Posts Tagged ‘ fallout ’

The Unit Operations of Place Formation

I’ve been re-reading Ian Bogost‘s Unit Operations the last few days, and I’m finding it a lot more accessible now than when I first tried to read it back in 2008 or so. I think part of that is my own academic growth, and part of it is that I now have a bit of a grounding in the concepts of actor-network theory and object-oriented ontology that are conceptually very similar to a lot of what Bogost discusses in the book.

Bogost’s central idea is that many things, and especially video games, can be best understood in terms of what he calls ‘units’, broadly similar to the ‘objects’ of OOO, or the ‘actors’ of ANT. They’re also a little bit like the ‘objects’ of object-oriented programming, but actually different in some important ways, which is why Bogost avoids using the term (and the book has a detailed explanation of the differences). Units can be understood as discrete entities, with their own identifiable properties, but also they take inputs, process them according to relatively simple rules, and produce outputs. This is what Bogost calls a ‘unit operation’, and he argues that many complex phenomena can be explained as the aggregate of many of these relatively simple unit operations. Examples of these simple operations producing complex phenomena include the way the simple rules of Go, or Conway’s Game of Life produce complex results, or the way a collection of trees and other entities interact with each other to produce a forest.

Don't Overlook This Sign

The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is how to tie these ideas into my own work. What are the unit operations of place formation in video games, and specifically in my chosen texts? What are the units involved, how do they operate, and how do these operations produce this thing called place? So, at 2am on a Sunday morning, I decided it would be a good idea to pour myself a glass of chinotto and start a new game of Fallout 3. I’ve played the introductory section enough times that I always skip it now, loading up the auto-save of a previous game that occurs on exiting Vault 101. The first emergence from the Vault has always been one of the most impressive parts of the game to me. I barely had time to wander around the immediate surrounds of the Vault’s exit before it suddenly struck me how to make sense of place formation in terms of unit operations.

Exiting the Vault

Exiting Vault 101, there’s a clear path to follow that establishes connections between certain locations. The exit is set into a rocky outcrop, so movement in that direction is out of the question, and rocks hem the player in on either side. Already,  we see these objects or units acting in simple ways on the player to produce a complex effect. In contrast, in front of the player is a majestic vista spread out before them. On the left, the ruins of familiar-looking houses and streets lie in the near-distance, while to the right is an amorphous brown blob a bit further away. This is the settlement of Megaton, but even on the PC, the game’s graphics engine does not render it with enough visual clarity at this distance for the player to make any sense of the shapes they can see.

Vistas of Views

The player’s first view of the game world outside the Vault serves as an introduction to the broader space, featuring as it does a sampling of the features to be found as the player explores. The rocky foreground studded with scrappy half-dead plants and trees is typical of the terrain to be found across most of the game world. In the middle distance, on the left, the stylised rocketship (actually part of the structure of a destroyed gas station) is an iconic introduction to the ruined 1950s retrofuture, traces of which can be found all over. In the centre, the rusting water tower is emblematic of the scarcity of potable water that is fundamental to the desolation of the game world and to the narrative of the game’s main questline. And on the right, the jutting wings of the settlement of Megaton (built, as the player will discover, largely out of scrapped aircraft pieces), representing what remains of human habitation. Finally, in the distance are the silhouettes of the Capitol dome and the column, visible across most of the game world, of the Washington Monument. These serve to tell the player exactly where they are: the ruins of Washington D.C. that give the game world its name: the Capital Wasteland.

Blocked Road

A path leads down to a broken roadway. Reaching the road, the player finds that to their right, the road is blocked by burned out cars, and the remains of a partially-collapsed highway overpass. Even were they to travel in that direction, they’d find a steep rise of broken ground, the rise providing a close horizon that prevents the player seeing things that might entice them to travel further. But the immediate obstacles are likely to prove sufficient discouragement to travel in that direction. Similarly, on the far side of the road a rock pile taller than the player-character’s head obscures vision, and a short cliff beyond it discourages movement. Again, the player is not prevented from moving in this direction, but the terrain offers these subtle discouragements to movement. This leaves only the roadway on the left, that curves down towards the ruins the player saw from the exit of Vault 101.

