Sara Mosberg Iversen

Sara Mosberg Iversen is an assistant professor at the Institute for the Study of Culture, University of Southern Denmark. Her research focuses in various ways on the intertwinings of digital games: The weave of games’ mechanics and expressive elements into unique aesthetic works as well as the intersections of games and players in the actualization of game-texts and experiences.

In the Double Grip of the Game: Challenge and Fallout 3 

by Sara Mosberg Iversen


It is widely agreed that digital games are dual structures, comprised of both a mechanistic and a semiotic dimension. While early approaches tended to favor one of these elements on behalf of the other, much current research calls for more holistic approaches to digital games which take both dimensions into account. Still, existing analytical frameworks dedicated to analyzing digital games as aesthetic works tend to have either a very general focus or to mainly address meaning or mechanisms. 

Here a broad notion of challenge is proposed as a basis for holistic analysis of digital games. Conceptualizing challenge both as demanding and stimulating situations which may be identified as potential or actualized in a given playing, the offered framework is demonstrated through application in an analysis of Fallout 3. Seeking to take into account the premise of situated playing, the analysis will focus on the interplay between the game’s expressivity and mechanics in creating a plethora of varied potential challenges and, likewise, the ways these may be actualized for a given player. 

Keywords: Challenge, digital games as aesthetic works, analytical framework, holistic approach, analysis of digital games, methodology, implied and actual player, Fallout 3, satire, artistic game design, player preferences.


Analyzing digital games as aesthetic works is an interesting challenge. On the one hand there seems to be a general agreement that digital games are particularly complex double structures, “combinations of definite semiotic elements in specific relations to equally definite technical elements” (Harpold, 2007, see also Aarseth 1997, p 40). At the same time, while early research tended to favor one of these elements on behalf of the other (see, for instance, Aarseth, 2004; Eskelinen, 2001; Jensen, 1998; Juul, 2005; Murray, 1997), the polarization of the first years has given way to calls for a more holistic approach to digital games (see, for instance, Atkins & Krzywinska, 2007; Carr, Buckingham, Burn, & Schott, 2006; King & Krzywinska, 2006). Despite the rising number of analyzes of digital games there is still a lack of dedicated analytical frameworks created to tackle the double constitution of digital games in a holistic way. The analytical frameworks developed specifically to examine digital games have either been too general (Konzack, 2002; Juul, 2005; Galloway, 2006) or mainly oriented towards either the game as a formal system (Aarseth & Elverdam, 2005) or expressivity in terms of cultural themes and values promoted (Consalvo & Dutton, 2006; Bogost, 2006). Here I want to suggest that a broad notion of challenge is a promising basis for holistic analysis of digital games, especially those with a relatively flexible structure caused by many deniable elements (Leino, 2007). That is, elements which give players some freedom to decide on strategy, playing style, goals, and the like. The intention is to demonstrate this through application, analyzing the digital role playing game Fallout 3 (F3)(Bethesda Game Studios, 2008). This will be done with a particular focus on the interplay between the game’s expressivity and mechanics in creating a plethora of varied potential challenges and, likewise, the ways these may be actualized for a given player. The notion of expressivity here refers to any potential signifying structures delivered by the game-text both via audiovisual and procedural devices, while game mechanics are understood in line with Miguel Sicart’s definition as “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state” (Sicart, 2008).

First, I will briefly present the understanding of challenge underlying the analysis. This is followed by some important methodological considerations. With relation to the analysis, it is not the aim here to cover every potential or actualized challenge in F3. Instead, attention is given to a variety of challenges which, for the most part, appear prominently in the game. Some less noticeable potential challenges are also discussed in order to demonstrate the broad applicability of the proposed approach.

