Using the Gaps, Story vs. Plot in Fallout

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September 21, 2012 by rcthames

Ryan Thames

The distinction between plot and story is important in analyzing movies, books, and television series. Yet, in video games, this distinction may be less prevalent, plot and story often seeming to be one and the same. For many games, the plot that comes across in the act of playing the game is the sole focus, with few gaps and little reflection provoked for the gaps that are present. Players of Super Mario Bros. are not prompted to consider Mario’s life leading up to the events presented in the game beyond some apparent relationship with Princess Peach and some apparent antagonism with Bowser. The past history of the Mushroom Kingdom or its denizens has little bearing on the story of the game. However, some video games have evoked story beyond their explicitly presented plots. In this paper, I will argue that utilizing (or choosing not to utilize) this story in the gaps can have important implications in terms of character attachment, consistency, and story immersion. To make my argument, I will offer a brief comparison of Fallout III and Fallout: New Vegas—two games set in the same general story world, using the same engine, but with wildly divergent approaches to the distinction between plot and story when it comes to the player’s character.

Both Fallout games are set in an alternate history post-apocalyptic future of the U.S., where the Cold War and the 50’s culture of its heyday never ended. Yet that is the extent of their similarity in terms of narrative. Fallout: New Vegas treats its player character like many video games do—with only the character’s actions as they relate to the plot emphasized and little space given to the gaps of how that character came to be who he or she is beyond that. To the player, the opening cinematic reveals that you are a courier, and not much else beyond that you were carrying something important, which was taken when you were captured, and then your captors shot you in the head. The plot reveals that you were rescued by a robot and taken to a nearby town to be fixed up by the town doctor. There are some gaps emphasized to be sure, yet these gaps are not part of some story-world outside the presented plot, but rather the driving force of that plot: Who shot you? Why? What were you carrying? Answers to all these questions will be revealed in the plot as the game progresses on a quest for revenge and recovery of the stolen item. The game allows you to establish your character through a kind of psychology test the doctor performs. The significance of this test to the gameplay is minimal. It suggests which skills you are most trained in, but allows you to select your own regardless. In terms of narrative, it allows you to establish something about the character but does not necessarily evoke reflection on the life the character has led up to this point. The experiences of the character and those of the player are closely matched. Indeed, some conversations in the game even seem to indicate some slight amnesia, such that the life of the character before the player takes over (before the plot as explicitly presented) is all the more uncertain.

The minimal distinction between plot and story has a couple of implications for a game such as this. By focusing on the present action and tying the character’s story/experience to the player’s, the game invites two approaches on the part of the player. The player may choose to immerse his or herself in the world, “What would I do in this situation?,” or may choose a playful approach, given the fluidity of the character, trying out many different decisions and personality expressions (or simply one that is not his or her own). However, since there is little to prompt the player to construct a story-world beyond what is presented in the plot, narrative motivation rests entirely on the gameplay and the plot’s narrative developments. If the character’s spouse or parent had been killed in the attack, no matter how few details were given as to what that spouse or parent was like, the player might be prompted to construct some sort of picture of this person. Narrative drive would then incorporate that construction, which might have more emotional resonance.

I take Fallout 3 as a counter-example. After a video explaining the setting, Fallout 3 begins with the character’s birth. As the player, you are given choices of gender, name, and future appearance (diegetically explained by a genetic predictor) as the character’s parents interact over the newborn. There are a series of cuts to various ages in which the player can engage in interactions with the character’s father, peers, and prominent members of the radiation-protected vault where the character starts his or her journey. These segments presented in the plot certainly encourage a growing conception of who the character is, but just as important are the gaps—the implicit story-world not seen. Hints in the conversations, as well as a stream of mixed audio voices during each of the transitions, prompt to player to imagine beyond what is shown. The character’s mother died in childbirth, something repeatedly referenced, which prompts the player to imagine what it is like growing up without a mother. The interactions with each of the other characters are sample interactions that prompt a story construction of other interactions that presumably happened in the years between. While there is still a degree of fluidity to the avatar in this game, there are a set of circumstances that establish the character, and the player’s choices in the growing up sequences might prompt some urge for consistency of character action and personality. The avatar in a game such as this does not allow for the same degree of a “what I would do in this situation” approach. While certainly not requiring it, by prompting players to construct a story in the gaps, Fallout 3 encourages role-play in the traditional sense rather than “playing as myself in this situation.” It also has the potential to create some emotional valence beyond what is carried by the plot.

