Writing is the meat and bones of the story; it sets the tone, characters, setting and events and immerses us into it. Writing solidifies its place by breathing life into the topics it touches, the characters it creates and giving vibrance and dept to the story it tells.
Therefore, writing forms the backbone of most medias, all the way from ancient oral traditions converted to books to the cutting edge of video games and Virtual reality.
In an open-ended media like video games, where the player is in control, exposition and storytelling have to be up to par. This is achieved by the delivery of exposition via voice from scripts, and notes. The writing in video games needs also to be consistent, like a storybook but read in a sort of order that is more a guide than a rule. A video game these days is not on the rails, so to speak. Players often go back and forth, at their pace or in a hurry (given some impending urgent objective). This causes a unique feature in the story elucidation; a sort of disjointed narrative forms, where players themselves piece the full story from dialogue, notes, and environmental setups.
This whole setup needing good writing even more important when one considers the audio, visual and story beats as cues to what the player should consider important, trivial and life changing. These cues set up the direction of player actions- be they open ended or one set path- and often this makes the difference between a player continuing or quitting.
Therefore, writing establishes itself as the core of any media- and as such, quality control is an important part of the process.
However, writers often face time and expectation pressures, in order for increased selling potential. A story may feature bad plot, for example, in order for the “guy to get the girl”. This is almost always a decision out of the writer’s control, as they become then the instrument rather than an agent with free will.
The problem then becomes that many times, the company decides something different.
In video games, we find that characters, events, factions’ dialogs and even settings are changed to appeal to some group or the other, all in order to earn more from its sales. More often than not, the faction is reshaped with a publicity outlook than for the sake of authenticity. The story, therefore, is written for the sake of fan service.
Corporate interests often give more importance to the appeal to Certain demographics/interest groups. The appeal of mass market is insidious and causes, many times, to dumb down, remove, or otherwise alter many factions, characters and or events’ narrative in order to be more appealing and ‘remove offensive elements.
Below are two narrative versions of in game events from the Wasteland 2 and Fallout games. They showcase the way an in-game event unfolds and how the factions, in their glory and stature, either rise up to the mark or are left in for some aesthetic purpose.
“No, YOU move!” yells the trader, as his pig bleats in defiance.
“Move yer damn cart, jackass” says the tall man. He is cloaked in ragged black, a green haze forming an unnatural silhouette. There are strange symbols on his body, symbols of warning.
A step, then two more; Another, similar man is there too, his green glow the same bit his gaze steely. He holds a strange remote device, and as his clicks a button or three, his own green glow intensifies, swirling in sickening, dangerous green.
As the whirring got louder, the other taller figure pressed his own buttons and soon, everything was bathed in a dangerous emerald glow; they called this glow “the Titan’s Glow” and it was a herald of death.
A single set of Footsteps was coming over the path, and then some more. Soon, a well-built man came into view; he is tall, and he carries an emblem that is heard of and, some say, even respected. There are six more rangers in tow, and they’re all lean and deadly looking.
They mean business; The man talks to both the farmers to just walk around each other. The man smiles kindly and whispers somethings to the black raggedy green glowing men.
And in a twist no one saw coming, the raggedy men step back, and start to move around each other. The steely gazes of the group until the groups are out of sight.
The man pauses and looks over the radioactive gully, a pile of fresh Gila monsters already rotting with the background radiation, but they didn’t seem to care.
Had the Rangers come from the gully, and not the bridge, the two raggedy men would have blown themselves up and the farmers too. There would be a green uninhabitable spot where they now stood, had they not intervened.
The Rangers had observed many more craters along the way though, evidence that others had not been so lucky.
Such is a day in the radioactive wastes of Wasteland 2- a testament to the ever-present danger of M.A.D. monks holding a nuke and keeping hostage a whole valley.
A massive crater houses many shacks around a great glowing pond, on top of which sits another, larger shack. Figures appear on the edge of the crater and descend, their sounds of footsteps lost in the thunder of the Radioactive clouds.
The figures are armed, and curious. The tallest one, a green brute, takes in the surrounding with mild disapproval. A synthetic being next time smokes an old cigar. The leader is impassive, but after a moment, heads for the main shack.
