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Fallout's Failure to Fail: Letting Players Lose

It has been a little more than a year since Fallout 4 was released to considerably positive publication reviews and mostly positive consumer reviews. Since then, the game has birthed memes and added more fuel to the still-burning debate on what constitutes proper downloadable content and whether or not we should be pre-ordering content at all. Additionally, its last scheduled DLC was released almost half a year ago, which means Fallout 4 is now a complete game and a complete experience. This also means that the fourth installment in the franchise is finally ready for proper narrative and thematic critique.

For my part - I feel that critique should address thematic issues rather than technical issues. Questions such as playability or graphics will change over time and the best games from yesteryear are often unplayable and ugly according to contemporary standards, which means these questions are only useful issues for reviews which intend to inform purchasing decisions. I am much more interested in how a game supports its thematic intentions through its narrative choices. Sometimes mechanical considerations factor into that discussion and sometimes they do not. It depends on the game. So, with all that on the table...


Time to burn it all down.

Fallout 4 is not perfect and is home to more than a few issues which have been seen in previous open world experiences from Bethesda Game Studios. Chief among these are its insistence on distracting the player from a main quest line which is presented to them as urgent, and its refusal to allow the player to fail. Both issues speak to an inability to trust the audience - a common problem in screen media and one which always holds a creative work back from achieving its narrative potential. This particular critique is only concerned with the latter issue because it is the more significant of the two. (Please disregard the fact that I was simply firing too many tweets about this subject at Twitter daddy Austin Hourigan and really need to get this off my chest after getting all fired up about it.)

Other writers have covered the importance of failure in game design before. Most recently, games journalist Jake Muncy discusses this very issue in an article for WIRED which (in addition to some very sound arguments about incorporating failure into narrative games writing) suggests that game developers are hesitating to let their players lose and that games as a whole could stand to bring back the Game Over screen. I agree with Muncy and would further suggest that - as games drift further and further away from allowing their players to fail - games are abandoning the very qualities which set games apart from other screen media such as videography and film. Consequence-driven gameplay is being replaced by interactivity, and a model built on interactivity is one which suggests that our button presses are only decorative gestures on the way toward an inevitable outcome.

Ultimately, director Todd Howard presents the narrative outcome of Fallout 4 as one such inevitable event. Some factions will fall and others will dominate. Your only input in the matter is decorative: it decides which uniforms the friendly patrols will be wearing at the checkpoints and which uniforms the unfriendly patrols will be wearing as they shoot at you. This narrative outcome is so inevitable Howard even employs a geriatric fortune teller to explain that it is coming no matter what you do.


She literally exists to spoil every major plot point.

This is not how Fallout 4 was originally conceived. Reading through the official strategy guide mentions an option for completing the quest 'The Molecular Level' without help from the three wasteland factions. The achievement attached to this choice was known as 'Misanthropic Moxie' and the implication here is that the player was allowed to alienate the factions at some point in Fallout 4 development. Of course, this narrative option was eventually removed and the player is now required to make nice with either the Minutemen or the Railroad or the Brotherhood AND betray the Institute by downloading their system to a holotape. Players must download the Institute system to this network scanner to advance the plot - even if they do not want to betray the Institute. Howard requires this from players because he does not trust the player to be comfortable with failure and because the holotape is one among several backup measures put into place so players can still end the game with another faction if the Institute is alienated. It is an innocuous device to players who fully side with one of the three surface factions and its mechanism as narrative insurance goes unnoticed. But those players who choose to side with the Institute notice the mechanism and have no choice but to witness Howard prescribing events from behind his curtain.

God Howard? More like ... Oz ... Howard? Bit of a stretch.

