Bethesda’s Game Design is Insulting

I was seven years old when I beat KOTOR. My mind was blown. In my rush to fill the void that my very first RPG left, I discovered the Elder Scrolls. Oblivion ruined my life.

I would sit at my desk in school and drift away from the lesson, my mind occupied by thoughts of slaying Daedra and unravelling the mysteries of the lengthy Dark Brotherhood questline. I was hooked. What I’m trying to say is, I’m a fan of these sorts of games.

But as I’ve grown older, I started notice something. Something… controversial. Bethesda’s general design philosophy… is insulting.

Admit it. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Skyrim’s ‘puzzles’ that amount to quite literally matching a picture of an animal on the wall with the rotating statue beneath it.

I’d call it child’s play, but I’m pretty sure five year old me wouldn’t have considered “match the picture” a puzzle. This doesn’t make me feel like a daring adventurer, it makes me feel like a kid that just arrived to school on the short bus. It’s the sort of things you run across and go wait… are you serious? And this isn’t just an issue with the Elder Scrolls.

Bethesda has been dumbing the Fallout series down with each release. I mean come on, Fallout 4’s ridiculous bioware-esq dialogue system is downright disrespectful of the player’s intelligence AND is a total regression from the titles that preceded it. I think we could all handle having an actual representation of dialogue options, you know like in any other role-playing-game. By obscuring what the player character is actually going to say in a given interaction, fallout 4 feels much less like the complex western RPG that its predecessors were, instead it feels like an action game with light RPG elements. On top of this, the player’s ability to create a character with unique skills is gutted in the latest Bethesda titles.

Investing skill points feels less like building a character unique to how I want to play the game, and more like giving myself a few minor statistical nudges in the right direction in a few aspects of play. It is no longer possible for my character to be BAD at something. Bethesda traded the nuanced and complex RPG elements that require a player to actually put thought into their character and adapt into a detailed world, for mechanics that are shells of their former selves, all except for the gunplay.

I won’t lie, when fallout 4 came out I was excited, I assumed that Bethesda would take cues from the best modern fallout game, Fallout New Vegas, you know, the one they didn’t actually make. That one was made by a different studio, obsidian, and reflected the series’ roots much more than any attempt Bethesda made, in that New Vegas placed emphasis on really feeling like the character you were playing was your own. It featured regular skill checks that actually made a player’s stat investment feel worth it. Skilled in science? That’ll come in handy when talking to a technologically-focused faction.

This is entirely missing in Fallout 4, where the only real skill checks in speech are for intimidation or charisma. New Vegas also featured diverse weapons and interesting quest lines. Instead, Fallout 4 featured forgettable, generic quests that offered near instant gratification, as well as what I can only describe as the fast food-equivalent of weapon customization, wherein the player can customize a bunch of a weapon’s individual components to… very little effect. Also, pretty much all basic enemies only use variations of one weapon: the pipe rifle. This comes in place of New Vegas’s customization that was sparse but powerful.

When you got a silencer, it changed the way you played. On top of this, Fallout 4’s quests aren’t satisfying, typically because they rely on a borderline Pavlovian cycle of get objectives, kill enemies, reward. [quest accept, shooting, reward] With 133 hours played in Fallout 4 at the time I’m writing this video, you’d think I’d remember the events of at least something beyond the main questline, but I don’t, and even that’s kinda fuzzy.

I still vividly remember New Vegas’s remarkably creative sidequests that I played through years ago, like raising a prewar bomber from Lake Meade, or finding a traitor among the ranks of the NCR and disarming a bomb. Where Fallout New Vegas would dare to bring players along for a lengthy adventure with memorable characters and branching paths, placing faith in the player to pay attention, the typical fallout 4 quest treats the player like a rat pressing a button for a piece of cheese. Objectives are never vague enough to encourage exploration or a diversion from the most obvious linear path. New Vegas had the player either helping a small town defend itself, or joining a band of criminals to sack the town, Fallout 4 had the player… killing roaches. Yeah… New Vegas gave the player choices in accomplishing their goals that had consequences. If the player fails to defuse that bomb, this happens.

And the monorail is out of commission for the rest of the game. Fallout 4 instead has very little in the way of branching sidequests at all. There’s very little room for the player’s character to shine through. Speaking of choice, Fallout 4 really doesn’t let the player choose what type of character they’d like to play. In this game your choices of main character are: Father and ex-Soldier, Mother and Law school graduate.

That’s it. Part of the fun of RPGs has always been being able to invent a backstory for your character. The last thing that a competent RPG player wants is to have a backstory forcibly shoved down their throat. New Vegas executed on that perfectly in how the player character awakes with amnesia, the only backstory forced on you is the fact that you used to be a courier and that maybe you should hunt down the people that shot you, you know… if you want.