Thrills of Uncertainty

Approaching digital games on the basis of challenge seems an obvious thing to do and it has, indeed, been done before both within games research and design (Adams & Rollings, 2003; Juul, 2007; Malone, 1980). There is a tendency, however, within both areas to understand challenge rather narrowly in terms of competition or as related to difficult tasks (Crawford, 2003, pp. 38-39; Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005; Vorderer, Klimmt & Hartmann, 2003). Yet, the common meaning of the term suggests an additional conceptualization. According to Collins Concise Dictionary, a challenge is a “demanding or stimulating situation […]” (Gilmour, 1995, p.142). While challenge as demanding situation has been extensively discussed within game studies in the form of competition and difficult tasks, the notion of challenge as stimulation is less developed. Bracketing the purely physiological meaning of the term, I propose that challenge as stimulation entails that aspects of the (simulated) environment or (constructed) situation in various ways encourage or inspire the subject to imagine, improvise, explore, experiment, express herself, create and construct (Iversen 2010, pp. 122-126). Where challenge as a demanding situation is directed towards tackling a particular problem, challenge as stimulation contains a more expressive dimension and it is engaged in for its own sake rather than in order to gain points or rewards. Importantly, this conceptualization of challenge does not contain any implicit normativity, valuing one type of challenge above the other. Rather, it may be a means to explore how different elements in a game may potentially give rise to a variety of textual realizations and ludic engagements.

Central to challenge as demanding situation and stimulation is uncertainty and indeterminacy respectively (Iversen 2010, pp. 126-128; Malone, 1980). The notion of uncertainty here refers to the doubt inherent in a demanding situation where a difficulty or problem presents itself for a subject who cannot be certain of her chances or abilities to handle the incident with either success or failure. That is, something it at stake and only the subjects’ active engagement with the situation will determine whether she is capable enough. As for the indeterminacy characteristic of challenge as stimulation, this concept here refers to the lack of authoritative definition in a given situation. This allows the subject some freedom of expression, even if only in the form of choice between a few different options. Uncertainty or indeterminacy, often coupled with pre-set or player generated goals, are the best indicators for identifying possible challenges in a digital game. It is important to stress, however, that goals in themselves do not create challenges but merely offer an incentive to continue with something despite the resistance or flexibility it may offer (Malone, 1980, pp. 162-163). Challenge, then, is not a static phenomenon but something that appears in the specific relations between a given subject and the surroundings. This means that an actual challenge only arises when a subject is challenged by a given situation. Hence, any actual challenge is a subjective phenomenon and it may differ greatly among individuals what they find challenging or not. To give an example, the game Aquaria (Bit Blot, 2007) focuses heavily on exploration and puzzle solving and it is, moreover, set in a beautiful environment and offers an interesting story. However, in order to enjoy these stimulating elements the player has to pass through rather demanding sections with combat and jump session requiring great precision and quick reactions. These are the challenges typically seen as central for a digital game. Personally, however, I played the game in spite of these challenges as I found the other, stimulating, challenges it had to offer much more interesting. That is: Exploration, puzzle-solving, and story. In the end I didn’t finish the game because those stimulating challenges in my case did not manage to compete with those elements that stood in the way, increasingly demanding more precision and quicker reactions.

Game-texts and Operators

The analysis of digital games raises several methodological questions, particular with relation to the accesse to the game-text. Digital games are procedural texts that require configurative input from users in order to unfold. The object of analysis, thus, is dependent upon the activity of an actual player in order to be accessible for scrutiny (Atkins & Krzywinska, 2007, p. 3; Iversen, 2008). Some digital games, such as Tetris (1986) or Pong (1972), contain a minimum of deniable elements (Leino, 2007), that is, elements that one can disregard and remain playing. Other digital games, such as Elder scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) or The secret world (2012) are much more complex and flexible structures, affording a high variation in playing strategies and experiences. While it is relatively easy to bracket the player in relation to the first type of games, actual players of more flexible games have a more decisive role in forming the emerging text, marking it with individual preferences and strategies. Consequently, even when an analysis is mainly interested in discussing the game in itself, a player enters that equation and should be deliberately addressed. Elsewhere I have suggested two different answers to this precarious position (Iversen, 2008). One is the use of a theoretical construct borrowed from reader-response theory (Iser, 1980), that of the implied player (Aarseth, 2007; Carr, 2006). Here the player is treated as a (number of) position(s) created by the game. This construct is not an actual player – and, thus, must exceed the individual’s preferences and strategies. Instead, it is that which the game, ideally, requires in order to unfold. Operating with an implied player, then, one may address the potentiality of a game; how it could play out on the basis of the available semiotic and mechanic resources.