Road to Ruins

Reaching the ruins, the player finds the remains of a familiar streetscape. A sign reads ‘Springvale’. The houses are burned and bombed out, the mailboxes are scorched and rusted, and the gas station is missing its pumps, but all this is easily recognisable. The only exception is the floating metal sphere with protruding aerials that patrols the area, broadcasting music and speeches that evoke Americana. In contrast, the shape of the thing evokes Sputnik. This, as the player will learn later, is an Eye-Bot, a roving agent of the Enclave, and its presence foreshadows that of its masters.

There is another close horizon down the street to their left, and a sign reading ‘Megaton’ with an arrow pointing along a path to the right.

Clearly Signposted

Following the path, the player encounters the amorphous blob they glimpsed earlier, but from an angle so different they are unlikely to make the connection immediately. The frame of the gates towers over them, tipped with twin spires, and the gates themselves are drawn open with the loud whine of a jet engine. This is an event that occurs only once in the course of the game, triggered by the player-character’s crossing the boundaries of the immediate vicinity of Megaton.

Welcome... to Jurassic P- I mean, Megaton

Outside the gates is the settlement’s greeter, whose name (if the player approaches and puts their crosshair on him) is displayed as ‘Deputy Weld’, a robot with a striking visual resemblance to Robby the Robot. Also nearby is a beggar who will ask for water, and the corpses of some giant ants, heralding the dangers of the wastes. The player will also likely encounter one of the Capital Wasteland’s caravan merchants – their programmed behaviour has them wait outside the gates of Megaton for quite a few in-game hours, so there is a high chance one will be present whenever the player arrives. Thus, meeting the merchant will likely be the player’s first encounter with another human outside Vault 101.

He was actually just leaving when I got there...

It would be a rare player who, having arrived outside Megaton and witnessed the spectacle of the opening gates, did not venture inside.

Entering Megaton

On entering the settlement, the player will quickly be stopped and engaged in conversation by Lucas Simms, who identifies himself as the sherrif and mayor. The dialogue options present the player with the opportunity to ask him about the town and its features. After talking with Sims, the player can look around. The walls of the settlement are very high, preventing any view of the outside world from within. The obvious path in front of them (the direction from which Simms approached) leads down into the pit in the centre of the settlement…

Crater Path

… past a two-headed cow.

Click That Cow!

There, the player will discover the object that they will almost certainly and immediately conclude inspired the settlement’s name: a large bomb very close in appearance to the ‘Fat Man’ bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In the ankle-deep water beside the bomb stands a man speaking in rapturous tones of “the power of Atom”.

Fat Man In A Bath

All of the player’s movements up to this point have mapped out clear geographical connections between the locations they have encountered, as well as some measure of understanding of the nature of each of these locations. Understanding how each of these locations relates spatially to each other allows the player to begin to construct a mental map. This mental map will include the way the player understands the character of these locations: a sense of place. It should be obvious to a critical eye that the player’s movements must be the result of a designer’s intent, to introduce them to the general character of the game’s space, and to that of each of these places. But this is hardly likely to be uppermost in the mind of the typical player encountering these spaces for the first time. And in any case, their movement has not been directed by a script, or by strict boundaries.

The player’s movements are directed – to the extent that they are directed – by the specific properties of the objects within the game’s space. Each of these objects has, yes, been designed, and each of them has been placed by a level designer with the intent of directing the player’s movement. But it is not the designer’s intent that directs the player’s movement, it is the objects themselves, and the way the player relates to those objects. Those objects establish a certain relationship to the player, communicating their affordances, visually and through their interaction with the player-character’s body. The player moves in response to these relationships. They might choose to try to climb the derelict cars, or explore beyond the close horizon. But the elements of the game’s space, the specific objects within it, resist or accommodate the player’s actions, and the player must choose to overcome this resistance or go along with their accommodations. This is the only way the designer can direct the player’s movement in the absence of a programmed script or strict boundaries: by placing the objects within the space, and letting these relationships play out.

Looks Familiar

This is the unit operations of space, and of place formation. Each of the actors within the space, the player-character, the objects, the NPCs, is a discrete entity, with relatively basic properties, things it can do, inputs it can receive, operations it can perform on them, and outputs it can produce. Yet, they combine to produce, for the player, a sense of place.

