Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Atmosphere vs. Gameplay - Round Two

Back to gaming, finally.

Lately (mainly due to the two more recent STALKER games being broken, and me having played Shadow of Chernobyl through about six or seven times by now), I've been playing more Fallout 3. Technically, I've finished the game once; however, on my first run I was still in the 'hurry up and finish the main quest, before it all goes down the pan on you' mindset of nearly every other game I've played. This sense of inevitability drove me to blast through the main quest at such a rate that I had barely explored the map beyond the central area of the Capital Wasteland, as well as the most direct routes between quest objectives. In doing so, I missed probably a good 50-60% of what the game had to offer, and it was too late to do anything.

Thankfully, I'd saved halfway through the assault on the Jefferson Memorial. After the credits finished, I immediately loaded up and put as much distance between myself and the ensuing battle as possible, before wandering off to explore. This broke the game pretty badly, but at least I got to explore a little.

Recently, I started the game over for the sake of altering my playing style a little. It's this character I've been playing on, and it was halfway through a trip between Meresti and Arefu that I decided on the topic for my next post.

Fallout had a very tangible time restriction on the main quest, and this was very apparent. You were told in your briefing, you had a countdown timer accessible from your Pip-Boy, and it added the very real risk of not getting things done in time and suffering for it. Fallout 3, on the other hand, seems happy to do away with this utterly. STALKER used time constraints on its side quests, but Bethesda wouldn't even take this step; even where a sense of urgency seems logical, there is absolutely none. The Big Town residents you're supposed to save from the Super Mutants in Germantown can and will wait for as long as you want. You could feasibly spend a year ingame; they'd still be there, and you'd still be able to rescue them. With this in mind, it's not entirely strange to ponder whether they really need saving at all.

Bethesda seem to half-do things a lot. The potential for character variation is decent at worst, yet everyone looks and sounds the same. Some areas of the Wasteland shine in their own desolate way, while others look like they simply took rocks, puddles, dead trees and grass and scattered them willy-nilly around the landscape. I haven't been to Washington DC (or at least not that I can remember), but I'm fairly certain even all-out nuclear war wouldn't make it look like some kind of incredibly rocky hinterland. Most pertinent to this post, they try and create a sense of urgency through the briefings for your quests, but they utterly fail to follow this through by creating any kind of consequence at all for not completing them as soon as possible.

Of course, this would present problems for players like me, who try to do everything at once: it'd result in a lot of failed quests and a lot of bad consequences. Presumably the main reason for their choice is to comply with the ever-worsening trend of molly-coddling players, making things nice and easy for them while making sure they never feel a sense of failure or regret. Fallout was made back in the day where games were challenging to the point of frustration, and the player was left on their own to work things out. Very few games seem to opt for this philosophy anymore, and that's a sad loss on our part.

To be honest, I wouldn't mind sacrificing a little of the openness of the game world for the improvements to the overall atmosphere that such a change would bring about. Sure, you might have to decide whether to save those settlers or not in order to complete another quest. You may even need to drop everything halfway through and run back to the other side of the Wasteland in order to complete something of a much higher priority. Having said that, though, it's important to realise that the way the game works is a large part of why quests will always wait for the player.

Basically, nothing happens without your presence. Until you show up at the quest start location, it simply hasn't started. Once it's completed, that's it, there's no more. Everything that happens within the Capital Wasteland hinges upon the player, and the player alone. In some ways, GSC did get something right with Clear Sky and its faction war system: things will happen, whether you're there or not. If your friends in the Cordon are attacked while you're in Yantar, then hard luck. Life (and death) will go on with or without you or any other given character. This created some frustrating scenarios, but in the eyes of this gamer, that's preferable to a magical world where everybody simply sits around, waiting for that inevitable protagonist to show up.

The Zone feels fluid, almost real. If you're not there to help your friends, they die. If you die, nobody really cares. Your body will be looted, maybe eaten, and will decay back into the irradiated earth it lies upon. The Capital Wasteland feels like some kind of bizarre dream. If you're not there, your friends won't even be attacked; if you die, everything stops.

I doubt we'll see anything change in New Vegas, but I certainly hope that as more open-world games are released, we'll start to see more believable environments and less shallow facades.