Monday 10 November 2008

Embodiment and Immersion: Fallout & Far Cry, FIGHT!

Not to harp on about a single topic or anything, but I’ve been pondering why I’ve felt so disappointed by Fallout 3. Yep, you read it right – I don’t entirely feel like the review scores it got were wholly deserved. I think I’m doubly stung because, in confluence with the hype train, they influenced my decision to go out and spend my hard earned dollars on the game. Okay, so I’m complicit in the last point for being a sucker for hype and the former can easily be countered by the suggestion that the review process is entirely subjective, which I tend to agree with, so lets skip past finger-pointing and try and identify why.

I’m a bit of a one trick pony at the moment, because I think it largely comes down to the sense of embodiment that the game offers, and certain things which only break my sense of immersion. For starters, when compared to Far Cry 2, my character in Fallout 3 feels like a lifeless sack of potatoes, and as Michael Abbott has recently noted, so do the other inhabitants. Why would I want to play a game in which I have to plod around everywhere like some machine reminiscent of Marvin the Paranoid Android when, with the swap of a disk and a click of a different icon on my desktop, I can effing sprint-slide into cover in Far Cry 2, and rip pieces of shrapnel from my body with a pair of pliers.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as Kieron Gillen noted somewhere that I can’t seem to recall, in Fallout 3 you can do outrageous things like jump up on a table in the middle of a bar, and no-one cares. It would be fine, actually amazing, if there were responses for these out there actions but as it stands, nary a soul has one whit of a comment for many of the crazy things you can do in that game. And so as a player I find myself having to think up some (usually extremely tenuous) excuses for why other characters are downright uncaring about my kleptomania and other inexplicable behaviour, in order to maintain narrative coherence.

Take for example, any number of houses in Fallout: in a great many you will find a number of items that will fail to be marked as ‘owned’ by another character (shown by red text in game) which when picked up by the player results in thievery. Obviously, the majority of these are accidents, but as a result of this accidental design I find my sense of immersion broken by having to do a kind of “meta” thinking and decide whether or not I would (in character) take these items. More often than not I find myself reacting purely out of function and take the items anyway (sometimes I don’t) and take advantage of the exploit, but the fact is that every time I do it is immersion breaking. In a similar vein, by allowing me to jump on a table before beginning a conversation with an NPC, Bethesda has allowed for the occurrence of a situation in which the logical response of an NPC (which could be anything from “What do you think you are doing?” to “Get off mah dinner table, whippersnapper!”) is not present within the game. I find this extremely irritating.

The obvious counter argument is that “well you should be role playing, and if your character wouldn’t stand on a table then neither should you” and I suppose that is a valid argument. However it is most definitely NOT how I want to play a videogame – for me it’s all or nothing. If you can do something in a game, then there should be an appropriate response for it. Why even bother to let me jump on tables? What purpose does it actually serve? It’s not even as if it would be impossible to implement a system to prevent the majority of these oddities. Far Cry 2 contrives to make 100% certain that, when in a context for which a certain kind of action makes no sense (read: certain indoor areas), then you are stripped of the mere possibility of performing an incongruous action. Most notably, when you meet with certain mission-critical people indoors, you can no longer run, jump or fire your weapon – often having had your weapons taken off you before entry. This makes perfect sense, so I am only too happy to oblige!

I believe some of the reason for my difficulty in accepting the incongruity of an NPC ignoring my strange behaviour comes from not possessing a strong skill at, or even inclination towards Role Playing. And yet, even Role Players I know have commended the vintage game, Deus Ex for some of the small details that work to build a consistent and convincing world, specifically the noting of your characters entry into the womens’ bathroom. It seems to me that, while it is undoubtedly possible to force ones self into a way of playing that “only makes sense” in the game world, it makes even more sense to me to enforce certain behaviors unless they serve a purpose. In an interview I conducted with Marty O’Donnell, the audio director for Bungie studios’ and responsible for the sound and music of the Halo series, for my recently completed thesis we got onto the topic of giving the player control over “every aspect of the game”. O’Donnell said to me,

…game players have gotten into a habit [of thinking] that they should have control over all these things and basically I’m saying, you know what, no – you shouldn’t.

