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: