Holidaying in the Wasteland
Bethesda’s “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” experiences are exactly what I need right now
I have been on a Bethesda kick lately. It should be noted that I’m one of those insufferable folks who occasionally complains about a gaming backlog that’s too large to jump over. Re-downloading and starting Skyrim from the very beginning undoubtedly torches any hope I had of clearing said backlog. It gets worse though. Only a few weeks before Skyrim returned to my PS4, I fired up Fallout: New Vegas and started it again from the beginning. Oh, and somewhere along the line I also had another crack at Fallout 4.
I know what you’re thinking. In my own defence, let me just point out that I’d already completed both Skyrim and Fallout 4 long ago. New Vegas is the only game of the three I’d never finished. In fact — for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear to me — I had played New Vegas a couple of times and stopped right as I reached the Vegas Strip. Yes, I know; that’s where the game really starts.
Setting aside the jumbled mess of my day-to-day video game habits, I found it interesting to reflect on why these three games — what suddenly compelled me to jump into all of them again? I liken it to a craving for a certain food. There are so many great new games to play right now, and yet, I’ve had this craving to return to the Fallout and Skyrim universes.
Fair warning, now: this article will meander a bit. Yes, I want to try to answer the “why” question. But this experience has re-contextualised Fallout 4 and Bethesda games in general for me in ways I didn’t quite expect. It has been worthwhile to revisit these experiences for that reason alone.
Video game comfort food
The thing that really set me off on this path is actually YouTube. These days, I watch far more YouTube than Netflix or anything else. There are so many great creators out there making gaming videos. I love discovering channels for the first time and digging into their libraries. I was particularly struck by this incredible, four hour documentary (which I still haven’t finished), about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The more I watched it, the more it got me in the mood to play an Elder Scrolls game. Skyrim is my favourite, and the remastered version on PS4 was just the ticket.
When it comes to Skyrim, I went in with a very forgiving mindset. That is, forgiving to myself. Having completed the game, I appreciate how utterly vast it is. Right off the bat, I’m not committing myself to dozens of hours. I’ll dip in and out, take what I need from the experience, and leave whatever I want on the table. Video game self-care; that’s how I’m approaching it. Ignoring the critical path, and completely disregarding the busywork that should be banished from all video games (no thanks, I’m not hunting around for those flowers you want — bore someone else with your tedious requests); it’s remarkably freeing.
The same is true for Fallout 4. Yeah, I’ve just reached Diamond City and spoken to Nick. But it took me a while to get there. I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time building in Sanctuary and exploring the world. I know a lot of players do this, but when I first played Fallout 4, I approached the central mission a little more seriously and with greater urgency (after all, my son had been taken from me and my husband had been shot before my very eyes— Preston Garvey’s incessant requests seemed trivial given my personal circumstances). Fuck off, Preston.
Ignoring the critical path, and completely disregarding the busywork that should be banished from all video games (no thanks, I’m not hunting around for those flowers you want — bore someone else with your tedious requests); it’s remarkably freeing.
In both cases — Skyrim and Fallout 4 — Bethesda’s best and worst qualities as a developer are on display. For now I’m not going to dwell on the negatives; the bugs are iconic at this point, and the shortcomings with Fallout 4’s story are something I’ll touch on in a moment. What Bethesda does exceptionally well is create space. It’s tempting to employ the term “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” to describe both of these games (and I’d argue it’s especially applicable in the case of Fallout 4). This term tends to be used as a pejorative for understandable reasons. But let’s not be so quick to dismiss the wide ocean. The broad scale that Bethesda is so good at crafting isn’t simply a case of adjusting a slider and fiddling a dial to make the map larger. There’s a real artistry to designing compelling locations and considering how they connect to each other in the world. Setting aside story and depth for now, both Skyrim and Fallout 4 are wonderful spaces to explore. Long before Nintendo’s outstanding Breath of the Wild, Bethesda has already mastered the magic of discovery — spotting a curiosity in the distance and knowing you can approach it to find out more. You can try this yourself: stand in any outdoor location in either of these games and look around. I absolutely guarantee you’ll see something of interest. Maybe it’s an ominous, lone shack nestled amongst a clump of trees. Or maybe you can just spot some movement on that partially-crumbled raised highway in the distance. What is that? I wonder if there’s anything interesting there…
Long before Nintendo’s outstanding Breath of the Wild, Bethesda has already mastered the magic of discovery — spotting a curiosity in the distance and knowing you can approach it to find out more.
Regardless of the objective I’m following at the time, there’s something about being in these worlds that is enjoyable in and of itself. In Skyrim it’s the exploration and thievery that do it for me (I’d much rather join the Thieves Guild and follow their quest line than progress the critical path, honestly). I can spend an entire play session sneaking around nabbing valuables from elaborate, fiercly-guarded mansions in the dead of night. What fun. And in Fallout 4, the predictable-yet-engaging explore > discover a location > kill the enemies > loot the area cycle is addictive regardless of story context.
In both Skyrim and Fallout 4, I occasionally found myself skipping through dialogue just so I could get back out into the world. I did this on my first play throughs as well, though perhaps less frequently. Is this an indictment of Bethesda’s often-bland writing, or an endorsement of their enticing world design? Hm…
War never changes…or does it?