After a few minutes, the synth, the human and the green mutant brute leave. They did trade with one of the vendors but beyond that, spurned any talk.
They headed out to find a scientist named Virgil- another mutant brute who somehow had retained his intelligence. He was the key to finding a child.
Months later, the crater was visited by more people, the leader in the front sporting some wicked powered armor and a flag of some sort of militia.
They had defeated the “Institute”, an evil super corporation responsible of murder, abduction and – the rest the people of the crater did not care for. There was only one thing for them, which was to bask in the glow of radiation; that was the main purpose of the ‘Church of the children of Atom’. They had no interest in land or power. They just wanted to be left alone.
They had only met the leader once, but they had been only useful then. Far away, Acadia was another Church of Atom, and there was tension in the area. The Fog was heralded by one side as a salvation, and others as a death sentence. The Leader had been there too, resolving the conflict with the old synth in tow.
But the Church had really only been there to just… be.
The above are two different examples of similar concepts and how they are handled.
The Children of the Mushroom Cloud, lead by Nuke-strapped “Mad Monks”, worship a Nuke for its potential as a WMD and use the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD, hence the monks’ name) to bring about a draconian peace in an Arizona canyon with craters by the dozen. The Rangers have to reckon with them, cross them and cause violence or reconcile them with another militia interested in securing peace under their own terms.
In the second example, the Church of the Children of Atom are present, and indeed, a faction, but apart from a few story beats, they can be ignored for the majority of the time. They do not control areas of the Commonwealth (Massachusetts), and do not pose a threat to the world order there. They are a non-faction, a faction that exists without purpose and seemingly only for its Aesthetic style and grand sounding sermons. The Leader does not have to do much with them, and even if a few miles away a 40-foot robot lays waste to the Commonwealth, the Church of Atom is indifferent… or worse, they are static.
However, when one really observes this in its essence, all this this effort does is actually appeal to the most backward group as the common denominator, since they are the most dominant in society.
A great example is Western games made with token characters and harmful tropes all wrapped up in an entertainment extravaganza.
Far Cry and its dumbed down villains
Far Cry started out as a series where the protagonist is a foreigner is trapped somehow in an exotic location, and overthrows the local evil group with the help of tribal groups and allies, and lots of guns. It also called out the proliferation of gun culture, senseless violence, cult-like groups, went against the “the ends justify the means” ideology, and narratively gave no quarter to its villains.
However, as time went on, the appeal of the games grew and in the latest Iteration flattened the narrative, and removed a lot of commentary that is signature to the series.
For example, while Far Cry 4 has the player fight against a dictator in the Himalayas, and strongly features anti-Authoritarian and anti-Fascist commentary.
Far Cry 5 decided to fight a cult in the American Bible belt… without none of the anticult and anti-religious fundamentalism that forms the basis of Christian evangelist cults found in the American heartlands. The Villains were, while sufficiently dramatic, not narratively snubbed. The narrative instead chose to use big words without setting a context for the violence, condemnation and justification for both the player and the cults, and crucially, how this violence and brainwashing etc. differ vastly.
The lack of narrative punch meant that far cry 5, while remaining an audio-visual spectacle, failed to uphold the narrative consistency and positions expected in the series.
Fallout’s useless faction
In fallout 3, the newly emerged Lone wanderer makes it to a shanty town named Megaton, and to their mounting curiosity, horror and disbelief, at the center of a town is an unexploded nuclear bomb.
The FACTION can be killed off if the player chooses to detonate the nuke, wiping the town off the map… because they can. And the effects of that are felt everywhere, with some residents turning into ghouls, a type of irradiated human.
The faction returns in Fallout 4, for some spare aesthetic change up to the same-y raiders that endlessly plague the commonwealth.
Like the narrative at the start, the Leader AKA the Sole Survivor, does indeed navigate the main quest with an interaction with these crazed radiation worshippers. But that is about it, unless we could the DLC, which is out of scope.
The radiation worshippers, may of course, be encountered anywhere else, but they are hostile and would rather turn our hero into radioactive goo rather than talk. That’s the extent of their interaction. The big groups do not make a difference.
And that brings us to the endings; the player can ally with the robot slavers, a military group, or a people’s army, or a secret underground army, and take over the Commonwealth with a massive offense.