If the aim is to look beyond structures and devices at the aesthetic experiences a game may give rise to, the notion of the implied player does not suffice. Here active, experiencing subjects are required. It is quite well established within game studies that, due to games’ dual constitution, it is not sufficient to merely observe the audiovisual output from someone else’s playing (Aarseth, 2003). If the researcher wants to understand what goes on under the surface, in terms of game mechanics, the researcher will have to play the game. If the aim of an analysis is to broadly cover a variety of experiences of the game-text, naturally the activity of one player does not suffice. At other times, it is precisely the highly subjective that is interesting because it serves to emphasize that game-playing and its derived experiences do not occur in a void but on the backdrop of personal history and preferences.

The notion of challenge presented here may be used analytically in conjunction with either an implied player position or the explicit subjective stance discussed above or even move between the two. Despite the messiness of the latter approach, this can be regarded as a way to reflect the situated playing experience, where players are likely to consider the various potentials of a given game while at the same time choosing their own preferred playing to the degree that the structure allows this. Hence, the present analysis will focus on both potential and actualized challenges. Consequently, the analytical perspective will move back and forth between the game as a structure ripe with potential and the experiences of actualized playing sessions. I will mainly use my own playing but also include examples of other players’ articulated experiences. By this I do not imply that my own playing, nor that of others, is transparent to me. Instead, this slippery access is a premise which cannot be avoided and, as such, should be made explicit.

Welcome to the Retro-Future

The Fallout series (Black Isle Studio, 1997, 1998) has always offered a somewhat unique digital role playing experience with its distinct humor, visual style as well as the attempts to breech thematic and generic boundaries. In this regard F3 follows loyally in its predecessors’ steps even though the game’s new developers, Bethesda Game Studios, transport the F3 universe into 3D and add new mechanics. Instead of medieval fantasy nostalgia, heroes, and magic, the games provide a retro-futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting. While the atmosphere of ravaged civilization and the adult themes can be seen as merely a ploy for attention, there is reason to regard the games as a comment on currently relevant topics. The whole series invokes issues such as consumer culture, corporate power, propaganda, racism, and what it means to be human. All these themes are, moreover, presented in a ruined world which adds its own poignant perspective. Sarah Grey (2009), for instance, suggests that the confrontation with these imperfections may offer a basis for reflection. This is a striking contrast to the neo-medievalism prevalent in most digital RPGs with fantasy settings (Stern, 2002) still dominating the game marked, perhaps with Project Red’s The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2008) as a gritty exception.

F3, like its predecessors, opens with a simulated old fashioned slideshow, complete with hacking overlaps and small mechanic clicks. After the initial credits, this slideshow moves on to prewar advertisements for urban wonders, such as the Metro or the Museum of Technology, as well as various consumer goods. For instance, a subscription to the Vaulttech services which guarantees access to a safe vault in the case of nuclear war. All the advertisements are held in an optimistic, even hopeful, tone, combining 50ies style artwork with bold slogans. In a jarring juxtaposition, these advertisements are intermixed with nationalistic propaganda sequences and, moreover, coupled with a menacing score, intoning the ambiguous worldview presented in the game. Hence, at the game’s opening, the official corporate and government rhetoric versus what is actually going on in the (fictional) world are implicitly compared, creating a satirical effect. In this sense, even the loading screens introduce possible stimulating challenges as the discrepancies between the presented elements as well as the lack of an authoritative interpretation encourages players to question what they see and hear. The second part of the introduction movie consists of sketched war scenes while a voice-over makes observations about the connection between war and humanity. It ends with the pompous statement: “war, war never changes”. Perhaps a failed attempt to be philosophical, this sequence effectively undoes the ambiguity and uncertainty intoned so far by presenting an authoritative interpretation of the game’s theme. Interestingly, this tension, between the open and ambiguous on the one hand and the normative and fixed on the other, remains throughout the game until everything comes together in a remarkable finale.

Growing Up the Vault Way

Bethesda’s games are well known for integrating character creation and gameplay tutorials into the main quest line. In F3 the designers have gone to new lengths to seamlessly incorporate these features in what becomes the player character’s background story. The game opens with her birth in a protected vault, 200 years after a nuclear blast has destroyed most of the United States. After I have named my avatar Molly and met her parents, her mother dies of birth related complications. Then the first compulsory quests, for instance teaching me game controls and Molly how to walk, transport me from one significant moment in Molly’s life to the next in a rather closed progression structure (Juul, 2002). I can let Molly react in various ways in different encounters with her fellow vault dwellers. The indetermination in the presentation and response options gives me something to work with in my constructive play. While many of these choices mainly shape the surface expression of the game, there are even cases where different responses influence gameplay in slight ways, for instance in terms of karma points. The father, especially, is a character with ambiguous potential in Molly’s story. His shinning example may take on various meanings and inform playing differently depending on how I choose to construct the situations through the available choices of prewritten dialogue – and further into the game even through choice of actions. I can let Molly follow closely in her father’s idealistic and self-sacrificing footsteps, have her act on the basis of mixed feelings, or even revolt against everything her father stands for.

