Backstage Tales – The Theme

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No! Don’t kill the tunes!

Over the weekend, Bethesda released the theme music for Fallout 76. Have a listen:

It sounds like Fallout 76 is really taking us to the frontier of a newly-born post-apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, I hear echoes of the irradiated swamps of Fallout 3 in the beginning only for the theme to take on the feeling of an active rushing river. I feel like Fallout 76’s theme is about taking on a whole new life, literally and figuratively.

At the same time, take a listen to the theme of Fallout 4:

Where Fallout 4 echoes the story of loss and determination to rebuild the city of Boston hundreds of years after the bombs have dropped, the theme for Fallout 76 tells a very different story that reflects the wilderness of West Virginia and a world that has yet to recover from the worst effects of the Great War. Where the Sole Survivor has lost everything and ventures forth from Vault 111 to recover his/her son, the Vault Dwellers of Vault 76 have nothing to lose and everything to gain from exploring the wasteland. Both of these theme songs from composer Inon Zur are incredible, and both made me (or is currently making me) very excited to play these games. When the players of your game don’t want to press start on the title screen right away because the theme music is so good, you know you’ve hired the right composer.

In my opinion, the right tone of music can take even a mediocre game and make it great, and it can make a great game completely unforgettable. I love epic, sweeping music that has a full orchestral feel: give me dulcimer bells, legions of violins, an off-beat, and piano themes that will stick in my head like pudding and remind me what game I’m playing every few minutes.

(I know my family don’t quite understand my music tastes, but then again, neither do I; I love everything from Linkin Park’s Leave Out All the Rest to They Might Be Giant’s You’re On Fire to Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, the Bringer of JollityHow are those related? No idea. But I love them all the same. “It just works.”)

Here’s one piece by Jeremy Soule that I played over and over and over again when I was in junior high and high school. It’s not a theme song, per se, but it hit me like one. Playing these types of music is super calming for me and helps me focus on my writing. I wrote so many stories to this song:

(In fact, I wonder if my listening to music on repeat gives weight to my ‘overstimulation’ theory; I’ll listen certain songs right into the ground if they help clear my thoughts. Strange as it sounds, I’ve dedicated a lot of playtime in Minecraft to Karl Jenkins’ Symphonic Adiemus and the band Mew’s Eggs Are Funny albums. But anyway.)

If Jeremy Soule sounds familiar, it’s because he’s one of my favorite composers, and (this isn’t weird, but it sounds weird) I wake up to his brillance every morning:

It’s just beautiful music and actually relaxing to wake up to every morning. (Is it a backhanded compliment to say that your music is better to wake up to than a shrill beeping alarm? Still, it’s very true, and I’m grateful for it.) Every time I hear this music play when wandering the streets of Whiterun in Skyrim, it makes me wish the city were larger so I could take more time exploring and listening in peace. It’s the perfect peaceful theme for a Nord city that sits under the crisp chill of twin evening moons.

Here’s a theme that might make you wonder about me even more:

It’s like Tim Burton, a pile of black play-doh, and a thirty-person choir group got together and composed a soundtrack! Composer Kyle Gabler is awesome, and it makes me want to listen to the soundtrack of every Tomorrow Corporation game. Likewise, this one gets me every time:

It’s like Christmas came early, except there’s the very real chance that you’ll freeze to death if you don’t burn everything that’s precious to you right now for warmth! If you don’t know, that’s the premise of the game. It has a very ambiguous but memorable ending, and the theme goes right along with it.

Oh, and this one, the first video game song to win a Grammy:

So solid. It was recently sung by the Angel City Chorale on America’s Got Talent, and they were actually really impressive. It was also performed by Alex Boyé and the BYU Men’s Chorus and Philharmonic, which is just fun for this LDS gamer.

(To see the look on the face of the judges if you told them the song came from a video game would be very entertaining; in fact, one of the comments under the Angel City Chorale video goes like this: “My mum once asked me why I like video games so much, and I said one of the main things for me, is the music in a game. She told me she didn’t think video games had epic music, so I showed her this. I’m not saying she became a nerdy gamer but I changed her mind on that one…. 😛 “).

