Fallout 4, Undertale, and the Importance of the Nonviolent Option

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Look at these two games! They're practically identical!
It’s a...day in the tail end of 2015, which means it’s time for yet another think-piece on Fallout 4. Not surprising – I, like many others, have spent the last few weeks diving unapologetically into Bethesda’s newest gorgeously realized, densely-packed post-nuclear sandbox. However, due to circumstances beyond my control (there are two other guys in my house who are also fully absorbed in the game, and they own the PS4s, so I'm outta luck), I’ve found myself working through a little game called Undertale in my down-time. Admittedly, I’m a little late on the Undertale bandwagon, but I find it’s just as easy to get absorbed in that game’s 8-bit, adorably-twee-but-secretly-quite-dark world as it is to get absorbed in Bethesda’s blackly comedic monolith.

It’s weird how the two games compliment and mirror each other: both are RPGs, both involve protagonists who are accidentally catapulted into a quirky world full of colorful characters that they don’t understand, and both end up shaping and redefining that place through their actions and their interactions with the residents of that world.

And both of them have an interesting relationship with violence.

Just one example of the unrelenting brutality of Fallout 4's comba -- wait, that's the wrong screenshot!
Undertale is, at its core, a story about violence, and that core is reflected in the gameplay. Every battle presents you with a simple option: Fight or Mercy. Neither option is easy – they both require some time and footwork to pull off – but regardless of which approach you take, the battle ends the same way, with a big “YOU WIN!” and a handful of gold and/or experience. Trying to Fight through your enemies ends up being something of a brutal grind, on par with your standard 8-bit throwback RPG. However, if you take the time to examine them, you can figure out their personalities, why they’re fighting, and (more importantly) how to resolve the fight peacefully with the Mercy command. Immediately this sets the game apart from other RPGs, by having nonviolence always be an option – one that challenges and engages with the player just as much as, if not more than, combat does.

Fallout 4, by contrast, does have nonviolent ways to get out of situations, but they’re few and far between. Bethesda, in designing the game, clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the gunplay (perhaps realizing that combat has always been one of the weakest parts of their games, dating all the way back to Morrowind’s bland hacking-and-slashing). It shows: combat is visceral and deeply satisfying, and using a sniper rifle to explode a Raider’s head from a quarter-mile away in slow-motion has lost none of its Grand Guignol-style appeal. The guns all feel solid and hit with the right amount of force, the enemies are diverse and well-designed, and for once the places you fight them in feel interesting. Bethesda employs a lot more verticality in the setting than we’ve seen in prior games, forcing you to fight uphill battles, find good vantage points on rooftops, and utilize the environment to get a tactical upper hand. And it’s just unforgiving enough that you have to pay attention to stuff like that: charging into a fight Call of Duty-style usually ends with you getting blown to smithereens. Basically, the combat just works. To quote Tony! Toni! Tone!, it feels good.

So, with that in mind, the dearth of nonviolent options makes sense, and I believe it had to be intentional on Bethesda’s part: for one, it guides you (or forces you, if I’m being uncharitable) into experiencing their shiny, retooled combat system. For two, it reinforces the brutality and unforgiving nature of the game’s grim setting: no, you can’t solve all of your problems by hugging them out. In the wasteland, it’s kill or be killed.

I did find myself wishing that there were a few more problems that I could hug out, though.

Both Fallout 4’s Lone Survivor and Undertale’s Human protagonist are ciphers: built purposefully vague so that you can project your personality onto them. This allows both games to mold themselves around the player’s actions to an extent – but even though Undertale’s system is more simplistic, I found myself feeling like I had more agency in it than in Fallout 4’s. For all its bells and whistles and nearly endless customization options, I felt my play style straining more against Bethesda’s design. You see, I had originally envisioned my character as a sort of charming rogue: more apt to solve problems with guile, subterfuge, or diplomacy than at the end of a gun. Thus, I put most of my attribute points into Charisma, Agility, and Intelligence. But even just ten hours into the wasteland, any pretense was gone: it had molded me into a merciless killing machine. Most quests fall into the World of Warcraft, “go to X location, kill Y enemies, get Z reward” pattern, and almost everything in the Wasteland attacks on sight, trying to gank you just for the street cred. Oh, sure, how I killed these enemies was a little different than the norm, but I wasn’t the charismatic, crafty scoundrel I had originally planned to be: I was a sniper, cold and ruthless. That isn’t to say I wasn’t having fun – I was having a blast – but it did feel like the game had forced me into a combative mold by its very design.

Fallout 4, unafraid to ask the tough questions like, "Do you Hate Newspaper?"
It doesn’t help that Charisma, even despite Bethesda's extensive  revamping, still feels like a dump stat, and the dialogue system has been rightly criticized as overly vague and limiting. Most special dialogue options always have a chance to work, and you can quicksave in conversations, so these options can be “save-scummed” until you knuckle through to a success even with low Charisma, and the higher-level perks the attribute gives you are unimpressive or redundant. One of them prevents you from getting addicted to alcohol and drugs, but there’s already no shortage of convenient options to get rid of addictions if/when they ever do pop up. The abilities to take hostages and charm wild animals into subservience are…situationally cool, but again, don’t feel particularly useful when the game already provides you with plenty of companions, both man and beast (and robot, and robo-man, and...you get the picture). The biggest benefit Charisma provides is allowing you to unlock more options for the colonies you set up across the wastes: hiring provisioners, establishing trade routes and building shops in your towns, which is valuable, but hardly feels worth the sizable investment (unless you’re me. I adore the colony-building minigame). It has comparatively little impact on the game as a whole, as you will still end up shooting your way out of the vast majority of the jams you get into.

