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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.

Micro-Reviews: Suzuka, Orange Marmalade, GE – Good Ending

Suzuka

Suzuka

Suzuka starts off as a fairly cliche high school romance manga, right down to the main male character transferring to Tokyo and living in an all-girl dorm/spa. In fact, you might recognize pretty much that exact premise right out of Love Hina. The curious thing about the manga though is that I was never really able to get a sense of whether it started this way intentionally, or if the gradual evolution of the story into something more meaningful was a happy accident. In either case, the character progression becomes much more interesting as time goes on, the harem and fanservice drops away, and many satisfying (and occasionally frustrating) developments are had by the end.

Basically, if you are looking for a more “realistic” romance manga along the same vein as A Town Where You Live, Suzuka is a good front-runner.

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Orange Marmalade

Marmalade

This is a Korean-style romance manga centering around high school girl Ma Ri, the “ice queen,” who actually happens to be a vampire in hiding. It has been 300 years since the last vampire has actually killed a human, but the discrimination and threat of exile is constant. In fact, her family has had to move around repeatedly any time people start to get suspicious, which has led to Ma Ri to make peace being alone forever. Despite her best efforts though, she is befriended by a group of girls and Jae Min, a boy who seemingly refuses to leave her alone once she accidentally nips his neck.

The pacing, art style, and overall quality of Orange Marmalade is extremely good. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I basically plowed through the entire series in a single day. It has angst, drama, and moments of extreme pathos, all without necessarily devolving into standard tropes. There are some vampiric shenanigans, but the story isn’t necessarily about vampires. In fact, beyond a few initial plot points, the vampire angle is more allegory than anything – and in that regard, it is extremely effective. I recommend it.

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GE – Good Ending

GE

GE – Good Ending is, as you might expect from the title, a high school romance manga. The story centers around Seiji Utsumi, a boy who has a crush on the tennis club president. Too scared to make a move and too unathletic to join the tennis club himself, he remains content with admiring her from afar. That is, until another tennis club member, Yuki Kurokawa, catches him peeking in the bushes, and seemingly makes it her duty to put them together.

While this manga starts out with the stereotypical dumbass protagonist who is incapable of doing anything, the beauty of GE is the character progression and, indeed, evolution. Characters grow up, pasts are revealed, feelings change, misunderstandings are had, and basically real shit occurs. In other words, the beginning of the manga bears little resemblance to what it eventually becomes, which is a rather compelling narrative. If romance manga is your genre, GE will definitely earn a spot on your list.

The Problem With Romance

I normally play female characters in videogames despite being a guy in real life. Part of the reason is I find women more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the reason is cold pragmatism – if there is no strict game difference, why not choose the gender that typically gives you ability to seduce NPCs, receive gifts/attention from others (in MMOs), and otherwise get the door held open?

The biggest part though, is that I find female characters inherently more interesting. A man is always expected to prove himself, both in games and real life. A man is supposed to stand up for himself, supposed to be the embodiment of chivalry, supposed to fight and die for what he believes in. Simply put, a man is expected to “be a man.”

Generally speaking, women are not expected to do such things. Oh, they are expected to quite a number of other things, sure. But to fight and kill and die? When I see a female character putting herself on the front lines, I always subconsciously wonder what it was in her life that drove her to that point. A tragic past? Is she striving to be the son her father wanted? Righteous vengeance? Men fight dragons and bandits and each other because it’s required, expected. Women fight those things out of choice. And choice is what makes stories interesting.

The problem I am increasingly running into is not really feeling comfortable with RPG romances, playing as a female toon. For example, my machinations trying to get Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins in the sack as a female dwarf was perhaps the most embarrassing moment in videogaming for me. Partly because Christ, do I have to draw him a picture?, and partly because I expected Chris Hansen to walk out of the bushes in the middle of the cinematic.

"Why don't you have a seat right over there."

And, well, having to help him [highlight to reveal spoiler] marry one chick and get a second one pregnant [/spoiler] wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of endings. Guys can be such assholes.

Simply skipping the romances is not an option: as I established yesterday, missing content of any nature is difficult enough for me. But more than just that, this is a issue for me because I also genuinely enjoy this “optional” content – deep, philosophical ruminations and high school-esque relationship angst hold equal (if not more) appeal. I live a mostly vicarious life; no deeper psychoanalysis required.

So what ends up happening, even in games wherein lesbian romances are possible, I end up playing a dude. In fact, my first character in Skyrim was a level 4 female Redguard before starting over once I realized there was marriage options… even though the “romance” consisted of 3-4 lines of text and one event. Hence, Leonidas.

In any event, I am curious to know how other people handle game romances. Do you ever play the opposite gender and hit up those romance options? Is it totally not a problem? I am also curious as to whether men have more of an issue with this than women. My default assumption is yes, based both on cultural norms and simply the history of gaming wherein most main characters are male and rescuing princess love interests. I could be completely wrong.

Either way, let me know in the comments.