And the Church of the Children of Atom (CCOA), spread all over America, boasting immunity to radiation as well as a sizeable militia and influence… does not feature. They are not a faction that has to be contended with and offered terms to.
Their whole existence could be bettered, or wiped out, given how each victory brings a different win state. The hyper military group would see them as a threat, the underground network would see them as potential but unreliable allies, the evil robot slavers will potentially wipe them out, and the people’s army might exile them or wipe them out depending on negotiations.
This faction, in effect, just exists to be a bad guy and a minor part of the main experience. They only come into greater story focus in the DLC Far Harbor, where the main story is the radioactive Fog threatening to devour a settlement.
How could they be improved?
Wasteland 2 does the radiation faction REALLY well.
They have the following features, that would be good to add to the CCOA:
- Give them an area to rule– THE GLOWING SEA is a very interesting area of the Commonwealth, with a central location being the Church of Atom “hub”. However, there really isn’t any point to the area- its just an irradiated hell pit with lots of fighting and some tastefully placed ‘dungeons’ for loot. There is no border, no marker to back the claim that the Glowing Sea is owned by the Church of Atom.
- Controlled territory and an escort required for safe spot-related to the previous- Wasteland 2 required that the player cooperate… or violence would ensue. Typically, Wasteland ensured that along with a veteran party member leaving, the player is under levelled AND (crucially) outgunned. The only option is to accept the escort and try and go about their business. This adds a layer to the gameplay, as losing the escort means losing protection and privileges.
- Make them part of the main storyline in a major way– all major groups must, by the rules of Chekhov’s gun, serve a story purpose. In games, this principle is easily neglected because open ended gameplay can and does have “AESTHETIC” places. The principle of Chekhov’s gun must be respected, and the story would be enriched for it.
- Initiation ritual-possibly the coolest way to get the player to have ‘skin in the game’, this would have the player join the faction in order to get to their objective. Normally, this instrument has to be carefully used- there should be a reason, cost and benefit and ultimate price for staying and//or leaving the faction.
- Alliances and events-Story beats could be punctuated with their presence with actual appearances/actions or seeing how their actions have an effect, both in the past and present. Intervention in player missions are a good measure, in general, character and world building opportunities.
- Consequences for (lack of) respect (by player)-the Player must feel the gravity of their actions. A lack of this is shown in Fallout 4 where the player can cause hostilities with their own faction, leg it into the wilderness, and run a few hours later to find the bodies neatly put away and the reception chirpy and ready for action.
- Abundant fully fleshed characters– self-evident; one cannot have a big faction with only a few characters- otherwise it feels like they are action figures. The faction needs to live and breathe, to have needs, desires, clashes and solutions that differ between internal groups.
- Lore-consistent and deep backstory- it makes sense that the faction have a place in the lore continuity. It should make sense, and if they are completely new, the lore should be consistent and detailed enough to both interest players but also keep them from getting bored. Connection to prequels and events in the past are also important, as sudden appearances make for lackluster player reception. An unexplained disappearance must usually be followed by clues in the forms of quests, notes and dialog.
- Followersadd flavor to the story experience by adding new points of view and therefore allow characters, places and events to be seen in a new light. The reactions of these followers to story/quest events and player actions add depth to the story as well as multiple branching events to play out.
- Counterpoint faction-no antagonists, but a faction that stands at the opposite end of a spectrum. For the Church of Atom, a logical faction were the Minutemen, who fought by and for the people. They would not have stood for increased radiation and militancy and most importantly, disunity. Additionally, a trade-off could happen if the player chooses to help one faction or another, making players weight the advantages and disadvantages and long-term effects of helping one faction or the other.
- Plot relevance– e.g. synths, known for infiltrating all large group should have infiltrated the CCOA. There should have been a quest to find suspected synths etc.- this does happen, but only in the DLC. The main game is curiously absent of the effects an infiltration focused evil organization has on radiation worshipping fanatics.
All in all, the faction “The Children of Atom” was found to be in need of an overhaul in the game, and has been found wanting. It is frankly one of the coolest factions out there and has the potential for some truly absurd and interesting stories regarding the fallout universe. Fallout ought take some leaves from its original source and can do so much better. This also is a good lesson for other game developers and writers on how NOT to do a faction.