Starting to straddle the single-player vs. MMO dichotomy?

Haven’t been playing WoW over the last few weeks: Christmas Break (Boise), then playing Fallout 3. It’s interesting, comparing my feelings about that game to my feelings about WoW. Fallout 3, being an RPG, definitely also operates from a basically individualist, capitalist paradigm: the player sees through the eyes of a single avatar, navigating a world and gaining in power/status/wealth; a hero or villain of renown. But because it’s a single-player game, Fallout 3 contains really interesting differences from an MMORPG.

In particular, the player can affect the gameworld greatly, permanently killing NPCs and garnering a permanent reputation with NPCs. WoW and other MMORPGs are historically bad at this – it being pretty much impossible for individuals to change the world and still have a fair playing field for all – although WoW in particular combats this problem in a couple of ways:

  • The phased instancing thing they started doing with Lich King
  • NPC factions, with whom an avatar has certain status. This status can change, depending on the player doing quests for the faction, killing its members, allying with a rival faction (i.e. Aldor and Scryers), etc.

Therefore, the classic dichotomy of control-the-world-all-by-yourself vs. exist-with-others-but-in-a-static-space between single-player games and MMOs isn’t quite as neat as I’d thought. Even though MMOs came later, it almost appears to me now as if the single-player game is trying to mimic the kind of status/ethos that an MMO world gets automatically. Especially Fallout 3, where your actions affect NPCs’ attitudes toward you but you can’t easily see what those effects are (even garnering favor or enmity of groups that you don’t meet, like the Talon Mercs, who showed up randomly to carry out a hit on me because I’d been doing good deeds). Fallout 3 is trying to approximate the ways that ethos works in an MMO with other players, or in real life: you don’t immediately see the consequences of your behavior vis-a-vis other people. A move toward realism for this game? Yes. But ironically, also a move towards something the MMO gets by default.


  1. Biz says:

    What with my hefty wallet I will unreasonably claim to be an enabler of your current respectable journey. Such crumugens as Old Man Ritter have remarked as “…seems like a lot of work *grumble*” can be followed by the “…hey, talkin’ to ya..” response of such ignored father-knows-best critics. However, one cannot forget the countless hours all of us have spent, huddled around the old ’95 interface, calling out riddles and clues to ye olde point and click adventures.

    Use the flash light on the bats. This scares the consumed Russian into running madly from his evil pursuit of hording the green magic goo.

    Would that all of us could conquer evil with and inventory full of random objects that hide effortlessly in our pockets, witty repartee to get us out of scraps, detectable secret interactive wall spaces.

    Viva la walkthrough, now we have baby-to-elitist systems that envelope our family and friends with the “daily raid”.

    Viva Alliance!

    Still, who wouldn’t miss:
    Click. Speak.
    Click. Garbage Dumpster.
    “I’m not putting my tongue on that”

  2. Good post. It got me thinking about the payoff for the gamer and what these choices mean for games. In looking at the changes in media (Steven Johnson’s Sleeper Curve) where narrative drama’s increase complexity in storytelling to get to greater dramatic culminations. Also, seeing how there was (and still is) a rise in morally ambiguous protagonists (Vic Mackey, Dexter Morgan, etc) it seems to say that all media has become obsessed with consequences. In games we see our actions affect NPC’s and the world at large in Fallout, just as the faux-Earnest Hemmingway hunter in Lich King reacts to you differently based on your treatment of animals. Games are more affecting when there is an emotional consequence for your actions. That is a big part of game immersion that’s been lacking: true emotion. Sure, a game’s finale can be emotionally stirring. I remember finishing Final Fantasy VII and being a little teary seeing the world I’d been playing in get saved by the planet’s life energy. But emotionally stirring is not the same as guilt. I felt guilty playing through Fallout the second time because I chose to blow up Megaton. As the mushroom cloud filled the horizon, all I could think about were all the NPC’s I’d just killed. I felt bad. Just as narrative film strives to make you sympathetic to morally unsavory characters, narrative gaming provides you an opportunity to chose your own emotional consequence.

    • c.ritter says:

      I think you’re right that games are getting better and better at evoking emotions in players. And there were several times that Fallout 3 did this for me. Maybe I’m being to hard on it, as today’s post shows.

  3. I don’t think there’s anything too hard about questioning a game’s morality choices. As gamers we should discuss the design of the game the same way we’d stand around the water cooler to discuss last night’s tv. The Tenpenny Tower section was built on the likelihood of a negative or neutral (maybe slightly positive) outcome. I agree that I felt guilty with both results. I’m convinced that there is a way to talk your way into letting ghouls have some rights, thereby creating a third viable option. However, just like Megaton, gamers are also given the choice to ignore the quest (disarm or detonate the bomb) and focus on something else. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense for the game to not have a tidy ‘good’ solution. The world of Fallout is similar to Battlestar in that its chief characteristic is desperation. In a lush world full of riches and resources, fighting over an apartment building becomes unnecessary. The choice you are given (side with outcasts or elitists) is meant to highlight the nature of the world you are in and pose the moral question: when humanity is against the ropes, do you look out for others or yourself?

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