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Fear Is Not What Defines a Hardcore Game

Punishment and failure do not equal depth in video games.

During Bethesda's press conference at the beginning of E3, the company announced a free mobile game that would be available later that very day: Fallout Shelter. Set in the Fallout universe, you oversee one of the vaults meant to save the remnants of humanity from nuclear winter.

It's a "builder" mobile game. Collect resources, collect people, collect money, and use them all in the right way to create a bigger and more complex shelter. I don't have too much experience with these kinds of mobile games, but I did get very into Tiny Tower for several months. Both games have a similar structure, but they're driven by very different design philosophies. Philosophies that, I think, highlight the difference between a "casual" and a "hardcore" game. Or to use less loaded terms, the difference between a typical mobile and a typical console or PC game. It all comes down to fear.

In Tiny Tower you build your titular tower one floor at a time. Residential blocks attract residents, and various businesses give those residents jobs, which then earn you money to build more and more. Each resident has a dream job, and placing them in that job makes them work harder, earning you more money faster. The catch to all this is that your businesses must be constantly restocked, or they'll close. This requires you to check on the game every few hours, or else you risk returning to a tower that has shut down. However, if this happens, getting things back to speed is as easy as tapping the screen a few times. Restock your stores, get your economy moving again, and all is fine. No worries.

Fallout Shelter is very similar. Living quarters are needed to house the dwellers of your bunker. Then power plants, diners, and water treatment plants are needed to keep them alive. Each dweller has stats that make them better suited to certain jobs, and you can build more rooms to upgrade those stats. Like Tiny Tower, you have to manually collect a resource when it becomes available (power, food, water, etc) or that room will sit idly, not producing anything else. This requires you to check on the game consistently or risk returning to a shelter that has shut down.

The catch here is that you can't just start production up again with a few taps. If your resources dip below a certain threshold your dwellers are punished for your absence. Without food, they lose health over time. Without water, their max health is decreased by radiation poisoning. Finally, without power, the other rooms will shutdown, exacerbating these problems. There's a very real risk of coming back to a dead shelter.

Or so it seems. I’ve survived through some dire situations, and based on the two weeks that I’ve played it, I’m fairly confident in saying that my shelter won’t die like an old Tamagotchi pet if I stop playing. My point, however, is that I still fear things can get that bad. I've seen my dwellers lose health due to lack of food, I've seen the radiation weaken them, and I’ve seen my food supply shut down for lack of power. I’ve seen the consequences of my inactivity, so it's easy to extrapolate those consequences into something much greater and grimmer.

When Fallout Shelter was presented at E3, it was described as a kind of antidote to the typical mobile game. Todd Howard said that "the whole goal of this game was to do something we'd really want to play on our phones. Something that made us smile and had more depth than other things we were seeing."

Yet in terms of pure mechanics, Fallout Shelter feels just about as deep as Tiny Tower. Both ask you to build and manage mini clockwork societies, growing them to a point where they become self-sufficient. There are a few extra systems that Fallout Shelter includes that Tiny Tower does not, like being able to equip your dwellers with items and send them out to explore the wasteland or the various disasters that can befall your vault. However, those activities don't necessarily make it a harder game. My vault has now reached such a sustainable equilibrium that I feel little need to expand it: Why tinker with a perfect clockwork mechanism?

The additional systems in Fallout Shelter instead exist mostly to punish the player for inactivity or as a random challenge. These punishments don't change the nature of the game or my end goal, but they do change my reasons for playing. I play both game to make my mini clockwork societies, but in Tiny Tower, I play to build, to grow, and to expand. In Fallout Shelter, I play to protect, to save, to strengthen. One is an act of pure creation. The other an act of preservation.

Mobile games are often dismissed as distractions that lack challenge. Their critics suggest that they're more about wasting time than in playing the game or experiencing a story. If Fallout Shelter is representative of how a seasoned console/PC developer would approach the mobile space, then it seems to me that console/PC games are largely driven by fear and punishment. We must fear failure because failure indicates challenge and challenge equals depth and depth is somehow inherently good.

Except that it's not. Depth that is inaccessible or confusing is wasted design (see: Crusader Kings II or Starseed Pilgrim), while games that lack punishment can be just as thought provoking (see: Monkey Island, Anitchamber, or Portal). Punishment and failure do not equal depth.

This isn't a criticism of Fallout Shelter as much as it is an observation. I quite like the game, and I even like punishing games in general (Bloodborne is the best game of the year, no contest). My issue isn't with the game itself, but rather with the assumption that its willingness to punish me makes it an inherently richer experience.

Fear is not hardcore. Sometimes I just want to build.

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