The Waste And The Wild

It’s been a few months since my last post, but I’ve now submitted my MA thesis, and recovered a bit from the process of finishing it, so I’m looking on to my next project. While I was finishing my MA thesis, Souvik Mukherjee was kind enough to send me some material based on his presentations and discussions at the Ludotopia conferences, the first in Copenhagen in May last year, the second in Manchester, just this past February (which I wish I could have attended). Mukherjee is interested in an idea from Gilles Deleuze’s work, of spaces that have the possibility of becoming ‘any-space-whatever’, and he connects Deleuze’s concept to the wastelands depicted in games like Fallout 3 and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. But Mukherjee suggests that this idea of ‘wasteland spaces’ is a useful way of thinking about video game spaces in general, as ‘zones of possibility’.

Essentially, what we’re talking about here is spaces with a lot of possibilities for becoming place. Place is distinguished from space as, roughly ‘space with stuff attached to it’. The ‘stuff’ can be specific associations, practices, etc. Broadly speaking, space is general, place is specific. Deleuze’s ‘any-space-whatever’ and Mukherjee’s ‘wastelands’ are fundamentally talking about a relationship between space and its possibilities for becoming place.


What I’d like to do is expand on this ‘wasteland’ idea. I’m interested in getting deeper into this relationship between space and place, and how space becomes place, particularly in games. Place is, in a lot of ways, fundamentally about narrative, and narrative is pretty dependent on temporality, so I want to introduce something of a temporal dimension. I’d like to expand on the definition of Mukherjee’s wastelands by saying that wasteland spaces are those spaces where the possibilities for place are expanding, where the range of possible places the space might become is increasing. And I’d contrast this with ‘wilderness’ spaces, which I’d describe as spaces where the range of possibilities for places the space could become are large, but narrowing or contracting, down to a reduced range of possible places the space could become. I can illustrate this distinction with two key video game examples: Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption.

Fallout 3 presents a space where the old, pre-War order has collapsed, and there are a lot of opportunities for the space to become ‘any-space-whatever’, and there are more and more possibilities all the time. The Enclave or Brotherhood could take over, Oasis could expand or contract, the water in the tidal basin could be purified or poisoned, Megaton could be destroyed or stabilised, etc. And each of these changes to the space introduces a whole new range of possibilities for places the space could become.

In contrast, Red Dead Redemption presents a space where the ‘wild west’ is being gradually but inevitably overtaken by the march of the modern world, industrialisation, institutional order, scientific progress, etc. The game makes it quite clear that the possibilities for what this space could become are getting narrower every day. This contraction of possibilities plays a large part in the personal narrative of John Marston, and eventually the range of possible places contracts so much that it excludes him entirely.

In redefining ‘wasteland’ from the concept Mukherjee uses, I’d like to think I’m not so much overwriting his definition as I am expanding it, and adding the logical counterpart of that expanded definition, the ‘wilderness’ space. The key point is that both wasteland and wilderness spaces have a large range of possibilities for becoming place, but they differ in the relationship of the space to those possibilities over time. Like Mukherjee’s wastelands, the concepts of wasteland and wilderness spaces I’m talking about are, I feel, useful as metaphors for how a broad range of video game spaces are experienced. And these concepts are likely to become central to the new doctoral project I’m currently planning out.

2010’s Most Interesting Game Spaces

I played a lot of games in 2010, and I have no interest in ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘GOTYs’. What I am interested in, certainly for the purposes of this blog, are the spaces I found most interesting in the games I played during the year. And because this isn’t a ‘Best Of’, I’m going to look at them in order of release:

BioShock 2

The sequel to the game that gave us one of 2007’s most interesting places was always going to be fascinating, even if it was just more of the same place. And it wasn’t. BioShock 2’s Rapture isn’t just more of what we saw in BioShock. And it’s not just the extra barnacles and abundant sea-life that it make it different. In the sequel we get to see more of the places where the poor and down-trodden of the city lived, and still live, and other parts of the city that the power-brokers of Rapture we met in the first game would rather have kept out of sight and out of mind. Justin Keverne’s fantastic multi-part close reading of one of these spaces, Pauper’s Drop, is a great exploration of what makes these spaces tick. But more than that, BioShock 2’s spaces are different in terms of gameplay affordances, in some interesting ways. For example, spaces like the atrium of the Sinclair Tenements in Pauper’s Drop, and the balcony-lined streets of Siren Alley are multi-level spaces, where most of BioShock’s spaces simply weren’t. And through the mechanic of defending Little Sisters while they harvest Adam, BioShock 2 pushed players to make use of the environment in gameplay far more than the original did. And the late-game vision of Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister is just icing on the cake. Even better, at the end of August we got Minerva’s Den, a mini-expansion as DLC, adding a whole new set of spaces, through which an engaging and moving story was told, providing a spatial experience even more interesting than the main game itself.

