Theoretical Framework for Fallout Character Database project

Kenton Taylor Howard

University of Central Florida

DIG 6836


One commonly discussed difficulty in game studies is the challenge of resolving the role of the player and the character(s) that he or she controls within the game world. There are many views on this role, and since this tool is designed to catalogue characters that players create within the Fallout universe, it is worth reviewing some of these positions below:

Player / Character relationship as actorialisation

Maietti (2008) pointed out the relationship between the player and the character that he or she controls: "in computer games, the user, the one who is thrown into a fictional world, does not fully retain his or her individual properties and identity" (Maietti, 2008, p. 100). He described the process of playing a character within a video game world as "individual actorialisation:" "An individual actor corresponds to the user. This is a one-to-one relation that facilitates the shifting of the user to the fictional identity into a possible universe whose values and ethics are to be known and confronted" (Maietti, 2008, p. 106). This view conceives of a player's character as a kind of actor within the game world, describing the relationship between player and character in dramatic terms. Such a process is active in almost all of the games in the Fallout series: only one game in the series, Fallout Tactics, places the player in control of more than one character, but in all the others, the player is tasked with controlling a single character within the game world. Most Fallout games task the player with acting out explicit moral and ethical choices that are often tracked by various in-game scoring systems, such as "karma" or "reputation," forcing players to confront the ethics and values of the game world directly during this "actorialisation" process.

Player-character relationship as authorship

Some authors instead describe this relationship between player and character in terms of authorship, noting that when a player plays a video game this way, he or she "[directs] that character's actions, not as a player controlling a game avatar, but rather like an author, scripting their protagonist" (MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler, 2008, p. 226). In this viewpoint, a player's character in the game world is not an "actor," but rather a character within the narrative whose story the player writes as he or she makes gameplay decisions. This process is also active within most of the Fallout games, as almost all of them place a heavy emphasis on the choices that the player makes within the game's narrative in a way that suggests the player is essentially writing much of the game's story his or herself. Perhaps the best example of this effect can be seen in the "slideshows" that serve as an ending to most of the Fallout games: the player is shown a series of slides that detail the future of various places, people, and storylines in the game world based on choices the player made throughout the game. These endings suggest that the player has "written" the future of the game world as he or she plays the game, much in the same way that an author might.

Player-character relationship as a rule-based interaction

Others authors describe the player-character relationship in terms of a game's rule system; for example, Rusch (2008) pointed out "the level of the rule system (in the sense of defining interaction) is unique to games" (p. 25). Similarly, Costikyan (2007) noted "the rules of the game provide a structure for resolving player actions: rules for combat, magic spells, skills, and so on" (p. 9). Such analysis suggests that a game's rule system also defines the interaction between a player and the character he or she controls. While a player might "roleplay" his or her character in a similar way to an actor playing a role, or could be said to be "scripting" that character's actions like an author does, "in most games, it is not enough to decide to be a role; it is important that one have the tools to succeed at that role" (Simkins and Steinkuehler, 2008, p. 339). In the Fallout games, a player's actions are governed by various rules, and success or failure at those actions is usually determined by the attributes of the character that he or she has created. In this sense, then, the rules of the game become a kind of narrative element in and of themselves, as a player's narrative options are often heavily influenced by the rules of the game: for example, a player who decided to specialize in gun use might often resort to violence to resolve storylines in the game world, while a player who specialized in speech skills might use diplomacy or subterfuge instead.

Goals of this project

This project is not intended to resolve such discussions; a full-length academic paper would be necessary for an in-depth overview of these debates. However, I do hope that this project can provide a tool that will be particularly useful for analysis of games such as the Fallout series in terms of discussion of the relationship between player, character, and narrative. In such games, the usual difficulties of analyzing the player's role in the creation of the narrative are compounded even further because the player creates his or her own character, who will overcome various challenges in the game world based on abilities the player chose for that character during the game's initial character creation process. Since character attributes are an important component of a game's rules, and those rules can determine significant aspects of the story in the Fallout games, a character's attributes significantly impact the game's story itself, and characters with different sets of attributes can resolve a game's story in different ways.

The factors described above mean that analyzing a single 'playthrough' of games like the Fallout series offers a limited view of that particular game's narrative possibilities. As Bergstrom (2007) noted: "during the process of gaming the players progressively reduce the space of possible stories down to a single story - one set of things 'happened,' while all other sets did not" (p. 58). Each playthrough of a Fallout game, then, results in a new story that arises from both the narrative and mechanical decisions that the player makes; an analysis based on a single playthrough essentially ignores all of the sets of "things" that did not happen in favor of one particular outcome of the game's story. A tool that can track both narrative elements and mechanical character attributes can therefore be useful for analyzing the story in games like the Fallout series, as it will not only allow scholars to track the attributes and narratives of characters they create as they play, but will also create a database of characters that could allow for a broad analysis of character traits and narratives provided by numerous players.

With enough user participation in this project, I may be able to write a paper in the future that discusses trends or patterns among player experience, which could answer all sorts of interesting questions: for example, the Fallout games often offer the player the chance to make "evil" choices - it could be interesting to see how often players make such choices, and whether "evil" characters outnumber "good" ones. It also could be worth investigating whether or not combat oriented characters outnumber those who rely on other skills and abilities - do players choose more violent means to resolve the game's storylines, or are more peaceful methods more often in use? While this database would offer only a limited subset of data since I can obviously only capture information from those who voluntarily contribute, such an analysis would be impossible otherwise. This tool could allow me to draw on the experience of gamers other than myself, which might offer all kinds of insights.


Bergstrom, R. (2007). Structure and meaning in role-playing game design. In P. Harrigan and N. Wadrip-Fruin (eds.), Second person: Role-playing and story in games and playable media (pp. 57 - 66). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Costikyan, G. (2007). Games, storytelling, and breaking the string. In P. Harrigan and

Costikyan, G. (2007). Games, storytelling, and breaking the string. In P. Harrigan and N. Wadrip-Fruin (eds.), Second person: Role-playing and story in games and playable media (pp. 5 - 14). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

MacCallum-Stewart, E. and Parsier, J. (2008). Roleplay vs. gameplay: The difficulties of playing a role in World of Warcraft. In H. G. Corneliussen and J. W. Rettberg (eds.), Digital culture, play, and identity: A World of Warcraft reader (pp. 225 - 246). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Maietti, M. (2008). Player in fabula: Ethics of interaction as semiotic negotiation between authorship and readership. In A. Jahn-Sudmann and R. Stockmann (eds.), Computer games as a sociocultural phenomenon: Games without frontiers, war without tears (pp. 99 - 107). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rusch, D. (2008). Emotional design of computer games and fiction films. In A. Jahn-Sudmann and R. Stockmann (eds.), Computer games as a sociocultural phenomenon: Games without frontiers, war without tears (pp. 22 - 31). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Simkins, D.W. And Steinkuehler, C. (2008). Critical ethical reasoning and role-play. Games and Culture, 3 (3-4), 333 - 355. doi:10.1177/1555412008317313