Before we begin, it should be known that I am a dedicated and inveterate hater of the open world computer RPGs developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Trust me, this will be relevant. Recently, it has come into vogue to say so, but I assure you, dear reader, I have always been a hater long before it was cool to be so. Everything that their games want to do lacks value for me in particular. I find wandering a world without a potent narrative context to gird that wandering with meaning to be pretty pointless. If I just wanted to walk around in the woods and ambiently level up…I could at least get some exercise and walk around in the real woods.

This hatred and pointed opinion on games of this style colors my feelings on the two pursuits I’ve been focused on recently.

First, I had such a good time with last week’s Into the Dungeon and Into the Tower that I thought, shoot, I should look into some other gamebooks I still have never gotten around to! First among those is the Fabled Lands series.

I chose this series first because I had heard people online years ago raving about them. Notably, they were said to be a non-linear “open world” gamebook series, allowing you as an adventurer to travel around a continent and each book in the series is more like an “expansion” into a new continent within a single open fictional planet. That sounded…truly ambitious if nothing else.

And it certainly is! The ambition of what’s going on here is absolutely undeniable. It can be easily seen in how the series uses what it calls Codewords, that operate much like the Statuses I described in Into the Tower, but on a much more unwieldy scale. Each game has dozens of them, each codeword starting with a letter associated with the numbered book that the codeword came from. Codewords from book 1 start with A, codewords from book 2 start with B, ect. Across the entire series, there are easily over one hundred separate codewords. Compare this to the maybe dozen Statuses that could be picked up across the entirety of the self-contained Into the Tower.

Additionally, certain passages in a Fabled Lands book contain check boxes that certain actions will cause you to tick, even if some of them are as simple as reading the passage the box is hovering over. Usually, once ticked, you are instructed to flip to a different passage instead. This allows for a kind of crude progression of time in some instances where an encounter can happen to your adventurer only once when first coming to a place or a place can change after visiting it a certain number of times. This is interesting, but deeply flawed in a gamebook space.

It seems very cool your first playthrough and more frustrating every following time you play the book after the first. If you were to die, you would have to go back through every single book and try to erase all ticked boxes. And put simply, I don’t like it when gamebooks invite me to write in my books. I never actually use a character sheet in the back of one of these books, instead replicating it in a memo app on my cell phone. The fact that this game demands you must write in the book or attempt to simply remember any tick you should have checked is deeply annoying to me.

This isn’t my only qualm with the tick boxes. The other dovetails into my next complaint: how frequently I am asked to flip to another passage. The ambitious sophistication of the codewords, the tick boxes, and the fact that many choices are also gated behind your character’s class results in you frequently being told to turn to a certain passage only to tell you that, due to some sub-condition, you must now flip again to a new passage. This feels fine in the abstract, but the more you do it, the more frustrating it becomes. The time in which the player is flipping between passages, they are forced out of play. The more times you are placed in the flipping state, the less you are immersed in the world or the story. In this way, Fabled Lands feels “unoptimized” to use videogame lingo. It’s like the gamebook has especially long or frequent loading screens.

And this is compounded for me by a final problem: the banality imposed by an open world. This last concern may not be seen as valid by some readers, but indulge me a moment to make my argument. Because Fabled Lands is designed to be a product that allows you to travel endlessly across the face of its analog virtual reality, a huge chunk of the book is dedicated to passages that describe either travel or place. These descriptions are not especially vivid, nor do they seem meant to inspire awe or terror or anything else. I feel like I’m reading a travel guide to a fictional place more than a description of a place written to leave an effect upon its reader. And after I read it once, they are simply glorified choice-hubs you will come back to again. And again. And again.

You are not presented with themes that drive your character, not even the simplistic ones of survival and carrying on of legacy found in the Lone Wolf series created almost ten years previously. You are never presented with characters that feel like anything more than the stiff, cardboard nothing-characters that pass for NPCs in any given Bethesda open world affair. The world of the Fabled Lands is easily one hundred times the size of Into the Tower’s, but the later imbues you with purpose from the jump and makes you care about the scraps of lore you get about its world.

