Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Shamus Answers Your Fallout 4 Questions

Shamus Young | 7 Dec 2015 16:00
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My last two columns were about Fallout 4, so this week I decided to answer some reader questions for a change of pace. But then all the questions were about Fallout 4. So, fine. Just remember: You brought this on yourselves.

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First up is a question from Lewis, regarding my recent article stating that the Fallout 4 Intro is a Mess:

I've never played a fallout game before, but given the widespread love for this one and from what I've seen of it it looks like my cup of tea. But by the sounds of your article (in particular in regards to the deathclaw and power armour) as someone completely unfamiliar with the series do you think this sudden introduction is of benefit or detraction for someone like myself walking into the series?

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It would make a lot of sense if Bethesda designed the intro to help bring newcomers into the world, but it actually seems like this game does the opposite. There's almost no effort to helping new Fallout players make sense of the madness.

Which is strange. They've got a voiced protagonist now, which leads us to expect some characterization. That characterization could then double as an introduction for new players. It's like they designed the perfect character for this job and then forgot to do it.

In my 200+ hours with the game, I've never heard my character ask about people using bottlecaps as money. (Which should be a really strange idea to them.) They don't ask about the various mutated creatures. They don't ask about government. There isn't one of course, but they don't know that and it's probably the first thing you're likely to ask about in a world like this. "Hey, who's in charge around here?" They don't ask about supermutants or ghouls until many hours after they're introduced, and even then the game doesn't really explain them properly.

(Possibly because they can't. Supermutants were originally made in one lab in southern California, and that lab was blown up over a hundred years before the events of Fallout 4. The only explanation for the presence of them here in Boston is that Bethesda felt they were a signature part of the game and therefore need to be here whether it makes sense or not.)

The game does engage in a little tutorial-type stuff, but none of it is really integrated into the story. It's mostly done with little popups.

This is something Bethesda has always been bad at. All of their games from the last decade seem to assume you're a returning player. I usually don't mind that approach, but here it seems so strange when juxtaposed with their deliberate fish-out-of-water main character.

Next up is another Fallout 4 question from Will:

How, if at all, can Bethesda fix its inventory management for its role-playing games? I enjoyed Fallout 3 and New Vegas and started Skyrim but felt compelled in all games to pick everything of value up.

Essentially the game is pitting the player's desire to play the game in the "best" possible way (ie gather as many resources as possible) with his or her sense of fun (collecting all that stuff, managing it, and selling it gets very tedious).

From what I've read, Fallout 4 is even worse in this regard, since you are collecting resources for a whole settlement and new inventory system. [...] Are there any solutions for this? Or is this even a problem (I could theoretically just leave those cans and plates behind; some people might enjoy the collecting aspect).

I should probably explain this one for the sake of people who don't play these games. It works like this:

Bethesda games often let you pick up silly crap that would normally be static scenery. You can pick up dishes, silverware, baskets, paperweights, and other items that have no gameplay value. You can find this stuff on shelves, in containers, and sometimes even on the foes you kill. It's useless, but not "worthless", because it has some trivial dollar-value to shopkeepers. So some people feel obligated to pick this stuff up and drag it back to the store to sell.

There's a limit on how much the player can carry. It's ridiculously high. Even a player of modest strength can carry a load of junk roughly the size and weight of the average couch before it begins to slow them down. But even so, sooner or later players hit that limit. The moment they do, they suddenly begin walking at a tortuously slow speed. And so then they need to drop something so they can hike to the nearest shop and unload.

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The game lists the value and weight of each item, but not the number the player really needs, which is value per weight-unit. So the player finds themselves scrolling through the inventory screen for ten minutes, sorting through hundreds of items and mentally doing division in an attempt to figure out which items are the most worthless. A few minutes ago they were enjoying a fight against a dragon or a killer robot or whatever, and now they're trapped in a hell of their own making.

This is the stuff of flame wars. The strange thing about Bethesda games is that they seem to have two or three entirely different audiences with totally different needs. Some people are lore hounds (hi there) and want complex worldbuilding and characters. (We're mostly here foolishly hoping the Morrowind lightning will strike twice.) Other people are here for the action gameplay. And still other people are here to play a game where they personally reduce the total entropy of the world by gathering up and sorting every damn knickknack into one of three categories:

1) Stuff to be mindlessly hoarded because "Who knows? I might somehow need hundreds of these someday!"

2) Stuff to be put on display in the player's home / base / murder museum.

3) Stuff to be taken to a shopkeeper and converted into money.

The tricky thing is that sorting gameplay is a major selling point for some people and a major drag for others. Some people want the sorting stuff removed because they find it completely uninteresting. But people at the other extreme also want it removed because their videogame hoarding instinct is so strong that they simply can't walk away from loot, even though sorting through it is fundamentally unrewarding. (Particularly in the late game.) But somewhere in the middle we have a large group of players who really love that loot-sorting gameplay.

Bethesda games are always this dangerous compromise between the groups, and I think the new "junk hunt" in Fallout 4 was an attempt to make everyone happy. Instead of selling all those knickknacks to a shopkeeper for a pittance, you take them back to your base where they're converted into raw materials that you can use to build your settlement.

It sort of solves one problem. Now all that "useless junk" has a purpose. People who can't control themselves (if we're being totally honest, I sometimes fall into this group, too) now get something worthwhile for their effort. On the other hand, people who hate the loot sorting are now kind of obligated to do a bit of it to get what they need.

As for "fixing" this problem? Obviously a "fix" for one group would ruin it for others, but I suppose one idea would be to make the encumbrance limit a gradient instead of binary. Right now if your encumbrance limit is 200 then you can sprint and leap like a gazelle when you're carrying 199.9 "pounds" of stuff. Then you pick up a toothbrush and suddenly your hero is staggering around, barely able to move.

Whether Bethesda intended it or not, these mechanics create an incentive to hit that 199.9 mark as soon as possible (by taking everything) and then drop the lowest value items every single time new ones are acquired. If you do this, you'll spend more time sorting loot than shooting mutants.

A system that began gradually slowing you down at (say) half your weight limit would give players an incentive to pick up valuable things instead of every thing. You'd still have to do some sorting, but rewarding players for being "picky" might mean less total hours spent doing it. Once you decided a hammer was "too heavy" for its given value, you'd never pick one up. This is possibly better than the old system where you might pick it up because you're not sure if you'll find something better, then sort through the list manually later and drop it again.

But that would be a very different game and could easily ruin things for some segment of the player base. If I was Bethesda, I'd just make that something that could be done with mods and see how people responded before I did anything drastic to my flagship product.

(Have a question for the column? Ask me!.)

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and survivor of the dot-com bubble.

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