Guns as Avatars: Expressing Oneself Through Weaponry

So, one week later, I can say that I definitely like Fallout 4. Despite my poor experiences in Concord, the rest of the game is shaping up to be extremely engaging. I love exploring the Wasteland, meeting new people, and stealing glue.

Why am I stealing glue? I’m stealing glue because of Fallout 4‘s extremely deep crafting system, which allows me to modify every part of every weapon and piece of armor I own, allowing me to use raw materials from the environment to completely change the properties of a given item.

For example, I still have the first pistol one gets in the game, but it’s no longer recognizable as a pistol. Instead, it’s a sniper rifle, and while it’s not the best sniper rifle I have, it does use a fairly common ammo type, and plus, I made it. I feel a certain connection to it, because I hand-selected every single piece of the gun, and built it myself with parts that I had to find.

This is my rifle. There are very few like it, but this one is mine.

This system is extremely engaging, and honestly, it’s what I’ve spent the lion’s share of my last 4 hours with the game doing. I love this mechanic so much. It provides mechanical justification for all of the junk items in the world, it produces new impetus to explore (“I need oil for this part, maybe there’s some by the gas station!”), and it also gives me one more way to customize my character. I’d argue, this is also the single most significant method of character customization in Fallout 4.

Think of the other methods of character customization. There’s the personality of character you develop, but that only comes into play when you interact with other friendly NPCs, and you can go for hours without doing that in the game. There are your stats and perks, but your stats tend to affect behind-the-scenes dice rolls and numerical attributes like health, which are hard to identify with, while your perks frequently only matter in single, distinct situations.

But your gun, that’s a whole different story. If you’re 99% of players, you’ll be playing Fallout 4 in the first person, and despite the presence of the “Holster Gun” button, you’ll probably spend most of that time with a gun drawn. That means that, for a good chunk of the game, the only part of your character you’ll be able to actually see is your gun.

Sure, you have your visual customization as well, from your face and hair to your clothes, but again, Fallout 4 is mostly first-person, and unless you’re talking to someone or in VATS, you’re not seeing that character. Plus, in both of these scenarios, there are high odds that your gun is still prominently in frame. In Fallout 4, the single element of your character which dominates your perception is your gun.

In previous modern Fallout games, there was certainly a wide enough selection of firearms to be able to select something close a weapon that defined your character, especially if you were playing a character archetype that the game was accounting for (a Brotherhood paladin, a cowboy, a raider, etc.). Fallout 4, however, gives you full control over this most prevalent part of your character, allowing your gun to be as ramshackle or pristine, as precise or as brutal, as up-close-and-personal or as distant as your character.

As I was rummaging through a file cabinet, frantically searching for screws, I was wondering why more first-person shooters don’t do this. After all, what I’ve said about guns in Fallout applies to guns in any first-person shooters: they are always the single most commonly shown element of the character. And yet, so few FPSs go to this level of weapon customization. When you look at the TV Tropes page for item crafting, it only lists three FPSs, and none of them exhibit anything close to the degree of customization as Fallout.

There’s a reason I’m using the word “gun” as much as I am, despite Fallout 4 having a range of melee weapons as well. Across cultures, East or West, we tend to associate our modern day heroes and villains with their guns. Dirty Harry isn’t Dirty Harry with a 9mm. Lupin III isn’t Lupin III with a shotgun. Ash isn’t Ash with a sniper rifle. These characters are not defined by their gun, but their gun is permanently associated with who they are.

Koushun Takami didn't include the Walthier P38 in Battle Royale because he said the gun had too strong a cultural link to Lupin III
Koushun Takami didn’t include the Walthier P38 in Battle Royale because he said the gun had too strong a cultural link to Lupin III

First-person shooters are the same. The big boys, like Call of Duty or Battlefield understand this, and allow players to select, trick-out, and custom paint every screw holding their gun together. Even still, though, this only occurs in multiplayer, where your character is a randomized avatar for whatever arbitrary faction you’re fighting for. Your character in these games is singularly your gun, because the meatbag holding it is randomly generated for you.

I think more first-person shooters should embrace the idea of customizing your gun. The gun takes up a large chunk of screen real-estate at all times. I certainly see it much more than I do an Unreal Tournament character’s head, and yet those games have featured avatar customization since the first installment, and yet have nothing allowing you to change even just the look of your guns.

Sure, not all FPSs should have weapon customization. But, those that do want players to build a custom character (like Deus Ex), those that focus on letting players “play their way” (such as Bioshock), or even those which simply have a blank slate character that players transpose themselves on (such as Halo or Doom) could implement weapon customization as a way to let players customize their character and playstyle in a noticeable and satisfying way.

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