So far, so good. These games are akin to comfort food; they’re wonderful to return to. At the same time, returning to something — especially after playing many other things in the intervening years — can lead to some jarring revelations.
Remember how I said I’d never really progressed into the Vegas Strip in Fallout: New Vegas? This time around, I’ve moved well beyond that point (although I still haven’t finished the game). I played the bulk of the game before returning to Fallout 4. It’s always been clear to me that New Vegas was special in that it was a great game and it was different to both Fallout 3 and 4. These differences had been largely theoretical to me for a while though; it wasn’t until I played both games so close together that two very different styles of game design became fully apparent.
In fact, outside the general setting and themes, New Vegas and Fallout 4 could be totally different franchises.
New Vegas is arguably less interested in exploration and combat, instead favouring the RPG experience (I’m not referring here to things like stats and skill trees — I’m talking about the actual concept of role-playing). In my current play through, I’m almost entirely relying on my speech skill — occasionally I need to fight, sure, but it’s surprisingly rare. Navigating my way through the game’s challenges by learning about the characters and then manipulating events through in-game relationships is deeply satisfying. I’m often genuinely surprised at how many conflicts can be resolved or overcome through speech — conflicts that, in almost any other game, would require some sort of boss battle.
What New Vegas sacrifices in the pursuit of great role-playing is the breadth of the world itself and any kind of satisfying movement or combat. Exploring locations is also relatively uninteresting unless you are engaging with an NPC or uncovering a side-quest (although fortunately the relatively small scale of the world makes these serendipitous moments far more likely than not). One thing I’d forgotten about in the intervening years is the horrifically slow movement speed, too. I mean, you walk so slowly that it can be outright painful to explore the world without fast-travelling. Thank god you can fast-travel once you’ve discovered a location. I’m sure there are mods to correct this on PC, but no dice when it comes to console.
Fallout 4 is the polar opposite experience. You can download a mod on console that displays the full text for each dialogue option (as opposed to the woefully inadequate — and often vague — shortcut text that exists in the vanilla game). While it’s great to be able to see exactly what your character is going to say before you commit, the consequence is that you see just how limited dialogue choice truly is when the abstraction is removed. It’s possible to have four different dialogue options where the first three are just different versions of yes and the fourth is no. The more I play Fallout 4 now, the more I recognise that it’s fundamentally a linear story that is obscured by just enough abstraction to suggest choice without actually delivering it. It feels like a reference — or a nod — to a Fallout RPG without actually stepping into that space.
Navigating my way through New Vegas’ challenges by learning about the characters and then manipulating events through in-game relationships is deeply satisfying.
Anyone who has followed Fallout knows that the fourth game was roundly criticised for its dialogue, and the way in which it restricted choice on multiple levels. But I don’t think this is just some sort of afterthought or the result of a budget limitation as far as Bethesda is concerned. Playing the game again, it’s incredibly clear that Bethesda invested heavily into that loop I mentioned above: explore > discover a location > kill the enemies > loot the area. The game’s designers have explicitly referenced the desire to put much greater emphasis on these game mechanics, rather than the elaborate branching paths that Obsidian favoured in New Vegas. Setting aside personal preference for a moment, it’s certainly true to say that I find Fallout 4’s world exploration and combat to be significantly more enjoyable than New Vegas. So, there is a sense in which this shift in emphasis paid off.
Although Fallout 4’s shortcomings around role-playing (that is, the total absence of it) has become even clearer after re-visiting New Vegas, my takeaway isn’t simply that Fallout 4 is worse or New Vegas is better than I originally thought.
What I actually see are two completely different design philosophies playing out in front of me. And — chalk this up to my tendency for optimism and a general disdain for cynicism and snark — I actually find myself appreciating the benefits of each approach more thoroughly. Rather than lamenting Fallout 4’s enormous plot holes and absence of role-playing, I find myself digging into world exploration, looting, settlement building, and combat. And far from griping about New Vegas’ terrible movement and barely-adequate combat mechanics — as well as its small and relatively samey world — I’m instead gleefully immersing myself in the characters and the complex web of intrigue and betrayal that underpins many of their relationships.
Wide as an ocean
My intention here isn’t simply to praise Bethesda Game Studios. The litany of bugs present in their games is a problem; I know it’s become a meme, and some folks view the bugs as charming or funny. I really don’t. Some are fairly harmless, but many damage the experience in various ways. If other major developers can ship games that are reasonably polished and don’t contain numerous egregious technical problems, so can Bethesda.
And the less said about Fallout 76, the better.
However, credit where credit’s due. There’s are clear reasons why I was motivated to jump back into Skyrim and Fallout 4. Despite all of their problems and shortcomings, there are very few developers capable of building broad worlds that encourage exploration in the way Bethesda can. I know it sounds trite given the myriad of articles about gaming and COVID (many of which we’ve published at SUPERJUMP), but there’s something to the idea that being quarantined at home — for upwards of 100 days now, in my case — is driving me towards experiences that are wide as an ocean, even if they are deep as a puddle. Skyrim and Fallout 4 may not be the deepest games (and don’t hold a candle to New Vegas in that area), but their wide open spaces are filling my lungs with much-needed fresh air at a time when I most need it.