The question I am always compelled to ask when I see projects like Fabled Lands or Elderscrolls is, “Does it actually matter how big and ambitious this thing is if I don’t care about a single inch of it?”

But, again, you have to take into consideration how much I loathe Bethesda games and their signature creation of the Open World RPG. This mild distaste turned into a full-blown grudge years ago when Bethesda announced they were buying the rights to one of my most beloved computer RPG franchises of the years before: Fallout.

I loved the Interplay era Fallout games as a child. They were smart, quirky, and genuine role-playing in a way we basically just do not see out of modern mainstream computer gaming anymore (Baldur’s Gate 3 excepted.) They featured you playing a vault-dweller, essentially the descendant of one of the rich, lucky few who fled into hyper advanced fallout shelters when atomic bombs landed on an alternate history 1950s California.

You have skills in those early Fallout games at your disposal as wide-ranging as Energy Weapons and Mercantile Bartering. And ALL of them could lead you to winning the game. Famously, the developers made it possible that the customary trading of one-liner barbs between you and the game’s ultimate villain could, if your conversational skills were tuned carefully enough, develop into a deep philosophical battle between you and The Master. The Master could be vanquished not just with bullets, rockets, and energy blasts, but by convincing him that his whole philosophical reason for doing all these things is simply wrong. And I don’t mean just ethically. You can actually rhetorically demonstrate to him that practically, his goals and his actions are not in alignment. And upon doing so…he just stops doing the evil stuff he’s been doing. He gives up.

This game came out in 1997. While over on Playstation, Cloud and the Final Fantasy VII crew were said to be the pinnacle of RPG gaming because they had extremely cool cutscenes and got sad about death and stuff, Fallout was letting you vanquish supervillains with highly polished philosophical rhetoric!

You cannot vanquish villains with philosophy in Bethesda era Fallout, sadly. Indeed, the Bethesda idea of a deep ethical/philosophical choice is whether or not to set off a nuclear bomb a small town is built around for fun and profit or to not do that. Wow. Fucking riveting ethical quandaries going on in here, my friends. Much like Fabled Lands when compared to Into the Tower, Fallout getting bought by Bethesda meant that the world got much bigger, but also much dumber.

So, it was with some trepidation that I started watching the Fallout TV series.

Despite having been nothing but disappointed with Fallout for decades now since Bethesda first snapped it up, I was nervously interested in this project. The cast and crew seemed solid and, in taking the open world away from the wasteland, I knew they would have to start trying to tell more clever stories again or just end up trading on gamer-nostalgia alone to try and sell the adaptation like like several such projects before it have tried and failed to do.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to worry so much. The show manages to introduce a new audience to the world of Fallout and retain the smart, human observations and dark humor I remember the first two games being so famous for. All the actors bring wonderful life to their roles, but I want to provide particular shout-outs to Ella Purnell who plays Lucy MacLean, the show’s ex-vault dweller turned wasteland adventurer. She’s taking on the role of what in the games would be the player’s spot with a kind of pure sincerity that is as captivating as it is endearing, even when she’s being a naïve idiot early on. I doubt very much she’s going to be defeating any final villains with rhetoric at the end of the season, but even where I’m at six episodes in, she clearly has thought through her motivations for how and why she does what she does. Even if the society that produced her does not truly believe in her values, she does anyway. And no matter how shit the wasteland is to her, she insists on not being ethically broken by it.

Many of the episodes actually involve her encounter new people or societies out in the wasteland and trying to grapple with them. In this way, the show reminds me strangely enough of a hyper-violent, more cynical Star Trek with Lucy cast as a plucky, sweet alternate universe Starfleet captain.

There are other lore reasons I both like and dislike elements of this show, but it would involve explaining like…several spoiler-filled passages of the early games, but needless to say, if what I described above sounds interesting to you, Fallout the TV Show is worth your time.

That’s all I’ve got for this week, my friends. If you read the whole thing, I love you for it. If you’re not subscribed, there’s a little place over to the right there where you can do that. I’ll catch my fellow adventurers next time and as always remember to tend to your dreams because if you don’t, who will?

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