And lastly, I only need to hear this simple melody to get excited for Disney and Square all over again:

Yes, the extended edition. Of course, the extended edition. A melody of such simpler times. As one of the comments in this video says, the version of Dearly Beloved that will come with Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to break the hearts of all the players out there (as will the plot of the game, I imagine, put we’ll get there in January).

Those are just some of my favorite video game themes that made me an instant fan. What are others that stir your soul and make you wish you could forget the game and experience it new all over again?


EDIT: How could I forget Final Fantasy XIV?! The major themes of Stormblood are absolutely magnificent, topping off with this fight (spoilers, I suppose):

But man, I love FF XIV’s music. Just so much. I could go on.

Backstage Tales – The Illusion of An Endless World

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For game designers, I understand the desire to fill your game world with as much content as you can possibly cram on the disk (or the digital download). After all, you never want your players to feel like you’ve sold them half a game. This can lead to a lot of development time planning quests, writing dialogue, writing scripts for enemies to appear at the right times and places, and possibly even preparing branching paths and establishing consequences for player choice. Even if you have a triple-A video game company’s worth of manpower, I also understand the desire to invest in R&R for systems that can automate this lengthy process.

Bethesda’s solution for ensuring their games last even longer than their expansive quest list would suggest is their Radiant quest system. Whenever you play with certain factions in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Fallout 4, you may notice that some NPCs grant you repeatable missions that you can enjoy over and over to your heart’s content. These quests will involve you traveling to a location and killing everything hostile there, finding some item and returning it, escorting an NPC to a location and returning, killing a random friendly NPC in a town without being caught by guards, etc. etc.

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Hi, Mommy! I wuv you!

For completing these quests, you’ll get a moderate amount of gold or caps as well as (in Fallout 4’s case) a small amount of experience. Some notable Radiant quests include the Jarl’s bounties on dragons and bandits, the Night Mother’s assassination missions for the Dark Brotherhood, gathering Shalidor’s writings for the College of Winterhold, escorting Brotherhood squires to locations around the Commonwealth, and the ever-present “another settlement needs your help” Minutemen quests.

Normally, asking for a game to have less content doesn’t sound sensible. Never having to set down Skyrim or Fallout 4 sounds great on paper.

But man, I hate the Radiant quest system.

As this Redditor points out, Bethesda doesn’t ever want to let you off the roller-coaster. I realize that for any game developer, wanting your players to play as often as possible can only be good for sales numbers. Although I’d like to see a solid study between total player playtime and total Skyrim: Special Edition sales, it’s apparent that replayability is vital. I get it. Bethesda wants us to play their games for as long as humanly possible. We’ve already discussed my extensive hours in Bethesda games; I think their focus on replayability is the only reason Bethesda’s execs allowed the modding scene to become as large as it has with attempting to completely control and monetize it.

As clunky as the Creation Club is, imagine if it were the only modding option we had. But I digress.

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Horse power armor. Ugh. The only reason I have it was because they made it free a while ago.

My first complaint about the Radiant system: it’s not readily apparent which quests have significance to progression and unique rewards and which don’t. I was shocked to discover that the Randolph Safehouse Radiant missions for the Railroad in Fallout 4 actually do have an “ending” of sorts, as well as a rarer armor mod reward for finishing them all. The quests, however, even take place in Far Harbor; why would a secretive Boston-based synth-rescuing cell of operatives even need to be in Maine in the first place? And don’t tell me it’s because they know about Acadia, because isn’t the sole survivor (if siding with the Railroad) the first agent to discover the sanctuary and report on it? I’m digressing again.

But only partially, because my second complaint about the Radiant system is the fact that these quests can send you to almost any location in Skyrim and the Commonwealth. The first time I met with Scribe Haylen in a new playthrough after installing the Far Harbor DLC, she sent me to retrieve technology from the Vim! Pop factory. I was level five, I believe; I hadn’t even met Nick Valentine, the detective upon which the whole intro to the DLC is based, and I wasn’t going to visit Far Harbor for quite a while. According to the Fallout wiki, this is a bug. I have a hard time believing they didn’t do it on purpose. Even if it was an oversight, the fact that Radiant quests can send you to far-flung parts of the map long before you’ll have the equipment and weapons to explore the area much less complete the mission can make these missions sit in your journal or pip-boy unfinished for a long time.