Just Cause 2

The archipelago nation of Panau in Just Cause 2 has a fair few distinctive locations, but what really makes this game’s space impressive is its sheer size and scale, the variety of its environments, and the extreme freedom the player has to explore it, from fairly early on in the game. From an analogue to the island from Lost, complete with magnetic disruption field and familiar-looking hatch, to the towers of the casinos and hotels, and the dome of Baby Panay’s base, there are a lot of unique and memorable locations within the game-world. But most of it is just a huge playground, for you to cause havoc across however you choose. This is a space where you can have a whole lot of fun, and there’s always more of it to roam around in, and more stuff to blow up.



Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption gave us all the different versions of the Old West we’ve seen in dozens, if not hundreds of Western films, and a lot of things to do in those wide open spaces. The way it presented these spaces is also noteworthy: anyone who played the game long enough to get to Mexico will remember the haunting ride to the tune of Jose Gonzales’ ‘Far Away’, contextualising the space in a way that compelled many players to experience through a very particular performance of the space. While the actual story missions were theme park rides through the game-world, between missions the Old West gave players ample opportunities to explore and make their own stories in the space, enhanced by the random encounters (even if the variety of encounters was somewhat lacking). And the multiplayer Free Roam mode gave them the opportunity to share the space with other players.


Fallout: New Vegas

Given my intense focus on Fallout 3 and its spaces, my interest in the promise of New Vegas was pretty high. What’s interesting to me in New Vegas, though, is the ways it uses space differently than Fallout 3 did. Where Fallout 3 presented a trackless wasteland with roads only featuring as ruins of a bygone civilization, the experience of New Vegas’ space is heavily tied to the road. The first third to half of the game is built around the journey to New Vegas, almost in the manner of a road movie, with the player-character encountering various characters and adventures along the way. The player’s experience of the space in that section of the game is informed by that structure. When the player does roam more freely, they’ll discover that New Vegas uses less of the spatial abbreviation that characterises the spaces of Bethesda’s RPGs, and this creates a very different impression of the space. Many players complained that despite having a game-world roughly the same size as that of Fallout 3, New Vegas felt smaller. It’s my belief that New Vegas’ diversion from this approach to space is what creates this impression, and I hope to elaborate on this in a future post.



Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

I’ve always found the way player-characters perform spatiality in the Assassin’s Creed series fascinating, and Brotherhood presented a quite different approach than previous games by focusing on a single city. The exceptions to this rule are equally interesting, with flashbacks presenting a much younger Ezio in Florence, and the ability to exit the animus and roam a contemporary version of Monteriggioni. Those who played the previous game (likely a majority of Brotherhood players) will have substantial experience with Monteriggioni in particular, and the redressed, re-contextualised and de-populated contemporary version is particularly meaningful for its contrast. Brotherhood’s Rome sprawls over the Seven Hills, providing a large variety of open and densely-packed spaces the player can explore, and the new system of property-buying and destroying Borgia towers gives new ways to interact with the space. The historical content of Brotherhood should also not be overlooked, considering how many notable historical landmarks are featured prominently in storyline and other missions (if not always strictly historically accurately).


World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Azeroth is a place that has a lot of meaning to a whole lot of people. Over 12 million people currently play World of Warcraft, visiting Azeroth on a regular basis – that’s one in every 584 people on the planet – , and that number only includes current subscribers, not the uncountable millions more who’ve played in the past but aren’t currently subscribed. Even if each subscriber only logs in once a month, more people visit Azeroth on a monthly basis than visit the top ten theme parks in the world, combined. And on the 23rd of November 2010, Azeroth changed on a huge and dramatic scale. Previous expansions have added new spaces for players to explore, and minor changes to existing zones have been made before. But Cataclysm’s Shattering brought enormous changes to every single zone that those millions of players had known and played in for six years (to the day, in fact). Zones with a well-established place in player culture like The Barrens and Westfall have been literally torn apart, changed forever. And that’s without even considering the impact of the ability for players to use flying mounts in Azeroth’s major continents, or the new zones Cataclysm has added, certain of which (Vashj’ir and Deepholm) are dramatically different from any of those seen before in the game. If I were forced at gunpoint to name a Most Interesting Game Space of 2010, I’d have no choice but to name the changes to Azeroth brought on by World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion.