In terms of challenge as demand the opening quests do not offer a lot of uncertainty or difficult situations where players can test their competences. Although the character creation and tutorial quests provide an opportunity to build the foundation for later competences and, hence, point towards later demanding situations, they mainly function as potentially stimulating at this point in the game. With the childhood glimpses a background is offered. Consequently, the player character does not spring fully mature from “Zeus’s brow” as is nearly always the case in digital games, with a few exceptions such as Fable (Lionhead Studios, 2004) and, to a lesser degree, Dragon Age Origins (Bioware Edmonton, 2009). This process may not be incredibly interesting as (part of) a story in itself. However, in terms of challenge, the background story gives the player a context for constructing the avatar. Whether this will actualize as an interesting challenge, depends on the degree to which a given player treats the player character mainly as a vehicle for acting in the game or also uses the avatar as a means for expressive play, for instance, for role-playing (Tychsen, Brolund & Hitchens, 2008).

Living the Interface

Nearly all interface functions in F3 are integrated in the so-called Pip-Boy 3000; a wondrous technological device which contains vital information about the player character’s health and equipment, as well as maps, compass, radar, quest notes, and the like. Just as I do when carrying out my actual work, a great deal of time in F3’s world is spent tabbing between various menus in order to access information which, with a little suspension of disbelief, may all be seen as residing securely with the diegesis presented by the game (Galloway, 2006). Non-diegetic functions, such as saving and loading, must be accessed via a different menu. This way, elements that function both at gameplay and story level are further separated from those that only work in relation to the first. In this way the game seeks to keep me inside its universe, rather than fluctuating between the game’s expressive sections and mainly mechanistically oriented elements.

An important interface feature is the V.A.T.S, an optional function that enables a kind of guided combat mode. Confronted with potential hostiles the player may go into V.A.T.S mode. Here opponents are shown, their various body parts marked with the probability of getting a successful hit. As discussions at fora dedicated to the game indicate, this feature has caused controversy amongst the game’s players. Some find it unnecessary and game breaking because it diminishes the challenge of combat, while others like it. This is a good example of how a game may cater to different challenge preferences. For me, the V.A.T.S makes the combat aspect of the game more interesting and engaged than if I had been left to my own devices. I rarely play shooters and have not perfected the skills necessary for precise aim-taking and quick reactions. With the V.A.T.S function I can avoid the random mouse click panic that would have otherwise ensued when encountering hostile creatures. The V.A.T.S. offers clear feedback and, more importantly, time to concentrate and think, even in terms of strategy. Since use of the V.A.T.S is optional, the game’s combat sessions may cater to different kinds of playing styles, both those who prefer their own skilful reactions and those who appreciate the help offered by the system. It is a way to let players choose which types of challenges to focus on rather than dictating a particular playing style.

Engrossed in Menial Tasks

As digital RPGs feature characters who act in worlds, the simulated actions, events and environment tend to have an overall mimetic relationship to the actual world. Obviously, like other possible worlds (Ryan, 1991), the simulated universe may be defined by other natural laws and contain elements that do not exist, such as magic or the wastes of a nuked Washington DC. Still, if the player character is required to find a key in order to get past a locked door, this sequence of events will be expressed with reference to keys, doors and the character in question. What may vary is the level of details in terms of steps in the process, as well as the style of depiction. Often players are merely required to click with the mouse on a locked door in order to lock pick it, for instance. Then the game will calculate their skills along with any modifiers in relation to the door’s difficulty value. If the skill is high enough the door becomes passable, otherwise it remains locked. While it would be possible to simulate the lock picking in more detail with current technologies, most digital RPGs leave out this part of the procedure, focusing on the state of the door rather than on the process of opening it. From a purely instrumental stance there is no need for more detail because the vital issue is the passability of the door. The scenario in terms of cultural significance, likewise, makes sense without more details since players are perfectly capable of filling out any blanks. From a challenge perspective, however, simulating the process of lock picking in more detail may be a way to offer players a more involved experience.

