You’ll spend a lot of Fallout 4 fighting irradiated super mutants, giant killer cockroaches, and deadly cyborgs. You’ll spend just as much time fighting the game’s awful user interface.
The fact that Fallout 4 has cumbersome, counterintuitive menus won’t come as a surprise to anyone who played Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. In most ways, the new game uses the same interface as its predecessors, with the same problems carried over more or less intact. In other ways, the game’s creators have tried to streamline various systems and menus in order to make them more appealing and user friendly… but they’ve mostly just made things more confusing.
I really like Fallout 4—I’ve played an ungodly number of hours over the last couple of weeks, and my feelings on the game mostly line up with Patricia’s review. It’s a good game. Still, there’s almost certainly something to be gained from taking a closer look at the many ways the menus and interfaces fail to perform even their basic presumed functions.
This article is based on the PC version of the game. In the interest of space, I’ve focused only on the controller interface, though I gather that the mouse & keyboard setup is just as confusing, if not more so. Ready? Let’s get going.
Let’s start with the Pip-Boy. God. The fucking Pip-Boy.
The Pip-Boy is a chunky portable computer that your character wears on his or her wrist. It’s how you keep track of everything in the game, from quests to navigation to inventory to radio stations. Like most things in Fallout 4, it is amazingly counterintuitive and difficult to use.
Look at that screenshot up there. The Pip-Boy interface is just completely fucked from the very start, because it uses screen space so inefficiently. Look at this (actually fairly generous) illustration:
A couple of readers have noted that you can press the back button to zoom in on the Pip-Boy, which increases the screen size a touch.
Even with the zoom, however, there’s still a huge amount of dead space:
The Pip-Boy is hobbled out of the gate by Bethesda’s desire to present it as an in-game “thing,” a screen within a screen. I’m a fan of games that take this approach, but not when it’s done so ineffectually, and not when it’s so ugly and hard to read. With a different, full-screen UI, Fallout 4 could convey so much more information so much more cleanly than it does.
In addition to the tiny screen size, the font is an awful Apple IIe approximation, and the screen is slightly curved. And how about this: Your Pip-Boy doesn’t consistently tell you what time it is. The thing is basically the biggest, most iconic watch in video games, and it only functions as a watch for about half the time.
When you pull up your Pip-Boy, you see what your character would see in real life. You’ve got a few tabs to flip through—Inventory, Character Status, and the confusingly named “Data” among them.
Let’s look at what information is displayed at the bottom of each screen.
Status: Three Things
A numerical display of your current and max hit points, a bar indicating your level progress, and a numerical display of your current and max action points.
Inventory: Three Things
A numerical display of the weight you’re carrying, a numerical display of the number of caps you have, indicated by a caps logo, and a non-numerical health bar that matches the one on your in-game HUD.
Data: Two Things
The in-game date and time. Finally, the time! On the third tab.
Map: Three Things
The in-game date, the time, and the name of the region where you’re currently standing.
Radio: Zero Things
Just nothing at all. Couldn’t the time have fit here? Whatever, I guess.
Looking at the bottom of each page, it’s striking how inconsistently the Pip-Boy presents information. The time thing sticks out the most to me—why doesn’t the time display on every tab?—but there’s also the fact that health is represented two different ways (numeric and graphical) on two separate pages, XP is never presented numerically, and caps are denoted with an odd “C” logo.
I could spend another ten paragraphs talking about all the other ways the Pip-Boy is messed up. It’s a pain to actually use and navigate, and it isn’t always clear how to get into some of the nestled menus. (Take the “miscellaneous” quests tab shown in the screenshot up top. I think of that submenu as where sidequests go to die.) You use the triggers to cycle through the main menus, but can’t cycle “around the end” and quickly get to the other side, so you’ll often stall out and have to backtrack across every tab. You use the D-pad or thumbstick to move up and down in a given menu, but also use them to move left and right... through submenus.
And then there’s the map.