Notable Omissions
Even though I played a lot of games this year, there are a lot more I just haven’t gotten around to playing much of, and therefore can’t assess in terms of the interestingness of their spaces. In particular, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Metro 2033, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent seem, from what little I’ve played of them, to be particularly interesting in terms of spatiality, and I’m looking forward to exploring them some more.

Mapping The Wastes

I’ve been pretty lax in updating this blog lately, mostly because I’m hard at work writing my thesis. Since I’m busy with that, a lot of what I’m going to be publishing here will be pretty close to what I’m writing for the thesis, and right now that means more analysis of Fallout 3. I swear, there will be non-Fallout 3 stuff on here soon, especially once I get into my analysis of BioShock and BioShock 2 in coming weeks, and I’m still working on that Assassin’s Creed piece.

But right now, I want to talk about Fallout 3’s in-game maps, and in particular, the effect they have on the player’s experience of the game space.

Maps are one of the defining examples of conceived space in the trialectic model of spatiality, but the whole point of thinking of space as trialectic is that there’s a whole lot of influence and exchange between the different elements of space. Fallout 3’s maps are a fantastic example of how this works.

Pip-Boy World Map

Pip-Boy World Map

Fallout 3’s in-game maps are provided through a diegetic interface that integrates the conceived space of the game with the lived space. Within the fiction of the game, the Pip-Boy 3000 is a computer worn on the player-character’s wrist. As an interface, it provides the player access to a range of information and features alongside the game’s maps, including character statistics, the player-character’s inventory, text and audio notes they have received, and quest information. The Pip-Boy interface is shown to exist within the fictional space of the game: it is visible on the character’s arm in third-person view, and when it is activated it appears as an object within the field of view of the player-character’s first-person perspective. It sways with the movement of their arm, and is affected by other factors within the game space, such as glare on the screen dependent on the position of the sun in relation to the player-character’s facing. Further, the appearance of the Pip-Boy wrist-computer communicates – with its aesthetic of early computer graphics and its cathode ray tube screen – that it is an object that exists within the broader lived space of the game. It exists as an object that has a place within the fictional history of the game world. More specifically, it has a place in the personal history of the player-character, who receives it on their tenth birthday is told they can never remove it. All of this helps to integrate the Pip-Boy interface, and the maps it provides access to, into the game’s fictional space. What the integration of the Pip-Boy interface – and its maps – into the fictional space of the game world represents is the influence of the game’s conceived space on its lived space. The conceived space of the map exists within and both acts upon and is acted upon by the lived space of the game world.

However, the impact of this exchange and overlap between conceived space and lived space is limited by the interface’s separation from the normal action of the game. While the Pip-Boy is activated, time in the game’s fictional space is effectively paused. No character, including the player-character, can take any action within the game space, with the exception of the player-character’s ability to use inventory items within the Pip-Boy interface. Time, as represented by the Pip-Boy’s clock, the movement of the sun and other environmental factors, is stopped. As there is no mechanism to view the map outside of the Pip-Boy interface, this marks a separation of the game’s conceived space from its lived space.

FarCry 2 Map

FarCry 2 Map

This is a marked contrast from the in-game map interface used in FarCry 2, where the map is far more integrated into the game’s lived space. FarCry 2’s in-game map is presented as a paper map held by the player-character alongside a handheld GPS navigation device. While using the map in FarCry 2, the action of the game continues unimpeded, and the player-character can move around, lowering the map when they do so, and raising it again when they stop. While driving in FarCry 2 the map can be laid on the player-character’s lap, to be consulted alongside a vehicle-mounted GPS navigation device. However FarCry 2’s integration of its in-game map into the fictional space of the game represents an extreme case on the spectrum of integration among commercial first-person action games. Moreover, FarCry 2’s map exists in the context of a broader effort in the game at integrating interface elements with the game’s fictional space. Fallout 3 still presents the game’s conceived space – as represented by its in-game maps accessed through the Pip-Boy interface – as interacting significantly with the game’s lived space, despite the limitations on this interaction.

