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Everything I know about RPGs I learned from Fallout

posted on July 24th, 2007 by christian

These days, the few western RPGs that exist that are not MMO’s are trying to conquer a unique challenge: How do you create a living, breathing world for the player to engage in? We’ve got the graphics, the items, and years of combat engines to take inspiration from. But we’ve played in static worlds before, where quests and NPC’s never change, and your options to mold the world are limited. We want games where the roles we play actually mean something, to ourselves and those we interact with.

It isn’t an easy task. You need the right size world, and the right contents in said world. You need smart NPC’s that go about their daily lives, and a ton of dialogue options to give players the illusion they are talking to a genuine person. Many games have experimented with these features, but I don’t think there are any that get them all down perfectly, or even close to perfectly. Oblivion, one of the poster children of fine Roleplaying, has characters who don’t open doors to enter buildings, and a handful of voiceactors each doing lines for dozens of townsfolk. For every great thing Oblivion does, it seems to do something to remind us just how much more we have to do when crafting virtual worlds.

Just like so many things in this genre, I think that we could learn a lot about virtual worlds from Fallout. Fallout is not the best I have seen; NPCs have criminally few lines of dialogue, and some don’t even move around. What makes it interesting is that despite its age and limited technology, the game always manages to have very dynamic environments. The reason seems simple; Fallout never really gives a shit. Or rather, it has a set of rules, but they are so simple and straightforward that they lead, in their own primitive way, to an immense amount of power and freedom. Sometimes you will encounter scripted scenes, such as a person approaching you or a part leaving the map.

All of them can be ignored or interrupted without major penalty. Anyone can be interacted with via the same simple set of commands, and when one of those commands is “give item”, you can do anything from overdose a crimelord on drugs, to giving children weapons. Either way, the game doesn’t really mind. You can kill (or try to kill) any individual in the game. They usually follow one of two reactions to violence; run, or fight. And if you do manage to kill them, they are gone for good. Fallout doesn’t want you running around too wildly, but it also isn’t worried about the details. And in some strange way, that works out just fine.

How many times have you played a modern game with an “open world” where you caused an explosion, and watched ten people go into their “cower in fear” animations, all screaming at the top of their lungs, while a couple guards began to bum rush you until they were all dead? Was it fun? No. Realistic? Not at all. Aggravating? Absolutely. What could make the situation work better? Why not have a few NPC’s take cover, a few come in to attack, and the rest just run away? Why not have the aggressors retreat when they realize you can’t be beaten?

The problem, I think, might be the market. Fallout worked, and still works, but it’s old and archaic. It has no flash. Case in point: I marveled at how in Morrowind, if you said the wrong things to an NPC, you might piss them off forever, denying you of their information or services. From what I’ve seen of Oblivion, I can’t tell if this feature is still present. What I do remember seeing is a way to make folks laugh or become angry at you, all of which seems to be reversible by pushing the right buttons. Kind of like how Fable lets you be kind and then make farting noises one after the other in front of an NPC, only to see the same canned reactions each time.

It is as if things have devolved in some fashion, and while I can believe that part of this is due to bold developers that are still experimenting with new technology, there still seems to be a distinct possibility that all of the people that bemoan the “Xbox effect” of games being dumbed down are on to something. Too many modern games look and feel like animatronics on a Disney ride gone horribly wrong. Fallout feels like a fantastic world for me to explore.

But then again, I have to use my imagination to fill in some of the gaps with Fallout. Perhaps that is the answer to all of this.

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