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.