A couple of months ago, Bethesda Game Studios released its first major add-on for Fallout 4, its best-selling post-apocalyptic role-playing game. In Far Harbor, players traveled to a fog-drenched island in Maine, running through quests and collecting loot. But one of those quests, “Brain Dead,” looked familiar to fans in the Fallout modding community, which develops unofficial add-ons for the series.
A few months before Fallout 4’s release, modder Guillaume Veer released “Autumn Leaves” for Fallout: New Vegas, a preferred iteration of the series that many of its biggest fans uphold for the myriad nonviolent ways that players can resolve quests and encounters. In “Autumn Leaves,” players are called to a vault inhabited by robots in order to solve a mysterious murder.
Far Harbor, the official DLC put out by Bethesda, features a quest called “Brain Dead,” in which … players are called to a vault inhabited by robots in order to solve a mysterious murder.
The similarities don’t end there. In a blog post on ModDB, Veer wrote about many of the similarities. Both quests feature the player discussing high art with one of the robots. In another shared instance, the player has a sexual encounter with one of the bots (these games are, to say the least, weird as hell). A focal point in both environments is a large, two-level atrium with a balcony around the periphery.
In an interview, Veer said, “I wanted to bring the player out of their zone of comfort. Having them play a non-violent questline where they could exert their deductive abilities … and have their worldviews challenged.” A key part of the mod is that it features ways to resolve the conflict aside from violence — this is a trademark quality of older Fallout games that some have criticized Fallout 4 for forgetting. Altogether, Veer worked on “Autumn Leaves” for four years, alongside composers and voice actors, before the finished product was released in 2015.
Veer fully acknowledged that in comparing his mod with “Brain Dead,” he was hardly an impartial party, which is why he made the comparative blog post. While the general premise and a few details of both quests are the same, Patricia Hernandez at Kotaku notes that there are stark differences as well. The backstories for how the robots ended up in a fancy underground vault are completely different, and the pacing for “Autumn Leaves” is much looser, more meandering. Also different: the personalities of the robots within the vault.
So “Brain Dead” is hardly a 1:1 replication of Veer’s work. Bethesda did not respond to emails seeking comment, but yesterday, their VP of marketing, Pete Hines, told GameSpot, “We love our mod community and would never disrespect them. I checked, and any similarities between the two are a complete coincidence.”
Are they though? “It’s common knowledge at this point that Bethesda get[s] regular inspirations from the community’s mods,” Veer noted. Fallout 4’s biggest new feature — a base-building mode known as workshop mode — bears a striking resemblance to “Wasteland Defense,” a mod for New Vegas. The mod RobCo Certified lets New Vegas players create custom robot companions, which is the same premise as Fallout 4’s new Automatron add-on. “Bethesda has a history with modders. They know it, everyone knows it. They capitalized on it,” Veer added.
For Bethesda to try and set itself apart and claim that the similarities are complete coincidence seems disingenuous. You can’t at once claim to be attentive to your users’ contributions and also create new content in a vacuum. “I made this mod for my portfolio, in hopes that one day I would get a job in the gaming industry. Some recognition would really help me get to that point,” Veer admitted, though he never sounded angry or demanding when discussing it.
At the end of the day, these mods are being built using intellectual property owned by Bethesda, so modders already have a dicey sense of ownership over their work. And is adding new writing or dialogue to a game different from adding new gameplay or mechanics? The answer is unclear. A community feeding off of a developer’s output, and vice versa, is part of what makes these games have staying power for years after their release. It benefits everybody. But is it possible that one side might be benefitting a bit more?