Editorial

Fallout 4, ‘Western’ RPGs, and A Call For Diversity

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The ‘Western’ RPG market, it seems, is in a very good place, but the genre is in danger of falling into a rut. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have both been reviewed as being among the best games of the generation so far. Lords of the Fallen has reportedly kickstarted a new series and, looking forward, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Cyberpunk 2077, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and the new Mass Effect all seem set to contribute to the standard of excellence. The most recent addition to the roster of anticipation is Fallout 4. Although a wealth of settings and gameplay styles is present across these different games, there is also an undeniable sense of homogeneity, which could leave the entire genre feeling played out within only a few short years.

As often as not, the role that setting plays in video games is negligible in terms of core gameplay design. First person shooters, whether they purport to be set in 1942 or 2142, are always built on a series of fundamental design principles. Broadly speaking, the same may be claimed of 4X strategy games, platformers, and racing games. Historically, RPGs have avoided falling into this same trap by utilising party-based gameplay, isometric viewpoints, turn-based battle systems, or dungeon-oriented design, but these partitions seem to be falling away in favour of a one-size-fits-all solution. Increasingly, ‘Western’ RPGs are being built within the framework of a third-person action game with an open-world design, populated by sidequests that can only be called padding. By accepting these design precepts, the developers are acting in a way that creates a peculiar dichotomy that rules many of the decisions behind AAA development today.

Their actions, even while making sound financial sense (at least in the short term), generate an aura of creative bankruptcy that can only lead to ill-health for the genre in years to come. In much the same way that many developers jumped upon the first-person shooter bandwagon as a result of the incredible popularity of Call of Duty and Battlefield in the previous console generation, WRPG developers are following a formula that has proven successful.

Although it would be erroneous to say that any one title acted as the blueprint for the new standard, the popularity of Oblivion and Skyrim (7.56 million and 18.21 million sales, respectively, according to VGChartz.com) certainly contributed. In many ways, those two Elder Scrolls titles benefited from a perfect storm. Oblivion launched early in the previous generation during a dearth of quality titles; it was regarded, among my circle of friends at least, as the one of only two games worth owning within the first few months of the PlayStation 3’s availability (the other, if you’re interested, was Resistance: Fall of Man), which contributed to high regard for Bethesda Game Studios, as the developers of the title.

Their reputation was further cemented by Fallout 3, and so high expectations, combined with stellar reviews and a strong marketing campaign, sent Skyrim to the top of the sales charts five years later. In addition to these external factors, the Bethesda RPGs feature a strong design ethos that attracted fans, and has seen other developers seek to copy the design principles. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have already benefited, critically and financially, from combining aspects of their respective franchises with the open-world ethic of Bethesda titles, but ubiquity of this design is simply not sustainable.

Not only does it result in a much larger drain on resources than more linear adventures, but it also threatens faster onset of design fatigue. Online gaming communities frequently feature comments lamenting the scope of the likes of Assassin’s Creed, GTA V, and these RPGs, as they feature so much ancillary content that it can easily take upwards of a hundred hours to see them through to completion. Knowing that each game can take so long to complete, and knowing that another similar title isn’t so far away can only reduce enthusiasm for the latest.

For evidence, one only needs to look as far the first-person shooter genre in the previous console generation. The unprecedented success of Call of Duty generated a leap in the number of FPS titles being developed, many of which languished on release. Battlefield and Call of Duty quickly rose to the top of the sales charts with the backing of consistently high review scores and strong marketing campaigns, while less prominent titles, such as Medal of Honor and Crysis, though garnering attention, fell to the wayside.

More recently, the first-person shooter genre has become centralised and insular with single-player campaigns being minimalised in favour of multiplayer innovation, which has resulted in an ever-increasing focus on games such as Titanfall, Destiny, and Star Wars: Battlefront. For me, at least, who is more interested in narrative-oriented shooters such as Resistance and Bioshock, this new focus has created a malaise for the entire genre, and the dropping annual sales figures for the biggest shooters only prove that the malaise is broader than this one editor. A lack of diversity can only result in diminishing returns for content creators and users alike, as the users grow tired of being fed the same thing on a regular basis, resulting in less of a desire to partake of the latest offering.