The Map (Oh Man)
Fallout 4 is defined by its huge, well-crafted open world. Any open world game relies significantly on its map, and Fallout 4’s map is… just really spectacularly not good.
Like everything else in the Pip-Boy interface, the map is crammed onto a tiny screen. Everything looks small and indistinct. Icons all smush together in populated areas and become unreadable at a glance. The map is also the only thing in Fallout 4 to give you an in-game “mouse” cursor that you move around with your thumbstick. It’s an approach that I very much support in theory, but in practice here the mouse arrow moves too slowly and can be hard to keep track of.
When you first open up the map, you’ll probably want to zoom in. You can do that with a thumbstick, but here’s the thing—if you zoom in on your Pip-Boy’s map immediately after opening it, it always zooms in on your cursor, not your character. That usually means you zoom to the point that you can no longer see where your character is standing.
Often it’ll go so far away from my character that I’ll lose track of where I was. That’s in part because if you zoom in too much, everything in the monochrome map looks the same.
Then there’s the Local Map. The local map is intended to give you a better sense of your immediate surroundings, but it’s just as much of a mess in Fallout 4 as it’s been in past games. In a given area, the local map will usually look something like this:
It’s basically a satellite photo, which is a neat idea in theory, but in practice it’s just weird. It’s way too hard to tell what anything is or where you can even walk. The icons for doors and other objects blend into the background and can be hard to see. I’ll often identify where I’m supposed to go on the local map, but be unable to figure out how to get there. Is that a wall, or a floor? Is that door on this level, or the next?
The Stealth Interface
When you’re sneaking in Fallout 4, a great big sign appears in the middle of your screen that says [ HIDDEN ]. It appears right in the middle of your screen, in huge text that is really ugly and distracting.
Considering how large the sneaking text is, it does a pretty poor job of communicating information. Did you know, for instance, that the brackets around the word HIDDEN actually indicate how hidden you are? The closer they pull to your character, the less hidden you are. I think… (checks)… yeah, that’s correct.
So many games have solved this problem in so many other, better ways. I don’t understand why Bethesda doesn’t just use one of several tried-and-true solutions, e.g. a small icon in the corner of the screen could clearly indicate when you’d entered stealth, and could grow darker when you’re better hidden and brighter when you’re more visible. I understand that they want to make information available to you without requiring you to look at the corner of the screen, but there are so many more elegant ways to do that.
Instead I have this ridiculous eyesore that dominates the screen anytime I’m in stealth, which, given that I play a stealth character, is pretty much all the time. I don’t get it.
In her review, Patricia laid out some solid arguments for why Fallout 4’s dialogue system doesn’t quite work. I agree with a lot of what she wrote, and will add my gripe that, like a lot of other things in this game, the dialogue interface withholds far too much information.
As with a lot of Fallout 4’s menu troubles, the main issue is consistency. You have four options in a given conversation, which correspond with the four face buttons. But while the four options are usually consistent, sometimes they aren’t.
Often, you’ve got questions on the top, a sarcastic or harsh response to the left, a bland affirmative/good guy response to the bottom, and a negative/“no” response to the right. But so, so many conversations play out differently.
When you pick a given option, you don’t know exactly what your character is going to say. This was never a problem for me in the Mass Effect games, but it annoys the hell out of me in Fallout 4. The reason for that, I think, is that Fallout 4 doesn’t always make it clear to me which “type” of option I’m choosing, so on top of my uncertainty of what my character will say, I’m not sure whether the dialogue option I’m choosing is simply conversational, or whether it is an action that’ll trigger a branch in the story.
Even the language is weird and inconsistent. Take the example above. We’ve got four options:
- What newspaper?
- Not my business
- Hate newspapers
- Support news
The first two are presented as things your character might actually say. The second two, “Hate newspapers” and “Support news,” feel more like abstract stances—they begin with the verbs “hate” and “support” and seem like actions you’re telling your character to take, rather than words you’re telling your character to say.
It’s a fine point of distinction, but there are so many small inconsistencies like that in Fallout 4. When combined, they contribute to an overarching sense that the information presented to you is untrustworthy.
