Monday, December 8, 2008

Fallout 3 - A Reflection On the Writing

“Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation or, put another way, it creates in the reader the expectation of nothing” –Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, Pg. 34


               We are not dogs. We do not eat kibble. We do not truckle cozily at slippered feet. Yet, the designers of Fallout 3 have created for its audience a vast interactive game of fetch. Retrieval and delivery style events in video games are a widely adopted design convention hailing back to the earliest computerized game artifacts. They are a staple of the video game designer’s repertoire and are especially vital to single player gaming. In most single player experiences the player is pitted against obstacles in a virtual environment in order to achieve a stated goal. Additionally, the acts of going and doing are key facets in maintaining a sense of interactivity within the game environment where even basic tasks need to have an air of importance or at the very least conceal their mundane nature. The use of the delivery and retrieval quest models within Fallout 3 is a direct response to technical and functional consideration of game development and game play; the text within the game is used primarily to camouflage functional structures of the design, complicate play and to compel the player to complete tasks that advance the game to conclusion; in this regard, storytelling elements typically become a tertiary reflection for the designers.

               Most games, including traditionally analog card and board games, include a delivery and retrieval aspect. In chess, a player drives pieces from one end of a board to another in order to trap or capture the opponent’s king. In poker, participants retrieve a series of random cards from the dealer and the player with the best combination of cards wins. Chess consists of a single delivery element: coordinating the movement of pieces to threaten the enemy king; the simplicity of the game is made more appealing by the complexity of strategies involved in placing the opponent in checkmate. In poker, the fetching element involves the retrieval of cards from the deck; play is structured around participants delivering valued tokens, or chips, into a betting pool and providing strategic obstacles for other players with the ultimate goal being to return a winning hand of cards to the deck and retrieve as many chips as possible. In both games, elements of play complicate and conceal rudimentary structural elements. In Fallout 3, character dialogs and supplementary texts serve a similar function: distracting the player from objectives determined by game play and design requirements. Most quests in Fallout 3 consist either of the player traveling to a location (thus delivering the player), or retrieving an object from a location. Both quest types are justified in a variety of ways related to the discovery of in-game landmarks and key non-player characters. The player is given explorative goals through information gleaned from conversations with non-player characters who serve as quest hubs. In this regard, the content of conversations is irrelevant provided it achieves the effect of informing the player of requirements and compelling the player in some way to desire the completion of quests.

               In the post-apocalyptic setting of Fallout 3, the player follows his or her father out of the safety of a massive underground bomb-shelter community known as Vault 101, and emerges in the rubble and wastes of an annihilated Washington D.C.. The irradiated Capital Wastelands are populated by human survivors and a variety of mutants, as well as two military organizations with conflicting goals regarding the fate of the local population. The initial sequences of the game occur within the Vault where the player is educated about Vault life and compelled to perform basic tasks. One of these moments involves the player receiving an air-pump pellet rifle from the father character and his or her education in the use of the weapon. The veneer of the father-child relationship is meant to conceal the fact that game designers are providing instruction to the player in the mechanical elements of game play. Additionally, the writing establishes the importance of this relationship with the intent of quickly resonating with an audience intimately familiar with the commonplace of the father-child dynamic. The convention of establishing familial bonds between the player and non-player characters is found commonly in games containing storytelling elements and helps to create a sense of immersion within the interactive environment in the hopes of assuring player interest in completing the mechanical objectives later introduced in the game. In this regard, the guideposts that Bazerman describes serve not just to facilitate meaningful communication between the writer and reader, but rather to translate functional design requirements into a language or mindset that is compelling or familiar to the player.