In F3 lock picking and other menial tasks are implemented as small challenges in themselves. Not in the way of quick time events, a mechanic increasingly used in digital games in order to make various tasks more demanding and involved. Yet, where quick time events, for instance in a game like Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream, 2005), tend to rely on fast reactions and precision under time pressure, the menial tasks in F3 instead rely on the players’ ability to gauge various setups. Not under time pressure but limited by resources or a maximum of attempts. Successful lock picking, for instance, does not only depend on the player character’s skill level and the lock’s difficulty. The game even requires that a simulated pin is manipulated in a simulated lock. Judging by the sound and resistance in the lock mechanism, the player must determine the lock’s weak spot and then, via a mouse click, try to force the lock open. Although this process becomes easier as skill levels increase, the activity is still to some degree dependent on how the simulated pin is used. While this process does not require tremendous manipulation skills it still requires some patience and experimentation. It requires concentrated rather than detached involvement.

More demanding is hacking in F3 – at least with low skill. Whenever Molly attempts to hack a password protected terminal, she is given four chances to determine the right password. The starting point is a screen filled with nonsense key strokes intermixed with proper words. Upon picking a word, the number of correctly placed letters in that particular word is displayed, leaving me to compare and rule out words. Since several words will mostly have the same letters in similar positions, the process at the low levels involves trial and error. I enjoy that this activity at early during my playing requires me to get a piece of paper to note down words and compare letters. Then, as Molly’s skills increase, I do not have to use the paper anymore because fewer and shorter possible words are available. Once Molly has reached the highest hacking skill I am often able to guess the right password in one try based on the various words’ more or less vague thematic link with the terminal’s particular location. This gives me a very intense feeling of skill increase and, I believe, a more involved one than if hacking had just required a mouse click. This increased requirement of focused involvement does not necessarily equal an enjoyable and engrossing play experience for all kinds of players. Those who mainly focus on “beating the game” as effectively or quickly as possible, for instance, may find the added details unnecessary and annoying, even to the degree where their engagement is broken.

I find the implementation of menial tasks interesting for several reasons. Not only do these tasks require focused involvement but, at least with low skill levels, they even appear as small challenges in themselves. Moreover, the particular mediation offers a strong coupling between execution and expression layer and as a result both together aid in facilitating my engrossment in the simulated world. In comparison quick time events often tend to have a more random coupling between these dimensions. While both approaches create potentially demanding challenges for players to engage in, there is likely to be experiential differences between a hectic quick time event, which may cause a loss of control, and the more mentally focused take on menial tasks in F3. In other words, the two approaches are likely to cater to different types of player motivations.

Exploring Tragedy, Satire, Hope

For me the main attractions of F3 are its open structure and the large simulated environment which invites exploration. Especially the wasteland beckons with its scattered ruins of smaller and larger settlements, caves, vaults, lonely scavengers and settlers. With a good graphic card, I can see quite far ahead where remnants of various man-made structures always stir my curiosity. Strangely, despite the signs of destruction that are still visible everywhere, roaming the open landscape induces me with a feeling of freedom and a sense of opportunities waiting behind the next hill. Moving Molly through the wastes is eerily close to being a wandering (but senseless) body in that world. The urban ruins, on the other hand, do not have the same effect on me, probably because these labyrinthine structures with their choke points and barricades are much more confining. Additionally, most of the large inner city buildings are mere props which can rarely be entered or otherwise engaged with and, consequently, there is less to explore.

Both game mechanics and the game’s expressive dimension encourage exploration as this activity results in detection of new areas where new quests may be picked up, loot be found, combat engaged in and encounters made that may lead to increase in experience points. However, from a point-optimizing stance completing quests is a much more efficient way to earn experience points that random exploration. Hence, the game’s expressive dimension plays a major role in encouraging exploration. The wasteland in itself is an always changing spectacle full of small atmosphere-invoking details. It may be some luminous mushrooms at the edges of a dried up pool at night, the trashed lawnmowers and barbecues outside empty family homes, or a small child’s lunch box under a bed in an abandoned house. Hope, satire, tragedy are intoned in these spectacles. The obvious attention to detail also makes F3 stand out from the often rather bland and generic settings abounding in digital RPGs. I cannot think of any other game where I would happen upon an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes in a turned over filing cabinet situated in the front office of the station master’s office down at one of the metro stations. This find invokes images of employees hiding out of the manager’s sight in order to get an unsanctioned break. I imagine how they enjoy this little illegal oasis. Until the bombs hit, that is.