I play a high-charisma character, meaning that I’m often given special dialogue options that I can try. They’re color coded, depending on how easy they’ll be to pull off. The color coding is, surprise, confusing.
Yellow means you have the best shot of a successful Charisma roll, and red is hardest. That’s easy to keep track of. But in the middle there’s this sort of… dark yellow/orange color? Or maybe it’s a gradient? It’s awfully close to yellow, and makes it difficult for me to tell how hard the actual roll is going to be, particularly given that you usually only see one charisma option at a time (the pic above is a rare occurrence) and therefore have nothing to compare it with.
To get all three colors together, I had to combine two separate screenshots:
Why go with orange and yellow? Why pick a mid-color that’s so similar to one of the colors on the end? Why not go blue, yellow, red? In the end I guess it doesn’t matter, since when most people blow a charisma roll, they just reload a save and try again until they get it. (Maybe put on that Newsboy cap to increase your odds.)
Finally, there’s the issue of what kind of dialogue window you’re looking at. When a collection of dialogue options pops up, you’re either given a series of topics that you can cycle through and address one by one, or you’re presented with a junction in the conversation where you can make one choice, which moves the conversation forward and locks off the other conversational options. Some of those choices have next to no tangible impact; some mean the difference between reaching a mutual understanding and immediately engaging in gunplay.
The game never tells you which kind of dialogue tree you’re looking at, though. So, so many times I’ve picked one response and found the conversation moving forward when I thought I’d be able to explore the other options as well.
All of those dialogue interface problems combine to make the player feel substantially removed from the dialogue. Each time I’m not sure what my character is going to say, or whether or not I’m about to pass a point of no return in a conversation, I feel a little bit more removed from my protagonist.
Crafting And Settlement Management
There are so many things wrong with Fallout 4’s crafting interface that I almost don’t know where to begin. Actually, I do—let’s begin with how you begin.
When you enter one of your settlements, it’d be safe to assume you have to walk up to the red workbench to start crafting. You press A to enter the crafting menu, at which point you’re actually free to walk all around your settlement, placing objects wherever you want.
It actually took me a surprising amount of time just to figure out that simple fact. That’s largely because Fallout 4 does essentially nothing to explain any of this to the player and in no way lays out its interface elements or even the bare fundamentals of crafting. Given how often Fallout 4 simply fails to explain basic functions (like sitting, or VATs), it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but still. Wow.
Back to my first time crafting. I spent a dispiriting stretch standing in front of the red bench, cycling through crafting options, unsure what I was doing wrong. I’m sure part of that is on me for being thick (and for not watching any of Bethesda’s pre-release videos on crafting), but it’s mostly on the interface.
Here’s what you see when you first open the crafting interface:
At first, I simply assumed I didn’t have the materials to make a bed. I didn’t know what to make of this:
It says Bed (4), which seems like it means that I can make four beds. Though, who knows—maybe it means that I have four beds in storage? Or already have four built somewhere on the premises? I couldn’t make a bed, so… why? The materials I need are displayed in fraction form, which isn’t entirely unclear once you know what it means (I have 61 steel and only need 4, etc.), but the first time I crafted something I didn’t quite get it.
Then there’s the “Requires” tab, which in this case is accompanied by… the outline of Vault Boy. What does that mean? Does it require me to have at least one settler in my settlement? Is that the icon for some ability I don’t have? I had no idea.
Turns out, that just means that the requirement to build that object is… you. I guess? Like, it requires a single player to move the object around and place it. I’m actually still kind of vague on what that means. (Update: A reader tells me it means it requires a settler to use it, but doesn’t actually have anything to do with crafting requirements.) This is a case of the game providing too much information and leaving the player wondering if they’re missing some crucial requirement that doesn’t actually exist.
Once I figured out that I was actually supposed to walk around my settlement and lay out objects in the real world, I was able to start crafting, but things didn’t get any simpler. For starters, there’s the fact that buttons do different things depending on what menu you’re in and where you’re standing.
