Falling Out

2 12 2010

I posted an anachronauts update last night. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

I finished Fallout New Vegas (or as much of it as I was willing to finish), and as we had some spirited discussion last time I mentioned it, I figured I’d give my final thoughts.

FNV has one major strength and one major weakness. (Well, using the damn Gamebryo engine is a pretty major weakness, what with all the crashes and crap animations and such, but I’ll evaluate this assuming everything is working properly.)

It has more than a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ending. Most games these days claiming to offer Tough Choices are really about being Mother Teresa or a baby eater, to quote Yahtzee. Mass Effect offers you a choice of a Mother Teresa or Dirty Harry, but that’s still a binary option. Generally you’re always asked to either be a fully upstanding do-gooder, or a selfish douchebag who messes with people for the lulz and the money.

FNV has these paths — they’re called “supporting the NCR” and “supporting the legion”. The NCR are the arguable good guys, despite everybody you run into saying they’re stretched too thin and incapable of managing the Vegas region. All their endings are positive ones, where they bring peace and prosperity to all, run out the gangs, be big heroes, etc. The Legion… well, arguably they civilize things, but they do it by murdering and enslaving everyone and being generally vicious, heartless bastards, so there’s no gray area there.

But FNV also offers a third and in fact fourth option. It’s not a middling “neutral” where you just step out of the way of the plot, either. You can elect to kick the asses of the NCR AND the Legion and keep Vegas independent. Plus, you can do this in two ways — by solving the problems of the groups in Vegas to show them hope of a better tomorrow as you take command of the situation, or you can let Mr. House get greater control and rule by the iron fist of law. Good AND evil third options, very nice.

This is the game’s greatest strength. It lets the players pick from more than a two party system (cough cough political subtext cough) and shape the wasteland the way they want it shaped. I haven’t seen too many games in the past offer this many routes to the finale, especially across the moral spectrum. Good show.

Unfortunately, this is also a bit of a weak spot, because so many quests assume you’re going the NCR or Legion route and totally ignore the Independent route. Good example. My companion Arcade Gannon wants me to round up his old friends to help in the battle. In the end… I’m only given two options. “I want you guys to fight for the NCR” or “I want you to fight for the legion.” not “I want you to fight for me.” I checked the fan wiki to see if I was doing something wrong, but it said to get them to not shoot you dead in the finale, you have to pick NCR. Which makes no real sense.

Many other quests fall along the same lines, making assumptions about the player’s goals and motivations and providing no options to you. My favorite is helping the isolationist Boomer faction, who are, basically, ordinance-obsessed psychopaths who feel everybody outside their camp are “savages”. They’re nice enough folks, but their core philosophy is that one day they’re going to bomb the living hell out of everyone else. And the game expects you to smile and help them arm to the teeth for the good ending. You don’t even get a chance to say “You know, my actions should prove we’re not all savages out there” or “I’m establishing an independent Vegas and I’d like your support bombing its enemies.” Nope, just RAMIREZ, GO GET US A BOMBER PLANE and damn the long term consequences.

But other quests are even weaker, because there’s no reason you’d want to undertake them. Nearly all of them assume you’re willing to just stumble across a totally new situation and say “Hey, what incredibly dangerous odd jobs can I do for you even though I have no real reason to want to do them?”. Find a new village? Time to fix their generator, run off the bandits, and help their cats out of trees.

Good motivation: “ME AM DO GOOD” Evil motivation: “ME AM WANT MONEY”. That’s just not enough. Even a good oriented player would want at least a nudge of motivation; maybe “If I do this, will you support the NCR / independent vegas?”, a sort of wandering handyman building up a power base for future use. Very few of the quests allow for that. Sure, you get faction reputation, you’re “liked,” but all that means is they won’t shoot you in the face on sight and you might get a discount at the local shop. La dee da.

In fact, the entire game is founded on the principle of doing quests Just Because They’re Quests. You start out shot in the head and left for dead, your cargo taken. Do you want the cargo back because you feel the burning need to complete the delivery? Do you not want to get stuck with the fine for loss of cargo? (250 caps, big whoop.)

The game never provides motivation options, nor expects you to have any particular motivation. Just get out there and start questin’, big guy, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a game like this.

And we’re talking some duller than dirt quests here, folks. Literal fetch quests — go here and get this thing / click on this guy and come back. Go to these FIVE places and do a trivial task and come back. In the end? “Thanks, have some caps, goodbye.” Wheeee. No twists, no turns, no storytelling worth note, no reason to do it, nothing changing around you as a result of your actions, boring. I skipped the vast majority of these and decided to go right to the ending.

For every brilliant innovation, there’s also a lame and lazy old-school RPG standard waiting around the corner. Is the game worth playing for the moments of brilliance? Well, I finished it, so yeah. But 20 hours in, the laziness grated on me, and I ended up skipping a lot of content as a result. Probably the best way to go in this game. Play the parts you like; ignore the rest. End result, fun. Just a shame they wasted so much potential elsewhere in the game.

EDIT: See comments, where I clarify some things; it’s less about the core functionality of the quest system and more about the boring presentation of the quests. Lazy setup writing vs. immersive scenarios.

