Wasteland Ventures (Fallout) #4 – The Survival Trinity

December 29th, 2010

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As the spoilerific video above shows, Fallout can be a ploughed through in under 10 minutes, but those who’ve played Fallout the long and proper way know that getting to the end is not nearly as easy as the video makes it look.

There are three main goals in Fallout: return the water chip to Vault 13, destroy the mutant plague and kill the mutant leader. These goals may seem simple enough, but they’re caught beneath a myriad of layered restrictions which blur the direct course to each solution. These restrictions are pertinent to what I call the survival trinity: intel, combat and inventory; the three subsystems of Fallout’s gameplay and the areas of expertise the player needs to master in order to complete the three goals and beat the game.

Intel

Unlike in JRPGs where a core area (cave, tower, dungeon)-town-core area structure dictates the general level design and progression model, in Fallout, the world map is simply a giant, unmarked black box awaiting you. With such vague goals and a seemingly open world to explore, the player needs to find their own direction and to do that they require the first piece of the trinity, intel. It’s up to the player to brief themselves on the world, as Fallout only offers 2 concessions from the onset: the name of a nearby town (Shady Sands) and a purpose (get the water chip). So, it’s the information that the players themselves must scrounge out that will lead the course of direction, and not a rigid form of forced progression.

(Granted Fallout’s still a primarily linear game, but one which uses a series of more natural, soft constraints which work progressively to limit the player’s access. For example, continually more difficult enemy encounters on the world map and denied access into some townships prevent the player from delving too far ahead).

Once the player finds word of another shanty town through conversing with the locals, that location is marked on their world map screen. The towns themselves are very different to those in JRPGs. A typical JRPG town consists of the following: an inn, a weapons store, an armour store, a magic store and a quest giver. These games even go to the liberty of marking these out for with labels on shop fronts and a clear language of level design. Fallout, sticking to its nuclear apocalypse theme, is much more variable than that. On arriving to a town, the player needs to find out who the big players are and what’s happening. Oftentimes the player cannot even access these quest givers unless they meet certain conditions requiring knowledge gained elsewhere.

In practical terms, communication is a very simple mechanic. Players just click on a character to initiate a conversation. Various dialogue options then appear when appropriate. Depending on what option is selected, various opportunities for using the other mechanics open up (combat for instance). For example, if you agitate an NPC enough through dialogue options, then they will attack you. Increasing the speaking statistics opens up more dialogue options and therefore more interesting possibilities for gameplay (ie. convincing the Khans leader that you are his father). As with life itself, communication is the conduit to greater things.

The majority of Fallout‘s restrictions are intel-based. If the player learns the ins-and-outs of the wasteland through conversation then it’s easy to breeze through, as the speed run video so nicely demonstrates. That is, actually knowing what to do can circumvent the need for combat or specific inventory. As we can see in the speed run video, the other parts of the trinity aren’t necessary in this run of the game. But, because Fallout is so opaque, finding out this information in the first place fills the meaty duration of the game and ultimately requires the use of the other sides of the trinity.

Practical examples of intel and restrictions:

Combat

Combat, as the most primal form of defence and survival is fairly self-explanatory. The wasteland is hardly a safe place, so in order to survive the player will often have to fend off danger. While it is technically possible to meet each of the three goals without conflict (again, see the speed run), for most players combat is a large part of post-nuclear-war life. Hostile enemies populate the world map and most important areas, rational characters will turn on the player and even when responsibly dealing with characters who are so obviously corrupt. combat is required as a form of brute force (Gizmo and Kane). Sometimes force is necessary in order for the greater good.

Combat has the most sophisticated system of mechanics, a turn-based system with weapons, armour and inventory governed by action points. Action points are a currency that regenerate every turn and limit the amount of action per each turn.