In fact, the locations sometimes make absolutely no sense, as if certain Radiant quests were designed to appear confusing. What will likely be your first Minuteman settlement mission asks you to travel to Tenpines Bluff and help them. They complain that the raiders at the Corvega factory are stealing food from them on a regular basis. You mean to tell me that the raiders at the much closer Outpost Zimonja (whose boss has a Fat Man and power armor) aren’t a more immediate threat, considering the raiders at Corvega would have to walk through or clear around the very-ghoul-infested Lexington just to get to you? And you haven’t been troubled by the raiders at USAF Satellite Station Olivia at all? I somehow doubt Corvega is your most immediate problem.

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It’s a terrible settlement location, too. So there.

Third, Radiant quests have no effect on the game as a whole. They don’t. In fact, they make the game stagnate. There is little narrative developed by escorting Brotherhood squires for Kells, collecting technical documents for Quinlan, or “acquiring” food for Teagan. No increase in Brotherhood rank, no settlement or resource opportunities, no perks, nothing of note beyond caps (which are plentiful by the end of the game), possible companion affinity (when working with Paladin Danse), and a measly amount of experience.

You know what would be a really neat idea for those Brotherhood squire escort missions? If, when I had taken enough of the little tykes out to slay their first deathclaws, Sergeant Kells took me aside and asked the Sole Survivor to become the permanent mentor to a squire companion of my choosing (an invincible Atreus who could learn a valuable lesson about synths from becoming friends with a certain diminutive synth in the post-story). How about if, when I had procured enough technical documents for Proctor Quinlan, he allowed me a glimpse at the research he was performing and gave me schematics for constructing advanced plasma or tesla turrets for the Sole Survivor’s settlements? What if, when the Sole Survivor had “borrowed” food from enough settlements on behalf of Proctor Teagan, a small farmer-led riot would happen on the doorsteps of the Boston Airport, and the Sole Survivor would be ordered to “take care” of the crowd – through force or reasoning?

Most important of all, what if my standing in the Brotherhood could develop through the completion of these quests? Fallout: New Vegas’s reputation system would serve well here. I’m not expecting the game to let the Sole Survivor take Elder Maxon’s place; I rather prefer Bethesda’s decision that you can’t become the ruler of the Brotherhood through a coup. But I think it would be an experience-enhancing feature of the game if the Sole Survivor, after going through all of these Radiant quests for reputation, got the chance to make some game-affecting choices.

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These kids get the cool flak jackets. I want a cool flak jacket.

Extrapolating further, what if Radiant quest reputation could stack? There’s something New Vegas and even the 2D Fallouts didn’t really do. What if, because of his or her reputation as a leader in the Brotherhood and the Minutemen, the two factions formed an official alliance, and the Sole Survivor’s first task would be making one of the many settlements he’s founded become the manufacturing arm for Brotherhood power armor or weapons? Granted, this would require a spotless reputation record from the Brotherhood to trust you with those level of schematics and probably a required number of established Minuteman settlements to be able to “produce” the facilities. But from then on, the Sole Survivor would have the ability to create power armor and laser weapons (maybe even plasma) at unique crafting stations. Heck, you could “minimize the Brotherhood’s potential casualties” (as Quinlan would say) and give the Minutemen access to the same heavy arms and armor for the infiltration of the Institute at the end of the main story. Not only would this combination of faction strengths fill in the unanswered question of how the Brotherhood replaced all the T-45s with T-60s in between Fallout 3 and 4, it would put the player in a fun and unique position based on their time spent with each faction.