To enter the crafting menu, you hit A at the crafting table… or hold down the “back” button on your controller. Crafting requires you to navigate several nestled horizontal menus, moving deeper with A and pulling back out with B. However… if you press A or B while pointing at an object you’ve just crafted, you’ll either pick it up and start moving it (A) or try to place it in storage (B).
When I craft something, I usually want to back out of the nestled menu and return to where I can choose something totally new to make. Immediately after crafting something, your reticle is lined up with the thing you crafted. It’s completely natural to press B, which instead of backing out of your current submenu, will bring up this dialogue box:
It’s obnoxious to be constantly interrupted with pop-up menus that are being triggered because I was selecting something or other in the world.
Then there’s settlement management, which could probably have its own whole section. Basically, this...
...is weird in so many ways. It gives me a bunch of numbers. Some of those numbers are straightforward, others are more confusing. It shows me “happiness” and an up arrow, but what does that mean? It shows me “size” with a bar, not a number, which doesn’t indicate to me whether there’s a maximum size, or an ideal size, or what?
I could probably spend ten more paragraphs on the crafting and settlement management system, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say, at every turn the crafting and settlement UI withholds crucial information, mixes up controller inputs, and conveys information in ways that are inconsistent and confusing. (For example: How long did it take you to figure out how to connect power lines to things? Or to assign a settler to a particular task?)
The Perk Upgrade Screen
When you level up in Fallout 4, it works slightly differently than it did in Fallout 3. Instead of increasing numerical skills, you customize your character from a huge perk tree. In practice, it’s not all that different from the previous system, and it almost feels as though the same stats that drove Fallout 3 are driving Fallout 4.
Like so many things in Fallout 4, the perk tree is difficult to parse and confusingly laid out. Like the simplified dialogue system, it’s another case of Bethesda trying to make one of Fallout 3’s systems more approachable and instead just making it more confusing.
There’s a lot more inconsistency, for starters. When you start out, you’ll pick your SPECIAL skills numerically. You’ll have a Strength of 7, an Agility of 8, a Charisma of 4, and so on. But when you go to the perk tree, the numbers have been swapped out with stars. Instead of a collection of numerical scores, you’ll see this:
Quick: What’s my Charisma score? How long does it take you to count those stars? I bet it takes you a little while. Did you have fun counting the stars? I bet you did not.
Once you begin scrolling down from the SPECIAL stats to the actual perks, it just keeps getting more confusing. For starters, it’s never made clear that you can buy any unlocked perk at any time—I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who initially thought that perks worked like a tree, and that you had to max out the first perk before moving down to the second, then the third.
Additionally, there’s the fact that you can hit the right shoulder button for “next rank.” The idea is that you’ll be able to preview the later perks you can’t afford yet, to get a sense of whether the perk is worth investing in. But the on-screen text—“next rank”—is confusing, and at first I thought I was actually buying upgrades.
Meanwhile, you can check your SPECIAL and perks in your Pip-Boy, and that screen looks like this:
Once again, the tiny size of the Pip-Boy screen means that important information is regularly getting cut off, but even so this would be easier to scan than the graphical perks tree… if not for the fact that it actually offers too much information, and presents it confusingly.
Notice in this screenshot how “Action Girl” (a perk) is placed right next to perks like “Astoundingly Awesome 3,” “Astoundingly Awesome 5,” “Barbarian,” and “Covert Operations.” Those are minor perks that I picked up from books I found lying around the wasteland, but here they’re just thrown into a menu alongside my more potent character perks. Why these two things aren’t at least divided on this page into “books” and “perks” is beyond me.
VATS And Combat
The VATS combat system has always been a little bit weird in Bethesda’s 3D Fallout games. Surprise, surprise… it’s still weird in Fallout 4.