So, Bethesda, if you’re listening; in the future, either put in things to make sense of all my possible actions or please, please limit them to just sensible ones.


Matthew Gallant said...

I'm not sure that's a fair criticism, I can't think of any game where your interactions with another character changed if you were, say, standing on a table.

Sure these kind of things don't happen in Far Cry 2, but that's mostly because 99% of your interactions with other characters are bullet swaps. When you enter a building to accept quests, the game puts away your guns for you.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that Fallout 3 gives your character a much larger interaction vocabulary. Far Cry 2 avoids incongruous dialogue moments by removing player choice, is that necessarily a good thing?

CrashTranslation said...

It's the “scalpel vs. Swiss army knife” situation; also known as Doug Church vs. Warren Spector.

Do you provide the player with a wide range of options, but then inevitably have situations like those that arise in Fallout 3 where the game is unable to react adequately to the things the player can do? (See also Deus Ex.)

Or do you limit players’ options only to those things that can be deeply simulated, so players might not have a lot they can do but everything they can do is simulated to a much higher fidelity? (See also System Shock 2, BioShock.)

The thing is in Fallout 3 if you knock something over it provokes a reaction from the NPCs which makes sense. There’s no reason why the game can’t do the same thing if a player is standing on a table.

I’m not really sure “no other game has done it better” is a fantastic argument , though. On the other hand it’s a rather petty issue considering the other things Fallout 3 does well.

Ben Abraham said...

Matt: I get what you're saying, but I *am* saying that the restriction in Far Cry 2 is a good thing. As I said, I would *much* rather have only 2 or 3 things to do and which all are fully realised and allow for deep interaction, story, etc, than have a million that all pop up only occasionally and which at most I would use maybe a third of.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

This reactive friendly AI is only just now being tested with by developers, so to say "well, but can it do this?" rather than "wow, it does this!" is just a pretty pessimistic way to view things.

The fact that people notice you knocking things off tables (their things) in Fallout 3 is a step forward. In Far Cry 2, if anything, NPC interactions were so limited I'd even be willing to say that for something touted as such an "immersive experience", it was a step *back* from your standard fare. Just give me a few examples of actual *choices* you can make in that game that impact events around you beyond maybe letting a buddy die (which only results in another NPC emitting a line of dialogue next time you see them along the lines of "Damn Jims dead, anyway, whats up?")?

I'd once again stress that it really isn't fair to compare these two games on one merit. They aren't the same game, they aren't even the same genre (Farcry is an FPS, Fallout is a "classical" RPG).

And tonight I will once again be putting time into Fallout in an effort to finish it while Farcry is dusting up on my shelf. :p

Ben Abraham said...

Jon, hey my main point in the post was basically to say that I don't think Fallout 3 lived up to the hype, and say that conversely, Far Cry 2 surprised me with a lot of its depth.

Yes you're totally right that the two shouldn't even be compared, but unfortunately they will be, by the sheer fact that they both came out at the same time (or near enough) and they are both going to be vying for Christmas dollars.

While Fallout 3 is a fine game (I make no claims to the contrary) it's not the game I wanted to play. It's not the game I *expected* to play from all the 10/10's it got. I mean, how do you give a "perfect score" to a game who's models and animations are practically relics from a two years ago.

My other point is that if you're going to make a big part of your game interactions between yourself and other characters, they're going to need to be convincing.

As you say, Far Cry 2 is NOT about NPC interactions, it's about shooting and blowing shit up, and it does that really well, and everything else about the game really works in service of that single design.

Anyway, that's enough ranting from me, I think.

