Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why I'm Not Playing Fallout 4 Like Everyone Else

My absolute favorite thing in Fallout 4 so far, and perhaps will remain so forever, is the base building. I spend hours scrapping crap, planting crops, making water collectors, decorating houses, etc. This is just SO COOL that I can take parts of the world and make them my bases.

One thing I’m not looking forward to is the sub-game of base building. I don’t know what it is about single-player RPGs these days and the need to cram in a base building system, but I do not care about such things outside of persistent worlds. I’m not going to spend 30 hours building up a base in a game that has a “Game Over” screen, and it’s not important to me here.

Many of the blogs and reviews I've read make Fallout 4 seem like something I'd really enjoy. The descriptions and screenshots of the autumnal New England setting were almost enough in themselves to trigger a purchase. And then, when I first read Syp's observation on the sheer futility of base building, diametrically opposed to Keen's gushing delight in the exact same game system, it was as though the clouds had opened and ray of pure light was shining directly into my mind. Here, in a nutshell, is why I can only play MMOs. 

All these long years, going all the way back to that fateful late November day in 1999 when I first installed EverQuest and increasing strongly the further away from that watershed I travel, I've struggled to express just why it is that I find even the best solo RPGs a bleak and unconvincing an experience. By comparison the prospect of even a poorly-translated, unimaginative piece of MMO shovelware positively glimmers with possibilities. 

Well, there's the answer: persistence.

The widely offered and even more widely accepted rationale for the grip MMORPGs exert on us is that we become reliant on the social ties they foster. Supposedly, it's the communities that coalesce around and within them that bind us: our Guilds, our friends, the people we meet and the people we have met. 

Well, that explanation has never flown for me. In sixteen years I have remained in touch with precisely one person that I met while playing MMOs. With the exception of a short period when WoW was trending outside of the MMO niche I have never met a single person in real life who plays them or even recognizes the acronym. I have very few ties to any people who play the games I play.

It wasn't always so. Yes, there was a prolonged period, more than five years, when my MMO play was intensely socialized and most sessions were as much about conversation as they were about gameplay. That, however, had at least as many downsides as up and the succeeding years in which those social connections have atrophied and fallen away, far from leading to disengagement and dissatisfaction, have, by and large, brought a deeper and more satisfying enthrallment with the hobby.

The explanation I usually end up with for the deep and often irrational sense of commitment I feel toward certain MMOs is that I care about my characters. This is true. I care about them in the way I care about characters in books or, more precisely, about characters I have created and written and imagined for myself. Nevertheless it's equally true that I am fickle in my affections and unsteady in fidelity when it comes to those characters.

There are characters that were important, vital, to me scattered across a dozen, a score and more of the MMORPGs I've played in a decade and a half. Many I lived with and through for hundreds, thousands of hours of real time. I can name them and describe them in detail, their looks and their adventures, their likes and dislikes. But I don't play them.

The characters are key to the unbroken connection to the games, it's true, but the real cord is that persistence Syp finds so lacking in Fallout 4 and which Keen doesn't need at all. It's a particular kind of persistence because aren't all computer games "persistent"? Assuming you have the hardware to run it and the saved game files, could you not fire up a game you left half-finished in 1997 and find your character still standing exactly where you left her, fresh and ready to begin where you left off?

Before I found MMOs I played a lot of offline RPGs and loved them. I didn't stop immediately either. It always throws me that Baldur's Gate, which both Mrs Bhagpuss and I played intensely and which is the only RPG I have ever played all the way through twice, came out after we'd been playing EQ for over a year. 

I went on to play BG2 and finish that as well, although just the once. On and off, I picked away at a few others across the years, but by the time we got to Dragon Age: Origins a decade later it was apparent that the magic had flown. The explanation for the change of heart has proven elusive but now Syp has nailed it for me at last.

What matters is not that the worlds are still there, waiting, when I come back to them. No, what matters is that they won't wait. With me or without me these worlds move on. Even my characters change in my absence. Those infuriating flurries of pop-ups and tool-tips that greet the prodigal player, informing him of the myriad changes to systems and processes and items and expectations that have happened behind his back are evidence of history, of existence, of a kind of ethereal solidity that mirrors life.

The persistence of the worlds in which our characters exist, its malleability, its flux, represent a quality of conviction that, for me, no offline RPG can offer. What's more, the mere understanding that this is a persistence shared with thousands, even millions of other players around the world, compounds and magnifies that conviction to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the sense of sharing our actual world itself. 

