I realized while playing Fallout: New Vegas that I was bored.  Savvy gamer that I am, I quickly pin-pointed the source of boredom to some of the game’s more monotonous features.  Don’t get me wrong, there were aspects of the game that I found great—namely interactions with the competing factions and the cheesy plotlines that remind me of westerns I used to watch with my grandpa (I mean that as a compliment).  These elements, however, were not enjoyable enough to make me overlook a particular gameplay feature that was boring me to death.  After all games are supposed to be fun. I know the medium and I often take pride in pinpointing games’ strengths and weaknesses, so if I wasn’t having fun playing FNV it had to be the game’s fault.  However, as I began to write a review of the game in my head and started thinking critically about my complaints, I realized I wasn’t having fun and it was my fault.

The gameplay element that was irritating me was FNV’s inventory system.  There was nothing particularly radical about the inventory system, save for the giving weight to the ammunition you carry around the wasteland (in hardcore mode), but I found it particularly irritating.  If you have played Fallout 3 or any number of similar RPGs you know that you have a limited inventory—there is only so much weight you can carry and consequently you have to decide what to pick up and what to leave behind—if you try to carry more weight that you can bear you become over-encumbered and move unbearably slow.

There are houses or rooms in certain towns where you can store your extra possessions so as not to lose them while simultaneously avoiding over-encumberment.  Add to this the option of fashioning weapons and supplies out of various scrap parts found throughout the wasteland and I ended up with an inordinate amount of traveling between quests and my storage house.  All of this inventory management and unnecessary traveling was annoying.  Why didn’t Obsidian take a page out of Mass Effect 2 and streamline the inventory system so I could just step out and enjoy exploring the wastes?

You may think I am weird for blaming this on Obsidian but my guess is that you probably sympathize with my frustration because we gamers are trained to champion fun and blame the developers when we are bored.  As I was slamming FNV in my imaginary game review, I realized that my biggest complaint against the game, the one that was turning life in the wastes into monotonous inventory management was completely my fault.  I didn’t have to keep harvesting scrap metal or wasteland settler outfits to sell for 3 caps.  I could actually pass up on things!  When I made this discovery, I immediately loaded the game back up and started tackling quests refusing to pick up anything that wasn’t necessary and avoiding the temptation to travel back to my storage room in the middle of quests.  When I met a couple companions who nearly tripled the amount stuff I could pick up, I relapsed back into my old ways and started hoarding every virtual possession I could find. Realizing this, I drank some coffee, woke up and redoubled my attempts to streamline my FNV experience.

The result of my amended game strategy and my refusal to blame Obsidian was that I began to appreciate FNV’s design and learned a valuable lesson about myself.  I was exhibiting one of the most annoying traits of survivors of nuclear apocalypse, I discovered I am a hoarder. I don’t think I am in danger of having an A&E film crew come to my house but I am not a good manager of my possessions.  I have two file cabinets in my home office full of notes on various lessons I taught or classes I took that I will never read again.  I have a massive stack of papers waiting to be filed in those same cabinets full of unnecessary papers.  When my wife threatens to throw away various food items I usually offer to immediately eat said food item whether I am hungry or not.  I have strategy guides for video games whose consoles I don’t even own any more let alone the games, add to this the fact that I no longer like strategy guides (they are designed to make us lazy) and there is no logical reason my night stand should be full of them!  I also have a road bike and a mountain bike in my garage that haven’t been used in years.  And the list goes on and on.

It turns out FNV served to do more than entertain me—it was a catalyst to reveal my own shortcomings.  What I detested about FNV was actually due to a personal flaw to which I was blind.  Games are a unique medium because of the ways they allow us to interact with their world and their story.  The easy thing to do when we are not enjoying a game is to blame its developers but this is not fair to the game or ourselves.  Before we criticize a game’s makers let’s take responsibility for the way we’ve been playing.   It could be that our frustration is born out of our own flaws.  I love games, mostly because they take me to new worlds, but I want to grow to appreciate how game worlds can illuminate my own.  You will have to excuse me now, I need to get to work on organizing my office.


19 Comments

  1. Well, first off, I’d wholly recommend you stay away from the Hardcore mode. It makes the game much more fiddly. Ammo has weight, you’re constantly having to mitigate dehydration, hunger, and sleep deprivation. It’s something that only people who like the meta game of inventory management should get into. I played hardcore mode throughout my first playthrough and that added hours to my total playtime. Hours that I wasn’t exploring or fighting or participating in story.

    My second playthrough has been much more relaxing. I’m not playing on Hardcore.

    But yeah, the thing about RPGs is you almost always have to make wise use of inventory space. Bethesda-style games offer a lot of options as to how this is accomplished, but they also mess with the player by allowing you to pick up almost anything. I seem to remember Tycho talking about this, how he had to reordered his mindset. How just because he could theft a plate and napkin off someone’s table, it didn’t mean that he should (speaking pragmatically rather than morally).