I'm really not trying to belittle or invalidate anyone else's opinion, least of yours Jon (if anything you have more right to critique games than I!). Instead I want to point out what I see as glaring flaws in FO3 and yes, they very well mightn't be an issue for other people, but they are for quirky ol' me.

Unknown said...

To bring the fact that they are both "vying for Christmas dollars" is a kind of odd argument to make, most people who know what's good for them will buy both games! :p

I understand where you're coming from and yes, maybe the 10/10s are a bit unwarranted. I guess alot of the pressure was coming from the fact that most of those reviewers would have given Oblivion perfect scores, so how could you not give a game that is in many ways BETTER than Oblivion a perfect score! :p

It just goes to show how little review scores REALLY mean and brings up an entire new topic that is always worthy of discussion (and I urge you to research it and write up on it as you probably have more inclination to do so than I do! :P).

I can kick it off by suggesting you read some of ArsTechnicas game reviews, where they use a simple system of listing pros, cons and then giving it a rating of buy, don't buy and rent.

Also the fact that, technically, over time, review scores should go up as in most cases the price of games deprecates with time, so therefore over time you get more bang for your buck compared to newer games! :P

P.S. Sorry if I'm coming off as a bit brash but I guess as a developer I can definately feel the frustration when people critique certain aspects of games, particularly "Why on earth didn't they do X". I'm sure if you asked the developers, it will always come down to a lack of time and money, not because they didn't think of it or want to do it. :)

Travis Megill said...

One way Fallout 3 reacts to player action that bothered me was characters warning me not to steal from them. If I stared at a refrigerator or chest for a couple of seconds they assumed I was going to take something from them!

I guess living in a post-apocalyptic lawless world makes you a bit more suspicious of someone eying your goods.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah that would have been a nice touch, eh, Dhalhren, except that... er... I was honestly never thinking about stealing anything until they brought it up. =P

Erik said...

While Fable II is by no means a "perfect" game, I've made the claim over at GWJ that the same thign is going on: fewer options that are more fully realized. Every character will respond to anything you're allowed to do, from running into them, to drawing a weapon, to vulgar displays of power, to farting. All the NPCs react, and each with his or her own nuances.
It may not be as big a pot of RP stew as Fallout 3, but it's a thick and full meal. I can't remember another game where I got sloppy with my eating habits, gained weight, overheard comments among NPC passersby, and then struggled with weight loss and depression (this also involved marrying a prostitute and lavishing her with gifts).

Erik said...

I'm not even going to get into the review philosophies of games journalists, especially when it comes to maximum scores (most don't intend that to indicate perfection in any sense). That's a huge mess I'll leave for some PhD candidate's thesis.

Ben Abraham said...

While I agree in spirit, Wordsmythe, I didn't really like the options for interaction that Fable 2 gave me - I've got to want to be able to belch at random townspeople /before/ I'll accept it as a fully realised social option, and I just don't. =P

Erik said...

Your cultural insensitivity to the Albion belch-song strikes me as a personal shortcoming! :P I'll grant that it was a rather silly choice, but if you start with the assumption that the culture of Albion really does generally appreciate the arts of human gas-venting, then it seems well realized to me.

In truth, I'd guess it's spillover from the "rude" gestures. I'm more impressed by reactions to more violent acts that too often fail to phase NPCs in other games. If a player-character points a gun at an NPC's head, I think that NPC should react accordingly. Thus, if the game is designed such that it's possible to point guns at NPCs, then the game should also be designed to react to that. Fable II chose, for example, not to allow players to climb on tables (though I wish I could have danced on one).

Ben Abraham said...

"if the game is designed such that it's possible to point guns at NPCs, then the game should also be designed to react to that."

YES YES YES! That's the whole point I'm trying to make. =P

To subtly steer the conversation back towards Far Cry 2 again, if you point a gun at some of the few NPC's in the game, they will put their hands up, start backing off and say stuff like "You don't wanna do this man." LOVE IT!