Things I’ve Learned About Myself via Fallout 4

I have been playing Fallout 4 pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday, and in that time I have started recognizing a few things about myself and how I play the game. These are not perhaps grand, personal epiphanies caused by Fallout 4 – I have certainly seen the seeds germinating in other games – but there is something about this game that is causing them to be more noticeable than normal.

Voice Acting Makes Characters a Character

Generally speaking, I do not role-play RPGs. By which I mean, I do not construct a character that looks like me, and I do not make decisions based on what I would personally do in that situation. If anything, I role-play the character I am playing as themselves, or whatever idealized form seems more narratively interesting. Which, I suppose, is still technically role-playing, but nevermind.

This predilection means I don’t actually like Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas all that much from a narrative standpoint. In Fallout 3, you are a blank slate, literally controlling your character from birth to presumably mold him/her into something resembling you IRL. Which, personally, just always seems like an easy way to skip writing a convincing narrative. “Let the reader fill in the details.”

The protagonist of New Vegas had a backstory, but the implementation was even more discordant, as I noted in my review:

I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Fallout 4 reminds me of what I already implicitly knew from Mass Effect: voice acting makes all the difference. Even when you still have the difficult choices to make, a well-delivered line can leave you with an impression of a character, and that impression can serve as your guide to who they “really” are.

Is voice-acting appropriate in every game? No. Does its presence often lead to more railroaded plots (due to the costs of recording twice as many lines)? Yes. But as someone who would rather experience plot vicariously rather than directly, it makes Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices a lot more bearable. The characters will tell you who they are.

Even Implied Romance Options Forces Me into Guy-Mode

The first character I created in Fallout 4 was, of course, Azuriel. As in, the wife. Played through the tutorial and even got all the way into Concord before something occurred to me. Could you romance companions in this game? As it turns out, you can.

I immediately rerolled as a dude.

It is a completely ridiculous reaction, but it happens every time in every game where romance is possible. Well, with one exception that proved the rule: I played a lady dwarf in Dragon Age: Origins several years ago. And it was awkward as fuck. Not that romance in any videogame isn’t generally awkward, but there is just something… maybe not immersion-breaking per se, but something personally off-putting about it that I can’t get over. Which makes my reaction to Fallout 4’s version of romance even more ridiculous, since you can romance any gender as any gender. But there it is.

I do plan to play the wife on my next “only pistols, no Power Armor, Renegade” style run though.

Change (in Formula) is Good

For the longest time growing up, I never really understood why all the Final Fantasy games had to have such radically different battle systems each time. Wasn’t FF7 good enough? Innovation, refinement, and so on are all worthy goals, but when you hit a certain plateau of elegance, why not just keep doing that thing?

Well… because then you have Fallout 4’s systems.

I grokked the entirety of Fallout 4 within the first hour or so of playing. The same strategies I’ve committed to muscle memory after hundreds of hours of Fallout 3 and New Vegas were immediately successful. Loot guns, leave the armor. Peek around corner, VATS, hide until AP regenerates. Food > Stimpacks unless you’re pressed for time. If things get dicey, break out the Pip-Boy to stop time and organize your equipment. Shoot X enemies in the face, shoot Y enemies in the legs.

While the out-of-VATS gunplay is much, much improved compared to the prior titles, Fallout 4 is basically Fallout 3/New Vegas all over again. The same tricks work.

As someone who enjoys optimizing the fun out of games, this has left me in a weird spot. All the optimization is basically done. I spent a rather absurd amount of time looking over the Perk tree and trying to figure out the best way to navigate it, but it almost seems meaningless at this point; not only am I near level 30 (and thus am actually hunting for Perks to still take), most of the Perks aren’t actually that good. And even if they were, there is no level cap, so in a sense it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to optimize anything, it’ll have to be a much narrower field, like getting an OP character between levels 2-10 or something.

I feel like the Witcher series has steadily gotten worse from a mechanics standpoint with each iteration, but at least it was different each time. The changes gave me something to mull over and marinate in my mind. And it seems like being able to do that, even if the underlying mechanics end up being worse, is still better than not having to do it at all.

Legendary Items are a Bad Idea

To an extent, I am still conflicted on this point.

Legendary items are cool, generally, in any game they are in. Their rarity gives designers the chance to introduce abilities that might be too powerful to be added to random loot. Legendaries can also facilitate character builds, and thus encourage additional playthroughs. Legendaries are fun in Borderlands, Diablo 3, and Fallout 4.

Legendaries also remove entire categories of loot drops, replacing them with nothing.

In Fallout 4, I have been using the Overseer’s Guardian for the last 30 or so hours of gameplay. The only way I could replace this weapon is if I encounter an even more ridiculous weapon that trivializes the game more than the Overseer’s Guardian already does. Which is sad, because not only does this make all the weapon drops I’ve encountered vendor trash, but it actually discourages me from experimenting with anything new.

