Fallout, Freedom, and the Perils of Player Choice
(This is another edition of The GOG Box, Jim Sterling’s weekly retro PC column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
I came to the Fallout party quite late. In fact, I never played the original game until after I’d played Fallout 3, despite years of having it shoved down my throat by friends and family members alike. Praised for its boundless freedom and sense of humor, Fallout is still considered by many to be up there among the very best RPGs ever created. Having come to it so late in the day, it is difficult to escape just how much this venerable RPG has aged, but one must nonetheless be forced to admit that it tried to do many wonderful things, and succeeded in many of them.
To me, Fallout presents a very interesting jumping point for discussing player freedom, and more importantly, how much freedom a player should have. In Fallout’s world, there are very few rules. You have a character who can be morally upstanding, or brutally sociopathic. You can solve your disputes with heavy firepower, or you can talk your way out of almost any dangerous situation. You can be a pacifist, a warmonger, and you can make big changes to the people you meet and the land you roam.
The freedom present in Fallout puts the touted “choices” available in most modern games to shame. However, is too much freedom a bad thing? The more options you give a player, the more opportunities you give the player to screw up, and the opportunities to do that in Fallout are huge. Due to playing one interaction the wrong way, I ended up killing someone early in the game who I believed to be an important threat. Turns out, he was crucial for not one, but several quests that were now completely inaccessible. I didn’t find this out until it was far too late. Thanks to the lavish levels of freedom, Fallout had given me as much rope as I needed to hang myself, and I dangled like a sucker in minutes. It was one of many mistakes made. The problem is, these mistakes aren’t easily avoidable. Sometimes you have no idea how your actions will play out, and they could thoroughly screw you over.
The irony of this situation is that, at some point, many players will become too scared to experiment, and many will find refuge in walkthroughs and FAQs, finding out what their decisions will do in order to make sure they don’t ruin the experience later on. The freedom aspect is undermined when your players start to mistrust the game and end up following exact instructions from another source. Certainly defeats the object, wouldn’t you say?
There’s a balance to be struck, I feel, between allowing players opportunities to make mistakes and allowing players to feel like they can trust the game. Make a player too paranoid, and he or she won’t want to pursue half the choices present. Fail to have enough punishment for making the “wrong” choices, and the player stops agonizing over decisions and starts to pick options without thinking. That middle ground between paranoia and complacency is a very, very difficult one to accomplish. Consequences that don’t completely ruin the experience, yet are harsh enough to lend a sense of gravitas to the situation, are hard to create, and I’m not sure any game has gotten the balance exactly right. Mass Effect probably comes pretty close … at least for the most part.
Of course, Fallout was a product of its time, a time when PC gamers were happy to let their hobby chew them up and spit them out. Nowadays, with so many games to play and so much “real life” stuff getting in the way, I doubt a game can afford to be quite so damning as Fallout was. Nevertheless, I have to give Fallout my utmost respect for providing that experience in the first place, even if it does allow you to be hoist by your own petard. So many games promise lasting consequences and agonizing decisions, yet come up short. As brilliant as BioShock was, its “morality system” was a complete no-brainer, with a very clear reward for doing the right thing and nothing but scorn and punishment for the “bad” choice. Not even Mass Effect was able to deliver the advertised freedom of choice, given the legendary outrage over Mass Effect 3′s triple-vanilla ending. In Fallout, you truly could do as you pleased, even if that meant you fucked yourself in your urethra without knowing what you’d done.
That deserves a round of applause. Nowadays, especially, it’s probably slightly too much freedom. Still, it was ambitious, and I am glad it exists. After all, it’s great for discussions like these, if nothing else.
Fallout and its sequel are available on GOG.com, and are currently on sale for a paltry $2.99 each thanks to a 50% off Interplay sale. If you make one choice this weekend, that’s one that definitely won’t screw you over!