You could easily come up with similar combinations of the Railroad/Minutemen (becoming a heavily-fortified synth refuge) or Institute/Minutemen (a settlement staging point for coursers and synth expeditions). Obviously, Brotherhood/Railroad wouldn’t work, and Brotherhood/Institute is right out. But a Minutemen/Diamond City alliance could produce a lot of caps in trade (might have to happen after the main story when Mayor McDonough is deposed) and a Vault 81/anyone could provide a steady supply of stimpacks, antibiotics, and radiation-free food, just to set a few examples.

I use Fallout 4 as a better example of how the Radiant quest system failed because, in Skyrim, it felt like the system was in its infancy. Radiant quests could have had such a larger impact on Fallout 4.  I truly hope Bethesda finds a better system for creating “endless” content. If they must continue to use the Radiant quest system in the upcoming Fallout 76 and other future titles, I hope they develop it to the point where these types of quests serve a greater purpose and no longer feel repetitive.

All I’m saying is that the Radiant system could have had so much more meat on its bones. I admit, I know nothing of Fallout 4 modding, but I’m surprised very few mods have messed around with the effects of Radiant system quests… Well, except for mods that mark them as such or disable them entirely. Interesting that such a “vital” system to replayability makes Fallout 4 really… Oh, what are the right words?

Oh yeah. Unimmersive. Boring. And worst of all, a waste of time.

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When your “feature” gets modded out, something screwed up.

Backstage Tales – Bethesda Trifecta

There are a lot of thoughts swimming around in my head about this one.

If you were to look at my Steam profile and organize the games I have played according to their total playtime, one thing would become readily apparent: I have given a lot of my life to Bethesda Softworks. It breaks down like this: 891 hours with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (although that comes to 986 when you include the Special Edition), 745 hours with Fallout: New Vegas, and 677 hours with Fallout 4. Ring me up, that time totals just over 100 days of total playtime.

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I mean, c’mon. This is unmodded Skyrim. You can’t get any more desktop-screen-worthy than this.

These are single-player games, mind you, meaning I spent all of this time with no one but Bethesda’s writers, a bug-and-glitch-filled world, and my own imagination. Now, if you were to ask me if I regretted spending that amount of time in these digital worlds, I would say no after a moment of hesitation. I understand that the replacement of those 100 days of practice with, say, writing… That’s a large chunk of EXP. But the draw of Bethesda’s games is escapism, pure and simple. And escapism is vital to my mental survival. Just like someone would escape into a book or a movie, these games let me assume the role of someone who is much more outgoing and assertive. And yes, someone who is, at times, aggressive, and often violent. Someone I definitely am not.

Violence is often portrayed as necessary in these worlds. Just to travel from one place to another, a sword or a loaded gun is a necessity for personal protection. There are games that you can complete without having to kill anyone (another Bethesda published title, Dishonored, can be beaten this way, but why though when you can play like this), the same can’t really be said for the setting of Skyrim or Fallout. Skyrim is in the midst of a civil war with no Empire to guard the roads to and from cities; Boston and New Vegas are only just starting to recover from the aftermath of the Great War, held down by threats both seen and unseen. Bandits and raiders abound, the Institute kidnap people, the Thalmor threaten Talos worship with death, and Caesar intends to bring his Legion to bear (pun intended). Not to mention all of the wild creatures like dragons and deathclaws that call these environments home.

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And this is my favorite line in the game. I’m sorry. The delivery is, oh, just delightful.

I don’t play these games strictly for their violence, even though the gameplay is part of the draw. After all, Fallout 4 is probably the one with the best combat system, and even then, the gunplay gets boring without any real context or purpose. For me, it’s mostly about the story, and Fallout: New Vegas takes the cake on that one. I’m the weird guy that reads the books in Skyrim (I think The Locked Room is one of my favorites), and I don’t think the main story in Fallout 4 is as atrocious as other critics say it is (I mean, it’s no War and Peace, but still). I’ve explored the heck out of these games, and in at least one instance (with Fallout: New Vegas) even helped me become familiar with the real-life location (my dad and I found Goodsprings and visited the haunted Pioneer Saloon once, even spoke with one of the owners for about an hour, it was a neat experience). I don’t know the games well enough the speed-run them, but I have spent enough time in them that exploration is no longer as fun as it once was. As for New Vegas, I just spent a lot of time completing Tale of Two Wastelandswhich combines Fallout 3 and New Vegas into a single game, and even then, I’ve played them into oblivion.

