Friday, October 31, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Fallout/Fallout 2

Every single day of my life I make choices. I choose what clothes to wear. I choose what food to eat. I choose who to be friends with. These choices I make affect my life and the lives of those around me. My choice to eat yogurt this morning probably doesn't have huge consequences, beyond how hungry I am later. However, my choice many years ago to work towards being a game developer has has major consequences on not only my life, but the lives of others around me.

These consequences and the choice that fuel them are the heart of the Fallout games and the focus of this week's design lesson.

Design Lesson: Fallout and Fallout 2 use choice and consequence to deliver a world of enormous opportunities to the player and give the player agency over the type of character they develop.

Like in many RPGs, Fallout lets you choose if you want to be good or evil. Your actions will decide your alignment. If you save the people of a dying town or kill the slavers that look to put all humans into bondage, then your actions will be looked on favorably. If you kill children and women for sport and perform unsavory deeds for mob bosses, you will be looked at as an evil person.

No matter what your actions, your choices will have consequences however. In Fallout, saving a girl from a group of Raiders gives you the ability to have her join your party and adventure with you. As a result, you can get into tougher fights, since you have the help of another person.

In Fallout 2, I was granted a temporary day-pass to go inside the gates of Vault City, a very closed-off city that could have information that would help me with my main quest. While inside Vault City, I spoke to a high-ranking official in a rather rude manner. As a result, I was immediately kicked out of the city and my pass was permanently revoked.

Unless I fought my way into the city and killed everyone within, I was now unable to get inside the walls of Vault City. All of the quests that I had accepted in the city, were now impossible to complete. The important information inside the city was unreachable. The people in the city would not speak to me, sell me goods, help me out. They reviled me.

In many games, this would be the end. The poor choice I made in talking to an official in a snide manner would result in the consequence of game over, since the critical information was hiding within.

However, in Fallout, while the consequence of making my life more difficult was apparent, the game wasn't over. There were other sources that had the same information elsewhere. I just had to explore some other cities to find them. I had to find an alternate path. A path that the designers made available, knowing that someone would talk themselves into a pickle inside Vault City.

The game never told me if I talked back to the man in Vault City that I would get the boot. It just did it. I made that choice. I remember clicking the dialog option and thinking to myself “Man, this guy is a little annoying. I'm going to be a smart-ass”. Nowadays, many games would broadcast you the consequence of your choice before the choice is made. Give the player all the information up-front, and they can make the right decision.

But life isn't about having all the information up-front. Often you make your choices and have no idea of the consequences until much later. Fallout emulates this with it's game mechanics, and as a result it results in the world feeling richer and deeper. Your choices feel like your own and not what the designer wanted you to do. You are able to make your own mistakes and recover from them. Your choices are your own, and the unique set of choices you make as you play is what makes the game play differently for all different players.

Being evil opens up doors that aren't available if you are good, and vice-versa. The game uses the different choices you can make and offers alternatives in-case you ever make a “bad” choice. Those alternatives fill the game world with opportunity and gameplay. As a result, there is no right way to play Fallout. The same can't be said for many modern games, where there is one correct way and path to play (or two paths to choose from).

The choice and consequence also affected my character and how I role-played him. I ended up rolling my vilification by Vault City into my character's personality. Since there were rival cities, I sided with the other cities and not Vault City. I didn't want to help Vault City; they hated me.

This led me to feel like I was playing a true character, and not just a cookie-cutter blank slate that is prevalent in many games. The game gives enough background to keep the story interesting and relevant, but lets you impress enough of your own personality into the character to make him yours.

My personality came through in my actions and the choices I made. I controlled the actions of my character and how he responded to the situations of the world. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the end of both games, when the narrator talks about what happens in the future to different characters and areas. Some cities will prosper because you helped out. Others will die off, because you abandoned them. Still, others will fail even after your best efforts.

All of this makes the world of Fallout feel bigger and richer than it really is. It doesn't end up feeling strictly like a sequence of designer-created events. It feels like a world that responds to you, that lets you be the person you want to be, and gives you a chance no matter what. That's the beauty of Fallout and it took replaying both games to realize why I consider them to be my favorite games of all-time.

3 comments:

  1. Very good article we have here.

    From a gamer point of view, the last game which gave me somewhat a choice was Bioware’s Mass Effect. Possible choices are available only through skills and alignment you acquired (which quite different from Fallout’s mechanics).

    I have a memorable scene in Mass Effect where I had to save an old friend from a hostage taking. I took it too gently with the kidnapper. I tried some calm-down-like negotiation instead of taking the path of pure violence, a bullet in his head. The poor guy ended up dead… What I liked in this scene is that everything relied on my gut feeling about how to handle the situation. There were no obvious clues about the outcome of my decisions except my own feelings about it. It gave this scene a lot of depth!

    From a designer point of view I really like to design games where decisions impact the world. Meaningful choices also include turning over friends who become enemies. And enemies may become friends or at least a kind of limited-in-time cooperation may be possible (a classic in movies).

    To successfully achieve such openness and diversity, I think the game must be built on top of systemic rules where dialogue outcomes, reputation, character alignment, quests, relation between characters and finally actions that the player carries are independent systems from each other but which somehow talk to each other at one point. This way the player is able to end his quests the way he wants to.

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  2. very good article which I fully agree with.

    In regards to:

    "Your choices feel like your own and not what the designer wanted you to do. You are able to make your own mistakes and recover from them. Your choices are your own, and the unique set of choices you make as you play is what makes the game play differently for all different players."

    This is something I believe Fable 2 stuffed up. The way every little thing in that game affects who you become is amazing; however, the fact that when you smash this window, an evil symbol '+2' appears above your head or when you give your wife flowers, a love symbol '+23' appears above your head jars shockingly. It no longer feels like you are making your decisiions, but the decisions the designer wanted you to make. And now that I know smashing a window will give me plus-two-evil, I am less likely to do it again. I think, in Fable 2 the little plus-minus markers should have been abolished so that you truly feel like you are making your own decisions and it is the true consequences of those actions (ie, in trouble from the guards, disillusioned shopkeepers, etc) that should make you reconsider, not a plus-two-evil marker.

    "This led me to feel like I was playing a true character, and not just a cookie-cutter blank slate that is prevalent in many games. The game gives enough background to keep the story interesting and relevant, but lets you impress enough of your own personality into the character to make him yours."

    Oh good, I am not the only person who plays games 'in character'. In many games, I really like making decisions based on what my character would do, not what I would do. Of course, my own personality no doubt shines through my character's, but it is great when you have agame where you feel like you are playing a true character. Though, I may take this too far as I am one of those players who often 'walks' through Albion or Liberty City or Vivec to be more 'in character'.. at least for five minutes before I get bored of it, heh.

    But I guess the problem then is, what about the players who refuse to play in character? I hate the term, but I guess 'the less-hardcore' players. Do you think they would miss out on all a game has to offer if they don't full heartedly 'become' the character and just try to get to the end as fast as possible?

    Wow, I didn't mean to write such a long comment.. I actually just got back from the shops with my copy of Fallout3 so i don't know why I am on the Internet at all, to be honest!

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