I encountered the above scenario the first time I ran through Fallout 4 and it left me curious about the game. I knew that Preston Garvey and the Minutemen were also a backup measure - in case the player alienates everyone else - but I wanted to know whether or not the main quest line was truly secure against failure. I set out to see if there was some magic combination of decisions which would alienate the factions in exactly the right order and allow me to intentionally fail the main quest line. I turned to the Brotherhood for assistance in building the relay, giving them the network scanner afterward because I knew they would horde it. I failed to bring in the rogue synths at Bunker Hill and I was expelled from the Institute because I got cheeky with my son. I shot Arthur Maxson in the head after he executed Paladin Danse in front of me, thus alienating the Brotherhood. I murdered the Railroad because they wanted to blow up my son with nuclear warheads. I did all that I could to leave the wasteland in a stalemate of hobbled factions.

My efforts only showed me that the network scanner can always be recovered and the Minutemen are always a final option - no matter how nonsensical turning to them might feel. I also learned that avoiding Preston Garvey until this point even causes bugs to manifest in his dialogue. In my case the bugs were significant enough to actually make interacting with Preston impossible. He would stare at me in silence the moment the dialogue camera activated. Essentially, all I discovered was that the game will break before it allows the player to fail. Which is an obvious problem for any roleplaying game which claims to give the player autonomy over their character and their decisions.

Say something, Preston! Say anything!

This refusal to let the player fail is found in many other areas of Fallout 4 as well. Players can become 'like a ghoul' but cannot actually undergo the transformation into a ghoul because it would lock them out from the Brotherhood of Steel content. Meanwhile the perk icon seems to suggest that the player could have transformed at some point in development. As opposed to Fallout 3, terminals no longer permanently lock out the player if hacking attempts fail and locks can no longer be broken and rendered inaccessible due to botched lock-picking attempts. Mama Murphy only exists to make some of the more challenging moments less difficult while spoiling their plot points in the process. Nevermind the various side quests which are unimportant to the main thrust of the game but still cannot be failed - only set aside until success is later achieved. Some might suggest thaht these quests can be ignored but leaving quests unfinished is not the same as allowing them to be failed or abandoned. In fact, leaving quests unfinished in the quest log only makes them stand out more because they are unfinished. For all its promise as a game offering an expansive roleplay experience with compelling, Fallout 4 is a game which renders the roleplay much less expansive because it refuses to let its players experience failure. 

Howard and his team at Bethesda Game Studios used to understand that failure was an acceptable end state. We saw this in Morrowind and the possible early death of Vivec - a situation which allowed the player to shut down the entire main quest line from the start and (reloading saves aside) forced them to then live with their action. Howard has been moving away from this flexibility with every successive game he directs. It is evident. But Howard is not an inflexible director and his willingness to listen to feedback and change course on poor decisions is a reason for his numerous dedicated fans despite the acidic consumer criticism his games sometimes attract. Future installments will need to reverse course in just this way and embrace failure as a possible end state if Howard intends for them to be taken as credible entries in the Fallout series rather than uninspiring interactive experiences with minimal player control.

When Stereotypes Attack: Real World Misunderstandings in Fantastic Worlds

If ever there were evidence that fantasy worlds are often a refuge for unexamined prejudices, it is not found in the goblins and the orcs as easily as it is found in the contemporary stereotypes which are placed in these fantasy worlds without alteration. I am referring in this entry to the Vistani - the obvious and cartoonish Dungeons & Dragons insertion of Romani peoples into the Ravenloft campaign world. These gothic-genre Gypsies were first introduced in 1983 with the original Ravenloft module and embodied the most banal qualities of the stereotyped Romani person. They were written as mysterious and exotic permanent outsiders whose ability to foretell the future was dependent on remaining forever mobile, on never settling in one location for more than a week lest they suffer grave sickness and be labelled outcasts by their own people. Vistani society was matriarchal in intent if not in practice and men who possessed the the mystic abilities which defined the Vistani were treated with distrust and often outcast in order to prevent some cataclysm.

