“Win what?” That’s probably you asking a strangely rhetorical question to no one in particular as 1) you’re most likely all alone right now and 2) you can safely assume that I’ll be answering that question posthaste. Or as close as possible as I do have a tendency to go on.
As you know, Fallout 4 was made official last week. Over the course of 24 hours and several mini announcements, we got a trailer, a website, and someone who sounds like Troy Baker perhaps offering the first voice protagonist of the series—a rarity for Bethesda in general, actually. And then the Internet went wild.
Turns out that Fallout 4 wouldn’t technically have the first voiced protagonist. And then some savvy sleuths figured out exactly where Vault 111 is located in Boston. Oh yeah, they all took a stab and placed the game in Boston based on the landmarks. But oh wait, does the Troy Baker-esque VO mean we won’t have the robust character creation options we’ve come to expect? Nope, maybe not.
I tended to shove all that aside. There was a bigger question that loomed over the announcement, one posed by another game that was recently released: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not to say that they’re the same game, but they do have similarities and scratch a lot of the same gaming itches.
They’re both huge, sprawling open-world action RPGs with deep lore and worldbuilding, for instance, something Bethesda has prided itself on for over a decade now. But with Wild Hunt out now to great critical and commercial acclaim while Fallout 4 sits in development for at least another year, how can the storied studio set the story straight that they are indeed still the visionaries of yesteryear?
I’ve had a week to stew on the matter and I do believe I’m done percolating. After putting in considerable time into Wild Hunt (still haven’t beat it) and going back to explore some of Bethesda’s more recent offerings in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 3, there’s really only one conclusion to come to.
Personal consequence. Not to mean the consequences of playing need to be more directed towards the player such as in moment-to-moment gameplay but rather that the fallout (ha!) of choices and actions need to be more personal and more impactful.
Bethesda does a great job with worldbuilding. There’s not question about that. However, they’re not so great at making it matter after the fact. It all comes across as an immensely static diorama in which more things are set, not that the people and the world react as one to the outcome of your story.
Consider the mission early in Fallout 3 where you find yourself in Megaton with the option to either facilitate its destruction or disarm its decidedly more crumbly fate. And aside from the big explosion that happened after I said, “Fuck this town,” I don’t remember much of anything of what happened.
Sure, it did make a huge mark on the land in a literal way. That town is, like, super gone. And former Megaton citizens are likely to recognize and attack you. It certainly does change the way you handle that part of the world.
But that’s just it. It’s only that part of the world. For all the negative karma you get for blowing that dingy hole up with a nuke, you can actually come back from it and end up a half decent fellow. And so long as you don’t go wandering around that freshly irradiated crater, you tend to forget you even did it. It feels massively inconsequential despite being massively terrible.
Blow up the city or save it. Kill the quest-giver or save him. Fight with the farmer or fight against him. Those sorts of choices feel exceedingly mechanical in Bethesda games, where you can almost see the boolean bit being set in the memory space saying you did this thing, as if you were directly input hex values like some drastically simplified Super Mario World credits warp.
The problem is that the effect of all your gun-toting and sword-swinging causes are simply too direct and too predictable. Of course everyone hates you for blowing up Megaton. Big whoop. There’s no depth to your choices. You don’t care what’s at the bottom of a puddle because you can see it, but the bottom of the ocean is a lot more mysterious and interesting.
When you play Wild Hunt, though, you feel like there’s a far deeper web than you can possibly predict (maybe even comprehend) as you make choices. The immediacy is very apparent but everything down the road is murky and full of fear and paranoia.
Not even all your choices are purely systemic. If you head over to Vice and read this story about how neglecting Gwent, Wild Hunt‘s in-game card game, cost the life of one of Geralt’s companions, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not just about the binary options you toggle between when choosing what quests to accept but also how you go about being yourself within the shoes of this Witcher.
Of course, Bethesda games can and have achieved the same thing. Their games offer you a myriad of tactics towards accomplishing your goals or shirking your responsibilities, but they all still arrive at the same terminus with just a smattering of complexity and intrigue.
There’s also the problem of combat. While Skyrim skews closer to the setting of The Witcher series, its fighting mechanics are overly simplistic. But that’s retro-fantasty and Fallout games are future-fantasy. But they’re still failing there as well as this Forbes piece points out with the V.A.T.S. feature.
Writing also tends to be an issue, opting for dry info dumps rather than the mature and layered stuff of The Witcher games, but truly the great divider and most inviting space for Bethesda to once again innovate their style is in the worlds they build and how they feel against the coarse actions and choices you do and make. Here’s hoping, fellas.