Persistent, virtual worlds, no matter how trivial or baldly realized, have an innate existence denied to the discrete, unconnected islands of offline RPGs. Actions, even inaction, in them matter, somehow, in a way no action in an isolated, unshared instance that ends with powering down can match or hope to match.

In a way it gives substance to my unshakable, if whimsical, feeling that all my characters carry on with their lives whether I'm there to guide them or not. They do, measurably, change and alter, even while I'm away. Much, much more vividly and unarguably do their worlds grow and change. 

Norrath, Azeroth, Tyria, Telara, Eorzea - none of them wait on my word. Dragons shake the cliffs into the sea, new continents open up to trade and discovery, caves to the underworld yawn wide. These worlds don't just persist, they live. And whenever I return, while I may have missed the events, I'll yet live with the consequences.

That's why, to me anyway, making a mark in any one of them seems to matter in a way that building a base that only I can see in a world that only I can change cannot. And why it's such a true loss when any of these worlds comes to an end.


  1. So, what would you make of a single-player game that changes over time and has things happen to the NPCs when you're not there? State of Decay comes to mind, as well as Animal Crossing.

    1. I wanted to mention the semi-random events in Fallout 4 that Pete at Dragonchaserswrote about recently but the post was getting too long. It's a very grey area all round, I think, multi-layered and nebulous.

      At the top, naturalistic, layer is our knowledge that everything in all video games is artificial, static or controlled by scripts or algorithms. At the bottom we have many overlapping layers of programmed "randomness", player-selected paths, chains and sequences and so on. In the vast spaces between we have suspension of disbelief, superstition, quasi-mystical feelings (I do really feel my characters have independent existence sometimes even while rationally I know they don't) and so on.

      The harder it is to second-guess the bottom layers the more absorbing - immersive - the upper layers become. The one thing that persistent, online worlds have that offline worlds, no matter how complex and well-hidden the programming, however, is perpetual player activity. You literally never know when you will run into a player doing something peculiar that you have never seen done before, most likely something no developer ever imagined, let alone intended, would be done.

      If the persistent, online option wasn't available, though, I'd prefer my offline offering to have as much pseudo-persistency and internal change and growth as possible. And when it comes to how entertaining they are I believe, paradoxically, that the more "written" games are, the better. I don't ever confuse entertainment with immersion though. Some of the most immersive MMOs are barely entertaining at all.

  2. Thank you so much for finally putting into words that feeling I could never quite put a finger on.

    When I tried Skyrim (the last time I attempted to play a single player game), I just couldn't stand the notion that someone I killed would be lying there, unmoved and unaltered, for all of eternity. For me, it was the uncanny valley of virtual worlds.

    When I fell a tree in a forest, and it never grows back, and no one will ever stumble across to see it, does it really make a sound?

    1. The uncanny valley comparison is spot on. It's the way non-persistent worlds get so close to seeming "real" and then stop dead that causes the disconnect, I think. It's jarring in a way the ongoing "we know this doesn't make sense but we'll all pretend it does" endless MMO Valhalla isn't.

  3. I thought this would be a one line post after the title

    "I am a hipster"

    That would be good enough reason to not play F4!

    Truth is, base building isn't a necessity. I love my MMOs. I also love good movies. Fallout 4 is more of an epic movie series that you begin, you trounce through, and it has an end. The only base building that I believe is required is the training quests at the beginning in your first town, so learn how to build bases if you want. I haven't touched it since.

    And it is still amazing!

    1. I was reading "How To Be A Hipster" at Wikihow and it rapidly became apparent to me that for all of my 20s and most of my 30s I and almost all of my friends were certifiable hipsters. Fortunately beards weren't part of the deal back then since I am a card-carrying pogonophobe. There's a well-known Venn diagram intersection between Hipster and Geek and I sit right in the middle of it. Proudly so!

      The serious problem with offline and online games (and movies and books) isn't that any of them are superior to any of the others as a form - it's that all of them take up time and that's a finite resource. I'm sure I'd enjoy Fallout 4 for what it is despite what it's not but I'd be painfully aware every minute I was playing it that I could be playing an MMO instead because, unlike movies and books, which can be enjoyed in circumstances and at times when playing MMOs is not an option, if I'm playing an offline video game I could, de facto, be playing an online one instead.

      Unless, of course, my internet connection was down in which case bring it on!


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