From BioShock to Fallout

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There’s a lot to take in with Fallout 4, and the most interesting element is discovering what games influenced Bethesda’s latest.

To say Fallout 4 is a complicated game is an understatement. There’s an overwhelming amount to take in, both from a content perspective and changes to the gameplay and RPG mechanics. Despite being over one hundred hours into my first character, I’m still trying to grasp why developer Bethesda Softworks changed certain elements, and to do my best to understand the why behind those changes. Why remove skills? Why implement a robust crafting system? Why the bright color pallette? Asking these questions has led to me notice inspiration from sources I didn’t expect, which I’ve found to be one of the most fascinating aspects of my first playthrough. Where did Bethesda draw inspiration from, and why?

I had hoped that Bethesda would model Fallout 4 after the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise, and although I am enjoying Fallout 4 immensely, I’m a bit letdown that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. only gets a few small nods here and there. But what I certainly wasn’t expecting was that I would begin to see another dystopian FPS franchise in Fallout 4, one that seemingly has very little to do with post-apocalyptic RPGs and more with tearing down flawed philosophical arguments. But the more I look, the more I see shades of BioShock Infinite everywhere.

It’s In The Eyes

I actually first noticed some similarities between BioShock Infinite and Fallout 4 during Bethesda’s amazing E3 2015 presentation, in which they unveiled Fallout 4 for the first time. During a walk-through of the tutorial, players were introduced to a new visual style, one that was vibrant, colorful and full of optimism. At first it made sense, seeing as the tutorial takes place before the war that plunges the world into nuclear armageddon, but this same color palette was used throughout the rest of the game. And as the trailer showed off a slew of gameplay clips, I remember noting the visual similarities between this and BioShock Infinite.

After one hundred hours, I can confirm that both games look remarkably similar, especially in terms of art direction and color palette. For example, compare the below images, both of which establish major landmarks in each game. To start, here’s a shot of a town square in Colombia, the primary location of BioShock Infinite:

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Colombia is a pretty friendly looking place, considering the mass-murdering lunatic who runs it.

Not only is the color palette bright and cheerful, but the art direction is highly stylized. Developer Irrational Games was clearly not aiming for photo-realism, instead wanting to use the art style to convey an almost cartoonish, bright, optimistic tone. Compare this to a shot of Diamond City, the central hub of Fallout 4:

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It’s a bit run-down, but the bright color palette makes it look inviting.

Of course, Fallout 4’s scenes will be a bit more run-down than most of those in BioShock, but both scenes employ vivid colors splashed across a bright, blue sky. The art direction and visuals are so similar that one could easily mistake Diamond City as being part of the world of BioShock Infinite, especially when that fictional world falls to ruin, too.

But to fully appreciate just how similar Fallout 4 is to BioShock Infinite, here is a shot of Megaton, one of the first major establishments players visit in Fallout 3:

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Somewhere in that bleak, depressing mass is a fun game.

If I asked someone who wasn’t familiar with either franchise to guess which photo came from which game, they would presumably guess that the photos of Colombia and Diamond City came from the same game. Meanwhile, the photo of Megaton doesn’t even look like it’s part of the same universe, let alone the same franchise as the photo of Diamond City.

Changing the art style so drastically didn’t come as too much of a shock, considering one of the biggest complaints of Fallout 3 was how bleak and depressing the landscape was. But it was surprising how similar the new style resembled BioShock Infinite, and I believe there is a good reason for that. As I explained above, Irrational Games landed on the final art style because it allowed them to paint a world brimming with hope and optimism, one that was also fueled by religious bigotry, thereby creating a world ripe for parody. The best representation of this is the painting titled “For God and Country,” which depicts the central thesis of BioShock Infinite’s primary antagonist, and one it so gleefully tears down:

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Defeating the mastermind behind this sentiment was a very rewarding experience, and the art direction played a big role in setting up that payoff.

These controversial images worked because of the bright, cheerful art style – they stand in such contrast to each other that, without any story or dialogue, the player can understand how wrong and misguided the villains of BioShock Infinite are. Admittedly, the targets of satire here are much larger and heavier subjects, but Fallout 4 is filled with its own commentary and satire, and it stands out so vividly for the same reasons it does in BioShock Infinite. The Fallout franchise has always had this sad, tragic tone to it, in which the blinding optimism of the future was frozen in time, slowly decaying, thanks to that very future everyone was looking forward to. In Fallout 4, this tone is emphasized to a degree not seen in previous entries, and it comes as the result of two design choices – the expert use of textural stories (something Bethesda nearly perfected in Fallout 3) and the bright, optimistic color palette. Not only is it tragic to read notes from those left behind, those who hoped for a brighter future, while standing in the middle of an irradiated scrap yard, it also allows for satire to stand out vividly.

One particular scene jumps to mind – a school in which the player can learn through recordings that, in an effort to save money, banned all food except for a pink food paste. Despite much protesting from students and faculty, the principal marched forward with this wrong-headed plan, simply ignoring all opposition and creating her own facts (pink food paste is good for you and has no side effects!). This, of course, means that two hundred years later the player will be fending off pink Feral Ghouls, running down halls covered in pink handprints and finding some of the color goo, still intact and allegedly safe to consume. The message may not be as deep as those found in BioShock Infinite, but it’s easy to see Bethesda criticizing issues such as the horrid state of many school lunches, corruption in power, and the mechanical, processed nature of our food. These topics can best be mined for parody when the art direction helps create a tone drastically opposed to the reality of the situation.