Here we see a very real world stereotype which defines Romani peoples as a people who are possessed by a terrible wanderlust and who are more magical creature than real human. We also see (once again) the familiar Dungeons & Dragons conceit of using matriarchal societies to render a culture alien and strange and the equally familiar conceit of positioning exceptional men as dangerous to these matriarchal societies. It is an all too familiar approach that has been embedded in Dungeons & Dragons since its inception forty years ago - the difference with the Vistani is that these are not a fantasy people serving as a vehicle for antiquated but still-unexamined ideas. They are an inauthentic duplication of a real people whose entire in-game lore relies upon real language taken (poorly) from these real people and whose entire in-game identity is simply a regurgitation of stereotypes used to oppress these real people in Europe and elsewhere for centuries. They were also - for quite some time - nothing more than a footnote.

Until this week, when the official Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons twitter account posted the above tweet and changed their user icon to an image that - with its exaggerated nose and demonic grin - is more a monstrous caricature than an authentic representation of an oppressed people. The tweet essentially offered up plot hooks to those who retweeted any 'Madam Eva' tweet and it dressed up these hooks in the language of fortune telling. It is worth mentioning that Romani peoples have performed fortune telling as a service in the past, but this service is no more central to Romani identity than running nail salons is central to Korean immigrant identity or running a deli is to Jewish American identity. Indeed it has only ever been a means to an end: surviving in a society that disenfranchises a population by relying on the stereotypes which the majority population uses to disenfranchise that population. It is an attempt at surviving and is nothing more than the expression of an unkind circle of oppression.

At first I was willing to simply scroll past the initial tweet. I have been a fan of Dungeons & Dragons for more than two decades. It is easier to turn away and live a life inured to the way that so many people put these stereotypes on parade. It is not difficult to justify the caricature as something closer to the Halloween costume, or to perhaps simply say that those responsible for perpetuating the stereotype are simply ignorant and that their ignorance excuses the crime enough to spare them the rebuke. After all - the Vistani are probably more based on the gypsies of Bram Stoker than on the actual living people who face oppression and disenfranchisement in otherwise 'civilized' European nations. But then I saw the above tweet using the word 'Giorgio' to refer to those who are not Vistani gypsies. Giorgio is a piece of real language that is used in some Chib dialects to refer to those who are not Romani themselves. It is similar in many respects to the use of 'Gaijin' in Japanese culture or 'Haole' in Hawaiian culture. It is not offensive. It is only meant to establish status in a world that threatens to erode ethnic culture. I am no Giorgio but I would put good money down that says the employee behind 'Madam Eva' is - someone not of a specific ethnicity using the language of that ethnicity to do nothing more than offer up cheap flavor while promoting an upcoming product.

The use of this language drew (for me) a direct connection back to actual Romani peoples by using our actual language and it reduced a potentially clever twitter campaign to the Gypsy equivalent of black face or yellow face. It also took this display further and required that twitter users retweet (and thus perpetuate) the stereotype in order to engage with the otherwise entertaining campaign. It made co-conspirators of its audience in order to boost its signal and it did so to great effect. Madam Eva was suddenly no different from Mister Yunioshi except without the distance of time to render her no more than a temporary discomfort to laugh away, and her message was reaching who knows how many feeds.

It stung.

So why is this harmful and where is the solution? I like being constructive. I do not want to simply complain without proposing workable solutions that should please all parties involved. I have always enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons and I believe that it should explore cultures and cultural experiences beyond its typically western European milieu. But the practice of using real world stereotypes to represent cultures as alien or exotic in a practice of gamified storytelling ultimately reinforces those stereotypes as acceptable representations of real people, either in our microcultures (as in the days when Dungeons & Dragons was a hobby of the minority) or (increasingly as nerd culture becomes popular culture) in the greater macroculture. It allows tools of oppression to persist and to do so in a way that renders them palatable rather than grotesque. But a broader game like Dungeons & Dragons must be able to extend itself beyond its traditional forms if it is going to allow for all its players to see themselves in its stories.

