Posts Tagged Fallout 3

The problem with hacking minigames

BioShock. Mass Effect. Fallout 3. Oblivion. All of these games are generally accepted as pretty damn awesome. You (and I) may disagree with how awesome they are, but the general consensus is that they’re great games. All of them have one thing in common that really bugs me: hacking minigames. “Oblivion doesn’t have hacking minigames!” you say. “It’s a medieval fantasy game! What are you even hacking!” There is a lockpicking minigame. It counts.

Hacking minigames are unfortunately common in AAA action/adventure titles, and the success of games such as Mass Effect and BioShock are likely to make them even more common as other developers try to learn from BioWare and Irrational Games‘ example. Just so we’re absolutely clear: I hate hacking minigames. Allow me to explain why.

They take you out of the action

To some degree they take you out of the action intentionally, with the developers fully aware of it. Hacking minigames pull you out of the explosions, gunfire and soaring magic and give you a cooldown period. You get a break from the point and shoot, even if the break is point and hack instead.

The problem is that in some parts of these games, most notably in BioShock, you are pulled away from the action too often. The hacking becomes tedious. As you get deeper into the game, you no longer want to do it at all. You start to dump all of your resources into being able to skip it or make it faster and easier, just so you can get through it. Using these minigames occasionally can certainly enhance gameplay, but when you walk into a room with 4+ hackable turrets that you either turn on your enemy or waste ammunition or EVE (mana/magic points) to kill, it doesn’t feel fun. You don’t feel clever for hacking that turret and turning it on your enemy when you do it four times in a row. You would really rather just get back to killing splicers.

They’re disability-unfriendly

The average gamer doesn’t think about it much, but there are people with disabilities that love video games just as much as everybody else. Why wouldn’t there be? Players with injuries or other disabilities want to play the same things that everybody else does, and generally they can. Maybe they won’t be as competitive in StarCraft 2 or Counter-Strike, but they’re perfectly capable of playing games like BioShock and Mass Effect, even if it means they need to keep the game difficulty quite low.

Then you throw hacking minigames into the mix. These minigames usually require stellar hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes to meet the time requirements. In the original Mass Effect, the typical hacking minigame requires you to carefully move an object through a series of concentric rings with moving obstacles. Already, that is more difficult for players with a limited range of motion than the game’s actual combat. On top of that, you generally only get 10-15 seconds to complete the challenge. Not likely. Luckily, the original Mass Effect offers an option that allows you to bypass the challenge completely. You can break down your spare, useless items into omni-gel and can spend it as currency to skip the challenge.

Mass Effect 2‘s minigames are not identical to those of the first game, but it’s the same concept. You have a short period of time to complete a reflex-based challenge. In this game, however, you don’t have the option of using omni-gel to bypass the challenge. If this only locked you out of bonus items or credits (currency), that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is that there are places where an inability to complete these minigames can stop your progress through the game entirely. For those familiar with the game, there is a gate in Grunt‘s recruitment mission that you need to hack to get through. If you can’t complete that minigame, you cannot move on with the game.

What was gained by gating the story progression with a hacking minigame? Does that gain outweigh locking disabled gamers out of an otherwise disabled-friendly game? It’s certainly something that should be considered when implementing these games.

If I wanted to play flash games I would go to Kongregate

Despite these games being high-budget releases, these hacking minigames are glorified (and sometimes simplified) flash games — or maybe something far older and simpler. BioShock‘s hacking minigame is an updated version of Pipe Mania, a puzzle game from 1989 developed for the Amiga. Pipe Mania is a classic, but it has also been copied, rehashed and reproduced so many times throughout gaming on so many platforms that BioShock‘s hacking system strikes me as incredibly uninspired. It most certainly did not make me feel like an awesome hacker. More like a ┬áplumber.

In the original Mass Effect‘s hacking game, you’re a small sprite advancing through lanes of obstacles and moving objects. Apparently to hack a computer console, you must play a circular version of Frogger. Once again, this minigame struck me as being uninspired. It didn’t feel much like hacking either, just like BioShock‘s hacking didn’t. It was a minigame for the sake of having a minigame. Mass Effect 2 improved on giving you the feeling that you were hacking something — the game actually used a technological aesthetic instead of brightly colored squares and triangles prancing about. Aesthetics help.

Okay, that’s what makes them bad. How can they be used well?

Let’s recap. I think there are a few important things to keep in mind when designing and utilizing hacking minigames.