The maps accessible through the Pip-Boy interface represent not just the static game world, but also the player-character’s specific experience of it. Fallout 3’s conceived space is separated into marked and unmarked locations. Marked locations are named, provide experience points when the player visits them for the first time, and appear on the Pip-Boy map with one of a number of icons once visited. The range of icons used to mark locations is small, and the icon only indicates the general character of the location, such as a military base, settlement, etc. Before visiting them, the player-character may become aware of marked locations through dialogue or through notes, and these known-but-unvisited marked locations then appear on the Pip-Boy map as empty square icons and a name, marking known locations until they are visited. Unmarked locations are never marked on the Pip-Boy map, and represent an interstitial space of ‘wasteland’ between marked locations. Similarly, the game’s local map reveals the details of the space around the player-character as they move through the space. This incremental mapping of the space represents the impact of the game’s lived space on its conceived space, as the Pip-Boy maps essentially record the player-character’s experience of that lived space.

Displaying known but unvisited locations on the Pip-Boy map invites the player to explore these locations. Because the player will discover early on that the Pip-Boy map only displays points of interest as marked locations on the map, known locations create an expectation that something noteworthy will be found there. This provides a powerful motivation for the player to explore these known locations. Known locations might be anywhere on the map, at any distance in relation to the player, and there may be numerous other unknown marked locations in-between. The invitation that the known locations present, to explore and seek out points of interest, represents the game’s conceived space acting on its lived space, by informing the player’s experience of the space. This experience of the lived space of the game then informs the conceived space, through the marking of discovered locations on the map. This relationship between the game’s conceived and lived space represents precisely the sort of overlap and exchange that causes Soja to describe space as trialectic.

The Spatial Rhetoric Of Oasis

Hidden away in the far north of Fallout 3’s game-world, the area called Oasis is quite a contrast to the rest of the dry Capital Wasteland with its scraggly trees. Here, the mutant tree-hybrid Harold has extended his roots into the ground, and spread his life-giving spores. The trees in and around Oasis are green, healthy and abundant. Oasis is a distinctly different space than the rest of the dessicated landscape

Oasis is also the focus of a moral choice the player must make. Harold wants to end his wretched state and die. His worshippers, the Treeminders, are split: one faction wants to extend Harold’s influence beyond the shelter of Oasis, the other wants to keep Harold alive but limit his growth. The player is given the opportunity to help one of these parties, but also has the option to attack and burn Harold if they’re feeling particularly malevolent. If the player does choose to aid one of the parties involved, the consequences are clear. If Harold’s influence is extended, the green trees of Oasis will likely spread across the Wasteland, bringing it back to life, but this will reveal the existence of Oasis, and expose it to the predations of the Wasteland’s inhabitants. If Harold’s influence restricted, Oasis will remain hidden and safe. But if either of these options is chosen, Harold will remain alive, and endure further pain. If Harold is killed, Oasis’ greenery will end, but so will his suffering.

There is no option which will satisfy all parties. Each option is presented in such a way as to emphasise who will benefit and who will suffer as a consequence of each option. So the player must make the choice based on their own inclinations. The choice comes down to the player’s own judgement of whose need is greater, who deserves most to benefit.

This imbues the player’s experience of Oasis as a space with associations of philosophical and moral choice. This atmosphere is heightened by the religious behaviour of the Treeminders, but also by the green surroundings that convey a sense of being apart from the wider world. Because the player enters Oasis as a functionally separate game-world zone once they pass through the door at its entrance, the underlying mechanics of the game reinforce this separation. That the world outside Oasis lacks greenery and is dry and dead means this separation links morality and growth, as represented by the plants found only there.

What this means is that the ‘spatial rhetoric’ of Oasis presents an argument that the option to stimulate Harold’s growth and expand this area into the wider world is the most moral choice. This is despite the lack of impact on the player’s karma points for any option other than burning Harold. In addition, linking morality and growth, by extension, links morality to pure water, a connection which is reinforced elsewhere in the game world, and has ramifications for the player’s choices as part of the game’s main quest. In a sense, Oasis serves as an argument by analogy for how the player should make the larger choices Fallout 3 presents.

But Not A Drop To Drink

Lately I’ve been musing about water in Fallout 3, particularly the significance of contaminated water. Sure, water’s a crucial element of the main questline, but I’m more interested in the part that the contaminated water you find in the game-world plays in shaping the game’s spaces.

While pure water’s scarce in the game world of Fallout 3, contaminated water is a hazard the player-character will encounter frequently . Even setting foot in contaminated water for a moment causes you to accumulate radiation points. Not enough to be immediately deadly, but enough to communicate that water = bad. From the small pool of water around the bomb in Megaton to the contaminated Potomac River that separates the western Capital Wasteland from downtown D.C., this contaminated water is encountered often enough that you learn to avoid it where possible. This leads to a heightened awareness of the landscape as youwatch out for water where it might collect in dry riverbeds, or in semi-flooded caves and Metro tunnels, and also motivates wider exploration as you search for ways to avoid these hazards.