The solution?

Broadening their hiring practices by actively seeking out fantasy writers who are attached to the ethnicities being mirrored in their games. Attempts at including other cultures beyond the standard European fare have come from a place of well meaning intentions but these good intentions often fall flat. Oriental Adventures was a continued attempt at embracing Asian cultures in the series but writing staff for these books have never possessed even a single Asian writer on their teams. Similarly, the original Al-Qadim setting had no Middle Eastern representation among its authors. This is not because there are no available writers who belong to these ethnicities. There are many authors out there of Middle Eastern, Asian, African and even Romani descent - and they would no doubt appreciate the chance to write for a game so storied and established. But doing this would not only benefit the authors by representing their cultures through the lens of fantasy with authenticity; actively seeking out these authors and requiring their inclusion on products dealing with their cultures would also benefit Wizards of the Coast. How? It would increase the authenticity of their product beyond its stale stereotypes. It would also ensure that Dungeons & Dragons reaches the broadest audience possible through the broadest representation possible, through good hiring practices, and through the purchase of greater good will. 

As to where the Vistani are concerned?

Well, even I do not need a tarokka deck to find them to a few good writers.

Surrogate Evil: Displaced Racism in Fantasy Roleplaying

Surrogate racism has been a mainstay source for conflict in the various Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings since the game was first published in 1974 - and shows no sign of being removed from its core themes forty years after its first edition. None of this is new, although most conversations surrounding racism in Dungeons & Dragons emphasize the fact that humans are depicted most often as white and gloss over the fantasy races as actual surrogates for the semi-accidental race-based ideologies. I say 'semi-accidental' because I believe that the writers do not set out to embed racism into the game material but that they must also be intelligent enough to at least think twice about it before pressing on with their themes. For the time being; I will be discussing this presentation of surrogate races and how they are used to displace and obfuscate the racism embedded in Dungeons & Dragons, rather than discussing the absence of human cultures based on something other than a white Euro-American analogue; because the latter discussion should be obvious to anyone and everyone.

It all begins with those non-human enemy races which Dungeons & Dragons adopted from J.R.R. Tolkien and his Middle Earth mythos. While the origins of these races in Middle Earth were never canonically established - because Tolkien was indecisive on the subject throughout his lifetime - it is generally assumed that the Goblins and the Orcs in Middle Earth are corrupted Elves who have somehow devolved due to an antisocial force ranging from enslavement or unnatural magics to copulating with wild beasts. Elves in Middle Earth are therefore positioned as good because they are pure and the Goblins or Orcs are positioned as evil because they are an impure race which resents their impurity while possessing an animal intellect. Thus all wars in Middle Earth become race wars due to this uncertain origin because every war in Middle Earth is essentially fought between the pure Elves and the impure evil races on some level.

All this was embedded in Dungeons & Dragons when the game adopted these enemy races for its own publications and inherited 'evil born from racial corruption' as a basic theme without the ethical awareness that appears to have consternated Tolkien throughout his life. Goblins and Orcs and Ogres and Trolls have always been the primary antagonists in the ongoing race war ethic that burdens most Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. Each enemy race is a parallel to each of the playable races which players can select from when building their characters and these enemy races share more commonalities than differences. Each enemy race is also prone to violence and antisocial behavior while being physically misshapen (not to mention often dark skinned) as well as less intelligent than the playable races. All their negative qualities are explained as being innate to their genetic makeup and any good natured members of these races are notable exceptions who exist only to prove the rule. But how does their existence within Dungeons & Dragons support racist ideologies?