While many locations do not offer much in terms of quest opportunities or loot they often present a variety of atmospheres and embedded stories (Jenkins, 2002). For instance, the body of a man can be found in the ruins of an old farmhouse. The dead man carries a letter to his brother, asking his forgiveness for stealing something apparently dear to the brother. A location where these items can be found is indicated. The items, when hunted down, turn out to be an old comic and some other books; boys’ treasures. I have yet to encounter the brother, but he has been in my thoughts many times when I entered a small settlement. Another example of such story traces is an old factory inhabited with Chinese speaking ghouls in army uniforms, indicating a secret invasion prior to the nuclear strike.

Great pains have been taken to create a sense of a continuous world. As Molly increases in level, random NPCs react to her in various ways based on her karma. She often receives gifts from strangers because of her good reputation. Sometimes interesting gossip can also be gleaned from conversations, though mostly the same things are repeated continuously. Another central device that creates a sense of continuity and progress is Galaxy Radio, one of several radio signals that the Pip-boy 3000 lets me chose between whenever the signal is within reach. Not only does Galaxy Radio play mid century evergreens; a wonderful juxtaposition of sentimental songs and a ravaged world. As the main quest, and even some of the major side quests, progresses the vigorous DJ Three Dogs will comment on these events, similarly to the radio commentators in Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Toronto, 2008). In this way, Molly’s actions are reflected back to me through another’s point of view (even if this other is just software). As a result, progression takes on a more relational and personal quality beyond increasing in skills and administrating numbers when leveling up.

Ethos Constructions

The morality of choices appears as both as a central theme and a mechanic in F3. As mentioned earlier, several dialogue responses are nearly always offered, some more friendly, hostile, or timid than others. This is especially the case in relation to quest givers and NPCs involved in quests. Picking answer options here is to a great degree part of the game’s expressive dimension; an optional part of the ethos construction invited by the game. Some responses, however, will also affect the gameplay directly by making quests available or unavailable, or by resulting in particular reactions such as hostility. Another ludic element of dialogues is the opportunity to lie which sometimes becomes available, offering easy gain or escape from a difficult situation. In most cases this requires high charisma and speech skills, though alcohol and other items may increase these temporarily. Dialogue options typically offer “evil”, “good” and “neutral” answers, and it is rarely difficult to see which category a given answer belongs to. This is a rather crude way of offering players the freedom to define their characters to their liking. This approach has been seen countless of times before and it would be interesting to see other ways of offering somewhat interesting choices for constructional play.

The question of the moral flavor of choices does not end with the dialogue options, however. As a true RPG F3 also incorporates a karma system. Starting out with a neutral score, the player character is given positive or negative karma points for a variety of actions. Killing “very evil” characters, for instance adds 100 karma points, while stealing from neutral characters or factions subtracts five karma points pr item. As already mentioned, Molly’s karma affects NPCs reactions. Thus, apart from the expressive aspect of further constructing my character’s identity, karma also determines which potential companions I can recruit, and how I am welcomed in various places. Should anyone want to steal but still maintain a good karma there is no need to worry. It is possible to donate to various religious groups or offer purified water to thirsty wastelanders in exchange for positive karma points. It seems that Bethesda at once want to be “responsible” by letting, for instance, mindless violence against innocents have repercussions – in so far as bad karma can be seen as that –  but at the same time leave easy ways to appease the system. While I will argue for the constructional potential of letting players interpret the meaning of their own actions, for instance, in terms of evil or good, the karma system does offer something to play in terms of identity construction. Both negative and positive karma obstructs some options while making others available; ensuring that picking neither path provides a superior strategy.

