The tensions between the modding community and Bethesda continue to rise this week, with a prominent modder claiming that the developers took heavy inspiration from his Fallout: New Vegas mod without giving him any credit. On October 2015, BaronVonChateau released a major Fallout: New Vegas mod called Autumn Leaves. You can watch the trailer for it below:
Autumn Leaves' premise: A group of wealthy men came together to build a library where "history and culture could be preserved". The library was transformed into a vault, where one man accidentally got trapped inside earlier than anticipated. Without any other inhabitants to keep him company, the man decided to build a cadre of robots who could safeguard the library. Some of these robots were programmed to have unique personalities, and the player can spend quality time speaking to all of them about the philosophical ramifications of being a non-human consciousness.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Bethesda releases a DLC add-on to Fallout 4 called Far Harbor. Within it, there is a quest called "Brain Dead" that tasks the player with solving a murder mystery within a hotel. And according to BaronVonChateau, the similarities between this quest and Autumn Leaves are too strong to ignore.
Both Brain Dead and Autumn Leaves feature "a colourful cast of excentric robots, in charge of a forgotten Vault where a strange murder happened," BaronVonChateau wrote in a blog post.
To back this claim up, BaronVonChateau supplied a number of comparative screenshots that do indeed make the similarities seem uncanny:
I played through Brain Dead last night, and have spent a couple of hours watching Let's Plays of Autumn Leaves as well. Based on what I've seen and played, the situation seems a bit more complex than what is presented in the blog post. There are indeed similarities, but overtly, both of the quests have enough differences that it would be easy for Bethesda to say it was all just a coincidence.
For one, let's consider the narrative wrapper: It is completely different. In Fallout 4, the hotel is a vault where a Vault-Tec experiment was meant to be held. The hotel was thus built with two wings: One for the working class, and one for the rich. The average vault dweller was set-up to have a miserable experience inside, with their wing of the vault designed to be cramped and uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the wealthy dwellers could expect to have every whim and desire catered to by the masses living on the poor side of the vault. The inequality was basically a ticking time bomb.
In a twist, one of the affluent patrons convinced the other dwellers to transfer their brains into robot bodies so that they could live forever. When the player reaches the hotel, most of it is inhabited by ghouls, with the exception of the moneyed guests, who have managed to survive the apocalypse in robotic bodies, and electric concierges, who dutifully keep things running in the hotel.
Technically, both the mod and the quest end up with a vault populated by robots, some of which are human-like and some of which are there to perform a duty... but the details are still pretty distinct from each other.
Both the quest and the mod have a similar vibe, in that the player has to navigate an upscale vault. That said, the refined air makes way more sense for a hotel than it does a library.
The pacing and overall design of the quest and the mod are different as well. When the player enters Brain Dead in Fallout 4, they walk into fresh crime scene, and all the vault citizens are crowded around the body, causing a commotion. Immediately, the player is asked to look around and gather clues, which are partially gathered by interviewing hotel residents.
In Autumn Leaves, the player enters the vault and is treated to a very extensive lore dump. In the Let's Play video that I watched, the player didn't actually discover the body until nearly an hour of playtime, at which point it was revealed that the person had been dead for a long time. From there, an investigation opens up, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to talk to the robots. Autumn Leaves seems like a more contemplative, if not outright meandering Fallout experience than Brain Dead, and it is easy to get lost in conversation with the robots therein.
The robots, as it turns out, are completely different. As far as I can tell, there aren't many similarities between the actual characters in the mod and in the Fallout 4 quest. BaronVonChateau characterises both of them as "eccentric" but that's pretty broad, and could apply to pretty much anyone in the Fallout universe, period. The entire shtick is that the world has turned mad, after all.
That said, BaronVonChateau points out that both the quest and the mod have a plot point relating to robotic voice modules, and it is specific enough to raise eyebrows. In both instances, the story postulates that a robot is capable of using any voice they please, so long as it is human. Another similarity: The robots in both the quest and the mod ask the player to interpret the metaphorical significance of an item. BaronVonChateau provides the following screenshots as evidence:
This actually happens more than once in Autumn Leaves; at another point, a different robot asks the player what he or she thinks of a toy on her desk, and the player is free to interpret it however they'd like. While this may seem damning to some, after playing Brain Dead, the circumstances look pretty different to me. Yes, you have two robots asking you about paintings. But these characters are nothing alike. On the top you have a painter-gone-mad, a total Oscar Wilde type who sees something like a dead body and thinks it is wonderful inspiration. On the bottom, you've got a mega obnoxious robot named Rolland.
BaronVonChateau points to a variety of different similarities like the one above, and you can check them out here. Without context, these allegations present a very strong case: The screenshots have been paired to look the same. If you've actually played Brain Dead, however, it is not as clear-cut. For example: BaronVonChateau shows that both the mod and the quest have a robot that propositions you. But it is not like Autumn Leaves came up with the idea of robot fucking; Fallout has pulled that gag for years. Remember Fisto?
"I honestly thought Bethesda's staff played Autumn Leaves, had a blast with it (I hope), [and] took some things out of it and made their own thing for Far Harbor," BaronVonChateau wrote.
"Of course, it raises some questions : should modders get some recognition from the industry, compensation?" BaronVonChateau mused. "How could those two dynamics — paid content and free creation — should be managed? What kind of acknowledgement should a big publisher give to small creators? What is the kind of acknowledgement they can afford?"
These are great questions, and they are complicated when you consider that Bethesda owns the Fallout IP. Players might create mods for the game, but Bethesda can still claim ownership over everything if they'd like. Legally speaking, Bethesda may not have to give credit to anybody if indeed inspiration was taken from Autumn Leaves, or any other mod for that matter.
Then again, when it comes to Bethesda, the "professional" and amateur spheres overlap strongly: Mods a huge part of the experience for games like Skyrim and Fallout, enough that it doesn't feel like a stretch to suggest that mods likely influence the official development of the games. Moreover, one of the ongoing criticisms of Bethesda-supplied Fallout DLC is that it often charges for features that the modding community already provides for free. Bethesda, being the developer, can actually tweak the game to provide slightly deeper experiences than what modders can, but even so, there's still this lingering sense of uneasiness within the modding community because there is no system in place to really give props or acknowledgement to anybody. It doesn't help that modding has turned into a fiasco for Fallout 4, period.
"On one side, you have people who produce free content, sometimes with stellar quality, without getting paid," BaronVonChateau said in an interview with Kotaku.
"On another side, you have a publisher, who is clearly getting benefits from a strong modding community, through the regular addition of new — free content — to their game, that doesn't overshadow their own productions. And last, we have the players who are used to get free content through mods. How do we find a balance between those three ? Clearly, modders are getting the short end of the stick with this, but they know that their content will be free, from the first line of script written, to the last. It's quite the conundrum."
As far as acknowledgement goes, BaronVonChateau says that it would be nice for Bethesda to sometimes provide a modder's name in the credits, if not outright recruit them for paid work. At the very least, he would love to see more shoutouts, like say perhaps on social media.
We reached out to Bethesda to ask about the similarities, but did not hear back in time for publication. In a statement to Gamespot, Bethesda VP of marketing Pete Hines said, "We love our mod community and would never disrespect them. I checked, and any similarities between the two are a complete coincidence."