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7 responses

2 12 2010
mtws

Nearly all of them assume you’re willing to just stumble across a totally new situation and say “Hey, what incredibly dangerous odd jobs can I do for you even though I have no real reason to want to do them?”
You have played a Fallout game before, right? :p
Seriously, how does this differ from Fallout 3 at all? Basically everything–EVERYTHING–not directly related to the main plot essentially presumes as a prerequisite a certain amount of curiosity about the world and the people in it. The degree of involvement you have with the environment is directly proportional to your interest in interacting with it–if you don’t care about little Suzy’s cat, leave it in the damn tree and move on.
It is a design decision destined to appeal more to the “explorer” gamer mindset than anyone else (and I admit it’s not a demographic I’m normally much a part of), but I don’t think it’s in any way accidental or lazy. Every Fallout game basically says “Here’s your sandbox, do what you want with it, and we’ll toss in a plot as an excuse to get started.”
Because really the plot is always only an excuse–no matter how well-crafted it may or may not be–to get you out into the world and exploring. It’s always as much, or more, about the little stories you find along the way as is about Finding Dad Or A Water Chip Or Whatever. I expect the intent was always for “No, screw your damn cat” to be a perfectly valid response.
I do agree the game could use more opportunities to define your motivations (a catchall “I have my own reasons” works, if all else fails), and some quests are myopic in their assumptions about motivation. But in the Boomer example it’s obvious from later responses you can give to the NCR about the Boomers that “pledge your support to *me*” is actually an intended possible outcome of that, but for some reason is not adequately conveyed in the quest itself.

2 12 2010
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I forgot to add it in my rant above, but in Fallout 3, nearly everything you do is purpose driven in the sense that you’re trying to find your father / complete his work, which is a very understandable goal, and these are side tasks along the way. Many of them directly tie in, as you’re helping people who can help you with your quest, or who were involved in your father’s work.
FNV, your only motivation is to complete your courier job… but there’s no real reason to, other than pure revenge or the supposed cash penalty for not doing it. The family motivator in F3 works considerably better in that regard.
All the quests are okay as-is, but they need more writing at the front and end to show why you’re doing it, and what you get out in return. I was looking forward to telling the boomers about my plans for the future of vegas and where they’d fit into it and why they shouldn’t just bomb the crap out of everybody, but no, it was “Thanks for the plane, goodbye.”

2 12 2010
schadrach

You more or less just summed up my opinion of the Fallout series to date. There’s also usually at least a couple of “hidden” areas, places that are completely disconnected from the main plot and have a unique feel and a quest series attached. Stuff like the grove of druids centered around everyone’s favorite FEV exposed human who was subsumed by his own head-tree. Or the republic of Dave.

2 12 2010
schadrach

How do the radioactive super ants genetically engineered by a mad scientist fall into that? Or the Replicated Man, or the superheroes, or the Wasteland Survival Guide, or the previously mentioned grove of druids (seriously, they’re a bunch of hippies that worship a man mutated into a tree as a god)? Or any of the DLC aside from the one that extended the main plot directly?
I’ll give you that the motivation for the main plot was pretty damn weak in New Vegas, but the main plot has always seemed like a side thing in the Fallout series, aside from the evil, evil time limit in Fallout 1.

2 12 2010
mtws

F3 certainly gives you a more *concrete* motivation for doing the main plot, true, and it’s readily understandable *provided you accept it*. But F3 also gives you the option to say “No, actually, my father was a jerk and good riddance to him, the lousy bastard,” at which point you’ve got logical disconnect between motivation and action that I’m inclined to see as an even worse flaw, because then you’re right back to doing stuff because strangers asked you to. YMMV.
I suspect leaving your motivations essentially a blank slate in FNV was an attempt to avoid such problems, but they did perhaps go too far in the other direction.

2 12 2010
cmdr_zoom

Sounds like you stuck pretty closely to the main quest in F3?

2 12 2010
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I did a lot of side quests in F3. And a lot of them were just “I’m going to help you just because.”
But… and this is hard to put a finger on or describe, I know… it felt more important, in F3. That what I was doing wasn’t just needless paladinery, but that it had some weight and substance to it. The strength of the main quest plus the meat of the side quests made none of it feel like busywork, made none of it feel thin and purposeless.
I think FNV’s overall weak writing is the culprit here. Without a strong main quest, and with sloppy handling of side quests, the thin veil over the whole structure is yanked away. The mechanics are laid bare and immersion cracks. They’re functionally identical to F3’s quests, but they FEEL lamer.
So many quests, I just went “Eeegh… I REALLY do not give two craps about this situation and the work involved to see it through is more annoying than fun” and tossed them out of the window. The feeling of accomplishment and involvement just wasn’t there, even if in the end it all boils down to “go here and click this thing.”
Let me give two examples.
One: Rangers needin’ rescue from a bad situation. I got this quest on my radio, oddly enough, when I heard a distress signal. That immediately gives it importance and urgency; lives are at stake and odds are I was the only one aware of the problem. I was glad to step out of my main quest path and go handle that. If some random schmoe at a military base had said “We lost contact with some guys, go here and look for them” it’d be far less interesting. And yet, that’s exactly what I got in FNV.
Two: The radioactive superants situation. When I walked into town, BAM, it was right there in your face; honest to goodness robot vs. insect combat, and civilians running in terror. That hooked my interest right away, and got me to talking to folks. The problem was urgent, and I saw the threat with my own two eyes. Again… FNV’s approach would be to talk to random peaceful civvies going “Need anything done? Need anything done?” until one mentioned some crazy lady in a cave. Dull.
It doesn’t have to be immediate, but that’s an example of a good hook. It pulls you in and makes you care about the situation. Click the dude with the [!] over his head and do as he commands? That’s not nearly as fun.

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