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.