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3 thoughts on “Using the Gaps, Story vs. Plot in Fallout

  1. rcthames says:

    Wow, forgot how difficult it is to write an essay with this low a word count. Not sure if I had the space for a comparison, perhaps focusing on one game would have worked better. Is the comparison helpful here?

  2. swrig22 says:

    Interesting topic. One of my majors here at Emory is Creative Writing with a specialty in short fiction, and in my classes the professors always emphasize the difference between summary and scene, and I think such a distinction is useful for video games as well. For example, the opening of New Vegas is told entirely through scene – we are there when the Courier is getting beaten up, we see him get shot, we lose consciousness WITH him. In Fallout 3, your character is given more of an extensive backstory, but it’s all told through summary; besides a few important scenes, we are told how our character feels towards other individuals and even the Vault itself. Personally, I found the latter method to be much less effective. When indicated by the game that I was supposed to dislike the Tunnel Snakes because they had bullied me all through high school, I felt a large disconnect between the character and me, because I didn’t care about the Tunnel Snakes at all.

    Personally, I think the less backstory a game has, the easier it is to relate to your character. This doesn’t mean that the character has to be a flat individual like Ryo from Shenmue or Crono from Chrono Trigger, but it does mean that the game has to compress events in such a way that important characterization doesn’t hinge on events the player doesn’t see. Take Shenmue, for instance. The first scene of the game is Ryo coming home and being forced to watch his father get murdered by Lan Di. Immediately, the player is pulled into the events of the day the same way Ryo is, and it is easy to relate to Ryo’s guilt and anger. Conversely, because Shenmue takes place in the small seaside town that Ryo grew up in, he knows 90% of the characters you’ll meet even before you do. As such, whenever you meet a new character, Ryo says their name, and they will often have a conversation that indicates some amount of backstory: Nozomi and him grew up together, Fukuhara is like a brother to Ryo, etc. Personally, when I first played Shenmue back in ’05, I barely noticed this, but when I replayed it two summers ago these moments really brought me out of my immersion into the character. Call it a personal quirk, but I think there’s something to it.

    • rcthames says:

      I must respectfully disagree that Fallout 3 is an example of summary. While admittedly the birthday party scene is a bit heavy-handed, much of the backstory is inferred rather than given in some cutscene or block text—we play through some encounters spread across time and from the way those play out we fill in the gaps to develop our understanding of that relationship. If we choose to join in picking on Amata, Butch tells us, “You’re alright kid,” and we may piece together a different relationship with the Tunnel Snakes. My argument regarding investment is that because part of the game’s story is our own (not just in the sense of branching paths, which are still very much the game’s, but in that we supply the answers to fill these gaps) we might have more investment in the narrative. Of course, this is not a guarantee, but that potential is opened up.

      It has been some time since I played Shenmue, but I recall there are also some gaps working the same way there. What kind of man was Ryo’s father? What exactly was their relationship like? Some aspects of these questions are revealed in conversations/memories, but if I remember correctly we also fill in a good bit of the implicit story here. To me, this gives me much more narrative investment in Shenmue than I had in New Vegas. Shenmue is certainly done differently that Fallout 3, and perhaps you could argue better, but I think it would still be an example of what I was trying to get across here.

      I will grant, however, that we feel more closely aligned (in the sense of alignment deployed by Murray Smith) with the courier–one with his perspective–but as I argue, in games this also puts the burden of narrative drive on the explicit plot and gameplay, which for me were not strong enough to carry me through New Vegas. The only inkling of a drive I had was revenge fantasy, but after I killed Benny I only played a little while longer. I felt quite detached from the narrative, and at that point didn’t really care about House, the Legion, or the New California Republic. After that it becomes a power narrative, which is one of the least interesting types of narrative (although admittedly a narrative found in most games). As you say, it may be a matter of preference, but I feel that had I made the narrative partially my own by being prompted to fill in certain gaps my investment in the narrative might not have dwindled as much.

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