Contaminated water also forms part of the natural border of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland. On the southern edge of the Wasteland, this contaminated water acts as a justification for the game-world’s borders consistent with the fiction, much as the cliffs on the western border do. Because it’s consistent with the game-world’s fiction, using the contaminated water as part of the boundary makes it seem more like a barrier that could, in theory, be crossed, but which you’re simply incapable of crossing. The game does in fact provide you with enough protection against radiation from stuff like radiation suits and radiation meds that this barrier can actually be crossed, and if you do cross it, you’ll just find the same invisible wall, with its message to turn back, that you find elsewhere on the borders of the game-world. However, the hazard presented by the contaminated water will prevent most players from even attempting to cross it. The association of contaminated water with danger convinces the player that the barrier is impassable without disrupting the fiction of the game world, even though it’s functionally passable within the mechanics of the game.

When you get to the area added by the Point Lookout expansion, things get even more interesting. The landscape of Point Lookout diverges significantly from the dry, desolate landscape of the Capital Wasteland. Though the water is no less contaminated, it’s everywhere in the swamps of Point Lookout, rather than found only occasionally as it is in the main game-world. Point Lookout is full of trees that look – if not healthy – living and growing. It’s full of long grasses with at least the suggestion of greenness. The overall impression is of stark contrast to the Capital Wasteland, which helps to convey a different sense of place. Water is still a danger here, and it defines the landscape to a much greater extent, by limiting the player’s movement to islands of higher ground. This breaks up the space of Point Lookout’s swamps into discrete areas that often contain some noteworthy feature such as a shack or an abandoned car, or a bubbling pool of mud.

The separation of these islands by water means that crossing the water becomes a necessity for traversing and exploring the landscape of Point Lookout. Because the area is populated by tough, dangerous enemies, the player is unlikely to attempt significant exploration of the area until their character is well-equipped and at a high enough level to survive such encounters. This should also reduce the threat posed by the radiation in the water. The prevalence of water in the area and the necessity of crossing it to explore serves to reduce the player’s aversion to water, to retrain them and accustom them to their new capabilities. Having to cross the water teaches you that, as a high-level character, water is less dangerous to you. Consequently, when the player encounters quests such as ‘The Velvet Curtain’ which requires them to swim out from the shore to a sunken submarine, spending so much time in the water will seem less dangerous. Without this retraining of the player, such a task might seem impossible, or not worth the effort. So, the prevalence of water in Point Lookout actually serves to change the player’s expectations and experience of water within the game.

This is a great example of how the game’s spaces serve what might be called behavioural functions. I’m not sure the landscape of Point Lookout was designed for this purpose, and it seems unlikely that the whole swamp was put there simply to retrain the player. But it wouldn’t surprise me if these behavioural functions played at least some part in the design of the game’s spaces.

Interfaces To Spaces

Part of my PhD research on the way that game spaces work involves analysing player responses to games, in the form of blog and forum posts, user reviews and so on, to supplement my own analysis of the games. This is proving to be very useful, as the plurality of voices provides insights I’d never have had were I to rely solely on my own experiences. One of the issues that’s emerged from this research on player responses is the importance of game interfaces, the means by which players navigate and interact with a game’s spaces, in shaping their experience of those spaces.

This significance is evident, for example, in the complaints from the No Mutants Allowed community website about Fallout 3. NMA is a Fallout fansite that’s infamous for being a writhing den of hostility towards anything with the Fallout name on it that isn’t Fallout 1 or 2. This is nothing special; fan communities often show a greater attachment to the original incarnations of the object of their fandom, and a hostility towards later incarnations (see “George Lucas raped my childhood”), but this hostility is typically focussed on the perception of infidelity to the fiction established by earlier instalments, rather than on the details of the presentation. Star Wars fans generally care more that Han shot first than they care about the use of wipe transitions between scenes, or the quality of the sound design. This is not necessarily the case with NMA’s hostility to Fallout 3.

