession.

In any case, I'll start off with some of the complaints, both because I noticed them quickly and because I'd like to give some sense of credence to the good things I have to say later.

1. The Uncanny Valley, Uncanny Rolling Hills, and Occasional Uncanny Mesa

One of the things that I'm consistently surprised by is the widespread assumption that detailed graphics makes for good aesthetics. Fallout 3 is a fantastic example of "next gen" graphics producing awkward situations out of otherwise fine material.

The most clear cut example of this, in my opinion, comes in the form of humor that's hard to laugh at. The game has a certain over-the-top last-generation-fears-realized-in-an-unlikely-future setting, which is clear in everything from the vaul-tec mascot character, who has a smile on his face no matter what he's doing (and it's not always pretty) to the use of nuka-cola caps as currency. At the same time, the game can be creepy and atmospheric. This duality should be pretty clear to anyone who has seen the ads, which show cheerful propaganda fading away into the barren remains of DC, and I understand that the tension between the over-the-topness and the creeping sense of disturbing possiblities is intentional. The problem is that the things that actually provoke these sentiments in me are far too random and seemingly unintentional. It's hard for me to laugh at a situation when its rendered in such exquisite detail that I feel like I'm in the world, but at the same time it's hard for me to take combat situations perfectly seriously, no matter the context, because of the highly improbable amount of gore.

Speaking of gore, I find that the first result on a google image search is usually pretty telling - this is what I got for Fallout 3:

Wow, I didn't remember putting magic head-exploding bullets in my gun between the 15th and 16th shots I took at this guy...I mean, it's one thing when I shotgun a ghoul in the face at point blank range, but when I'm using a pistol at 30 yards, exploding heads are just a ridiculous outcome, especially since I just shot this same enemy in the head with the same weapon multiple times without seeing any such effects.

Note that my problem here isn't with the presence of gore - I'm ok with a game being intended for mature audiences with hardened stomachs. The problem is that the gore doesn't seem to have found any kind of balance or proper place for itself within the game. It doesn't make me reflect on how horrible gunfights are, add to the sense of realism, or serve as consistent comic relief to lighten the mood. Sometimes it makes sense, and it works, but just as often it feels out of place.

The uncanny valley is generally understood to be a fairly specific issue: human facial recognition is very good, so we notice when a face we're presented with approaches realism without actually being a realistic human face, and it bothers us. The basic principle behind it, though, applies much more widely - if you don't ask your audience to suspend their disbelief, they won't, and then they'll notice everything that's not quite right.

For example, the people and living spaces of cities are richly detailed, which on the one hand is great because it gives you more to explore and lets you look into people's lives. On the other hand, it makes you stop and wonder why there are apparently 30 residents of Underworld and only about 10 beds - oh right, because only a dozen of the residents are actual NPCs with names (and beds). For that matter, this is supposed to be THE city of ghouls, the one so great and successful that you can hardly find civilized ghouls living anywhere else...and it's got 30 residents? That doesn't really qualify as a city, much less a major melting pot for irradiated people from all walks of life. I mean, that's about how many raiders (or super mutants) live on an average DC block, but those areas aren't called cities.

By contrast, consider the typical toolbox in Fallout 3. I'm usually not surprised to find a paint gun, some psycho, and a couple units of scrap metal inside one. If you actually look at each of these items, however, you'll notice that a toolbox couldn't possibly hold all of them. This, unlike the small size of a city or the magic 16th exploding head bullet, will likely not be noticed by the player during the game. Why? Because the toolbox is presented to the player as an abstract entity - you can't actually open it up and see the contents of the toolbox - you get a dialog that informs you what is inside, which immediately triggers the player to suspend their disbelief (they don't mind doing so, all they want is to play the game), cue a resource management mini-game, and continue playing.

The lesson here? Abstraction is a powerful tool. Never forget that.

Before moving on, there's one other great piece of "realism" that I feel obliged to bring up. I'm a fan of headshots, so it's not uncommon for me to see the words "Raider's head is crippled," and then to see the same Raider in question pull out a baseball bat and come at me like a madman. I repeat, the game told me that his head was crippled. When I hear that, what I expect is that he's lying on the ground in the throes of death, when it actually just means that he has a minor combat disadvantage.

