Falling Back in Love with Fallout

The mod community and what gamers really want

I look at the price my wares fetch with a disparaging expression – I’d hoped for more, but I need antibiotics. The wound in my shoulder isn’t healing up as well as I’d like. Really, I should just rest up here in Underworld, but I can’t afford a day away from scavenging. That Crowley guy offered decent caps for a job, but I’m not too keen on killing. Each passing day, though, the caps look better and better. I try to push from my mind the idea that I’m considering murder for pay. For my trade, I take a few clips’ worth of ammo as well as the few measly caps left over, and head over to the Chop Shop to trade for medical supplies.

It might be worth saying that I never truly fell out of love with Fallout 3. I’ve put over 300 hours into the game between both console versions since it came out in late 2008. I love the atmosphere, the subtle, poignant details woven into the landscape, the vast wealth of pre-war stories buried under rubble, not to be found for more than 200 years. The only thing that curbs my enjoyment of the game now is the lack of novelty and difficulty that cloaked my first playthrough.

I miss the palpable fear when sneaking through as yet unexplored buildings. I miss that glorious mixture of confusion and wonder at first emerging from Vault 101. I miss feeling as if finding the Lone Wanderer’s father was actually an accomplishment – the feelings of duty and abandonment as I look for him. As much as I love the game still, that first spark has faded.
I hadn’t expected to use the PC copy for playthrough. Rather, I bought it to learn to mod with the GECK. Looking through the nexus, however, the available mods sounded so damn neat that I had to try them out. So I downloaded some HUD modifications, weather effects, and realism sims – eating, drinking, sleeping, more realistic injuries, fatigue effects, etc. (all cited & linked below) — and limited myself to no fast travel.

Arwen's Med-Tec mod adds higher penalties for wounds and requires more realistic treatments and recovery time.

I was largely restricted to the area surrounding Megaton for a few game days — out any farther and raiders pushed me back, or water ran out, or an infected wound and no antibiotics drove me back to town for help. I headed for the city the moment I heard Three Dog mention James, but found that the subways were now dark, damp deathtraps filled with all sort of deadly foes. Rather than plow my way through them this time – like always – I found myself struggling with low weapons skills, and needing to rest often to stave off the festering of bullet wounds that now needed a longer time to heal. My character began panting after moving crouched for too long with too much stowed away in his pack.I had to sprint into Underworld when I emerged from the Museum platform because a hoard of supermutants were firing at me and I was packing a 10mm with four bullets. Once inside, I injected a stimpack, and collapsed on the bench as it made my head swim and my muscles too weak to support the weight of the things in my pack. After catching my breath so I didn’t pass out from the strain, I limped into the settlement.

It was becoming apparent that I would need some type of hired help if I wanted to survive here. I wanted to purchase Charon’s contract, but found that I didn’t have a quarter of the caps I needed even after selling off all my extra scavenged gear. After a few days returning to the depths of the subway system to pilfer any kind of loot from the rubble, it became obvious that more than half my profits were being eaten up by my need for ammo and medical supplies. I had to sleep in cleared out raider dens underground because I couldn’t afford to rent a bed in town. All the while I was saddled with a newly palpable feeling of hardship, as I imagined waking in the dark echo-filled tunnels, eating a salty hunk of Cram from an aluminum tin and a packet of stale potato chips, and spending yet more hours combing through long expanses of subway looking for anything of value.

After a time with little progress toward the two thousand caps, I went south to Rivet City looking for more work.

Now, I play good characters – I mean unrealistically, out-of-the-way, super saintly type characters. So naturally it struck me like a blow to the stomach when I realized I wasn’t going to give water to the man dying of thirst that was sitting outside the city. What have I become, I asked myself. It had always seemed a completely natural response to toss him a bottle of water. I am good, that is the good thing to do. But taking inventory of what I had on me – two bottles of slightly irradiated water and one pure – knowing I would need at least one and a half per day and already being familiar with the scarcity and jacked-up price – not to mention the price of Rad-Away – I suddenly found it hard to part with. I quite honestly needed it – I hadn’t the money to be gifting rare life-sustaining commodities like they were baubles.

For the first time, I became just another hardened wastelander, avoiding eye contact every time I walked past. It wasn’t my responsibility to give him water. It wasn’t my fault if he died, I mean, surely someone else will give him water, right? I had fallen victim to the bystander effect – the idea that it was not my responsibility.