In fact, the only reason I’ve spent as much time in these worlds as I have is due of all the modding I’ve done to them. Skyrim especially. I can’t play the base games on their own. It’s why I’m so excited for the New California mod for Fallout: New Vegas to come out, as well as the rest of the Beyond Skyrim project.

So, what am I left with after 100 days in Bethesda’s buggy worlds, through all the CTDs and missing textures? As my dad told me once, “Strive to be as bold and goal-oriented in life as you would be in a video game.”

I think about that a lot. I wish life gave me an experience bar I could fill up by doing random things. Unlike in Fallout 4, when general ‘experience’ can be gained just as easily from building a power generator or discovering a new location as killing a super mutant or robot, it takes a considerable amount of effort in the real world to find success in any one activity. It takes even longer for that practice to produce anything meaningful. In improving my skills as a writer, smithing in Skyrim comes to mind. Hammering out a thousand iron daggers can help you smith that coveted dragonbone longsword, metaphorically speaking. I have to build my vocabulary and grammar skills in different ways to help me express the ideas I want to express. And in the writing opportunities I’ve had, I’ve been equally frustrated and blessed to be able to write for businesses of all types, from electricians to diving instructors to aviation fuel vendors and everything in between. Some businesses were simple. Some took a lot of research to make understandable to the common person. And some were so concerned with buzzwords and jargon, they could have pages of text on their website but not communicate anything meaningful. It takes a lot of knowledge to write, and you never know when a spare piece of research or information source is going to be useful for your future storytelling and writing ability.

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The ‘Gallery of Steel’.

I’ve learned a lot of different lessons from Bethesda games, and I consider it one of my wildest dreams to be able to craft a story the way their writers do. The possibility that someone like me could make a living telling stories and writing like they do is amazing. Did you know Lawrence Schick’s official title at Zenimax Studios is ‘loremaster’? Put that on my resume!

My favorite writers are the ones at Obsidian Entertainment that worked on New Vegas, John R. Gonzalez, Chris Avellone, and his whole team. Vault 11 (which was, in turn, inspired by The Lottery by Shirley Jackson) and the entirety of the Dead Money DLC are highlights of my experience. Old World Blues had me rolling on the floor, it was so hilarious and irreverent compared to the bleakness of Big Mountain. One of my future articles will absolutely be on how they wrote the Mormon wasteland missionaries Joshua Graham and Daniel in the Honest Hearts DLC, on whom I think they did a superb job. And while I think Chris Avellone overdid it a little bit with Ulysses in Lonesome Road (probably more due to time crunch than anything else), I think it proved its point on how people can change the course of history just by the roads they choose to walk.

Will I ever be as bold as my player character is in Bethesda games? I don’t know. But maybe I’ll become a strong protagonist someday. Admittedly, standing up for myself is one of my weaknesses, especially when pressured (I can’t imagine that’s strange, though). But I won’t become a loremaster without growing a spine. As I stated before, it’s escapism that drew me to Bethesda games in the first place, all starting with Morrowind back in the day. For someone with mental health problems, distractions are a blessed diversion from the constant self-criticism. It’s actually a good thing to distract yourself from your problems after you’ve done all you can (provided you don’t overdo it). I feel successful when I progress the story, when I slay the giant, when I build the settlement.

That’s what Bethesda is best at: creating a world you can lose yourself in. And after the non-stop, consistent battering and negativity that I’ve trained my mind to think about itself, it’s nice to become someone who don’t take no crap from nobody. In fact, it’s just fun to be someone else for a while, period. Especially someone violent, for some reason. My preference? Take the ‘Terrifying Presence’ perk, pick up your favorite Q-35 Matter Modulator, travel to the Tops Casino, and tell Benny where he can stick that lighter of his.

Hint: look away, children.

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Don’t look so sad, Benny. My plan is quicker than the cross Caesar planned for you. (Do I lose karma for saying that?)