Go to any public park, walk around and you’ll probably notice lines where the grass has been mashed underfoot by people who have ignored the paved pathways and cut corners. Such naturally formed paths are called desire lines. These days, rather than guessing how to pave a park, many smart planners open their public spaces and then return later to formalise the routes that desire lines tell them people want to tread.
Players have been leaving desire lines in Wasteland 2 since December, when the Kickstarter-funded postapocalyptic RPG sequel was made available to backers and entered Steam Early Access. It was pitched to lovers of turn-based RPGs with the promise that it would recapture the hardcore spirit of 1988’s Wasteland. The Kickstarter campaign received more than three times its asking amount, in part because it was helmed by Interplay founder Brian Fargo, who led the original game’s development and assisted in the creation of Fallout.
It’s not uncommon for multiplayer games to have lengthy public betas in which feedback is gathered to help improve a game’s systems. Wasteland 2 is one of the rarer instances where a singleplayer game is going through a similarly open process. The information gathered via metrics and social media is doing more than fixing bugs or rebalancing combat: it’s letting Fargo and his team at InXile know where players want to go. “There’s a natural inclination to think that we’re in beta, [so] all we can change are some of the statistics and maybe improve the UI,” Fargo tells us. “But we’re going to turn on this next version and there will be ways to play in the world that weren’t possible before.”
Wasteland 2 revives a classic template: you set off into a desolate dirt-and-dust world with a party of four survivors, each with their own stats and inventory to manage. The world isn’t seamless, but split up into areas, which are connected via a travel map.
Fargo is keen to stress the advantages of publicly testing a narrative game. “Have you ever watched a movie where a situation happened, and the character doesn’t bring it up in the next scene? You’re frustrated.” If players express frustrations in response to Wasteland 2, then the game will change.
The beta is set in Arizona. Early on during its six or so hours, two towns – Highpool and Ag Center – are placed on your map. Both need your help, but whichever you choose not to assist is destroyed, removing its quests. There’s no way to save both.
As players began exploring and playing the beta, a question started to come up. If you opt to ignore the towns and decide to first explore other parts of the wasteland, shouldn’t both consequently fail? “That’s the kind of stuff that we want to get, where there’s this natural follow-on to some situations,” Fargo says. “Then you get to the next part, which is, ‘OK, the player still has to attach repeater units to a tower.’”
Towers would normally have been found in whichever town you saved, but the deviation logically throws up new routes. “We’re not going to just put a tower,” Fargo says. “We’re going to make you earn it, so there’s some additional questing and dialogue.”
Wasteland 2’s beta contains less than a third of the final game, which will encompass Arizona and a second area set in Los Angeles. Even so, it is a firm statement of intent – your actions have consequences, and those consequences are detailed.
When starting the game, the conversation that sets you off changes depending on the characters you’ve selected for your starting party. Your party is able to respond to keywords in NPC dialogue and to particular pieces of information. As you investigate the world – opening boxes, fighting or talking to raiders, and investigating corpses – a printout in the bottom corner displays reams of descriptions, relating environmental details and jokes. At plot-critical moments, your radio croaks to life with voice-acted narration and your next mission. These are all old-fashioned methods of conveying information in videogames, but each is executed superbly.
Although the beta is short to complete, you’ll quickly realise how much you’re missing out on with every decision you make. InXile is building an almost absurd amount of content that only a few people will ever see.
“We’re perfectly fine with you not seeing a huge part of the content, because if you don’t have that as a variable, you’re not getting choice and consequence,” Fargo says. “We have to build it in and build it in and build it in. Whether it’s gags, one-offs, items, quests, NPCs, you name it, it’s just chock full of stuff you’re not going to see.” That last line could be the marketing department’s poster quote.
Right now, however, the game’s combat doesn’t offer the same sense of meaningful choice. When you meet a group of bandits or a mutant frog, you switch to a turn-based battle mode that offers little variety and few opportunities for employing clever tactics. You’ll shoot plasma guns, fire rifles and strike people with pipes, riding chance-to-hit percentages towards steady victories, but your decisions are rote rather than considered.
In a beta, these qualms aren’t a reason to write off the game. Fargo has already posted a Kickstarter update addressing the combat complaints, saying inXile is looking to expand the scope of destructible cover, to add more special attacks, and promising that the AI becomes more interesting as you advance.
When it comes to mechanics like these, it’s common wisdom to think they have an objectively ‘best’ state. They can be tested and therefore made quantifiably better. That’s not necessarily the case with story, so we trust authors and artists to lead us where they want. When prompted, Fargo asserts his team maintains authorial control – no matter how often people ask, he says, “we’re not going to put vampires in the game” – but the way he describes his role is more contractor than auteur. “It’s almost like a custom job,” he says, “having me come in and them saying, ‘Brian, I love the kind of houses you build. I want you to come make me a round house, and I want tall walls and I want a staircase.’”
Including the people who are going to live in the house you’re building makes sense. It’s also a counter to the expectations that arise when industry figures return to the genres they helped create. “If I put all that in, and it’s sort of what we set upfront,” Fargo says, “then it makes it harder for you to go, ‘Whoah, whoah, whoah! I didn’t want a round house!”’
The common analogy is that Kickstarter backers are patrons of the arts, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re simply hiring tradesmen to build a gazebo. Or maybe they’re commissioning planners to landscape their local park. For Fargo to do his job, all he needs to know is what you desire.