  2. I suppose it wasn’t clear in the article, but I was playing on Hardcore mode when I made this discovery about myself. I started off on regular mode but when I found it too easy I switched to hardcore mode. Anyway I am now thankful for it, because it helped me pinpoint why I was so annoyed with the game (which obviously was my fault). So I just had to think more carefully about what I did and how I did it, what I picked up etc. It made me have to be more efficient with the way I used the inventory system if that makes sense.

  3. I’ve also found New Vegas interesting because it subverts your expectations of what materials will be valuable. Very few of the items made valuable by crafting recipes in Fallout 3 are of any value whatsoever in New Vegas. Differing valuation in New Vegas was made comedically plain from the start; Doc Mitchell’s house, for instance, is overflowing with intact Pre-War Books (which went for a pretty penny in F3 but are paperweights in the FNV economy).

    Probably the one, non-weapon items I never pass up are fission batteries. Even though they weigh 6 pounds, they’re pretty valuable to sell. I load up ED-E with batteries and then sell ’em for a good price (which is nice this run because my Barter is at like 21). I think I’m at level 12 and I’ve already been able to buy four implants from the med clinic ^_^

  4. I learned a similar lesson while moving this past summer, but the process of discovering yours sounds more fun. Maybe there’s a game called Desk Attack 3 or Unload. I could use it.

  5. @Sam there probably is such a game but it kinda sounds boring–but that is exactly the sort of thing many game developers are exploring these days ;)

    Actually many similar discoveries can be made playing games if we will strive to be observant and self-aware. Games provide opportunities for such discoveries because they force us to be more than spectators but participants in their world/story/concepts.

  6. I’ve been thinking, reading and writing about Jane McGonigal’s work lately. I don’t think she has any desk games but she is trying to make intentional connections between virtual and real life.

    Your second thought made me think of something I saw on an Extra Credit video recently. Can’t remember which one, but they seem to have a similar interest in getting gamers engaged in the play.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits

  7. @Sam, its interesting that you bring up McGonigal and Extra Credit because I have been reading Reality is Broken and have lately been checking out Extra Credit.

    A lot of what McGonigal talks about in that book sounds like gamification to me, but I think she is certainly on to something and I appreciate her desire to show the positive effects of gaming as well as its potential.

    I may eventually write a review of it.

  8. “Gamification” is sorta a hot-button term for making life more game like if that makes sense. McGonigal talks a lot about the realtime feedback that games give us which makes us feel productive playing them–there are immediate intrinsic rewards for progressing through a game–the idea of gamification is what if life could be like that?

    There are people on all sides of the table on the issue–I find the discussion interesting and certainly there is potential for the medium of gaming to intersect more with real life but I more interested in what games say about us as people I guess. I don’t really want my life to be more game like. I think the greatest achievements in life cannot be quantitatively rewarded.

    Jesse Schell’s TED talk, “When Games Invade Real Life” is often sited as highly influential in the gamification movement. After his talk, gamification schools/movements started while others called gamification a game-pocalypse (if you have ever read Brave New World or 1984 and you listen to Schell’s talk you can see why). Anyway, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts if you get a chance to listen to the talk.

  9. I was drawn most to Schell’s thoughts on the desire for real, and on diversification. As for the former, this topic has interested me for years in my studies of popular advertising. I’m quite strongly opposed to faux of nearly every kind – faux furniture, faux flooring, faux yards. I’m alright with synthetic materials; in fact, all for them, but not when they attempt to mimic something else. Linoleum and it’s increasingly more realistic offspring will never be marble. So if I can’t afford marble, I certainly don’t want linoleum to help me appear to be able to afford marble. Our attraction to idols isn’t much different. I want the Good News to fulfill me and give me peace and security and the like, but I can’t access these so I’ll settle for derivative provisions instead.

    On the latter point, I got a kick out of his Swiss Army knife/iPhone example. Neither make a ton of sense outside of a pocket context. Thanks for the link!

  10. Gamification–think what life would be like if whatever you did you got xbox-style “achievements” in real time! Schell will explain it far better than I can–the Extra Credits folks are probably right–it will inevitably become more and more a part of our lives. I guess I just fear it will give unhealthy added fuel to our already overly consummeristic impulses.

  11. Oh weird, I was writing my comment as you wrote yours! Anyway, I like your example. I think you hit the nail on the head. I just don’t think the most important things in life (parenting, serving in the church, evangelism) can be given real time achievements and I have to at least wonder if “gamification” won’t serve many people well. After all if you are ranking up with what you are buying I can see how that might cause one to neglect more pressing matters that offer less immediately fulfilling feedback.

  12. “I can see how that might cause one to neglect more pressing matters that offer less immediately fulfilling feedback.”

    Um, this is already how I approach my work day and its to-do items. Add points to what is already skewed and I’d never get everything done!

  13. Do the thing you want to do because in gaming world you can do anything but this is your entertainment everything is for fun.

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