Never before had I felt so acutely the idea of ‘good’ being so tightly linked with sacrifice. Hell, it’s easy to be good when pure water is fairly common in the vanilla game. It’s a meaningless choice without the aspect of sacrifice. But when it’s a matter of life and death, choices carry so much more weight, and I did the selfish thing.

It used to be easy turning down a monetary reward to be a good person, but now, looking at a measly bag of caps and knowing that I don’t have enough medical supplies to get back to the Mall, I need it. I need the damn caps. I need to find work, and then more of it. Suddenly, when a prospective employer mentions there is killing involved, rather than refuse immediately, I hear them out. I feel the pull of money – I have a a price.

It’s much more real – the hardness of the life, the strain of simple survival. It’s so undeniably apparent why people didn’t simply go out and fight Three Dog’s ‘Good Fight’ – it is damn difficult enough to just survive in this world let alone do any real good. There is a more pervasive sadness to the world now that it was truly difficult to scrape by– a deeper sense of isolation knowing that no one was going to be helping me.

It’s a world where it doesn’t really get easier – you don’t so much do more damage as you just get used to the motions, or steadier of hand. You don’t get better at talking, just more used to what people want to hear.

Although life is so much harder, ‘good’ has meaning again. Because my choice to help someone can so easily mean blood, infection, strain, and death – because it could be the difference between using my last caps toward food or toward an emergency surgery – it has a selflessness again. ‘Hero’ means something it could never mean in a world where the good choice is easy, and where water and caps are easy to come by.

Though I’m not too far into the playthrough, I know that when my character comes to the full realization of his parents’ dream of pure water for the people of this world, he’s going to hold his head in his hands and think of the man he didn’t give water to, and understand the gravity of the whole undertaking. It’s going to really mean something this time.

Having such a heightened experience this time around has had me thinking about the mod community and what it brings to the gaming industry.

With the Immersive HUD mod, you can set your HUD to appear strategically, like when you enter combat.

Top mods include realism tweaks, a more dynamic game world, and deepening experiences with companions. Is this something that is going to be relegated strictly to modders, or is it something that developers are overlooking?

Releasing mod toolkits becomes a great start to remedying this problem — it gives us the option to create what we want to see in games — but the content is only available to PC users, and often limited for those with less than stellar setups.

The obvious obstacle developers themselves face, is determining whether it’s worth it to add in certain features. They have to weigh how much time and manpower goes into programing these features verses how often they’re actually going to get used. But when we take into consideration that the FO3Wanderer’s Edition realism mod has over 85,000 unique downloads (nearly a half million total) — and remember that’s out of only PC gamers who take the time to add mods to their games — it becomes a little less clear why these things are not in vanilla games. And, unfortunately, the answer is that the feedback developers receive is that gamers don’t want highly involved games.

“There is so much handholding that players now expect when they play roleplaying games…” says Chris Avellone, designer for Fallout 2 Fallout: New Vegas. Citing his old-school, pen and paper roots as one of the reasons why he’s so behind the idea of player exploration, he goes on to say, “…I think in the end it makes the thrill of accomplishment and discovery a lot stronger once you do figure out how to solve a certain quest line or how to deal with a certain character and I think when players are allowed to make those logical leaps or those exploration leaps – which are very much part of a role playing game – I think that their feeling of success or accomplishment ends up being a lot stronger.”

“As designers we’re providing a service, so if that is how people want to play the game…I have to accept the fact that that’s how the player wants to play the game.”

Chris Avellone

He touches on a great point in the interview — that of feedback. Games are one of the only mediums where we are afforded such a degree of input. With the permeation of social media, developers are closer than ever, and we have an opportunity to demand innovative choices.

“… [W]atching a bunch of people on the internet take different approaches or create cool situations in the game, that’s possibly the best way to give critiques to designers in the studio, by asking them to watch that YouTube footage of someone playing their level … or how they tackle a certain quest line, or how they were able to make a certain event happen based on the mechanics we introduced,” he says.

Given a large enough voice, we can drive the industry forward. That way, it’s not just the minds actually working on the products that are driving innovation, but we as players rewarding developers who strive to better the medium.

It’s important to open up a dialogue, and keep it flowing. You know what you want out of your games – make sure the people who make them know what it is.