  • Does this minigame make sense as a hacking minigame? BioShock‘s Pipe Mania does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect‘s Frogger does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect 2‘s “match the circuits” game (seen at the top of this post) did, in my opinion, feel like hacking. It was a simple matching game, but the aesthetics and tasks associated with it were clearly technological.
  • Do not make these games mandatory! They are an excellent tool for offering bonuses or even shortcuts. But if someone cannot complete the hacking minigame (whether it be due to lack of skill or lack of motor skills due to injury), it should not stop the game/narrative dead. Minigames are not the core of your game. Minigames should reward success, not punish failure.
  • Diversify them. It’s okay to have multiple forms of hacking games. It does not need to be a new game every time the player touches a console, but two or three different ones adds spice. Not every shootout in an action game plays out the same way. Why should this? Mass Effect 2 used two different hacking games and I feel that worked very well. It reflected what sort of work you were doing.
  • Use them sparingly. Don’t do what BioShock did and put several hackable turrets and cameras in small spaces. It becomes tedium. Spread these encounters out. It will make them more meaningful.
  • Don’t add minigames just for the sake of adding minigames. Do they add something to your game? Will your game be lessened by a minigame’s absence?


Okay, maybe I don’t hate minigames. I just hate bad minigames used poorly.

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Fallout: A study in the unpleasant as compulsion

Having just finished Fallout: New Vegas, these thoughts were fairly fresh in my mind so I thought I’d get them out there.

What I find interesting when I play a Fallout game is how much of the gameplay mirrors the setting, a post-nuclear landscape with a twist. Fallout is the post apocalypse of a future embodied by the Ford Nucleon. Laser guns and plasma rifles, supercomputers as big as a room, old cathode ray TV sets, vacuum tubs and broken down old robots that would look at home on the set of Lost In Space. Fallout is the disaster after an alternate history, and it’s always fascinated me to go through the various shattered urban ruins. Since I used to live in Washington DC (not far from Bethesda, actually) Fallout 3 was a fascinating exercise in seeing places I’d known and realizing “Hey, this isn’t how it looked at all in our world.” The subways, the cars and trains, even the streets were different and the differences didn’t stem from the atomic war. The Smithsonian had different museums even.

As fascinating as “spot the divergence” is in the Fallout games, however, what I found most striking in my New Vegas playthroughs was how the game supports the feeling of being a wanderer in a world where people struggle to make a life in the wretched refuse of a golden age. Much of your food, clothing, weapons and other supplies are in effect garbage and trash recycles from the civilization that just destroyed itself. Most of the buildings, even the ones being used, show signs of being picked apart and their materials recycled. The game has an inventory management system that places hard and fast caps on how much you can carry forcing you to cache gear and supplies in various locales you gain access to. You often have to choose to eat unpleasant or even radioactive things in order to regenerate wounds or drink dirty water to keep hydrated. Your weapons and armor break down over use and must be repaired. Currency is based on the bottle cap, to the point where you will actually be offered a job to go and smash a functional soda bottling plant because it’s being used to make bottle cap currency.

In essence, the economy of Fallout is based on the idea that the only legitimate money comes from before the war, and any attempt to make new money is suspect. It’s a fascinating metaphor that pops up several times in various Fallout games, the idea that this is a world that doesn’t create anything new, it just scavenges in the trash of the old, dead world. One character from Fallout 3 even makes this comparison. What I find most worth exploring here is how this dead, sterile, possibly even necromantic setting which uses the dead past to build the tottering present is so embodied by the art and story choices so that every act ties into the feel of the world.

In Fallout one often succeeds by the thinnest of margins. Victory conditions are often fluid (in Fallout New Vegas one can choose to support one of two major factions or instead to work to one’s own end) and even when you “win” the game you’re still, ultimately, living in a world that killed itself nearly 200 years before you even started. Everything from interface choices to art and storyline, to inventory, to how food and drink work, even ammunition and weapon conditions all emphasize this ultimate truth. You live in the bones of a dead world, it says, all you have done is to choose what got scavenged.

Part of the real genius of Fallout is how it embraces this. Part of what makes it such compelling play is how it highlights it in ways both great and small. From the doctor with two trained mercenary guards, one of whom complains about not having been paid and the other who confides in you his doubts as to her actual medical accreditation while standing in the shadow of a old dinosaur tourist attraction to the gigantic mutant grandmother in the bright yellow wig this is a world where the stakes are high and sometimes treasure is an old tin of radioactive mac and cheese. Fallout makes the mire and offal of the dead past seem a fitting reward.

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