Could the lukewarm user reception of Fallout 4 be an indication of something more worrying for the future?

Is Fallout 4 a sign of games dumbing down?

Could the lukewarm user reception of Fallout 4 be an indication of something more worrying for the future?
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As our favourite game franchises continue to expand, year by year in many cases, a common complaint leveled at such games usually concerns repetition and lack of originality.

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There is a new phrase, though, one that has been increasingly thrown around nowadays, and that is: “dumbed down.” If you have been an avid gamer for the past couple of months, you can probably guess which example I will use to exemplify this in detail – Fallout 4, the game that, uncharacteristically for Bethesda’s RPG’s, fell short from the top of many Game of the Year lists for 2015.

Bethesda’s Rare Misstep

Bethesda’s RPGs have usually been the games of choice for many who want to experience the feeling of being in a vast, foreign land, where their choices can have drastic consequences not only for themselves but for everyone around them inhabiting this world. 

What has changed, then? What has caused the user Metacritic score for this instalment to plummet from the 80’s achieved by previous Bethesda RPGs, to a damning 5.4? 

At a glance, it’s hard to tell. The screenshots showed yet another substantial improvement in graphical quality, but also an injection of some welcome vibrancy to its colour scheme, all while being recognisable as a Fallout game. The world, while not as grand in scale as some of its more recent competitors, is just as densely packed as previous settings when it came to accessible areas, and the quest list looks as overwhelming as before. 

However, it only takes a mere minute reading through the heaps of negative user reviews to find out why again, the words “dumbed down” have been used over and over.

“Streamlining” and “Dumbing Down”

Before we take a closer look at the two recurring complaints regarding Fallout 4, which spawned the incessant use of the words “dumbed down” by the majority of dissatisfied fans, I would like to provide my brief take on two specific definitions that will become useful shortly – “streamlining” and “dumbing down.” This may sound boring, I know, but it will become useful in a moment because even if you are only somewhat familiar with video game reviews, chances are, you would have heard these two terms being mentioned frequently. To me, while both these concepts involve some form of simplification, the connotations drawn from these are the direct opposite. 

Whenever “streamlined” is used in a review, it is generally perceived to be a type of praise, albeit rather faint, and usually pertains to more convenient and subtle quality-of-life changes, with examples ranging from making menus less clunky to trimming down a particularly convoluted system in the gameplay. 

On the other hand, being “dumbed down” is seen as a major flaw in the context of a video game and not only involves a reduction in the game’s difficulty, but also oversimplifications of vital design features. This explains why the numerous instances of streamlining didn’t manage to outweigh the criticisms of Fallout 4.

With these definitions in mind, we can now analyse the two aforementioned criticisms and see where they lie. Contrary to many, the first of these is actually one I would classify as “streamlining” – the leveling system in Fallout 4. Although many fans complained that the leveling system has been dumbed down, as you can no longer assign individual stat points upon leveling up, it could be argued that new leveling system has a negligible effect on simplifying gameplay. 

Also, some may forget that this is not dissimilar to the changes Bethesda made to Skyrim, except the reaction seemed to be considerably more muted in comparison. Perhaps the changes made to Skyrim as a whole hadn’t yet surpassed some kind of breaking point for the majority of its fans, unlike Fallout 4.

A step too far?

If you think about this in the context of the more recent Fallout games (starting from Fallout 3), what purpose did assigning stat points to skills really have aside from reaching an arbitrary threshold in order to unlock a new perk? I’ll concede that, particularly in Fallout: New Vegas, the game did occasionally take into account your skill points when it came to unlocking new dialogue options, but the simplification of the dialogue system, one of the criticisms that will be covered shortly, was not a direct result of the removal of skill point allocation. 

This is because such dialogue options could easily still exist in the current leveling system had it just been implemented in a slightly different way. As an example, instead of using stat points as a threshold for unlocking dialogue options, they could have used perks as a new prerequisite requirement for them. If implemented properly, the only effect that removing stat points would have would be to save myself the time and headache of agonizing over every single stat point while leveling up.

On the other hand, it is clear that the aforementioned dialogue system undoubtedly falls within the boundaries of “dumbing down.” Though the decision to employ full voice acting for player characters may appeal to some of the more casual gamers, it is glaringly obvious to faithful fans of the series that they have been greatly restricted in their agency to role play as a result. 

While this may sound like a minor misstep in a massive game, it has resulted in huge ramifications for questing because in a game like Fallout, fewer dialogue options means fewer ways to complete objectives. Ultimately, this implies that other complaints with regards to questing, such as the majority of quests being devolved into a matter of go here, kill bad guys, have all stemmed from this one aspect of gameplay that has been dumbed down.

Victims of the past

So while critics are justified in their labelling of Fallout 4 being “dumbed down” in certain aspects, should we be concerned about this as possible trend for the games industry?

Indeed, some already are, and can point your attention towards games like Final Fantasy 13 and Need for Speed among countless others, where this has already happened. The latter seems to have lost its identity ever since Need for Speed: Carbon, making so many sudden, drastic transformations to itself, as if it was suffering from some sort of mental illness, and doesn’t know whether it wants to be a half-sim, half-arcade racer like Shift and ProStreet, a game focusing solely on police chases a la Hot Pursuit, or back to being a street racer first seen in Underground

However, one complaint that all of the post-Carbon Need for Speed titles have shared, the recent reboot included, is the reduction in customization options, particularly with regards to car appearance. I won’t even bother explaining the issues that a lot of fans had with Final Fantasy 13 as that would warrant a whole article by itself; I think that was an extreme situation where a game had arguably dumbed down in so many aspects, it was almost unrecognisable from the rest of the series.

A worrying trend for the future?

I am also inclined to agree with this sentiment of gradual simplification that is manifesting within the games industry, though on the contrary, I would try to convince you not to worry too much about it. 

A lot of people tend to overlook that while some aspects of certain games may be dumbing down, developers will usually be adding more content and new features to compensate for this, otherwise, how else are sequels sold year upon year? It only becomes problematic when the new features introduced are unable to compensate for the dumbing down of an important mechanic, just like how for various fans, the addition of settlement building and expanded weapon customisation was unable to offset the harm of the simplified dialogue system in Fallout 4.

To conclude, while it might be disheartening to see your favourite franchises losing their appeal to you from being “dumbed down,” remember that your interests will always be catered to sooner or later. 

The rise of indie games such as UnderRail and Shadowrun Returns proves that there will always be someone out there to take advantage of such gaps in the market, you just need to take a bit more time to search for them. The Souls series is a rare example of a AAA franchise that provided a deeper experience to its particular niche.

While your interests may not remain in familiar hands like Bethesda, try to take solace in knowing that they will always be in safe hands.

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Gordon Siu
Just a stereotypical asian nerd who enjoys video games and other geeky stuff. Student and wannabe freelance writer.