INTERVIEW: ‘Wasteland 3’ Creator Brian Fargo on Social Commentary in Video Games

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By Ian Miles Cheong | 11:16 am, October 18, 2016

Through interactivity, video games are uniquely capable of immersing their audience in ways no other entertainment medium can. In RPGs, gamers have agency within the narrative, allowing them to affect how the story plays out.

In recent years, player freedom has been a source of outrage for culture critics who insist on making video games a platform for their regressive politics, forcing players to make the “right” moral choices and limiting their ability to role-play fictional characters. Their demands would also prevent game developers like InXile’s Brian Fargo from telling the stories he wants to tell with his games.

Brian Fargo is a game industry luminary. Having established Interplay in the ‘80s, Fargo went on to develop critically acclaimed titles like The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, and Fallout. His former company was also instrumental in putting BioWare on the map with the publication of the Baldur’s Gate games. In more recent years, Fargo and his new company, InXile Entertainment, were among the first major developers to adopt crowdfunding as a new model for financing game development, with successful programs for Wasteland 2, The Bard’s Tale IV and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Fargo’s biggest games didn’t simply flirt with serious subject matter—they pushed video games as a medium for mature storytelling in ways few other titles did. His newly announced game, Wasteland 3 promises to do the same. Like Wasteland 2 before it, it will have commentary on both social and political issues.

“We don’t like to hit it so hard on the head, but we like to have it in there,” Fargo tells me. “Wasteland 2 was very much about American imperialism. So there was always the question of ‘who are you guys to come in here and tell us who’s right or wrong’ from your perspective. But then of course on the flipside, one guy that says ‘please help me.’ So there’s the friction of ‘stay out of our business but help me with mine.’ And so that was very much a running commentary on that.”

“We like to draw our fiction from real-life events,” says Fargo regarding the game’s influences. “Whether it is refugees, lack of food, overcrowding, and power plays. All these things from the headlines–all these things mankind does now, they’re going to do more so in a post-apocalyptic world.”

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In essence, Wasteland 3 will engage its players with serious subjects that only a handful of other games approach to any significant degree.

“We don’t like to be preachy about it, but we like to make sure these are the kind of things based upon your actions and based upon that world and that I think it’s one of the reasons why I like Wasteland so much is that it resonates with me in terms of real people, real life, real problems,” says Fargo about the impact players will have in the game. “I think that’s the beauty of role-playing games. It can make you feel a far range of emotions than other genres.”

Player agency aside, Fargo says that he doesn’t like using his games to push politics and ideology, which is often preachy and almost always comes at the detriment of telling a believable story.

“I don’t like to push social agendas,” says Fargo. “We’re here to entertain people. We’re not trying to change the world. Hence, I think that’s the most important thing for us. We recognize how ripple patterns work and so we want to be realistic in that way, but our number one priority is to entertain them.”

Fargo isn’t afraid of implementing problematic elements into Wasteland 3. In the current social climate, video games with less-than-flattering representations of women have seen no shortage of condemnation from social justice warriors.

“Well, we had prostitutes in Wasteland 2 and they gave you venereal disease,” says Fargo. “We’re really not afraid to hit on just about almost any subject.”

“Again, we’re not trying to preach or be social justice warriors, either. We’re just trying to give a gritty world that smells like the one we’re in now. I think the only thing we’d really avoid is letting kids get killed. Because that just becomes a soundbite that we don’t want to hear. We just don’t put kids in the game rather than them being immune. We just sort of avoid that as something. I think that’s something that differed from the Fallout series.”

Chiming in, InXile’s Chris Keenan says that as creators, they want to fully explore the game’s post-apocalyptic setting.

“We are talking about post-apocalyptic, and a lot of niceties of society—rules of law are very different,” says Keenan. “We’d like to explore some of the twisted parts of that too. We have these really wacky cults that all believe in something and so we tend to let the writers that if it fits within a post-apocalyptic world and it’s a believable part of that story then we’re generally okay going down that rabbit hole and talking about it.”

“Look how dark the Mad Max series or The Road is,” adds Fargo. “Those are all the same things we’re going to hit. We’re not afraid to hit any of those difficult subjects.”

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A few recent RPGs like Fallout 4, The Witcher 3 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided featured mature themes like systemic oppression, rape and abuse, giving offense to oversensitive critics. How will Wasteland 3 handle such sensitive topics?

“Well again, we’re going to let our writers do their thing. So we certainly don’t hold them back,” says Fargo of the game’s writing staff, which is also handling the story in Torment: Tides of Numenera. “If anything, I usually push, and say ‘I’d rather pull you back from the edge than have you self-edit yourself early on.’”

“I think the important thing though is that if you’re going to hit on strong subjects, you need to have an opposite, so it’s one thing to put prostitutes in but you know what? You better have some women leaders in there, too. That can’t be your only representative of that particular subject. So I say we want to keep it balanced with whatever subject we hit.”

Fargo says that he intends to avoid stereotypes, and that the world itself has to be believable.

“Yeah if you’re talking about a future world where there are no laws, mankind’s pretty brutal,” says Fargo. “You can expect that to be, and is revealed, in the experience, in the dialogue, and the characters.”

“It’s really an example of truth in fiction,” echoes Keenan. “We can probably find real headlines from last week that are more disturbing than anything we talk about in Wasteland. It’s a mature game, and we embrace that. We recognize it. We want to follow subject matter along those lines.”

Fargo tells me that Wasteland isn’t a world about running around shooting monsters. After all, the people are the real monsters, and that’s the truth of it.

Like his previous titles, Wasteland 3 is going to be one of those games where players can choose to do bad things, and be the villain of the story. This time around, Fargo wants to make the game more rewarding for players who go down that route.

“One of the edicts for our writers, and one of the things players like, is that they like more chances to be evil and have a payoff. So that’s one of the things we’re dialing up for people who want to go the dark side.”

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In a lot of role-playing games, playing the bad guy can be unrewarding, forcing the player to go down the righteous path for the best loot and the most satisfying ending. Just like Wasteland 2, this isn’t going to be the case with the upcoming game.

“Wasteland lives in a big grey area, and sometimes making decisions that on the surface feel really evil, there are actually good reasons to doing these things,” says Keenan. “The way that we’ve kind of justified that is that the world reacts to your decisions. So sometimes you think you may make what you think is a good choice—that you’re providing justice, and a bad outcome happens. That’s also the way the world works. Sometimes, you don’t always get a decision in how the consequences of any action, regardless of whether your intentions were good or not. You can’t always predict the way things are going to happen whether you choose right versus wrong.”

Sometimes, the right way is also the ugly way, and it’s these dilemmas that make RPGs as fun as they are—that the choices you’re confronted with are not in black and white. Fargo references TV shows like Game of Thrones, Narcos and The Night Of as examples of media with strong elements of moral ambiguity, citing an episode in Narcos where one of the good guys kills a kid to send a message to Pablo Escobar.

“There’s been very much a push towards moral ambiguity and no longer black and white characters,” says Fargo. “I think that games in some ways have been ahead of their time, and that’s something we like to hang our hat on and play up.”

“You can have discussions around it,” adds Keenan. “The most boring thing in the world is if it’s clear cut, right or left. With these things, it’s almost like a debate class where you can pick both sides and probably come up with good arguments on either side on whether to make a decision or not.”

As for the game journalists and culture critics who argue that games shouldn’t offer these options because it promotes problematic behavior, Fargo’s response is based.

“I don’t see why we should be different from any other medium that already does that.”

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken game critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.

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