Fallout 4 is almost here and I am riding first class on the hype train. Still, I’ve heard a lot of criticism about Bethesda games — they’re unfocused, the combat is awful, and the game engine is not dissimilar to a piece of Ikea furniture that’s long past it’s shelf life and held together by makeshift replacement parts. Every time I hear these complaints, I can’t help but nod my head each time. Yeah, they all make sense, but when someone tries to tell me Fallout 4 is going to be an awful game, the head-nodding ceases.
It’s true, Bethesda games can look and feel like a mess at times. Characters tend to plod around a small area like droids on patrol, with thousand yard stares and facial features that look like they’re wearing masks of their own faces. And spending hours enveloped in the combat mechanics of Dark Souls and then turning around and swinging your paddle-shaped butter knife in Skyrim is like going to Chipotle for lunch and then any place that isn’t Chipotle for dinner — you’re in for a severe letdown. Then there’s the monotonous quest design, often similar spaces that tend to give out a deja vu vibe, and the game’s attempt to give an extensive, free experience that often results in an array of shallow experiences. The lumber-chopping mini-game in Skyrim is the most ridiculous example of that last tendency in action — for two seconds or less, it’s an experience that might make you say “Neat,” and then there’s no reason to ever do it again.
So why can’t I just go all the way and admit these are shoddy games and they aren’t fun? Well, because — for me and millions of other people — they are fun. And what’s amazing is that we manage to ignore or at least mitigate the effects of all the inherent inferiority of most of these games’ mechanics. I’ve seen people vehemently defend Bethesda mechanics, and there might’ve been a time when I tried to do the same. The fact that some quality in these games is powerful enough to make us all forget about these flaws makes them worth exploring.
The easy explanation seems to be that the open sandboxes Bethesda is famous for allow players to overlook all the flaws. Open-world sandboxes have been all the rage for some time now. They allow the role-players to place their crafted characters in the world, and the people who fantasize about living in that world to do just that. So making a sandbox game is a slam dunk success, right?
Well, unlike an actual sandbox, you can’t just put a bunch of terrain in a video game and expect people to spend hundreds of hours wandering it. The market is loaded with boring games that let you explore a city or expanse of land — Watch Dogs and Crackdown come to mind. The game must generate a little interest.
So, if calling it a sandbox is oversimplification, then what actually makes an open-world game engaging? To put it bluntly, having stuff to do usually defines the sandbox experience. Different sandboxes have different ways of handling this — many like to generate random events that repeatedly occur. One specific way that Bethesda jives up the same old buildings and caves is by giving them a little context.
Particularly with the world of Fallout, every place used to be something to someone, even if it’s just a trash heap now. A random building with various cans of food and maybe some ammo doesn’t mean much and will ultimately be lost to the player among countless other memories of structures with food and ammo. But a house with mines, shotgun traps, and a cage full of radscorpions tells us something; it tells us about the people who lived their and what they were like. Little scraps of diaries on old computers tell us a story of fate — all too often, the Fallout world shows us the diary of a character, only to reveal that character’s untimely demise shortly before or after. Relics of the old world and post-apocalyptic world alike dot the landscape, and each scene awaits discovery and the opportunity to relay its story.
But not everything players discover in these games is dead and gone. Active settlements in these games tend to each have a unique look and feel. Going from Vault 101 to Megaton to Rivet City in Fallout 3 reveals an array of starkly different societies and how they’ve chosen to adapt to the wasteland.
Some objects and places in the world are given names intended to pique interest and allow our minds to fill in the narrative. Sure, the red and blue pass cards in Fallout 3 are completely worthless, but you likely aren’t aware of that when you acquire your first one. The possibilities are endless. They feel special and important, and want us to think about their potential use. Even when we find out that they serve no purpose, imaginative players can consider the possibilities of the pass cards served before the war changed the meaning and purpose of everything.
I realize I’m essentially creating a broad definition of the discovery narrative and casually tossing Bethesda’s world-building efforts into this concept. But world-building is the iceberg that remains largely under water, and the discovery narrative is one projection of that world building into the game. Basically, you can’t just know all about the world these designers built, and different games have different means of presenting information about the world in the game. Bethesda uses a great deal of exposition, but that tends to be boring and monotonous — just consider the beginning of Skyrim for an example of exposition boredom and restlessness. Their use of story told through the environment, people, and anything else the player encounters is much more enthralling.
Providing tiny droplets of narrative and providing discovery-based storytelling makes these potentially tiresome experiences far more engaging and memorable. And, when I think about it, this is one of the few things that Bethesda games do exceptionally well. Just about everything else about these experiences is mediocre to terrible. Attempts by Bethesda at traditional storytelling are met with yawns from the audience — and rightly so, since they tend to be straightforward and not particularly interesting. Many players say they’ve never finished the main plot of a number of Bethesda’s games, and probably the most interesting aspect of the main quest lines for The Elder Scrolls games is how the games’ plots will ultimately affect the world at large.
In particular, the main story for Fallout 3 is particularly dull — while it could be made more complicated, it’s meant to be a story of good guys trying to make water clean and bad guys being elitists and excluding others because of their obsession with restoring the old world, rather than embracing what it has become. It’s short and largely unmemorable except for Liberty Prime and that trip into Leave it to Beaver land. It feels almost like an afterthought.
So the defining feature of Bethesda games is the care they put into the discovery narrative. And people adore these games. Fans freaked out at the announcement of Fallout 4 and even downloaded a rather boring mobile game, Fallout Shelter, onto their phones because of their love for this series. They appear to be able to block out — or at least downplay — all the inadequacies of these titles because of craftsmanship in their game worlds.
This goes against the traditional wisdom of game design — often, a video game begins as a concept of a fun game mechanic, and then expands outward from there. Usually, designers install the method of relaying a story and the story itself at the end of the process. However, the big bang of Fallout series appears to have been its world design, and game mechanics expanded outward from that nexus. The original Fallout games were tactical, turn-based RPGs with some interesting dialogue mechanics. Similarly, Bethesda’s take on Fallout involves some subpar first-person shooter-esque mechanics, dialogue options, and an attempt to implement the VATS mechanic that is ostensibly just a way to involve players who are more comfortable with probability than reflexes. But all these games are about a world and how the player character interacts with that world.
As much as I wish that the game mechanics in Bethesda games were more engaging and rewarding, the fact that Fallout and The Elder Scrolls tend to focus on the discovery narrative — often at the expense of gameplay — says a lot about what compels us to play video games. The stories that Bethesda games tell are not even the most interesting tales, but like many unique game mechanics, they utilize this interactive medium effectively. In this way, the discovery narrative is almost its own game mechanic.
And who knows — maybe Fallout 4 will hold more trump cards than just world design; it’d be nice if the game had more than one good leg to stand on. Yet this discovery narrative is what defines these games, and this feature continues to attract some fans and cause the rest of the world to remain perplexed as to what Bethesda fans see in these games.