October 6, 2008

Travel Advisory

I don't know how much of Fallout 3's hypothetical audience I represent as someone who's read multiple previews of the game over the last year and a half and has a reasonable idea of what to expect from the game's content. Fallout 3 is a major title of interest to a lot of people, so there will be a lot of stories written about it, and because journalists can only write about what Bethesda's ready to show them, these stories are mostly going to cover the same ground. I'm wondering now how many people besides myself are a little too well-versed in the Fallout 3 level called Megaton.

Megaton has been Bethesda's vertical slice for a while now to illustrate how choices and consequence work in the world of Fallout 3. Megaton is a small town built around the site of an unexploded atomic bomb. Exploring Megaton, players are approached by a mysterious businessman who wants you to help him detonate the bomb. This will permanently obliterate the town, its characters and its quest lines. Alternatively, you can decide to save Megaton and refuse.

I think about journalists at Bethesda press events being given another Megaton demo and wondering how to put a new spin on it. Each of them thinking about how they can possibly retell the Megaton story in an interesting way. The moral dilemma of Megaton has been pretty thoroughly explained, and I imagine that everyone at this point knows how they will respond to it before the choice is even presented. It will be an odd experience to finally play it because the experience will be on terms unanticipated by the game's design. Players are going to be walking in with preview-derived extra awareness, already knowing exactly what to look for and how to behave.

I've compared game developers to travel agents before, and it's not the worst metaphor. What the developer and the publisher do in the pre-release press cycle is educate the potential consumer about a foreign place, towards the eventual goal of selling a plane ticket. They make sure to promote the most attractive qualities and the kinds of activities the game world exemplifies, while providing advice about how to act vis-à-vis cultural rules and customs, so that people will feel secure and confident about visiting a strange land. Bethesda have been good travel agents in the case of Megaton; informed players are indeed well-equipped for that trip. However, that can't help but create an unfortunate information gap between the player and his representation in the game, and undermine Bethesda's design strengths, which are mainly to facilitate daring adventures in unknown territory.

The way that this business works, it's inevitable that we will know things about the game before we play it and that they may spoil our experience. That's not going to change, but think about the possibilities that arise from games putting the player in that position: imagine that Bethesda have set the player's expectations of the Megaton level, and can now retroactively subvert them. As in, the player arrives in Megaton and the first thing that happens is that he is arrested for plotting to blow up the town. You can't really argue the point; what do we usually think about a stranger who walks into our city weighing whether or not he wants to make it explode today? If Bethesda had deliberately set this trap for players, what a shock that would be. We assume that we have this shield of privacy stemming from in-game anonymity. We don't expect to be "caught" like that.

I'd like to see some game developers try their hand at being secretive and opportunist travel agents. For a change.


Steve gaynor said...

Rewind to the initial release of MGS2...

Duncan said...

yeah, Kojima does do this kind of thing. He's the only person I can think of though.

Justin Keverne said...

Bethesda seem compelling to explain the choices available in Megaton in order to convince people that such things are possible in Fallout 3.

I'm not sure if this a sign of confidence or lack of faith on their part.

A similar thing happens with public demos. Those that include part of the game can make those sections feel overly familiar when they are finally visited in the game itself. However in this regard I can think of several games that have subtly subverted those expectations.

Though the demo for FEAR started out in a very similar location to the main game it was actually made up of a selection of different areas from different levels stitched together. This led players who had played the demo to expect environments to be connected differently than they ultimately were.

A similar thing happened with the BioShock demo where despite the locations being identical to those at the start of the game, weapons and enemies appeared in different areas and so when you finally played the release version your expectations were subverted when a particular gun wasn't where you had expected it. This made the whole game feel fresh, and encouraged players to explore because if that element had changed what else might be different?

Duncan said...

Hey Justin,

I know that developers are sometimes concerned with giving away too much in a demo, but I don't know if I agree that your examples were meant to be subversive. The Bioshock demo was largely the same experience as the full game -- it basically had to be since so much of it was the very linear intro. The only differences I can remember were a couple extra enemies and weapons, which I think had more to do with showing off more of the game within the limited demo than confounding expectations for the real thing.

Tangentially, the best thing I've ever seen in a demo was in the one for Anachronox. There's this NPC you can talk to and he mentions that he didn't make it into the full game and you should write the developers to put him back in. That actually did change the way I later played the game because I was holding out hope that I could actually find the poor guy.