               One must also consider the investments made by the design studio in terms time and treasure. In the non-linear sandbox style environment of Fallout 3 it is easy for players to become lost or distracted while weaving between delivery and retrieval quests, locations, and quest or information hubs. In approaching the design of a game environment in which not all content will be explored by all players, the designers are forced to prioritize the investment of their time and resources and allocate the greatest commitment to those assets in the game which will be encountered by the greatest number of players. With this in mind, designers craft a main quest that players are forced to follow in order to advance the game to conclusion. The main quest yields the greatest return on the designer’s investment and is typically the best wrought portion of the game, showcasing the most significant aesthetic and narrative achievements. One of the immersive qualities of the game centers on in-game music that is delivered via radio to the character; Galaxy News Radio provides music and also main quest updates to the player in a long loop of audio. The radio functions as a sort alarm clock for the main plot reminding the player of what has already occurred, and prompting the player to remember his or her commitment to pursuing the game objectives in which the investment was placed. This is additionally, and probably better, evidenced in Fallout 3 by the employment of two prominent voice talents used exclusively in the main quest: Ron Perlman and Liam Neeson. Perlman narrates the prologue and epilogue of the game, as he has in the previous Fallout titles, voicing the overarching moral of the series: “War never changes.” Liam Neeson voices the player’s father, the object of pursuit in the early stages of game play, and later, a quest and information hub. The substantial financial commitment of hiring prominent voice talent means that talent has to be utilized in the most effective way possible, exposing as much of the content as possible to as many players as possible. In some cases, the game even breaks from its immersive player free agency and forces the player to stand still while Neeson’s character speaks, the player has no free agency during Perlman’s narratives. This removal of freedom performs two functions: it ensures that the most costly voice acting is received by the audience, and it reaffirms the importance of story elements meant to maintain player connection with the underlying game structure. The main quest can be seen not as an unraveling story, but rather a mechanical design in which the player retrieves audio snippets of Liam Neeson’s voice inside of the larger task of retrieving Ron Perlman’s vocal contributions. In this sense, the writing performs not just as a system of guideposts to translate the mechanics of the game design, but also illustrates the development of writing conventions in response to design conventions arising from the need for designers to justify their investments.

               The impression left by playing through Fallout 3 is that the writing lacked importance in the design process and was primarily reactive to that process in structure and style. It seems disingenuous considering that the marketing for the game is based on the uniqueness of its setting and the assumption that with that setting the player will be drawn into game propelled by its narrative as with previous Fallout titles. The first two installments of the series designed by Black Isle Studios were very writing centric, and the mechanics of design were largely built as a vessel around that writing. The third Fallout, designed by Bethesda Game Studios, abandons that philosophy and instead works to achieve mechanical efficiency by marrying the writing to design requirements. It is a common method in the game industry to design mechanics first and add story elements later and in that regard Bethesda adheres very tightly to established conventions, working within them to achieve guaranteed financial success with an artistically mediocre game (in terms of story). The legacy Fallout 3 inherits from earlier installments shows the effectiveness of breaking from design conventions in order to achieve an atypical result in the medium, in the case of Black Isle’s works: a compelling story experience inside of a game environment in which most other accepted design conventions remain intact. It was Black Isle’s ability to bend the rules of game design without breaking them that led to the artistic success and critical praise of their Fallout games. The achievements of the first two Fallout games were so significant that five years after the studio responsible for them closed its doors, ten years after the second installment and four years after the final spin-off from the intellectual property was published, the series still had enough credibility to warrant spawning another sequel. In the realm of video game design, that is as close as a game can come to being canonical in so far as Herrnstein-Smith attributes the quality to the endurance of a work. Fallout 3 as a storytelling vessel, on the other hand, does nothing to distinguish itself from established video game writing conventions; in fact, it does a poor job of hiding the architecture of its quest design and frequently fails at maintaining narrative consistency. The fact that there are at least two characters with strong foreign accents living in a populated American wasteland more than 200 years after nuclear holocaust seems improbable and violates the rules of the established setting. Additionally, within the main plot attached to the main quest the main villain actually dies halfway through the game in a cinematic sequence and then reappears later without any explanation of his resurrection, a fact that flatly breaks the flow of the narrative and illustrates the lack of commitment to telling a cohesive story on the part of the designers. At some point in Fallout 3’s design process, the most carefully fashioned portion of the game was left either unfinished or sloppily handled, a fact that does not speak to the care of the designers or their commitment to storytelling within the medium. The end of the game also occurs suddenly, the player is meant to choose the fate of the Capital Wastelands having located both a three-digit code to activate a massive water purification system and a poison to eradicate mutant life. At this point, the player has the choice of whether or not to use the poison and whether or not to enter the irradiated room where the console is located. In all the scenarios available, the game ends, Ron Perlman reads the epilogue and the player is deemed either a hero or a villain, and in most cases dead. The sudden and irreversible end of the game comes without warning.

               The problem with Fallout 3 is that the work its writing does centers on getting the player to swallow the pill of design conventions without offering a spoonful of sugar in the form of good storytelling. In that respect, Fallout 3 has done a fine job of giving me, as the audience, a sense of poetic closure in that I expect absolutely nothing from its designers after having finished the game. I suppose that could be considered a measure of their storytelling success, if the story in question was that of the Fallout series.


Anonymous said...

This was one almighty ramble of a tl;dr

Good writing does not equal lengthy, verbose rambles.

Ryan Placchetti said...

Sometimes it does.

Anonymous said...

No. It doesn't.

Ryan Placchetti said...

But, sometimes it does.

Anonymous said...

Dude, it's a blog. What'd you expect to find here? "Which D&D Alignment Are You?" questionnaires?

Good read, anyway.