Most issues with VATS are minor things that all add up to something bigger. Let’s start with the numbers. We see a big 25 on the head there and a 51 on the body, along with what looks like a health bar. What does the 51 mean? Fallout veterans know it indicates the percentage chance you have to hit the part in question, but that’s not actually communicated all that well. There’s a missing percent sign, and a new player would be just lost looking at this. What are the numbers? What are the little health bars? Are they related? What’s going on?
Once you choose a target in VATS, you hit the trigger button to select where you want to shoot, then the A button to accept your choices and move you into action. But when you choose how you want to spend your action points, it doesn’t tell you what order you’ve picked your shot:
Which one’s first? Which one’s second? Your enemies are still shooting you in slow-mo, so you better figure it out and get a move on.
Then there’s the issue of the new “Critical” option, which displays as a bar at the bottom of VATS and can be manually triggered to unleash a powerful critical strike. The game never really explains how that works.
I spent my first 20 or so hours in Fallout 4 ignoring this feature because I simply didn’t know what it was. I finally started executing critical strikes by hitting X after my character began the animation to take a shot in VATS—meaning that I select the target with the right trigger, then execute with A, then quickly trigger my critical strike with X. The VATS screen does so little to communicate any of that. In fact, I’m still not quite sure if I’m doing it right.
Two Good Things
I’ve been pretty negative in this post, because, well, Fallout 4 deserves it. This game’s user interface is wretched. With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least tip my hat to one interface tweak that’s a clear-cut improvement over Fallout 3: The item shortcut interface.
Back in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, we had to select items from any of the eight possible directions on the D-pad. That meant that we’d have to assign some poor weapon or item to, say, the upper-left diagonal on the D-pad, which made selecting it a crapshoot.
The new system restricts items to the four cardinal D-pad directions but lets you cycle out through three layers on each side. Big improvement. Good job, Bethesda!
I’d also like to give a big high-five for this:
Bethesda’s PC games always (I believe?) include the quit-to-desktop option right from the in-game menu. They don’t make me quit to the main menu before quitting to desktop, a decision that obeys The Ten Commandments of Video Game Menus and therefore makes me happy.
I’ve left so many things out of this post: Character creation and customization. Waypoints and navigation. Weapon upgrading. Power armor upgrading. Merchants and trading. Understanding what food does. Changing your UI or Pip-Boy text color. Finding your way around while inside a building. Quests that have multiple objectives. Every single thing about computer terminals. And on, and on, and on.
Last week, writer Zak McClendon published an article for Wired titled “Fallout 4 is full of bugs, but fixing them could ruin it.” The headline didn’t sell me, but the article itself is thoughtful and well-reasoned. McClendon argues that Bethesda’s relatively small team size—compared with other studios making similarly ambitious AAA games—is what allows them to focus on creativity and expression in their games, while also being what necessarily limits how polished those games are when they ship. He writes:
I simply don’t think it’s feasible to make a Bethesda game that’s polished in the same way other AAA games are. That requires focus and formalization, and Bethesda excels at the opposite. So why try to fix this at all? If you’ve built a studio that works, making games your audience loves, why not slowly grow that success in a truly sustainable way, instead of risking it to keep pace with the rest of the industry? As developers, they’re in an enviable place—making epic games at a human scale.
I agree with a lot of McClendon’s points, broadly: I think that the weird jankiness of Bethesda’s games is indeed likely a byproduct of the creative culture that allows their games to be so distinctly appealing. I’d even say that on one level, the lack of polish contributes to the games’ appeal… as long as quests aren’t bugging out and blocking you from making progress, or anything game-breaking like that.
Fallout 4 is a big bag of cats that’s often charming in its crustiness. All the same, I draw a line between bugs—floating enemies, followers clipping through doors, etc.—and poor UX, menu, and interface design. The disastrous state of Fallout 4’s menus and interfaces is a problem that stands apart from more general questions of polish and presents a huge barrier for entry for what is otherwise a broadly appealing game.
The fact that I’m able to deal with all of it in order to play (and enjoy!) the game is a testament to just how good Fallout 4 is at the things it does well. All the same, it’s frustrating to watch such a fascinating game make itself so difficult to actually use.
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