Practical examples of combat and restrictions:

Inventory

Inventory is the backbone to combat and other systems. Inventory management mechanics, stealing, trading, unlocking and the actual uses of the inventory items. Having the right inventory opens up doors otherwise inaccessible. I will talk more specifically about inventory management in the following post.

Examples:

Osmos and The Free Market

December 26th, 2010

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Keeping with the capitalism analogies, Osmos is also an interesting metaphor for the free market. Watch the clip above from 6:30 and see if you can spot the connection.

Osmos is largely a visual model of the corporate world where each bubble represents a company and each company shrinks, expands and/or merges with other businesses because of the market place’s demand for constant growth (ie. any company can improve their share at any time, so companies have no choice but to be fiercely competitive to stay afloat). Marxist critique of capitalism says that such a market will continue through such a process until there is only one governing super power, a merge of the largest influencing powers. Osmos is all about reaching that goal. The game ends when the condition to become the largest (ie. market place demands) are met or your bubble is so large that the other bubbles/businesses pose a threat.

Make the Yule-tide Gay

December 23rd, 2010

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I’ve rarely used the site updates category this year as 1) There’s really been no new updates to report on 2) I try to avoid unnecessarily writing about myself if I can help it. Since Christmas and the end of the year are fast approaching though, I would like to do a little personal reflection, so bear with me.

Four years ago, when I started this blog, I was admittedly a very poor writer. I felt that my ideas were worth sharing, but my weak level of articulation made the process of translating my thoughts into words for human consumption an uncomfortable one. During the initial 2 years of writing I was often unsure of the future of the blog and how long I could sustain doing something that made me feel impotent every time it came to putting my fingers to the keyboard. I kept powering on though and slowly gained strength as a writer.

If the first 2 years had been about finding my voice and becoming a competent writer, then the last 2 have been about developing a critical eye.

Two years ago I saw the direction that I wanted to take my blog in, and although a long way off, I started working my way there. Fortunately, 2009’s breezy uni life accommodated my plans quite nicely and so the ball started rolling pretty quickly. Before I knew it I was writing for a well respected publication and one of my articles was even used as the basis for a college course in the states (not that I’d get recognition or be credited for the latter [/bitterness]).

Although this year I’ve written fewer articles than the last, I think that the quality of writing and depth of analysis is supremely better. Granted that the game I discuss offers enough meat to say something substantial about (which is usually the case), I work hard to make each new article my best, if not, at least superior to the last. And so to do that I’ve had to break everything down into smaller pieces and provide even clearer explanation, before building back up to my core argument. This stringency has pushed me towards that critical writing mojo that I was looking for some 2 years ago and have now probably sought out. At my current stage I think that Daniel Primed is a competent outlet for proper critical analysis of video games. It’s taken a while for me to get to this stage, but I’m absolutely wrapped that I finally made it.

Now that I’m here, where to next?

Nowhere.

I’ve been stewing over the future of my writing for some time this year, even testing the waters of the enthusiast press, and have come to the conclusion that I just want to keep writing here. I have considered the prospect of writing for other publications, either for cash or interest, but there’s really no point. Neither hobbyist or professional publications are interested in this type of critical games writing and the blogosphere would rather talk baseless, pseudo academic assumptions than back up their bizarre statements with evidence from games themselves. Frankly, I feel lost somewhere in the middle.

The writers in the industry that I idolise basically live tough lives under the poverty line and there’s no reason for me to push myself down those dark alleys. And to be entirely honest, if I were to write for anywhere else, it would suck away my creative liberties. No one is going to pay me for pouring hours of my time into further understanding the games that I want to play. So, I may as well continue to write as I do now: as an extension of my play experience. Maybe if I end up doing this long enough I could write a book, work in QA or become a consultant. Who knows? I’m pretty content right here for the meantime though.

I have just 3 goals for next year regarding Daniel Primed. They are:

For now though, I need to get working on DP’s 2010 Games Crunch. Thank you for all your support this year. Have yourself a Merry Christmas.

Daniel