Bethesda have a spectacular talent for making moth-eaten ideas feel like revolutionary concepts: Fallout 4 [official site] will let you play a property baron who constructs not just houses but connected settlements from bits of duct tape and broken globe. I was beside myself with excitement at this news – giddy, even – but not because of any particular flair on display in the five-minute crafting reveal at E3. As my New Vegas mod list and cack-handed fumbling with the Creation Kit will attest, I’m a sucker for anything that lets me inhabit the Wasteland. The idea of reshaping it by my own hand (benevolent, naturally) is intoxicating, even if the mechanics are crap.
And crafting mechanics are almost always crap.
A different developer announcing their entry into the post-apocalyptic DIY genre might have heard tired sighs among the audience. Minecraft hit alpha in 2009, DayZ opened shop in 2012, and already ‘survival and crafting elements’ is a dirty phrase to be muttered and quickly passed over on Kickstarter. At this point, ‘crafting’ is more a marketing buzzword than mechanic – a bolt-on with the dreary ubiquity of multiplayer forced into singleplayer games because a focus group once mentioned it in passing.
Videogame crafting is desperately unimaginative. The time invested in populating the world with materials, planning the links to finished objects and then balancing the lot must be monumental, but the interactivity is typically on the level of text adventures: use gizmo X on trinket Y to whip up an artisanal lockpick/shack/battlecruiser. Zork did that. The process is unabashed data entry in which you plug resources into your inventory and gawp as a timer bar heralds the appearance of a prefabbed asset. Press E to build gazebo. Around the 10-second mark in Fallout 4’s construction demo, the Lone Wanderer falls upon a bungalow, reducing it to 15 Steel, 20 Wood, 15 Concrete and 5 Rubber with a click. Crafting mechanics are to crafting what shopping at IKEA is to hewing a bookcase from a tree.
Crafting systems, whether in the likes of The Long Dark or an MMO with structured professions, teach us to covet the end product, not the satisfaction of a challenge overcome. Crafting is a barrier imposed to slow the acquisition of something you want: in survival games, it exists to make things harder by ensuring you can only click ‘build’ once you’ve pushed your avatar to the edge scavenging resources; in MMOs, it can be a key method by which money is sucked from an inflating economy and the endgame prolonged as players work towards better gear. If all goes as planned, the usefulness of crafting is just enough to be worth the bother.
‘Bother’ shouldn’t be confused with difficulty – I want Fallout to hand me the keys to the Casa del Wanderer no more than I want to run around dismantling typewriters via a menu. Neither of those options is difficult, because in the latter, a capuchin hitting the right key is going to receive the same ready-made furnishings as a pro gamer. In real life, crafting, whether you paint miniatures, make texture packs or go nuts for quilting, is a continuous process from raw material to finished object. Things go wrong, the first attempt doesn’t bear speaking about, and you pray that you never have to test your hand-stitched duvet in a survival situation, but you can be proud in the knowledge that no one else owns a malformed blanket quite like yours.
Though a mouse click may be analogous to pulling a trigger or picking up a pocket-sized item, it’s a few steps divorced from dismantling a house and repurposing its innards as defence turrets, yet still we see the ancient recipe-based model of crafting pop up like a Nigella special on lair assembly. How can the process of cobbling a fortress together be made to feel less like an exercise in Excel and be enjoyable in and of itself?
The realistic approach would be heinous. Höme Improvisåtion [official site], by devs The Stork Burnt Down, is indication enough that manual assembly of furniture would be the most stressful activity in a radioactive hellhole. We need some abstraction, or a degree of automation that lies between full control and production line.
I’ll take a breather to concede that projecting objects onto the world for the player to twiddle with before placing – as in Rust and many others and now Fallout – is a step forward for crafting. The gulf that your imagination has to plug between the mouse click and the construct is smaller, and manipulating modules that comprise large-scale dwellings allows us to inject some personality even when working with prefab chunks. We are asked to participate in some of the crafting process.
But these wall kits and mass-produced floors, they’re still magicked up within the inventory, and once they’re down, expansion is confined to laying identical panels on a grid like some post-apocalyptic expansion for The Sims. And that’s the issue with crafting: it’s forever like what has been before. Who designs a crafting system from scratch? Instead the functional, bland systems of tradition are recycled and the recipes themed appropriately. It often feels as if the premise of a game was decided long before ‘with crafting’ was hung off the end. Survival horror ‘with crafting’; zombie apocalypse ‘with crafting’; Fallout 4 ‘with crafting’.
There are a handful of games in which you craft for crafting’s sake – in which the crafting came first, the technology is bespoke and the traditional trappings of the RPG are the add-ons. Of all the cube manipulators, Minecraft and its 70 million sales should be sufficient evidence of the allure of the creative process. It’s in the bloody name. Minecrafting is heavily abstract, the blocks ensuring that simple construction takes minutes while remaining small and non-specific enough to build castles, spaceships and towering dongs to your exact specifications. Disbelief: suspended. Its item crafting feels like a concession to the old ways, but well judged: resources have to be arranged by hand to resemble the desired product (as Picasso might have imagined it) before it can pop into being.
Heaven forbid, we do not need more Minecraftbuts – there are dozens, and the approach wouldn’t work for a game like Fallout in which crafting isn’t the main event. We need the mentality that lead to Minecraft’s creation – a will to invest in new mechanics that are better analogues to the individuality, freedom and skill involved in assembling stuff from scratch, and which don’t jar with the fantasy. I’m going to venture nervous excitement for Oculus’ and Valve's touch controllers and all the grabbing, reaching and lifting they promise to have me doing with the curtains drawn. Plus, conventional design rarely carries over well to VR – if we’re lucky, crafting-by-numbers will make us vomit like dogs on a ferry, and we can push it overboard for good.