Tell us more! What features in games blew you away? What features are devs overlooking? Leave us a comment.

As this is a teensy little start-up, feedback is always much appreciated, and always replied to.

Cited Content:
Fallout Mod Manager by Timeslip
Fallout Script Extender by Ian Patterson (ianpatt), Stephen Abel (behippo), and Paul Connelly (scruggsywuggsy the ferret)
Arwen’s Realism Tweaks by Arwen_Eve
Adjustable HUD & Immersive HUD & Unified HUD Project by Gopher
Enhanced Weather by Skingrad24
DarNified HUD by DarN — note: It has come to my attention that the file for the DarNified HUD was uploaded to the FO3 Nexus without DarN’s permission and has since been taken down. The link is instead to his forums where he’s planning on having downloads available in the future as development progresses. Check back to his site for progress.

FO3 Wanderer’s Edition by FWE Team
Chris Avellone on Fallout and the way gamers play @ PlayableCharacter.com
The G.E.C.K. download and tutorial @ bethsoft.com

    • Kdendfjdjdfjs
    • September 18th, 2011

    Go and play Fallout 1 and 2. They are so much better.

    • I’ve played 1.

      In certain senses, yes they are. As someone who started out with 3, it’s difficult at times to feel as immersed in a top-down game as in a first-person pov. I really wish I had played them first so I could have gotten the most enjoyment out of them.

    • georgeweidman
    • September 18th, 2011

    Nice article, mirrors my thoughts on FO3 exactly. I’ll be sure to follow this blog.

    I’ve played hundreds of hours of FO3 and NV, and I’m absolutely sure that I wouldn’t have been able to without mods. The “hardcore mode” of vanilla NV is a joke compared to the buffed difficulty of Wanderer’s Edition. Increasing the difficulty to the ridiculous degrees that we see in mods like FWE and Project Nevada creates an experience that’s intensely more rewarding and interesting. All those little gameplay micro-decisions that the player makes on a minute-by-minute basis suddenly have way more clout, and making the right decision leads to a much more satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

    That motorcycle in FWE, and how is was implemented, just blew my mind. Suddenly, the basic ability to fast-travel required me to collect all these little mechanical metal parts and the liquids required to make a fuel. All the added options for crafting and repairing using random bits of scrap metal added to the experience tremendously. The process of skimming through a room of trash blossomed with sacrificial micro-decisions: everything laying on the ground could be useful for something. Even amongst garbage, there was no prioritizing “the good stuff” out of a pile of clutter. Everything could be used and crafted into something, with the right know-how.

    • All very true. I like that aspect of a deeper Fallout world — one in which things are crafted out of discarded ‘junk’. It just seems to fit the world well; kinda bittersweet, kinda darkly funny.

      I think it comes down to giving us as players more options for customization. I know there are people who would loathe having more involved RP aspects in their — gasp — RPG, but I’d like an option. At least the hardcore mode was a step in the right direction.

      Glad you enjoyed it — hope you stick around!

    • seth
    • September 18th, 2011

    I was misled by your article’s title, so I didn’t read it. This isn’t about Fallout, it’s about Fallout 3. Piss off!

    • MattyDienhoff
    • September 19th, 2011

    Nice article! Your evocative tales of survival make a great case for the value of modifications that increase difficulty and realism. It’s unfortunate that some gamers outright dismiss such mods, scoffing that if they wanted realism, they’d “go outside”.

    The point they’re missing is that such mods don’t aim to make the game exactly like reality. Rather, they use difficulty and realism to give the experience that much more weight and meaning. Your difficulty deciding whether to give the beggar water exemplifies that perfectly.

    • Thanks. You captured what I wanted to express perfectly. I’m glad I was able to get it across.

    • JohnD.
    • September 30th, 2011

    Very nice article, I love Fallout 3 and I also think mods really give it a new perspective.

    It made me realize how simple it is to just breeze through the game, give away caps in order to avoid annoying or long tasks, dropping or giving away items because I know i’ll just “probably find more later”, how having thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition is always a given to me.

    I feel like playing the game again, with the mods and a more realistic perspective, I too choose to play Good Karma characters, always helping, always nice, but if while using the mod I had to choose between helping some random NPC and risking getting my head blown off? well, I might just have to think it twice.

    • Thanks.

      This is why I love the idea of mods — you get to tailor the experience to get exactly what you want out of a game.

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