This article came to me in the shower, funnily enough.
Identity. “The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” It’s a strange word when you think about it. It just reflects back on a thing what its core is. How it’s seen, how it is perceived and characterized. It’s a word I think all creatives in the games industry, be them AAA Creative Directors working for an Industry-Leading developer, or amateur programmer typing away on a passion project in their bedroom. should pay great attention to.
I make a hypothesis to you today: The best games, when reflected upon, are those that have a clear identity. Parts of the game which don’t reflect that Identity should be minimized or adjusted until they do to make the game which creates the biggest lasting impact. This means that there should be a core emotional and thematic feeling that all the gameplay and artistic elements feed back into, even if those elements are very different. They should at least link together to serve that same core identity in different ways, otherwise the game experience will devolve into what amounts to two separate games that the player has to play intermittently, not one game with varied gameplay.
For a great example of a solid game identity, take DOOM. I’m going to talk about the recent DOOM, but everything I’m about to say also applies to the original 2 games from the early days.
DOOM is one of the greatest examples I can think of when it comes to a clear, coherent, kick-ass Identity. That Identity is:
“You, the player, are an unstoppable force of pure violence.”
Every single part of this game reinforces this idea. The story moments are disregarded by the protagonist, the gameplay is designed to keep you moving and killing, and the ‘glory kill’ system keeps you playing in an offensive way, making you feel powerful. Mick Gordon’s phenomenal OST is even a massive part of the game experience, flavoring every moment with a raging intensity that makes you want to keep moving forward. You really do feel like that unstoppable force of pure violence.
The identity of ‘DOOM’ is what you remember about it. You may remember occasional moments of it, yes, but overwhelmingly the thing you remember is that core feeling- the feeling of being incredibly powerful and extremely, extremely violent. It’s as cathartic as it is empowering, and that’s why DOOM feels so good to play.
Let’s look at an example of another great game that didn’t have such a clear identity: ‘Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.’
‘Black flag’ had, by all accounts, something of an identity crisis. It was an Assassin’s Creed game, of course- so it took many elements that promoted the identity of being an Assassin, including the stealth, tailing missions, parkour, etc. But then, it also tried to promote a separate identity of being a Pirate with the ship-sailing, sea-shanties, and treasure hunting. Half the game was quite and calculated, and the other half, the emotions changed completely to rowdy, swashbuckling action. It didn’t quite work.
Now, this isn’t to say that Black Flag was a bad game. By all accounts, it’s one of the best in the series. The problem is, most people primarily enjoy it for one or the other of it’s to separate identities. Instead of all gameplay feeding back into one another, creating a coherent core, the assassin-y components simply got in the way of the pirate-y components. The players didn’t want to play the Assassin portions of the game- even though the previous 5 games of the series had proven that said gameplay was super fun- because it didn’t feed into the fun pirate adventure they came to that specific entry to experience. It was an obstacle you had to get past to return to the real fun.
That’s not to say that a game can’t have two very different kinds of gameplay, either. Take the ‘Batman: Arkham’ series: the gameplay is split between calculated stealth gameplay- which involves carefully avoiding conflict- and brutal hand-to-hand brawling. However, since the player is usually switching between these two within a section of the game- sneaking around, jumping down on an opponent and beating the crap out of them, and then grappling to safety,- they don’t feel like two separate games in the same way ‘Black Flag’ does, but rather two opposite approaches that perfect complement each other to form the Identity we know as ‘Batman’.
Just look at how well received the Batmobile was in ‘Arkham Knight’ to see how you can easily spoil this with a gameplay style which doesn’t fit the core identity. Batman does not drive a Tank.
And so, my final guinea pig. ‘Fallout 4’. The game which led me to develop this theory in the first place.
Fallout 4 is regarded by many people to be the worst Fallout. Those people are wrong, of course- as it’s essentially Fallout 3 except better in every conceivable way, making it 2/5 at the very worst- but the fact stands that it really isn’t popular amongst the fanbase.
And why is that? Well, I beleieve it’s because Fallout 4’s development did not keep a central identity in mind. There are many irrelevant themes explored by the writers, just as there are multiple different gameplay modes which don’t in the slightest bit complement one another.
Fallout 4 had a very clear identity: “Rebuilding the waseland.” Thematically, they could very easily have been expressed as “Getting over past loss, and starting anew.”
Think about it for a second. The character loses their spouse during their time in the vault, which also happens to be the same time time where the apocalypse comes. They enter the vault, and minutes later (by their own perception) they leave again, widowed and having survived the death of the world. And then, they proceed to search for their son, the one thing left from their old life. The only thing they have left of the old world.
That perfectly sets up a story about letting go of the past. In searching for their son, the Sole Survivor is clinging onto their old life. If the game was written so that, over the course of the plot, the player character slowly gets used to the new world and becomes an integral part of it, then that’d work immensely.
But there’s two obstacles to this.
First of all, the game spends too much time on a secondary theme. So much so, that I think the writers might have accidentally mistaken it for the core idea the game tries to explore. That is, of course, the question of “Are Synths Human?” this is a great idea for the core of a story, and does indeed hold brilliant potential. But, the problem is that the game kind of just says “Yes. Yes, they are.” and forgets about it. They straight up force you to ally, even if temporarily, with a Synth who has an absolute free will, has his own personality, and is accepted into the central hub city that, as a matter of principle, doesn’t allow non-humans to live there. The theme is raised and then solved all within a few hours of gameplay. After that, you’ve been railroaded (Pun intended) into accepting the humanity of Synths. If the game had let you get used to the idea that Synths like Nick weren’t human until you met him, then perhaps personhood would be a question and not an assumption. But no, unless you play an optional side-quest, Nick is not only the most human Synth in the wasteland but the first you meet. It’s even stressed that Nick is Unique (Well, one of only two of his kind), so he doesn’t even really work as a representation of all synths.
Secondly, the game is frontloaded far too much – Within five minutes of leaving the vault, one can already by murdering a Deathclaw with a minigun whilst wearing Power Armour. That, in fallout language, means you’ve about conquered the wasteland. At that point, the player has already gotten past the absolute worst the wasteland will throw at them (The only thing more dangerous is Liberty Prime, who is pre-war and also only an ever an ally.) So, what are you trying to achieve, thematically? The wasteland isn’t dangerous- you’ve made it your bitch in the first 20 minutes. It isn’t dead or dying; in fact, civilization seems to be working out very well, with several successful settlements doing just fine without your help. There is zero thematic change that affects the setting of the game, robbing your actions of any thematic weight- robbing them of an identity.
There are memorable events and setpieces, yes- like the reveal of Father and his true identity (Which I believe came all too soon and was presented poorly, but that’s just me), the Destruction of the Prydwen, the nuking of the Institute, the mad dash to escape Railroad HQ, etc. But these moments don’t form a big enough part of the experience to be a core feature- and, indeed, are preceded or constructed of the purely functional but ultimately boring combat system.
In short, the elements in Fallout 4 do not cross over in an effective way. There’s a clear disconnect between the gameplay themes of rebuilding, bringing people together, and building your skills- and the story themes of the control, AI personhood, and leftover themes of ‘War never changes’ that don’t actually go anywhere.
There wasn’t a core to this game. It lacked an identity, and thus perished.