The site’s official review of Fallout 3 is fairly representative of the complaints and criticisms expressed by members of the community. Although Fallout 3 is condemned as being “not a Fallout game… not even a game inspired by Fallout”, the reviewer admits it “contains a loose assortment of familiar Fallout concepts and names”. The distinction between the two is never clarified. Though Fallout 3 is criticised for deviating from certain established details of the setting, it’s also criticised for reusing many setting elements from earlier games. It’s bad because it’s different, and it’s bad because it’s the same. While the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacies and the assertion that the NMA community and those who share its opinions are the only legitimate authority on what is and is not a Fallout game are fascinating, they’re a topic for another time. The criticisms of Fallout 3 on the basis of its fidelity or infidelity to the setting are inconsistent.

What’s more consistent, though, is the criticisms of the way the game’s spaces are presented, navigated and interacted with. Naturally, being True Hardcore PC Gamers, the NMA community despises Fallout 3’s first-person view. Fallout 3’s interface is inherited from the Elder Scrolls games, and likewise it inherits many of the conventions that are commonly accepted in those games. One of these is spatial abbreviation – places of interest are geographically closer together in the spaces of Elder Scrolls games than they might be in a more ‘realistic’ geography. This abbreviation reduces the tedium of travel between points of interest, in the same way that routine acts such as getting dressed, going to the toilet and eating meals are often omitted in traditional narrative forms because they are not relevant to the narrative. The NMA review of Fallout 3 decries this convention as ‘unrealistic’, conveniently ignoring the ‘unrealistic’ nature of the map-based travel system that is a convention of earlier Fallout games. What the NMA community really seems to object to in Fallout 3 is not that its conventions are more or less ‘realistic’ than those of earlier Fallout games, but that they are different. But it’s not simple nostalgia for those older games.

Over at The Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott describes how, playing in 2008, shortly before the release of Fallout 3, his students’ struggled to engage with the earlier Fallout games, but that eventually they mastered the decade-old interface and “built a relationship with the character and the offbeat but perilous world”. Having done so, they became skeptical of the upcoming Fallout 3’s likelihood of maintaining fidelity to the earlier games, and their concerns seem mostly focussed on the differences in the way players would interact with the game’s space. Learning to work and engage with the interface is part of the way they built a relationship with the game’s world. From my own experiences with the earlier Fallout games, I know that playing a game like Fallout requires an investment in accustoming oneself to the interface – to the way you engage with the game’s world – and that interface becomes a fundamental part of your experience of the game’s spaces. To those, like the NMA community, and like Abbot’s students, whose experience of the game’s spaces is intricately tied to the interface, Fallout 3’s change in interface is an infidelity to the original games, regardless of whether or not the spaces of Fallout 3 faithfully represent those of the originals.

For another example of how a game’s interface shapes players’ experiences, we can look to BioShock, and the element of that game’s interface most widely-reviled by the hardcore: the ‘quest arrow’. The ‘quest arrow’ appears as an element of the game’s GUI that points to the next objective or waypoint the player must reach to progress through the game. Initially it could not be disabled, but a patch shortly after the game’s release added the option to do so.

Many players expressed hostility to the quest arrow, and for a variety of reasons. Some players felt it detracted from their immersion in the game. Others felt like the arrow’s presence was the game talking down to them. And some suggested the arrow discouraged exploration of the game’s spaces. But many of those opposed to the arrow never actually played with it turned on themselves. They weren’t concerned that the arrow would discourage their own exploration, so much as that it would discourage the exploration of others. But these concerns have not been borne out by my research. I have yet to find an example of a player expressing that the quest arrow discouraged their own exploration. In fact, some players report that the arrow enhanced their exploration by providing guidance to areas of the game’s spaces that lay off the beaten path, or a safety net to ameliorate the risk of getting lost. So while the arrow did not shape players’ experience of the space in the way it might be expected to, it certainly did shape their experiences.

What these examples point to is that the interface to a game’s spaces – the way that players navigate and interact with those spaces – is at least as important to players’ experience of those spaces (if not moreso) than the content of the spaces themselves. It’s not just the details of the post-apocalyptic wasteland or Objectivist dystopia that matter, it’s the way the player sees and engages with them. This is consistent with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, but more specific to game spaces, it also reinforces the ‘trialectic’ view of space and spatiality promoted by Edward Soja, based on the work of Henri Lefebvre. A full explanation of Soja’s trialectic is a topic for another post, but the basic idea is that spatiality emerges from a mutual exchange between perceived space, conceived space and lived space. This model of spatiality is the theoretical framework on which my PhD is based, so it’s nice to get some reinforcement on that.