Boss Battle Upside Down

I began this analysis by discussing the satirical juxtapositions offered in the game’s opening sequence and have touched upon how this element continually bleeds into my experience of the game. When the time for the final confrontation ensues there is another moment of great satire. Molly’s allies have recovered a pre-war robot, build to take on communist China. In a destroyed world which has suddenly diminished because travel happens on foot, the robot’s transmission of internationally oriented political slogans, while it battles through the rows of hostile soldiers and bots, underlines how quickly our worries may change fundamentally.

One thing I find particularly interesting about this last battle is that it, in my case, turns gameplay conventions upside down. Conventionally, the last fight is the most difficult confrontation of the whole game, requiring players to use the whole repertoire of moves, techniques and knowledge they have build up during playing so far. Instead, in F3 I am nearly invincible in my power armor, walking behind an enormous war machine. There is nothing for me to do but follow, and the battle becomes a spectacle rather than a fight. The real difficulty emerges with the choice I must make once the goal, a research facility, has been secured. Here the possible challenge is not one of demanding activities but rather a stimulating one, where I am asked to make my final construction in terms of Molly’s personality, wants and fears. In order to activate her dead parents’ life work, a purifier that will ensure clean water to everyone in the capital area, someone has to enter the radiated chamber where Molly’s father died to protect the unit’s password. I am given the choice between letting Molly or an NPC suffer fatal radiation damage.

In my first playing I make Molly enter, never expecting the consequent end. I have been quite careful with radiation so far, and now I give Molly a large dose of anti-radiation chemicals. Still, once she enters the room the image on the screen blurs, the controls become slow and unresponsive, and Molly slowly topples to the ground as the world spins on my monitor. Thinking I have not moved fast enough, I quickly reload and try again, this time with even more protection. Again Molly dies. This time I let the subsequent cut-scenes play and realize it is the ending that is meant to be. Not only in terms of closure, but also because the game ends here. Whether I choose to send Molly or the available NPC into the chamber there is nothing beyond that but cut-scenes.

I commend Bethesda Game Studios for daring to turn convention upside down. The hero is never supposed to die and rarely does in digital games (Aarseth, 2004, p. 50), unless the player has picked the wrong strategy or otherwise failed. Since these cases are dead ends in ludic terms, they are usually bracketed as transitory lapses. Likewise, open world digital RPGs, such as The elder scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda Game Studios, 2002), are not supposed to end. However, in the case of F3, the game ends no matter how the player chooses to handle the last part of the main quest. This turn of events is reminiscent of the convention breakage in Fallout (Black Isle Studios, 1997) where the player character upon completing, what until then appears as, the main quest is expelled form her home vault instead of rewarded. While narratives in film or literature may end with the death of the main character and hero, this is a more radical conclusion when it comes to contemporary digital games. The escapism offered by a game world that continues more or less unchanged as long as the player wills it, while the player character becomes more and more invincible, is here defied. Instead, while the game world undergoes dramatic changes as a result of my actions, an end is put to my avatar’s development. This pushes me right back into my own fragile existence. There I may mourn the areas I had yet to explore and the tasks I were yet to complete, and which I would, perhaps, have completed if I had just known. But lured by convention I did not, thinking there would always be time later. Thus, the ending puts not only gameplay conventions but even the terms of my existence into perspective.

It has to be mentioned that the ending is also economically motivated. F3 has a level cap of 20 and ends with the completion of the main quest. Subsequent expansion packs, which must be bought and downloaded separately, raise the level cap, enabling players to play on even after completion of the main quest. This somewhat diminishes the bravery of making a purely artistic choice in a mainstream digital game.

Although the choice to end the game so abruptly and, for a digital game, unconventionally makes artistic sense, it may be counterproductive in relation to purely achievement-oriented gameplay because it does not necessarily offer much of a winning feeling and it, furthermore, ends the game. At least it seems that every forum where the game is discussed is full of complaints about the ending. The one below is quite typical:

# 3 it screws tons of people (including myself) who thought it would just be like oblivion, get the main quest over with, and just fiddle with the random other things for fun, but NOOOOO, i went ahead and beat it, and am unhappy with what it leaves you, so now ive got to go and start a whole new character and do all the little stupid stuff i did on the first one just to get to where i want to continue with the side quests. awful. they should seriously patch this and make it so you can send that chick inside, have her disarm it, and you go about your life of PWNING and having fun. (RocThePanther, 2008)

This player, like many others, feels cheated because he “beat the game” only to be punished for it. Indeed, part of the reason for my enjoyment of the ending is precisely that I took my time exploring and doing everything else but the main quest. Playing style and expectations, then, seem to play a crucial role for whether the ending is experienced as satisfactory or not. Those who complain about the ending do it from a ludic perspective, while those who find that the ending makes perfect sense do it on an artistic basis.