Or maybe just go the wrong way and get disemboweled by death claws. Or join the NCR? New Vegas doesn’t look you in the eyes and say “find your son and avenge your wife.

That’s who you are and you’ll like it.” Where New Vegas feels like you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, Fallout 4 feels like you’re a passenger along for a ride with a very, very boring and or borderline incompetent driver. Even oblivion’s contrived introductory sequence may have been drawn out and frankly ridiculous, like when emperor Poop Emoji said “oh gee wouldn’t it be a shame if I died right now lol” then blocked a dagger with his temporal lobe, I’d still consider it superior to Fallout 4’s, on the grounds that the player is still in control of their own destiny by the end of it. The way Fallout 4 lays it on so thick with the whole “you’re a family guy” bit is just so condescending, it’s like I could actually see Todd Howard talking to his team about how players just wouldn’t ‘get it’ unless they were actually TOLD what they had to fight for, instead of being shown it. I mean, we’ve known this woman for less than fifteen minutes.

So when this happened, I can’t say I was too upset. But the player character reacted entirely differently to how I felt. That’s the glaring problem with a fully voiced protagonist in Fallout 4. It’s not really a step up in production value. Where players could once fill in the blanks with how they felt, and project their emotions onto the empty vessel that was the player character, now players are constantly told how to feel based upon the performance of the protagonist’s voice actor. This freak-out right here doesn’t make me feel… anything.

It just takes me out of the experience. So much for being an immersive roleplaying game, right? But the condescension runs deeper.

It’s in the gameplay too. Think about this. How did you feel when Fallout 4 gave you power armor within the first hour of the game?

Did you feel like you really earned the ability to have a game breaking piece of kit that made you into an unstoppable killing machine? Was it particularly… fun? No. I doubt it was.

Extremely powerful items and mechanics are most fun when you earn them, and instead of saving power armor as a late game reward for a memorable quest, they just give it to you. Just outside of the starting area. Look, when I was gathering footage for this video I had already reached the power armor within about half an hour of starting the game. That’s with me taking time to gather footage in between.

And when I say that power armor makes you into an unstoppable killing machine I’m not kidding. Against human enemies like raiders, I didn’t even need to use a weapon, it’s totally broken. The proverbial cherry on top of this botched mechanic’s introduction is what developers clearly intended to be a tense moment to show off the suit’s abilities against a death claw, one of the most well-known and powerful enemies in the fallout franchise. Remember what they did to me at around the same point in New Vegas? I’d like you to just watch how this encounter plays out on “Hard” difficulty.

If holding S and left mouse button in order to kill one of the deadliest creatures in this fictional universe doesn’t tell you that maybe power armor is just a bit overpowered, I don’t know what will. And this is nothing new, Fallout 3 gives the player a literal hand held nuclear weapon at about the same point in Fallout 3. I find it astonishing that it seems the only thing Bethesda learned from Obsidian’s work is to give their weapons iron sights.

Everything about Fallout 4, save for the graphics and gunplay, is a huge step backwards for the series. Players aren’t treated like adventurers exploring a new, visceral, apocalyptic world. They’re treated like kids in the sandbox, playing with toys. If I don’t have you convinced yet that this kind of attitude towards players is insulting, well, here’s one last thing.

Bethesda now offers its audience the ability to pay for select mods through what they call their ‘Creation Club.’ So, say I want a prototype Gauss rifle? That’s 400 Creation Club Credits. Or a little bit under 4 US dollars.

For a single weapon. Now free mods do still exist for Fallout 4, but the fact that Bethesda would ever think that is a reasonable price point for a single in game weapon is, well, insulting. Especially on top of what was a 60 dollar game at launch, and a 45 dollar season pass? So, this 105 dollar game is not quite complete. That’ll be another 4 bucks for a new Gauss Rifle, another 2 two bucks for a backpack. You get the idea.

What I’m trying to say is the fact that Fallout 4’s aggregate review score is only two points lower than a masterpiece like From Software’s Dark Souls, or that it is actually somehow 3 points higher than that of New Vegas, is baffling to me. I just… can’t wrap my head around this, how a developer could create a game that is, at its core, almost entirely inferior to its predecessor, and treats its playerbase like a bunch of impatient children, yet is still be praised as “9.5 out of 10 – Amazing” by mainstream reviewers. So how do you feel? Let me know in the comments.

If you like this video, leave a like. If you want me to jump off a bridge then, well, leave a like. Thanks for watching.