‘Fallout’, the “To Do” List Simulator

A few weeks ago I extolled the virtue of the Fallout series as a “scrounging simulator” (Fallout, the Scrounging Simulator”, PopMatters, 27 October 2010). A weird pleasure can be derived from these games just in poking through the ruins of a wasteland, finding material and evaluating its worth, locating junk to cobble together into useful weapons and apparel, and then bartering with other wasteland inhabitants to get what you really need.

While this odd “game within the games” measures your efficiency and encourages frugality and “traveling light”, it also, of course, strongly parallels the genre interests of the series as an experience of a post-apocalyptic world. It successfully weds mechanics that promote what I experience as a strangely pleasurable activity with the story of a wasteland traveler. However, while I enjoy this simulation of a conservative and frugal economics, there are other elements of simulation that Fallout provides that, while perhaps as seemingly authentic as a scrounging simulator, I derive far less pleasure from.

Notably it is the nearly too authentic quality of the way that sidequests, the “work” of Fallout, are handled that make me completely crazy. While New Vegas, for instance, has a central story arc, the story of a wasteland courier whose delivery is stolen from him in the Mojave desert and his effort to ascertain that delivery’s importance and how to get it back, the bulk of the game finds the player and the protagonist lost in a miasma of unrelated business in the wasteland. Traveling to the New Vegas strip from a little town called Goodsprings, the protagonist tracks his attackers but also finds himself enmeshed in the business of any number of citizens in this post-apocalyptic American landscape.

Everyone is looking for a favor or to hire the protagonist out as a gun or messenger, and these sidequests are important from the perspective of the successful role playing game player, as they provide opportunities for gaining experience points and finding new weapons and armor. Such development of attributes and weapons are essential for making sure that the protagonist is sufficiently powerful once he gets back on track in the central story to survive the encounters at the close of the game, nothing that unique in role playing game.

While such efforts often refer to the notion of the necessity of “grinding” in an RPG, seemingly that these additional quests exist within a narrative context (mini-tales concerning the people and places of the Mojave wasteland) is intended to mitigate their grind-like quality. However, what they tend to result in from my perspective is an unintended simulation of a “to do” list. These quests, like grinding, feel like work, but specifically because of the way that they are presented seem even more like real life work than a lot of games with fantastic settings usually do.

What I mean by this relates to the way that quests are structured and then spread across Fallout‘s wasteland. Almost all sidequests have multiple components. Say that the player encounters a Boomer (a member of a reclusive group of survivors with an isolationist bent supported by their propensity for using high explosives to discourage visitors) who is in love with a citizen of New Vegas that serves as a member of a group of caravaners. He has seen the woman from afar and wants to meet her and enlists the protagonist to do so. On the player’s Pip-boy, the device used as a menu and mapping system in the game, the quest is listed with an unmarked checkbox next to it along with a description of what one needs to do to get the quest started: basically, go talk to the girl at her place of business, the Crimson Caravan Company.

Great. Traveling back to New Vegas for this conversation can consist of a trek across the Mojave wastes, but if the player has visited the strip, it might be a simple enough thing to do to fast travel to the location to talk to the girl. Following that (and assuming the player is convincing enough in a plea for introducing her to the isolated Boomer), the quest will go on. The next step, talking to the caravaner’s boss about getting the woman’s wages paid despite the leave of absence she is about to take, will then be listed as the next step in the development of the sidequest. Thus, this is how most sidequests work in the Fallout games, each is made up of a host of minor goals (sometimes active minor goals are simple and straightforward, though sometimes they might include two or three active steps) that each unlock the next step until the full arc of the sidequest is complete.

This is all well and good except that as you complete steps like the ones mentioned above, you might run into another wastelander while on the way to completing a step of a sidequest that introduces the beginning of a new quest. Or, as is frequently the case, one might find that a few steps into a quest that whomever one is talking to as a part of the sidequest that they themselves have yet another task that they want you to accomplish that is wholly unrelated to the sidequest in progress. Soon your Pip-boy is overflowing with odds and ends, bits of requests that are only partially finished, half complete, or barely started. And every time you accomplish a fragment of one, there is another person tugging at your elbow to add yet another note to your constantly mounting pile of unfinished business.

Of course, this is a video game and an open world video game at that, boasting the freedom to take on whatever it is that you want to accomplish. However, as an adult with a fair degree of responsibilities, there is a fair amount of resemblance between the mountain of unfinished business piling up on “your desk top” (in this case, the Pip-boy) and the kind of work that the contemporary American worker faces on a daily basis.

The idea that a few steps into a job that a cellphone will ring or an incoming e-mail will arrive or someone will stop by your desk, all of these things in a work environment are frequently “requests” or “little favors”, really more things to file in the inbox. These interruptions, like responding to that question in the e-mail, also frequently result in, you guessed it, another request for your help, your time, your resources. As a well trained American worker, I feel compelled to take one job after another; every interruption must be dealt with, since every “request” is really a responsibility, my responsibility. This “training” makes it nearly impossible for me to just push a request aside in Fallout. I must “help out.” My well-honed Puritan work ethic is my own worst nightmare in a game like this.

Contrast this kind of sidequest structure with the structure of a game like Red Dead Redemption and there is some subtle, but notable differences. In Rockstar games, there are certainly sidequests to undertake, and they populate the map alongside markers for regular quests, but once I embark on such a sidequest, there are no interruptions (or at least not quite the same kind). I can complete that small sidequest in a largely encapsulated form from beginning to end, no stopping in the middle. Sure, I might run into an ambush in the desert while running a fetch quest for some stranded traveler in New Austin, but there is no one who is going to show up in the middle of the quest and sprinkle three new requests across my map. As a matter of fact, the map will “erase” all other unfinished business markers until I complete whatever sidequest I have decided to undertake. The game provides me with something that real life does not, blissful focus, as opposed to the tyranny of interruption, which seems the basis of American white collar work.

Now I realize that my perception of this “simulation” is a somewhat subjective one. It is my experience of work as a constant pressure to multitask that frames my view of why Fallout‘s mission structure is so decidedly unpleasant, but maybe I am speaking of this merely as a cautionary tale to others like myself. If you were instilled with a Puritanical vision of work as one of obligation to every request, a duty to get everything done that you are assigned, then, the Fallout series is one that may not provide escape from reality for you. It may be far too devilishly close to your own experience of work to ever feel much like play at all.

However, I have to cut this discussion short. I need to see the King’s robo-dog to the vet, hire a sexbot for a New Vegas brothel, and maybe clear some rats out of a Boomer facility real quick. I’m sure the wastelanders will have something else for me to do soon enough.