If you’ve known me for longer than five minutes you’ll know how much I enjoyed (albeit critically) Fallout 3, absolutely LOVED Fallout: New Vegas, and how disappointed & bored I am in Fallout 4. I’m skipping over the broader concepts of why I feel the way I do, it would take forever to compile those years of tweets, and people like MrBtongue and HBomberGuy have explained it in more eloquently and intelligently than I ever attempted to.
Here I am focusing on one aspect of these three games which I feel have a profound impact on player experience and is a reflection of the game’s development: Locations and setting.
Locations in the context of this post refer to specific settlements, areas, etc in the game. These are self contained areas with a specific population of NPCs and often story attached to them. Setting will refer to the entire area the game is set in (D.C, Las Vegas, Boston, etc) as well as its aesthetic and aural components. We will start with the macro (setting) and move into the micro (locations) of each game.
Fallout 3 (Fo3) is set in Washington D.C. and the immediate surrounding area. The visual world of Fallout 3 is composed of two overwhelming color motifs: grey and green. The colors reflect the main objects seen throughout it, ruined buildings and decimated landscape. Atomic destruction is the theme of the game and it’s portrayed by the landscape; there is little warmth in visuals or story in the Capital Wasteland, people there are still struggling to survive. However, there are certain locations which are inconsistent with this motif. These locations stand in stark contrast to the rest of the world because they are bastions of growth: Megaton, Rivet City, Tenpenny Tower, The Citadel and Oasis.
These locations are unique, visually appealing and at odds with the rest of the game’s setting. While these specific areas are rich with characterization and story, it’s only those specific locations that are written in such a way. This leaves the rest of the game world to feel more empty and unappealing as a result and the player is forced to either acknowledge lack (and deal with it), ignore lack (and carry on) or compensate lack (through self-written narratives, mods, etc).
I believe the lack of a complex and cohesive setting, beyond “dangerous, unwelcoming wasteland”, is a reflection of the gaps and missteps in Fallout 3’s story as well. You have an arguably rich narrative presented to you, but it’s one that only fits a specific type of character on a specific narrative path. Similarly, you have a game world with some rich locations, but only those specific places. While things that deviate from these scripts are somewhat acknowledged they are not accounted for in the game’s actual story.
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas (FNV) is set in the California/Nevada area of the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas, Goodsprings, etc. Immediately, this draws contrast with Fallout 3. While Fallout 3 focuses on specific points of interest, FNV extends over an entire area that does a good job of blending together. The color motifs of FNV are amber and red, warm colors that reflect the desert landscape it tries to emulate.
There are far fewer areas that deviate from this norm than Fallout 3, however those that do are not necessarily contrast with the rest of the setting. The three that come to mind are Freeside and New Vegas (their motifs include more grey) and Jacobstown (green). Despite this, they still feel fit with the rest of the setting. The setting in FNV is much more active than Fo3’s; the Mojave is warmer and more alive than the Capital Wasteland both visually and game play-wise.
Practically every location you come across in FNV has some sort of story or situation attached to it that feels unique to that area and yet in line with what else is going on in the world. Though there are expanses of land without much going on (it is a desert, after all) the player encounters feelings of emptiness far less. Additionally, the setting is not a direct result of the story as it is in Fo3. Rather, the story of FNV is influenced by its setting but neither directly dictate the other.
I would argue that the setting’s lack of commitment to the story is what help makes it feel so vibrant. You do not get the sense that the setting is forced to fit a certain preconceived narrative, allowing the player more freedom to explore and exist as they wish to and giving the locations a less contrived and more realistic (or at least believable) atmosphere.
Fallout 4 (Fo4) takes place in Boston and the North Shore of Massachusetts. It should be noted that while I’ve visited the real D.C. in the past and I have a moderate amount of knowledge on the real Mojave, I don’t have authority to speak about how well Fo3 or FNV reflects either of those real life settings because I simply don’t have the experience or intimacy with either of those locations. This is not the case with Fo4. I’ve lived my entire life in Massachusetts, specifically the South Shore. Many of the major locations in Fo4 are locations I’ve frequented in real life. As a result, I feel that this may nuance my observations of the game’s setting and locations.
Unlike Fo3 or FNV, Fo4 doesn’t seem to have a specific color motif like the previous games. The style is much more realistic though its colors do not standout. Though this doesn’t inherently mean Fo4 is lacking something, it does not assist in uniting the setting. Simply put, there is no consistent aesthetic or aura in Fo4. In FNV areas with striking visual differences from other locations still felt as though they belonged in and meshed well with the rest of the setting.
Even in Fo3, which has the most contrast in locations, you still felt like there was at least some connection between their existence; be it the shared color motifs or theme of destruction. Fo4’s locations don’t really share that common thread. You have areas like Diamond City and Goodneighbor that are large communities filled with patchwork dwellings and recycled supplies standing in contrast with the almost Steampunk feel of The Prydwen or the sterile Institute. And those are just the major faction locations.
There’s so much going on in the Commonwealth but none of it seems to communicate with each other quite well. As a result you have a stuffed landscape thats visually interesting but emotionally lacking. This is reflected in the Boston skyline: its a mishmash of bright colors and rust that looks cool but is wholly without distinguishable form. It leaves no impact on the viewer.
There are times when I see a glimmer of theme. Parts of the Costal Commonwealth, specifically Nordhagen beach, Croup Manor Kingsport Lighthouse, The Castle and Costal Cottage, have a wonderfully New England-y feel to them that feels genuinely full of care. The style is so distinct and they’re probably some of my favorite areas in the game. The aesthetic in this area of Fo4 reminds me of the Southwestern/Desert aesthetic that’s prevalent throughout FNV. It creates a unique setting and acts as a basis for visual theme between locations, all of which contribute to distinctive style and memorability.
The rest of Fo4 feels generic, making it feel empty in a very similar way to Fo3. When the game world feels connected it gives the player incentive to explore and take part of it in order to immerse themselves in it. It’s similar to the importance of setting in novels or art. If you don’t set up a believable or relatable scene for your audience, how can they properly engage with it?
Nordhagen beach, Fallout 4
Moving away from the aural components of these three games, there’s also the technical aspect of to their locations as well. Locations in FNV and to a much lesser extent Fo4 are more populated and therefore feel more believable than Fo3. The emptiness one may feel when playing Fo3 isn’t simply due to the visual aspects of the destruction and desolation around you, it may also be due to there being so few densely populated areas. Those that are (Megaton, Rivet City, The Citadel) also serve specific purpose: to further the main storyline.
Meanwhile FNV and Fo4 have a wide variety of locations with different populations. In FNV the NPCs in these places feel very organic, like they are living lives outside of the player’s and trying to navigate and figure out the world similar to the player. Fo4 has this to a lesser extent, though there are more populated areas with independent NPCs they feel restricted to their individual locations and themes resulting in a more inorganic feel.
Overall, the construction of setting and location in the modern Fallout games creates a lens in which we can analyze other aspects of the game such as narrative and gameplay experience. The differences and similarities between construction of the three games highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses of the games overall. It also reflects how presentation based off a shared premise can create individuality among a franchise such as this.