Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Falling in and out of love, part 2

Continued from part 1.

Problem number 2 with Fallout number 3: The clash between the open-ended nature of some quest solutions with the scripted interactions between quest-critical NPCs. Granted, trying to make all of the pre-scripted dialogue and actions line up neatly with the elements of randomness in this open world must have been like herding cats. But it doesn't mean I have to like it when something doesn't make sense.

At one point in "Head of State," you're given a few simple instructions.
  1. Go to the Lincoln Memorial.
  2. See if it's clear of Super Mutants.
  3. Return to the Temple of the Union and tell everybody that the Lincoln Memorial is free of Super Mutants.

It's as simple as it sounds. As the quest is written, you aren't supposed to do anything except travel to the Lincoln Memorial, look at it, and return. Except this is Fallout, and what are you going to do, not walk up the steps of the Memorial? That's even if you didn't notice the slavers walking around up there, which I assuredly did. So I went up there and cleared them out, gaining positive karma and XP all the way. It was great.

The problem arose when I brought my buddies from the Temple to the Memorial, at which time they all started griping about the Memorial being in the hands of slavers. But it wasn't! I'd killed them all! So we all walked up there, and I thought the quest should have ended. Instead, we stood around, and none of the characters presented any new dialogue options. Back to the internet I went, whereupon I learned that sometimes there's a slaver hiding in a room underneath the Memorial. I went in there, and sure enough, there he was. Once I killed him, I could finish the quest.

Let's recap what happened there:
  • I killed a bunch of slavers well before the game apparently wanted me to, even though it sent me right to their doorstep.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union was incensed to find the Memorial in slaver hands, even though, as far as they could tell, it wasn't.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union, in fact, was telepathic, and knew that a slaver was hiding silently underneath the Memorial.
  • The gang from the Temple of the Union, despite their obvious psychic gifts, were unable to communicate to me that there was still one more slaver holed up.
That's dumb, right? At the very least, it doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. And it's the kind of thing that punctures the bubble of reality that starts to surround you at certain points during the game. There's not a clear separation between the characters as physical entities within the reality of the game world, and between the "dungeon master" quality of the quest lines.

Further, my relationship as the player to my character is a little confused. This is the kind of game where blood spatters on your screen as though it's a camera lens, even when you're in first-person mode. That should be your eyes, right? Not a dealbreaker by any means, nor a mistake exclusive to Fallout. But a game that takes the time to think through these things will ultimately do a better job of creating an immersive game world with no stitches or seams (hello, Mr. Hocking!).


Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I think you are being far too picky. You played Oblivion, right? You played Baldur's Gate, right? Planescape: Torment? You see where I am going? These are flawed, fun, fantastic games, all of them extremely limited by the humans who make them and the technology involved. Do the flaws outweigh the fun? Does Rock Band 2 suck because you aren't REALLY playing music? You get to play Behind Blue Eyes for Christ sake!

Mitch Krpata said...

Actually Oblivion is the only one of those games I played, and for only a couple hours before I lost interest.

You're right, to some degree, and there's obviously still plenty about Fallout that's great. I wouldn't have played it so much if that weren't the case. Sometimes I'm just left scratching my head, though.

Also, like Stephen Totilo, I never realized you could repair your own stuff in this game, so probably nobody should listen to me on this one.

Gary A. Lucero said...

No, you are right, it's definitely a flawed game. I went 60 hours breaking bobby pins and failing at hacking because I didn't quite understand them. An office mate and the Internet helped me out, and second playthrough those are quite breezy. I have frustrations too, and even question the gratuitous voilence, which I love! I am playing as evil this time around and it's sick how dealing in slavery and killing just about everyone could be fun.

Nels Anderson said...

The "psychic NPC" issue is one of those problems that's really difficult to resolve. There are so many different possible conditions that the only viable solution (given time and technical constraints) is to make NPCs "psychic." It's less obvious in Fallout 3 than in some other games, but as you noted, when it does happen, it's quite jarring.

There has been research in the Ubicomp community (my CS Masters was in Ubicomp) discussing seamless vs. "seamful" design. The basic idea is that instead of trying to make an experience completely seamless and ultimately falling short of that goal (there are just too many edge cases), the design embraces its seams from the beginning. Those seams are anticipated and used to make the experience better for the user/player, instead of being annoying stumbling blocks.

I'm still not entirely sure exactly what the qualities of a more "seamful" game are. But I do know that as games march closer and closer to realism, the shortcomings become more pronounced. The Uncanny Valley of game realism, if you will. We'll need to find ways to address them if we want to avoid pulling players out of an experience, as you were at the Lincoln Memorial.

Gary A. Lucero said...

What's interesting is I also had an issue there during my first playthrough. It's like that particular quest is just buggy. I had visited it early on and killed all the slavers, but when I told the Temple of the Union I would meet them there, they wouldn't "show up". I waited and waited and waited. Finally, and I can't remember what triggered it (there weren't any stray slavers), they arrived and the quest was complete.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah Fallout 3 sucks.

Oh wait, that wasn't what you were saying? Oh nevermind then, I'll go back to being the lone voice in the wilderness.

Anonymous said...

My Fallout 3 character was a sneaky sharpshooter, so I painstakingly scouted the perimeter of the Lincoln Memorial before wandering into the gift shop entrance.

There I was warned that the guards upstairs would shoot on site *but* if I wanted to work for the slavers, they'd happily reward me, especially for betraying the Temple of the Union gang and crushing their incipient emancipation movement.

I'm guessing this is the course that the developers were hoping you'd take, so you'd get to embrace the full spectrum of good karma/bad karma options. By engaging with the slavers on the steps, you probably foreclosed on any chance of dialogue with their leader.

Still your main point about the need to fall back on psychic NPCs is a weakness of Bethesda's open-world implementation. But I'm still loving how much they got right that I'm willing to forgive what they get wrong - ESPECIALLY a rather poor bit of reasons from a potentially useful ally right at the end.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I think that is precisely my feeling: Fallout 3 is so good, especially compared to Morrowind and Oblivion, both immature comparatively, that I am more than willing to forgive its many problems. It initially amazed me at how bleak and brutal its game world was, but then it thrilled me with its openness, the strategic combat, and its humor. In my mind it's a great game. Not everyone's cup of tea, of course, but for me it definitely works.

Anonymous said...

Also, I'm kind of flabbergasted that both you and Totilo completely missed the "repair" feature.

Sure, not everyone reads the manual, I get that. But did you never pick up two of the same weapon or armor and notice the "repair" choice light up in the inventory? Or wonder why you had a repair skill you were never able to use?

It's such an essential part of the game that I can only imagine how difficult the combat must have been for you.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Maybe for those of us who played Oblivion repair was just more intuitive? For me, lock picking was explained in a vague way that made it overly difficult. I'm dense anyway! And I didn't bother to read the instructions for hacking, so I didn't understand that it counted the position of the letters as well as whether they were right or wrong, which made it far more difficult than it should have been.

Mitch Krpata said...

When I was actually looking for it last night, I couldn't believe I missed it, either. I think what happened is this: because the option to repair was grayed out so often, eventually I just stopped looking at it altogether. And when I had repairable items in my inventory -- say two shotguns -- I never bothered looking over there, because it had never been of use before. Instead, I was looking at the weapons' stats and deciding which one to keep and which one to discard. Argh.

Combat is now much easier, yes.

Anonymous said...

As a Fallout veteran attuned to the fine art of selective scrounging, I picked up every piece of usable or valuable gear I could carry on the way out of Vault 101.

As a result, I had duplicate vault jumpsuits, police clubs and the like, and saw the repair option immediately.