2. Meaningless Alignment

One of the things that seems to be noticeably worse in Fallout 3 than in Oblivion is the alignment system. The main problem is that it's too simplistic. Oblivion had fame and infamy, which implied an element of human fallacy - you could be evil without being infamous if you were subtle about it (or had the mask of the grey fox). In Fallout 3 there's just karma, and it goes up when you do something nice/noble/generous, and down when you do something mean/illegal/gross.

One problem with this is that it doesn't allow for any kind of substantive distinction between different "good" or "evil" acts. If I look at a computer terminal that I wasn't given permission to, I lose karma. If I kill a woman in her sleep, I lose karma. There's no difference. What's more, there's no limit to how low your karma can do for committing petty crimes, so after stealing hundreds and hundreds of boxes of abraxo cleaner, you'll be a Capitol Crimelord, and tales of you murdering and pillaging will be told on the radio, even if you've never killed anyone.

Speaking of the radio, while it at first seems cool that the game responds to your actions by having the radio report on how evil (or good) you are, it's really just bizarre. For one thing, what 3 Dog says about you on the radio has no relationship whatsoever to what he says to or about you in person. In fact, in a single radio broadcast, he called me an "evil bitch" and 90 seconds later said "so if you see the kid from vault 101, give her a pat on the back" - well which is it, 3 Dog? Do you love me or hate me?

The last thing that's just bizarre about alignment is that everyone, from 3 Dog to random children, know what your alignment is. If there's a "detect evil" spell out there no one ever told me about it, and I just have to guess whether or not the person I'm speaking to is trust worthy, but every single person in the capital wasteland just knows that I'm a bad person, even though they haven't seen me perform a single bad act and they don't behave any differently around me (usually) because of it.

Seriously, if I steal a nuka cola in the middle of nowhere, seen by no one, then I gain magic "evil karma" which can be detected by everyone and compels them to tell me I'm a bad person, but otherwise has no effect on their relationships with me (they'll still do business with me, give me quests, etc.). That's not consequences for my actions. That's just weird.

3. Navigation Nightmare

Megaton is hard to get around. That's what I thought before I made it into DC, and spent an hour trying to figure out how to progress toward that dot on the map until I realized that I was supposed to used the underground tunnels to reach it. Yay. That really made my game experience fun, having a marker on a map with no clear way to reach. Oh wait, no, it didn't.

Half the game takes place in a labyrinth that has no clear rules and filled to the brim with low-loot, high danger super mutants that punish you for making a wrong turn (which you do all the time). More generally, it seems that the purpose here is to control player movement within the city, in order to facilitate a scripted level flow as you move from one part of the story to the next. In other words, the difference between navigating the city and navigating the wastes exists in order to emphasize the difference between playing the main story and doing sidequests in the wastes. I for one find this distinction jarring enough as it is - I don't see how it's advantageous to remind me that all of the elements that make the game unique and interesting are reduced when I follow the main story.

Speaking of scripting, I was bothered by the "Behemoth" sequence early on in the story, in front of the GNR building. A wall is broken down and a giant monster appears, while one of the paladins screams to me "get the Fat Man off of that dead soldier while we hold the Behemoth off!" Of course, the Fat Man is a huge, gigantic weapon that fires nukes. I'm sure this would have been incredibly exciting to a player who used the Big Guns skill a lot, but to me, a sneaky character, it just seemed incredibly lame that the game is forcing me to fight in a way that is completely contrary to my character build, giving me a weapon that seems too valuable to throw away, but takes up 15% of my inventory space without seeing any further use, and trying to convince me that the line "It's a Behemoth!" is flavor and not cliche. What's worse, it's cliche from a different game, and seems like it's only in Fallout 3 because Gears of War/Halo is popular. Halo and Gears of War are both fun, mind you, but they aren't the game that I put into my PS3.

Well, I was planning on also getting to the good parts, but this post is already mildly epic, so I'll cut it off here and save the good part for next time...


Matthew said...

You, my friend, are a man after my own heart. I love the nit picking of every little thing.

I guess my only question at this point all of the little things kill the game? Or is the sum of the game greater than the nitpicks?

Ellipsis said...

Well, the answer is yes and no. The nitpicks, all taken together, prevent the game's various parts from all coming together nicely.

What I can say, however, is that the parts I like are so fun that it forces me to like the game despite all of its flaws. I'll cover exactly what those are in a subsequent post (maybe later today).