Compare this to even earlier games in the series – Fallout 3, while derided as the beginning of Fallout’s “CoD-ification” (and yes, being similar to the most successful game franchise out there is seen as a serious insult in gamer-dom. We’re a weird bunch.) still had plenty of chances for you to bluff or intimidate your way out of situations to resolve them nonviolently, or at least with a minimum of violence. Both of the main baddies in the campaign could be talked out of their nefarious plans if your Speech skill was high enough. Its immediate follow-up, New Vegas, had even more options to double-deal, negotiate with, and wile your way around the dozens of factions that were vying for control in the dusty Mojave. You could still murder everything you came across, but you had the option to solve disputes without shedding any blood, rudimentary and boring though those options could be at times.

Pictured: An exciting thing.
And that right there is the problem, I think: from gaming’s very beginning, violence has always been the easiest and most immediate way to engage with the player. The power-trip you feel in Pac-Man when you snag that big dot and turn the tables on your pursuers by devouring them whole, the gratifying feeling of getting the sword and slaying that giant yellow duck(?) in Adventure, blowing up the space invaders in…Space Invaders – the common logic follows that violence is hard-coded into gaming, because violence is dramatic and exciting and easy to design for. The nonviolent option is always less interesting: usually, you press the right button, and then skip whatever fun fight the game had planned for you. It’s anticlimactic at best, and actively removes content from the game at worst...right?

Well, here comes Undertale, to fly in the face of all that logic. In Undertale, it’s the violence that’s rote and deadening, and it’s actually far more interesting to use diplomacy and empathy to resolve fights. It imbues each and every enemy with its own unique personality, and asks you to think critically in order to get past them. A blind dog that can only sense things when they move, forcing you to stand still whenever it tries to attack, and then move in to pet it when its guard is down. An insecure ghost who you can encourage and compliment to build his confidence until he becomes your friend. A memorable early boss fight that forces you to simply withstand their attacks and refuse to fight them until they realize they can’t bring themselves to kill you, and they let you go. By enabling you to interact with these characters on a personal level, it deepens the world and allows you to build an emotional connection to it, so that fundamental decision – Fight or Mercy – starts to carry some real weight.

I guess you could murder this adorable ghost. If you wanted to. You monster.
This probably took a lot of work on behalf of Undertale’s lone designer, Toby Fox, and it might seem prohibitively difficult or unreasonable to ask Bethesda to deliver that same level of depth to every single enemy and character in their vast, densely populated wasteland. But they’re close already: the enemies in Fallout 4 all have their own unique strategies and attitudes, and it’s not too much of a stretch to see them adding a diplomatic/speech component to dealing with those different types. The hulking Super Mutants, as you might imagine, are psychotically aggressive – firing wildly at you, screaming insults, and throwing suicide bombers your way. Maybe a show of strength or a successfully intimidating roar makes them stand down, retreat, or even compliment your might? Raiders are canny, hanging back and hiding behind turrets, mines, and grenade traps. Maybe if you bluff them into thinking you’re not worth the trouble, they’ll leave you alone – or if they have some kind of personal problem (a rival gang, a missing ally, damaged defenses in their base, etc) they can even ask for your help? Complex logic problems or paradoxical statements could freeze certain robots in their tracks, bribing mercenaries could get them off your trail or even send them back to deal with whoever called down the contract on your head, loud noises could bait herds of Feral Ghouls away temporarily, etc. There’s a lot that could be done, is my point, and all of it would have the same effect as Undertale’s system: making the setting feel more vibrant and alive, and forging a personal bond with the player.

In fairness, Bethesda’s already done a lot to make Fallout 4’s world feel less static than other sandboxes they’ve made; and their ability to tell little, compelling stories in that setting is as strong as ever. However, that emotional component still isn’t quite there, despite your character having a back-story that is rife with potential for it (you watched your whole hometown including your spouse die, got catapulted hundreds of years into the future, and are searching for your kidnapped son – so much opportunity!). Bethesda worlds have always felt a little sterile and artificial, and Fallout 4 makes great strides to remedy this, mostly on the strength of the colony-building, but having the option to interface with the rest of the game world on a level beyond just “shoot and loot” would put it over the top, I think.

Don’t get it twisted, either: Fallout 4 is a great game, and part of what makes it great is Bethesda’s commitment to making sure that there is no “wrong way” to play. In previous installments, leveling up came with no shortage of apprehensions and anxiety – making sure you distributed your skill points wisely, worrying about taking the wrong perks, or taking your perks in the wrong order, but in Fallout 4 gaining levels is an absolute joy. Every option is a valid option, and the game seems to tailor the combat to be both fair and gratifying regardless of how you spend your points. I hope that Bethesda expands that approach in their next game, be it Fallout 5 or The Elder Scrolls VI, and follows that line through to the non-combat gameplay. They cribbed notes from some of the best in the business for Fallout 4 – the influences of Mass Effect, Destiny, Telltale's The Walking Dead, and Minecraft are readily apparent – so let’s hope they crib a little from Undertale next time, and give us some nonviolent options that are just as satisfying and rewarding as the slow-mo exploding-head routine.



  1. FINE. I'm buying Undertale.

    I actually think that Charisma can be really overpowered at times, especially the associated perks, and yet there's situations where you have to fight things. Which means you can't just min max. Which means inevitably it's kind of a dump stat. Boo.

    1. Undertale is an absolutely wonderful game. If Witcher 3 didn't exist, it's easily my game of the year. Undertale is truly amazing, though, especially for being developed almost entirely by one guy.

      As to stats: Perception all the way, baby.

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