While the choice to end the game so unexpectedly is artistically interesting, the cut-scenes playing afterwards are less stimulating. As already mentioned, the ambiguity and indeterminacy intoned by some parts of the game are to some degree undermined by the authoritative interpretations of central themes that are, likewise, offered. This is also the case when it all ends and my actions as a player are evaluated in the closing cut-scenes. Along the line of the previous games in the series this does not happen in the form of a score, but by detailing the consequences of some of my choices, exposing them to moral judgment. Molly, for instance, is praised as a self-sacrificing hero who “refused to surrender to the vices that had claimed so many others”. While this is a positive assessment it is also somewhat reductive as Molly both stole things she did not really need and caused the death innocent people. I find it problematic that this moral evaluation may be conflicting with players’ own interpretations of their character’s personality and integrity, thus overruling the individual’s character construction (Sicart, 2009, p. 211).  It would have been fully possible to still show the effects of players’ choices without exposing them to moral judgment. Not in order to avoid reflections about ethics, but rather in order to encourage players to construct their own interpretations on the basis of the shown results. This ending is a reminder of the fact, that digital games, despite their relative openness to players’ transformative input, are still products designed to communicate particular stories or values which often can only be negotiated by outright rejection.

And so it Ends

Here a broad notion of challenge has been proposed as an adequate basis for analyzing digital games, especially those with an open and flexible structure. This notion of challenge as both demanding and stimulating does not only supply an analytical focus, but even offers a bridge over the perceived chasm between a ludological and a textual approach to digital games by emphasizing their shared foundation in challenge as well as the ways both mechanic and expressive elements may contribute to the overall experience of engaging with the game.

The central question, then, is whether this broad notion of challenge offers a valuable foundation for analyzing digital games as works that invoke a variety of devices in order to create interesting experiences for players? Offering the analysis of F3 as an example, it is my conviction that it does. Encouraging a search for points of uncertainty or indeterminacy coupled with preset or player determined goals, the perspective helps identify central areas with challenge potential. These focus points may be game mechanics and expressive elements alike, to the degree that both may contribute to the overall experience. In order to discuss the various focus points adequately, additional theoretical concepts may be needed, depending on the particular focus of a given analysis. The notion of challenge discussed here, thus, should be seen as a framework rather than as an exhaustive analytical approach. It should be used to prepare and open the material for analysis, rather than to explain every noteworthy phenomenon.

Turning now to F3, the game proffers a balanced mix of demanding and stimulating potential challenges which incorporate both expressive elements and game mechanics. Throughout the analysis I have given examples of how these challenges may be actualized for an actual player. Audiovisual representations are offered as a vehicle for stimulating challenge, for instance, in the introduction movie or in the many opportunities for aimless exploration which to a great degree are encouraged by spectacle. Game mechanics, likewise, often offer several approaches to tackle challenges, for instance with the V.A.T.S option where players may choose a more or less aided playing style. Coupling expressive and mechanistic devices more closely than is often the case, for instance, in the Pip-boy 3000 user interface or the execution of menial tasks, F3 encourages intense rather than detached engagement. Offering to a great degree a freedom of focus, the game provides a basis for varied, thought provoking and quite self-determined playing experiences. However, despite putting players largely in charge the game is marked throughout by an internal tension between the rich expressive material, for instance juxtaposition of unrelated elements, character dialogue and action options which players can freely make sense of, and the creators’ forceful interpretations of central themes as well as the moral judgment of actions. This leaves a somewhat uneven experience between interpretive submission and freedom. Despite this tension, the game is an example of bold game design with an agenda to both entertain and give cause for reflection. This is particularly pronounced towards the game’s consequent end where artistic (and economic) rationales are allowed to overrule gameplay conventions, turning them upside-down in a striking finale. As controversial as this move has been amongst many players, it indicates to me that digital games are maturing, or perhaps returning to their roots, in terms of their expressive qualities, without compromising in terms of engaging gameplay.


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