     "Goblins! In Solace! This new Theocrat has much to answer for!" Flint spat. Reaching up, he swung his battle-axe from its holder on his back and planted his feet firmly on the path, rocking back and forth until he felt himself balanced. "Very well," he announced. "Come on." ... Flint strode forward, his hands getting a firm grip on the axe handle. "There's only one creature I hate worse than a gully dwarf," he muttered, "and that's a goblin!"
- Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, Dragons of Autumn Twilight

In the above (abridged) quotation from the classic Dungeons & Dragons novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight, we see one of the most iconic and beloved characters in the Dragonlance series speaking in a way that would be very clearly racist were he a real man speaking about real human races. He establishes that this specific race is not welcome in his home town and then defines them as creatures rather than as a people. Clear parallels to real world racist attitudes can be drawn here, such as keeping African Americans or Hispanics out from predominantly white neighborhoods and dehumanizing them in a way that suggests an animal nature rather than a human one. Unyielding hatred toward so-called 'goblinoid' races is not an uncommon attitude in the Dungeons & Dragons novels nor is it uncommon to see such attitudes expressed by player characters around a gaming table. It is true that the racism in a Dungeons & Dragons novel or game may also be directed toward the playable races but this racism is always addressed as such and ultimately shown to be a character flaw which must be unlearned in order to achieve a particular goal. Meanwhile the racism directed toward the enemy races is shown to be acceptable and is never punished because it is presumably justified.

Elves and Dwarves and Halflings and the other playable races are each a variation on 'thematic human' when taken down to brass tacks. Directing aggressive racism toward them feels too real for anyone with a conscience, although even this was common in the younger years of the fantasy roleplay genre. Displacing racism onto a people who are meant to be monstrous and whose evil is innate allows the player or reader to engage in racist fantasy without feeling racist because they are not directing these antisocial fantasies toward a people which can be identified as human. Now, to be fair to the writers, the new fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons does establish that any race can embrace any alignment they choose, but this statement is little more than a brief curtsy of the fifth edition to more modern and enlightened sensibilities.  Racial cultures such as the dark-skinned Drow and primate Half-Orcs are still portrayed as innately unethical and bestial. Drow are described as monstrous fiends in the Player's Handbook while the playable Half-Orcs are described as forever wrestling with the evil and violent nature invested in them by their creator god. Both examples affirm that evil races remain innately evil in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and are therefore fair targets for the racially motivated prejudices of the player characters.

Some gamers would suggest that this is necessary and that Dungeons & Dragons requires a clear and definitive evil for the more heroic player characters to rise up against. I agree that Dungeons & Dragons is at its best when the player characters must face a clear and definitive evil in their world but I disagree that this evil must be manifest in a racialized form. We tell stories when we play tabletop roleplaying games or live action roleplaying games and the stories people tell  influence their cultures, whether these cultures be their personal cultures or the greater cultures of their societies. We embody the moral lessons of these stories, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and we choose to embrace a moral lesson that continues to plague our modern societies when we tell stories which uphold an innate racialized evil against which prejudice is justified. Meanwhile, we choose to embrace a more righteous and ethically advanced moral lesson when we tell stories in which assumptions of innate racialized evil are proven wrong or rejected. While many dungeons masters share my sentiments and often choose the latter stories; the writers of Dungeons & Dragons continue to assert the former and therefore choose to maintain a less ethical baseline for a game which has informed culture for decades. Such a practice in game design affirms racist ideologies in ways which are far more insidious than does writing predominantly pale skinned Euro-American fantasy cultures, because the practice masks the real world racist ideologies of human history with fantasy surrogates who allow players to ape these ideologies and call it entertainment. As laudable as creating ever more cosmopolitan and phenotypically diverse fantasy humans has been in recent editions, it does not balance this practice.

Dungeons & Dragons: Ethics Edition

I game.

I have been gaming for the past twenty-two years and my games of choice remain those roleplaying games which require interpersonal human interaction. Live action roleplaying games have been my standard hobby, at least until I moved to a nation where open space and public dignity are both at a premium, but I started in the same place as most gamers who were gamers before gaming meant bleeding edge video games and annual massively multiconsumer conventions. I began when gaming meant sitting around a table in a basement or a living room or an outdoor dining shed (my experience) alongside four or five other friends who shared my affection for collectively working out a fantasy narrative over pizza purchased by our parents.

Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974 and - although it never really reinvented the war game genre - it created a new entertainment genre and market demand where none previously existed. It took the war game genre and shifted the control from many units to a single unit and placed each single unit in the hands of single players, and this ultimately created a more personal gaming experience which resulted in players becoming more dedicated to the stories that were being told. An aside, this same approach is what allowed World of Warcraft to become such a market success: It took a successful game series and shifted the control from many units to single units and immersed those single units in lore-driven stories that placed them at the center of the action. For these reasons and more, Dungeons & Dragons was so successful that its rule books could be found by the dozens in book stories across the United States, lined up neatly alongside other roleplaying games and the hundreds of fantasy novels which had been inspired by, and often tied in with, the Dungeons & Dragons campaign worlds and its other intellectual properties.

It has been thirty years and the rules books are still being published under new editions (despite the doomsaying that went on among fans when Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in 1997) even though their hallowed sections in the bookstores have essentially disappeared along with the bookstores themselves. Each subsequent edition has attempted to address the changing preferences of the gaming communities for which it is published, and I would argue that this is what has allowed it to persist in a genre where other games are embraced and later abandoned when something more interesting appears. For instance; more complicated algebraic calculations, a mainstay in earlier editions like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition and its contemporaries, have been replaced with ever more simple arithmetic. 

Despite all these changes between editions, no edition has addressed the legitimate social issues which have been enshrined in the fantasy genre since before Dungeons & Dragons ever even hit the shelves. I do give the current writers credit for dedicating a portion of their word count to a statement that embraces diversity among genders and sexualities but the unfortunate fact remains that certain equally important issues remain unaddressed and that even the most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons has failed to catch up with the 21st century, which all leaves me inclined to make a joke about the product line possessing high constitution but low wisdom. I will not make that joke but anyone who wants to make it certainly could.

I have been avoiding a direct call-out up to this point for a few reasons. One reason is that I tend to be pretty verbose and it can take me awhile to make a point. Moreso, two thirds of my entire life have been spent telling stories and forging memories with friends through this game and I hate ever pointing out that it has problems beyond the standard minutiae which concern most gamers. I hesitate because I adore Dungeons & Dragons and I do not want to see it tarnished even though it insists on tarnishing itself whenever it fails to address the racism in its narratives. Whether it is in the role that goblins and other so-called 'goblinoid' races play as surrogate whipping children for fantasies of ethnocentric superiority, the all-too iconic Drow who have been cursed by the very gods with black skin in order to announce the evils inherent in their matriarchal society, or the more simple monolithic cultures and attitudes attached to all races except the versatile (Euro-American) humans; a false racial narrative used to oppress real people in the real world has consistently emerged within the fantasy world of the Dungeons & Dragons series since its original publication.

It would be unfair to claim that Dungeons & Dragons created this racism. It would even be unfair (albeit less so) to claim that the game bears sole responsibility for perpetuating these tropes over the last three decades. Dungeons & Dragons inherited the approach to monolithic fantasy races from far more popular iconic sources in fantasy, such as the works of Tolkien and Lewis, after all; and these racist tropes only persist in the game series because they remain unchallenged (sometimes even embraced) by the people purchasing its publications. Now that a new and fifth edition has made it to the shelves, new and long time supporters of the game are being presented with an opportunity to discuss the changes that have been made to the game. Likewise, we are also being given a chance to discuss the changes that still need to made to the culture that passes through, and surrounds, the game. Over the next few entries, I will be discussing specific themes which I believe must evolve if the people publishing (and the people purchasing) Dungeons & Dragons want it to evolve beyond the antisocial tropes that have burdened it for too long. I will not be doing this to tarnish my favorite game. I will be doing it because I am a gamer and this is - for me at least - the game that contributed to who I am.