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Gaming's Achilles' Heel

I haven’t yet ventured into the rad-infested wastes that so many people are currently wading through, and I don’t plan on joining them any time soon. It’s not for a lack of interest; on paper, Fallout embodies everything I love about games: a vast open world waiting to be explored, plenty of RPG systems to mess with, a sci-fi setting with talking robots. Nor is it a case of being unable to invest the time; as massive as its world is, I’m in the mood for a game I can really sink my teeth into. No, the thing that’s kept my wallet firmly closed is fear. Fear of the greatest enemy a game can know.

Game-breaking bugs.

Bethesda titles have long been notorious for their jankiness. Busted physics, gravity-defying creatures, photobombing NPCs; the bugs are occasionally immersion-breaking, but for the most part they’re an acceptable trade-off given the ambitious scale of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. I can even live with the occasional bugged quest forcing me to reload an earlier save. Where my willingness to look the other way crumbles, however, is when the jank crosses the line into full blown brokenness. Quests that can’t be completed, crash loops, corrupted save files: these are no longer quaint quirks without consequence. A broken save can potentially invalidate dozens of hours of investment, but it need not even be that severe. Losing just half an hour of progress is a sour experience, especially in a game like Fallout where surprise is a significant part of its appeal. Repeating the same content tends to expose the ‘gaminess’ below the surface, poking holes in the illusion the game is trying so hard to maintain.


Worst of all, it only takes one bad experience to poison the well. One crash is not just one crash; it is the constant fear of another one striking at any time. The seeds of suspicion have been planted, and they cannot be removed. It doesn’t matter whether the game crashes again or not. Just the thought that it might happen is enough to taint the play experience. Every hitch and hiccup stokes the fear, detracting and distracting from the joy of playing the game. In a game like Fallout, it might be possible to create a new save every five minutes to limit the impact of an unexpected crash, but having to do that shatters the suspension of reality the game thrives on. It would be like having someone constantly tapping you on your shoulder as you play, reminding you of the artificiality of your escapism.

Assassin’s Creed Unity wasn’t the first in the series to bug out hard

Bethesda might be the poster child for buggy games, but it’s hardly the only offender. Obsidian has a similar track record, with games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout: New Vegas all suffering from a slew of technical issues that ruined many a gamer’s experience. Telltale’s adventure games have been the source of considerable despair thanks to numerous issues with save files transferring between episodes. DICE had a litany of problems with Battlefield 4 that persisted for well over a year after release, including but not limited to hard crashes, save corruption, and one-hit-kill exploits that rendered the multiplayer unplayable at times. Even the traditionally quality-focused Nintendo isn’t immune, having allowed Metroid: Other M and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to ship with game-breaking bugs.


The most severe example from my recent experience wasn’t even technically ‘game-breaking’, and yet it definitely destroyed my enjoyment. The culprit? Dragon Age: Inquisition. As a huge fan of Bioware’s work, I was psyched for its first foray into the current generation. My hype was well met - for the first 30 hours or so. Then came a meeting with a pivotal character from the franchise’s past, and a subtle but significant bug that changed the entire game for me. My Inquisitor, previously a humble Dwarf with a pleasing British accent, transformed into an aggressive brute with the voice and temperament of Kratos from God of War. I didn’t notice the substitution for a few hours thanks to another bug affecting party chatter while in the field, and by the time I realised what had happened, it was too late. The autosave had updated with my new gruff Inquisitor, and my habit of rotating saves had resulted in me overwriting everything from before that portentous meeting. I was left with a hero I actively disliked, and after several conversations that just felt wrong, I decided a couldn’t keep playing. My Inquisitor was gone; this imposter was a jerk I had no interest in role-playing.

One little bug broke an entire franchise for me. I eventually went back and started a new character some 6 months later, but it wasn’t the same. Even with the bug fixed, the dismay I felt my first time around lingered like a bad smell, keeping me at arm’s length from full immersion. What was once one of my favourite series became a former friend I no longer trusted.


Not my Inquisitor, though

I don’t blame Bioware, nor Bethesda, nor any developer that releases an imperfect game. Making games is incredibly hard, and the pressures of promised release dates and the need for perpetual one-upmanship contribute heavily to issues of poor optimisation and insufficient QA testing. But merely knowing why these problems exist doesn’t make it any less painful. I won’t hold a personal grudge against a developer if a game leaves me high and dry, but neither will I so readily reach for my wallet the next time around. Instead, for games like Fallout, I will wait until they’ve been thoroughly put through their paces and patched up before I take the plunge. Ideally, I’d wait for the inevitable GOTY edition, but I don’t have quite enough self-restraint for that.


So, what’s your stance on buggy games? Have you had any experiences that soured you so much you swore off a game or franchise? Or do you take it all in stride, accepting jank as an inescapable facet of the medium? Lend me your perspective in the comments below!

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% bad at maths. You can read more of his articles here, or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar

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