From Morrowind to Fallout 4: How Bethesda have changed

Image from www.fallout4.com

Ah, Fallout 4. We’ve certainly had plenty of time to love it and leave it since it was released back in November. We’ve seen the sights, done the quests, killed the raiders, glitched our way to infinite caps and painted the whole Commonwealth red.

It is also Bethesda’s best-selling release to date. But is it the best?

The first Bethesda game that became widely popular was the classic Morrowind, which tends to get a bit of a bad wrap now. Well, not so much a bad wrap, as an “Ahw, bless it, look, it’s really trying!” Which is understandable. When Bethesda made Morrowind, their team wasn’t even half the size it is now, and there was no guarantee of public attention (though they were still headed by the same man, Todd Howard).

But it is easy to see that Morrowind was a labour of love. Yes, there are probably too many player skills. Yes, the visuals make you want to claw your eyes out – and yes, the old dice-roll-for-damage model is almost physically painful to our modern gaming senses – but, perhaps because of this, the writing within the game is Bethesda’s most unique and ambitious to date. For me, Morrowind represents the work of a group of passionate gamers who were truly fearless and enthusiastic about what they produced – and it comes off well. There aren’t many other games in the genre today whose main quest is to bring down an elaborate theocracy, led by an immortal genderless war hero, taking place in a world that is essentially a giant dreamscape. (If you don’t know what I’m taking about, head over to reddit.com/teslore).

I’ll be the first to admit that I am obsessed with lore in video games. But, in my opinion, having a storyline that expects the player to go out there, learn about the world, and read the game books – properly – is daring. For it then to rely on the player’s understanding of the lore to drive the narrative forward is both engrossing and extremely daring. Even more daring when the books you have to read are themselves sometimes dry, complex theological books, or difficult-to-grasp myths that require three or four rereadings to truly understand.

But this is all in pursuit of immersion. Generating in the gamer the feeling of really experiencing what their character is experiencing. It is Bethesda’s self-professed ultimate goal, the one thing that they keep in mind whenever they begin a new project.

This, perhaps, is where Fallout 4 falls down. And the reason seems to be a change in the team’s philosophy.

*Sigh* here we go.

Since Morrowind, a slow but subtle change has taken place in the way Bethesda builds their games. A lot of this is interface and system related – in Morrowind, there were 27 skills. In Oblivion, there were 21. In Fallout 3 there were 13, in Skyrim there were 18…

In Fallout 4, there were 0.

Similarly, we have seen a steady streamlining of the HUD, to the point where it is detrimental to player enjoyment (Seriously? You expect us to handle the running of a small country in Fallout 4 using a HUD that is more minimalistic than many FPSs? And why can’t I view what my character looks like in my inventory? Gah!)

My point is that Bethesda have been making their games simpler and easier to access as they have developed. In interviews, Todd Howard says the reason this is is so the player feels as unrestricted as possible – they removed classes between Oblivion and Skyrim so that we could switch from being a wizard to a warrior immediately without having to start a new character. The menus were streamlined so that we could better see and enjoy the gameworld around us.

The problem that I find here is: most RPG players define their characters through these restrictions. “Yes, I may suck with a sword, but I can take those brutes down with my all-powerful knowledge of fire!” or “I can’t fight, but damn, I can talk.” Taking the restrictions out makes it harder to track your character’s progress, and it can end up feeling static pretty quickly.

This is my problem with Fallout 4. When you leave the vault, you should be awful. You should be running away from every damn thing you encounter, because you’re not used to this world. You should be able to build your character up from the gritty roots, survive all the odds, and come out on top eventually as this badass, power-armoured war machine who can mulch those raiders that gave you such a hard time when you started. It’s in those moments when you feel how far your character has come, and you can appreciate how (s)he has grown through the process. In Fallout 4, you begin roughly the same as you will end. You will get buffs from perks, yes, and better equipment, but ultimately, take off the power armour, and you’re just the same as when you began, 10, 50, 200 hours ago.

I don’t know. Maybe the whole streamline thing works for others. For me, not so much.

Back to the narrative. For me, Fallout 4’s protagonist was the most restricted of all Bethesda’s protagonists (except perhaps Cyrus). When you begin the game, everything has already been decided for you. Who are you? A concerned parent. Who were you? A war veteran (or a lawyer, if you play as a female). Who are you going to be? A flat character.

Bethesda’s motto is “live another life, in another world.” But Fallout 4 feels more like I’m living the exact same life that every other player is.

The main quest in Fallout 4 is designed to show you all the major sites of the game. Piper is placed right outside the only city, so you are guaranteed to interact with her. You can’t be mean to her, you can’t drive her away – no matter what you do, she’s your loyal ally. Similarly, you can’t decide just to be a total dick and forget about your kid completely, because nearly every side quest, nearly every piece of dialogue is geared towards the ‘good guy concerned parent’ character you’ve been given. Where’s the adventure? Where are the decisions? Perhaps the most evil you can be is to join the Brotherhood of Steel, which is saying a lot.

Ultimately, Bethesda has changed. Some say that it’s because they got popular – they’re so scared of making a bad game they’re essentially paralysed when it comes to making decisions. Some say that its just the direction of the industry as a whole – as gaming, and nerd culture as a whole, becomes mainstream, so its nature must change to appeal to a wider audience.

I’m not ultimately going to argue whether the direction Bethesda is going in is the right one or not. Certainly, it’s earned them more fans and more money than their earlier games ever could have.

But personally, I think their games have lost some of their charm.

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