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What’s in a name?

posted on June 5th, 2007 by jay

Fallout 3 is coming! Fallout 3 is coming! Oh, wait, no it’s not. A game called Fallout 3 is coming, but Fallout 3 will never be.

The video game industry, like the movie and television industry, trades names and ideas in a way that makes me scratch my head. And as if there were some magical power in the name of a game or movie, fans obediently froth at the mouth when offered the opportunity to enjoy more of the same name. But games aren’t names, they’re artistic products crafted by specific people.

Fallout 3 is just a name, and Bethesda cannot make an actual Fallout 3 by owning the letters F, A, L, O, U, and T arranged in a specific combination. Games are designers, artists, and coders and if those people change, the series changes. Bethesda is not comprised of those who designed the first two games and as such cannot create the third. This does get a slippery since the original people rarely all stay even in a game that is a legitimate sequel, but surely it is apparent that if a different company is creating a sequel (company culture matters a lot in game design) and zero people who worked on the previous games are involved, well then it’s not actually a sequel.

Companies buy names to make money off of a fan base. The roar of excited Fallout fans (well, the ones who aren’t sticks in the mud like me) can be heard all across the internet. But Bethesda could have just created their own post-apocalyptic RPG. What in the new game will demand the Fallout name? I highly doubt the title will make strong, deeply woven plot ties to the previous games beyond “the world blew up and war sucks.” Likely, the game will include a few past Fallout things in easter eggs to appease fans (Dogmeat, Holy Handgrenade, hopefully Hubology). Then I guess there’s Pipboy.

As an exercise, think of a field in which you excel, and then a personal inspiration. Would you want to own a band’s name so you can personally release albums with it? Do you want to own the name of your favorite book series in order to write the next novel? Bethesda said they wanted to keep the Fallout series alive, so they bought it. What are they keeping alive besides a name? If Bethesda were fans of Fallout, wouldn’t they want a new game designed by the Troika and Black Isle guys? To want to own someone else’s art so you can make more of it and pass it off as your own is either a business decision, or bizarre fanboyism.

What if I made Fallout 4? Would you acknowledge it as canon because I named it Fallout? If not, why? I suspect that you ultimately value a piece of paper that says someone else owns the IP above all else. If so, you essentially believe the game you love so much is nothing more than some words on a legal document. Satan could buy the rights to Fallout then you’d be forced to accept that it’s a Fallout game.

Crucially, all of this means absolutely nothing about how good or bad Fallout 3 will be. My point is not to imply that Bethesda is talentless or even that this game won’t be amazing. Put simply, a company may claim to own ideas, thoughts and creativity, and they may claim to have passed these things to another company via a piece of paper, but this is all nonsense. Fallout 3 may kick ass, but quality of craft is not contained in a contract passed between parties. Fallout 3 is not automatically awesome because of its pedigree, nor is it Fallout in more than name.

OK, I’m done. Dig in.

8 Comments

  1. Matt said on June 5, 2007:

    I agree with you 100% jay, I get upset that a company creates a sequel but doesn’t let the ones that made the first one so good be apart of the next team. It’s basically an unofficial sequel in my eyes. But I ask this one simple question: would you want Fallout 3 or nothing?

  2. christian said on June 5, 2007:

    So give me, a kiss to build a dream on…

  3. Don said on June 5, 2007:

    Wasteland 4 is coming! Wasteland 4 is coming!
    Oh, wait, no it’s not. A game called Fallout 3 is coming, but Wasteland 4 will never be.

  4. christian said on June 5, 2007:

    Who are you? What’s your name? Super Brother!!

  5. Horatio said on June 6, 2007:

    I agree with your conclusion that names are meaningless, but I don’t think that developers, programmers, designers etc necessarily matter either. There are plenty of franchises that stay with the same studio but the sequels are godawful because they were rushed or the concept had become stale (tomb raider anyone?). Other series switch developers and develop kickass sequels that are praised as canon (think any number of comicbook based videogames). Ultimately, I think much like the name, maintaining the original creators is neither a necessary or sufficient criterion of judging whether a game is or isn’t truly a ‘sequel.’ That decision is up to the individual player based on some subjective criteria of whether the game upholds some core values or spirit of the original. If the quality is there though, I bet the average person doesn’t care who made the game, they’re going to call it a sequel.

  6. Matt said on June 6, 2007:

    I think of this situation as I would with a book. Take the new Godfather book for example, which was not written by Mario Puzo. Of course it wasn’t a bad book, but I still can’t consider it the true sequel when Puzo didn’t do it. His vision of a sequel is really the only true vision. Anything else is basically unofficial. It can keep with the style and ideas, but Puzo and the new writer’s plot will never be the same, which can be brought to the idea with video games. You can keep the same styles and gameplay mechanics, but the two games will never be the same. If the original creators made Fallout 3 and the Bethesda that is now made another one, you would have 2 fairly different games. They’re gonna be good no matter what, but the universe that was originally created would cease to exist.

  7. christian said on June 6, 2007:

    I hear talk in this comment section about “getting the old guys to be on the new team” and “not being the same universe as before”, and I’m just confused. How easy would it be to get the entire Black Isle team back from their current jobs? oh yes, impossible. Do we know if Bethesda maybe actually tried anyway? No we do not. And how is a book or movie in a different universe if it uses the same characters and settings? A quote I heard from Don puts it best; I suppose Superman hasn’t really been himself since the 1930’s

  8. Stefan said on June 6, 2007:

    To take another medium as a metaphor, look at the bond movies. Admittedly, the name “james bond” doesn’t really make the movie a bond movie, and there are some that (at least in my opinion) really didn’t live up to the idea behind the series and just became bad action movies. Others, however, managed to capture the characterization, dialog, and feel that makes them essentially bond movies. What’s more, they did this despite having different writers, directors, producers, and actors. The conclusion I’d draw from that is that it’s possible for Bethesda to reproduce gameplay and aesthetics that evoke the first two fallouts sufficiently that this really does become a fallout game. It may be very difficult, but the one thing that the trailer did show me is that they’re not far off on their appreciation of the aesthetic feel.

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