As the adage goes, variety is the spice of life. I like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls almost as much as anyone, but the idea of playing them over and again, with visual design and overarching literary genre as the only differentiating factors, does not appeal to me. As much as I like Bethesda RPGs, I also enjoy the more confined nature of the Mass Effect series, and the stealth-oriented design of Deus Ex because they offer something tangibly different. Although we know little of these two titles thus far, it would be creative bankruptcy for them to adopt the action-oriented open-world design aspects of Fallout.

Although it makes perfect sense to follow the trail of money, RPG developers need to be willing to retain their integrity and be brave enough to stick to the design principles that will make their game as good as it possibly can be, rather than seeking to adapt the game they want to make to a successful formula.

[alert style=”grey”]This article is an opinion editorial and reflects the views of the author and may not represent the entirety of OnlySP as an organization [/alert]

Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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11 Comments

  1. Did you actually play any of the witcher’s side quests? Comparing those to anything done by Bethesda or the fetch quests of Inquisition is pretty flawed.

    1. Very much agreed. The point of sidequests in The Witcher: Wild Hunt is not merely “padding”. Nor do you do them simply because you want the experience from the quest, but rather because the story is nothing like any of the other games mentioned. I haven’t come upon a single sidequest in Wild Hunt yet, that felt like a chore to do, or that I wasn’t invested in.

    2. I disagree and agree with this. The Witcher’s side quests are very good story wise, no doubt. But they do follow a similar formula of, solve this or that, then fight this, they’re just structured much better and so it makes it more than, hey I lost this artifact up in the mountains, go get it for me.

      Personally I like Bethesda’s side quests, or at least the gist of them, but The Witcher’s are a step above. Similar in structure, but given more of their own narratives to be much more interesting and engaging.

      1. “Solve this or that”

        As opposed to what? That’s what a quest is. You go do something. What’s your idea of a sidequest? “Don’t solve this or that”?

        The context of the game is that geralt is a hired monster hunter. That’s what he does. He solves monster problems. What you’re complaining about is the core theme of the game.

        1. I didn’t complain about anything, lol. I specifically said The Witcher’s quests are better designed than Bethesda’s previous efforts.

          What the author is trying to point out though is that developers could be more creative with their quests and change up the structure a little bit, that’s all.

  2. As a fan of TES and Dragon Age I was disappointed with the “make it open-world like Skyrim” approach that Dragon Age: Inquisition went with. I liked the more focused approach the series had before.

    In the FPS genre it does seem in some places (particularly in the PS3/Xbox 360 generation) it was forgotten that story-driven & single-player FPS games can exist alongside the online ones.

  3. The problem with such popular titles is that, no matter what the developers want, the ones who fund them expect the return those few successes generated. When something is controlled by the one who gives and only wants money, it is hard to maintain creative vision.

    The same goes for movies and television and any other medium which is provided for money, globally. The bigger something gets, the more mainstream and wide appeal it gains, the more likely it is for it to lose whatever could have made it special. Big industries want big money, not big vision.

    Of course you can still make something different and inspired, even if big, but the willingness to allow that has to be there. From all those creating and providing it.

  4. just another one who doesn’t play the games he writes about. tss tss

  5. The Witcher is nothing like Elder Scrolls. Please go play the Witcher 1 (or 2 at least) and see how mistaken you are.

    The RPG genre is in far less trouble than the first person shooter genre is. Far Cry 1234, dead island 1,1.5,2…They’re the same thing in a different backdrop.

    Even if these games were as similar as you seem to believe, their focus isn’t gameplay anyway. The witcher is extremely lore heavy, being based on a series of books predating the elder scrolls by 8 years.

    Sometimes videogames aren’t meant to be “games”. They’re just an interactive medium for storytelling.

  6. Eastern RPG’s are in a much worse state.

    There are literally gazillions of them all doing the exact same thing.

  7. Well it seems that Bethesda went with the voiced protagonist and cinematic dialogue model of other new RPGs for Fallout 4. I’m reasonably sure this means that all future RPGs(well, AAAs at least), will stick to this formula just as the more focused titles have begun adopting the “open world like Skyrim” model. So I think you’re probably right.

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