There probably isn’t much point in devoting an article to Fallout 4‘s announcement because let’s face it, you’re on the internet, so you’ve heard about it. Bethesda’s unveiling of the post-war RPG made the rest of E3’s news sound like that droning gibberish Charlie Brown hears whenever adults are talking – it drowned nearly everything else out. So rather than dissect the small bits and pieces of information we have on the upcoming iteration, I want to go back to Fallout 3 and talk about why a new chapter in the series is such a big deal, at least for me.
Just before its release earlier this week, a rumor that Far Cry 4‘s main campaign could be completed in just 15 minutes generated a murmur of contempt from a small group of fans who were irked with the notion that Ubisoft might be short-changing their customers. Considering a typical game in this genre features on average a 10 hour story, surely this is hurting the game and it’s worse for the customer…Right? Well, maybe not.
A 15 minute story does not mean the game itself runs out of content in 15 minutes – the Far Cry games are open-world titles that not only allow players to explore the environment outside the mandatory story missions, they actually incentivize it. There are dozens of smaller missions, hunting expeditions and collectibles to find all over their maps, and quite frankly, they’re far more entertaining than the majority of their narratives. The idea that gamers would be up in arms over the length of the main story arc is interesting because, in my experience, the stories in these types of games often end up feeling like expositional set-dressing, or unavoidable obstacles that get in the way of my entertainment, and to be honest, a 15 minute story in a 20 hour game sounds like a fantastic idea to me. Games are interactive, after all, and few of them have manipulative physics and emergent gameplay moments that are as gratifying to experiment with as the Far Cry series.
Take Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, for example. The game’s story is bare and utterly conventional, but players create their own tiny stories by interacting with enemies using the game’s Nemesis system, which allows enemy orcs to remember past run-ins with the player. The effects can be startling. You can kill an enemy only to see him later, sporting a nasty scar or burn from your last encounter. If you’re lucky, he’ll be scared of you this time, and run the second he sees you coming. Or you can fail to kill a captain, and he’ll mock your corpse and earn a nifty promotion for putting you down. When you meet up later for a rematch he’ll remember that you’re supposed to be dead, and he might relish the opportunity to murder you again. Getting revenge on an Uruk that killed you days before is far more rewarding than actually avenging your family at the end of Mordor‘s story, and is actually relevant to your own experience, but the game’s dialogue and cinematics will constantly urge to you to remember how much more you should care about the wife and son that Sauron took from you, despite having only met and lost them in the span of seconds in the game’s opening scene. The emotional gap between what you experience and what the game tells you you’ve experienced is in major conflict, but worse, the game undermines the stories you do create by forcing their own into the forefront.
The largest offender of this is Skyrim, a game that offers an obscene amount of freedom to the player with regard to the stories they craft for themselves, but never allows you to create your own identities with that freedom. Interspersed throughout the game’s staggeringly large map, you will find opportunities to join and rise the ranks of a number of guilds and factions that each feature their own storyline, culture and relevance to the larger world of Tamriel. You can lead an organization of werewolves, join a legendary band of assassins and run a prestigious college, to name just a few. The problem is that all of these stories are forced to play second fiddle to the game’s “main” story, which focuses on your player being the legendary savior of the province of Skyrim, and any one of them felt more rewarding to me than the campaign because I discovered those factions and chose to be a part of them. Being forced to play the role of the Dovahkiin was the developer constantly reminding me that all those interesting, discoverable moments I decided were important to my character were sideline distractions to the main event. It broke the illusion from both ends: Not only was I pulled away from building the story I wanted for the character I created, the final Skyrim ‘canon’ of my game featured a Viking hero of prophesy, who took up smithing for a week, and put saving the world on hold to see if he could own every style of clothing in the province, just for fun.
Other RPGs succeed where Skyrim fails. Fallout 3 allows you to almost completely forget why you’re out in the wasteland to begin with at times, and it’s more of an asset than a flaw. The premise of Fallout 3 is that you leave your home – a claustrophobic fallout shelter – to find your father, who suddenly disappears from the Vault one day. It’s a simple conceit that provides the player with a clearly defined ‘endgame’ goal. You can find out where your father has gone almost immediately, and the game will put a big fat map marker right on your Pip Boy for you too. The thing is that there’s a whole lot of unexplored Washington D.C. between you and that location, and you’ll spend most of your time just surviving and learning about the world before you can reach the next story thread. What happens is you quickly learn through trial and error that the best way to gain access to your father is by scavenging for supplies (and xp) to make you tough enough to travel all the way to his location. Survival begets narrative in Fallout, and while you’re looking for better weapons and armor to keep yourself alive, you’ll catch yourself interacting with the locals and investigating little mysteries at each point of interest, uncovering the new culture of the post-nuclear United States. It makes sense within the context of the game too, because your character has spent his entire life up until this point living within the oppressive, narrow walls of Vault 101; you and your avatar share the same sense of awe and curiosity about the world around you, but in addition to that, your father’s disappearance is entirely connected to the state of the world you find yourself in. All of your experiences in the wasteland up to that point feel complimentary to the arc of the guiding storyline, rather than interfering or opposing it. It adds context and depth to both the smaller events you uncover while roaming the open world and they in turn reinforce the importance of the main story’s consequences. The story beautifully lends itself to player exploration, and if you were to isolate the specific ‘main narrative’ missions you might be surprised at how short Fallout 3′s skeletal narrative actually is.
The point is, a main quest is only as important as the world around it deems it has to be. In Far Cry 3, the predecessor to the game that spawned this whole article, there isn’t really any secondary story option that moves away from the central plot line, but there are dozens of hours of small diversions and emergent gameplay opportunities. Players can avoid the next narrative beat for days collecting hidden items and taking over outposts without undermining the integrity of the main plot, or straying from the game’s underlying theme: No matter how far you stray from the critical path, all your actions in Far Cry 3 will always fit the context of Jason Brody finding himself on foreign land, struggling with the conflict between his own bloodlust and the need to escape the Rook Islands. That is what makes the game such a unified experience, and it’s why it doesn’t face some of the same conflicts that arise when a game forces its story upon a player in an open world.
Considering one of the most common – and justified – critiques about Far Cry 4 is how similar it feels to Far Cry 3, even if the game’s campaign was able to be completed in fifteen minutes, here’s enough reason to hold back your internet rage. By the way, that fifteen minute-long campaign rumor is only half true, and unless you follow a particular method, you’ll have a more traditional RPG storyline at your disposal. It’s almost too bad though, because the 15 minute story is absolutely brilliant (beware, major spoilers).
Images: Ubisoft, Warner Bros., Bethesda