For example, I finally saw a Gauss Rifle on a vendor just yesterday. I always enjoy Gauss Rifles in Fallout – mainly due to how cool they were in the movie Eraser (holy shit, 1996?!) – but it “only” deals 125 damage baseline. Even if I could mod the rifle for more damage, it seems unlikely that it’ll beat 137 damage x2 from a semi-automatic sniper rifle. “Maybe I’ll see a Legendary Gauss Rifle drop.”

As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I began massaging my temples. After all, this is the same game that hands out weapons like this:

Guess it's better than extra radiation damage.

Guess it’s better than extra radiation damage.

Maybe I’m less conflicted than I thought. Legendaries are a bad idea, even if I enjoy the existence of Legendary mobs in Fallout 4. The latter fills holes in the gameplay, whereas the Legendaries they drop create them.

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Posted on November 19, 2015, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I laughed at your depictions of roleplaying. If only because, to my mind, someone who spends the time and effort to make their character in their own image and go about making choices based on their personal IRL stances is just one rung above the dude whose only concession to the RP concept is a one line blurb of a backstory about how their man is a traveling murderous kleptomaniac. Whereas your line seems to imply that it’s the proper form.

    Ahh, dissonance.

    My only other contribution is to say that I really like the Courier having an existence that goes beyond the boundaries of the game. That they have a past and knowledge that the *character* is aware of, even if the player only find out about this information secondhand via dialogue options. Obsidian also did that in KotOR2 to good effect. It lends their protagonists an air of belonging to the world. Opposing this is the likes of the Lone Wanderer, the Hero of Oblivion, or the Last Dragonborn; who all feel like they dropped out of the sky as a lump of wet mud just prior to the start of the game. I find the latter feels very video game-y and slightly distasteful, especially because Bethesda doesn’t often give you much of a chance to develop a coherent character in the game proper.

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    • Perhaps I wasn’t expressing myself clearly. I prefer ALL my characters, including the protagonist, to have elaborate backstories with rich, narrative hooks. Unfortunately, most RPGs – or at least the ones with dialog choices – don’t include these things, in an apparent effort to leave as much room as possible for the player to shoehorn themselves in. I don’t want to do that. I want to experience a story, not be the story.

      Obsidian tried to split the baby with New Vegas, and the result was… a split baby. I never had any idea who The Courier was. Was I supposed to make up a history of him/her, just like in Fallout 3? Okay… but wait, now here comes Lonesome Road with some dude who knows all this history about me that the game doesn’t even try to paper over with an amnesia excuse. Why do I have a history that I know nothing about? How am I supposed to make informed decisions with a past written in invisible ink? It made that whole DLC feel like a complete asspull, trying to leverage emotions about a backstory that didn’t exist 5 minutes ago.

      Technically, the Mass Effect series did the exact same thing, as far as semi-blank protagonists go. It didn’t take long though, for Shepard to really sell me on the Paragon narrative. Shit, by the end of the series, Shepard was making me want to be a better human being. Me the player IRL would never have forgiven most of the transgressions experienced by the Council, would never have taken the risks with the Rachni or Krogan. I agonized over the Genophage choice for 10+ minutes, and ended up choosing counter to what I feel Shepard “should” have done. I was both shamed and relieved to be able to right that wrong in Mass Effect 3.

      I dunno. I agree with you that characters being grounded in the world is better. But if I’m going to be making decisions for them, I need to be able to see where they are planted. Note: making decision for them, rather than as them. If I were roleplaying myself being in these worlds, I’d likely end up being a random-ass merchant somewhere and let some other hero with a deathwish go for the glory.

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  2. Going to post more about this tomorrow, but the crux of it is I view a game like Borderlands as something completely different from a game like Fallout 4.

    In Borderlands the shooting and getting more powerful at shooting is 95% of the game, and the other 5% is justification for said shooting.

    In Fallout the world is like 80% of the game, and the remaining 20% is a split between shooting and everything else, which exists to further pull you into the world.

    In Borderlands min/maxing and getting silly strong makes sense. In Fallout to me it doesn’t, because I’m not playing Fallout to see giant crit numbers float on the screen.

    Huge agreement on the voice acting part. Unlike in previous games, here I feel like I’m guiding a character, while in F3/NV it felt more like ‘being’ the character, which while not an outright bad thing, isn’t as enjoyable to me in a setting like Fallout.

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  3. Well you could be like me and just find useless legendaries all the time. The best I’ve found so far is a hunting rifle with a 20% chance to cripple legs.

    A few days ago, I killed a legendary super mutant from afar on a roof, then had to go through the whole super mutant infested building to get to the roof and loot him. What was my reward? Some crappy legendary fist weapon. I can’t imagine actually trying to melee anything serious on survival difficulty. I did get a pretty good non-legendary laser rifle out of that trip.

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