Running And Gunning With Ease

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Without the V.A.T.S. system, the FPS mechanics in Fallout 3 would have doomed the game to failure.

I’m fascinated with movement in FPSs – how quickly a player can turn ninety degrees will impact every other element, from jumping to how fast guns can fire. Every little decision has a ripple effect that can ruin a game or create something truly memorable. Unfortunately, with Fallout 3, Bethesda made a game that, while technically a FPS, was insanely difficult to play from that perspective without the helps of V.A.T.S. – a pseudo-turn-based gameplay mechanic that allowed players to pause time and pick their shots. Without V.A.T.S., Fallout 3 quickly unveiled itself to be, at least mechanically speaking, one of the worst FPSs in recent memory to enjoy high levels of critical and commercial success.

Which is why I am so pleasantly surprised by how little I use the V.A.T.S. system in Fallout 4 – the shooting mechanics are vastly improved, and even without investing in skills that help my aim, I still feel competent in a gunfight. But there was something about the movement of the player, the enemies and the guns that reminded me of BioShock Infinite, and it’s in how each game implemented the basic FPS mechanics.

BioShock Infinite strived to be a game that was seen more as a piece of art than an old-school, hardcore video game. As a result, the skill level needed to master the different weapons and to pull off headshots was toned down. I’ve always judged a game’s shooting mechanics by how long it takes me to learn how to effectively use a sniper rifle – the longer it takes, the more refined and rewarding the FPS mechanics. In BioShock Infinite, I learned how to use the sniper rifle in a matter of minutes.

That’s not to say that the shooting mechanics are bad, but they aren’t on the same level as Destiny or Halo. They are, for lack of a better word, dumbed down, so anyone with any level of FPS skill can pick it up and play. Yes, pistols feel light and quick, shotguns and machine guns a little slower, and rocket launchers tend to drag their reticle across the screen, but beyond that there is no individuality among weapons, or how to use them. To experienced FPS fans, this meant that the shooting mechanics grew stale fast, but this problem was lessened with the inclusion of Vigors – super-natural powers that players could use, such as shooting fireballs out of their hands or summoning a flock of ravens to attack enemies. Although the FPS mechanics were simple and straight-forward, combat never grew too tiresome, because players could always just set everything on fire. For Irrational Games, this solution was a win-win – experienced players could still have fun with the game, and new players wouldn’t be turned off by the mechanics, and would be able to experience this piece of art with as little frustration as possible.

By now it should be clear to see how Bethesda adapted this approach – pistols feel light and quick, shotguns a little slower, and hauling out a minigun and waiting for it to fire up is an exercise in patience, especially when ten Super Mutants are raining bullets and grenades onto the player. But beyond that there is little variation in how the guns feel, allowing everyone to experience future wasteland Boston. And for those players with a higher skill level, there is a robust modding system, some unique legendary weapons with some truly odd effects and V.A.T.S., which does for combat in Fallout 4 what Vigors did for combat in BioShock Infinite. Again, to fully appreciate how closely the combat in Fallout 4 feels to that in BioShock Infinite, one only has to look at how clunky the FPS mechanics were in Fallout 3:

Compare this to a high-light reel published by Bethesda before the release of Fallout 4, and it’s clear that they were inspired by games such as BioShock Infinite:

More Than Just A Look and Style

After making this connection, it’s one I see everywhere. Fallout 4 looks and feels like a (much) larger sequel to BioShock Infinite, and I’m honestly surprised by that (in a good way, of course). But the similarities don’t end there – Fallout 4 is far more willing to take giant leaps with its sci-fi than previous entries. In Fallout 3, the craziest sci-fi elements were water purification and one level that took place in a virtual reality simulator. Compare that to Fallout 4, which uses long-term cryo stasis, reviving memories from dead brains and teleportation as story elements. It’s a far more bolder approach, even when compared to Fallout: New Vegas, which is often seen as the spiritual successor to the original games.

Again, I cannot help but see inspiration from another franchise that takes bold steps with its sci-fi. The original BioShock was set in a city at the bottom of the ocean, one complete with skyscrapers and shopping centers and a forest. BioShock Infinite takes place in a city in the sky, and deals with multiverse theory to challenge the meaning of free will. By being so bold (and successful) with their sci-fi storytelling, Irrational Games paved the way for the elements Bethesda is using in their own game.

And that’s what I keep circling back around to – Bethesda took inspiration from a wildly successful franchise, and in the process made their most successful game to date. In that regard, the choice of inspiration should come as no surprise, and it does shed some light on the thought process behind one of the biggest games of 2015. The similarities are more meaningful than how the games look – Fallout 4 owes a great deal to BioShock Infinite, one of many games it drew from to create one of the most compelling experiences of the year, and I look forward to seeing how the masterminds behind BioShock take inspiration from one of the best games of 2015.