Fallout 4 Autumn Leaves controversy raises a dilemma for mod makers

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Much like the enchanted blade Chillrend, success is a double-edged sword. When companies create beloved franchises that hold more adventures than their games can depict, fans will make up their own stories. Fan fiction, and story-based mods, tell tales that could have happened in games like Fallout or Elder Scrolls, but aren’t officially part of the game’s lore.

Having a huge fanbase that creates their own content means that sometimes a fan might have an idea similar to something that the game’s developer came up with independently. Recently a mod maker pointed out that a mission in Fallout 4 bears more than a passing resemblance to his mod. This raises uncomfortable legal and ethical questions about user-created content, particularly for a game like Fallout 4 which was marketed with the promise of an abundance of fan-made mods. We spoke with the developer of the Autumn Leaves mod which is at the center of this controversy.

The Fallout 4 DLC, Far Harbor has a quest called Brain Dead. In it the playable character is asked to help solve a murder mystery. The player soon discovers that the murder victim is actually a robot, who lived in a subterranean vault populated entirely by other robots. The killer must be one of the quirky robots who live in the vault, and the mystery can only be solved by interviewing the mechanical suspects, and gathering evidence from the crime scene.

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Mysteries, vaults, and funny robots are all very common in the Fallout games; however the Brain Dead mission combines these elements together in a story that is extremely similar to the central plot of the fan-made mod Autumn Leaves which was developed for the previous Fallout game, New Vegas. Autumn Leaves became available to download in September 2015, while Fallout 4 was still in development. The Far Harbor content didn’t arrive until May of 2016.

Many fan-fiction writers, and mod makers hope that their contributions will be acknowledged by the game’s developer. Sometimes this results in companies like Fallout 4‘s developer, Bethesda Softworks, making overt references to fan projects in their games. However, Bethesda claims that Brain Dead isn’t a deliberate nod to Autumn Leaves, but was developed independently.

Despite this claim, the creator of Autumn Leaves has made a post on ModDB.com where he compares the two projects in detail, citing numerous examples of suspicious similarities. Guillaume Veer is the writer, scripter, level designer, and more for Autumn Leaves, and he says “…the strongest similarities are the way the quest unfolded, the general feel of the Vault and its central Atrium, the hushed atmosphere.”

According to Bethesda’s Global Vice President of PR, Pete Hines, “We love our mod community and would never disrespect them. I checked, and any similarities between the two are a complete coincidence.”

In Geek.com’s exclusive interview with Veer, he elaborated on the parallels between the two stories:

“Both quests take place in an underground Vault exclusively inhabited by robots. Nothing THAT unusual, but it’s the starting point.” he said. “The main quest itself, which consists of investigating the murder by checking the crime scene, and speaking to every robot in the Vault. The mysterious death of the prime financier of the Vault, who – in both cases – worked alongside Vault-Tec to build the special place.”

He also cites the importance of robot voice modulators in the plot, and how both stories involve a plot twist where one robot impersonates another by using these voice modulators. There are thematic similarities, more subjective, but also quite numerous. As Veer says, “In both case, the underlying theme is the preservation of culture, in both, robots being its guardians.

Where Brain Dead is about painting (Santiago) and Cinema (Gilda, the actress, which is clearly a reference to Rita Hayworth, by the way), Autumn Leaves is mostly about literature, but also about paintwork and cinema (there is a screening room in Autumn Leaves).”

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Brain Dead is not an integral part of Far Harbor’s story; it’s an optional mission that is tucked away in the Miscellaneous section of the Player’s quest log. We asked Veer if this was significant. He replied “In the sense that Brain Dead lasts one hour, and Autumn Leaves six hours, yes. They are very different in scope: had they intended to take more elements from it, they couldn’t have been able to take much more than they already had, considering how long Autumn Leaves is in comparison to Brain Dead. But that is still assuming they played it, and got inspiration from it.”

Regardless of whether or not some unethical narrative designer stole this particular mod’s story, the incident does force the modding community to wonder what their options are if they feel a designer plagiarizes a fan-made work.

We asked Veer about the user agreement for Fallout’s mod-making tool, the GECK. Veer admits that “In short, that Bethesda owns the Creation Kit and all the content produced with it.” although he adds, “I firmly believe that modders should have intellectual rights over the content they produce.”

At present the system seems balanced against the mod makers, who can labor for years on a mod. “On one side, you have people who produce free content, sometimes with stellar quality, without getting paid.” explains Veer, “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 – that doesn’t overshadow their own productions. And last, we have the players who are used to get free contents 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.

In mid 2015, Bethesda supported a plan that would have allowed mod-makers to receive pay for mods, though the game distributor Steam. However this feature was removed by Steam shortly after it was implemented. Veer says “There is one thing I deplore: throughout the last years’ controversies about paid mods, there was a clear lack of dialogue between the parties involved.”

Veer offers a possible solution to the idea of paid mods, “The answer I’d be tempted to give, is to create an online portal like Itch.io where people and customers should decide things like the respective revenue share, kind of like what Humble does with its bundles. It would be up to the modder to decide the minimal fee for downloading the mod, and even if these portal doesn’t net any revenue for Bethesda, they will still take full advantage from a thriving modding community – which is already the case today, anyway. It’s win-win for all the parties involved. Some recognition in the games’ credits would be very nice! For us modders, who are trying to get a job in the industry, it would be a tremendous boost.”

In a previous interview at Geek.com,Veer mentioned that he was considering a standalone version of Autumn Leaves. When asked if he still intends to pursue that he says, “I still do, more than ever. Though considering the User Agreement, I’m somewhat worried that Bethesda claims ownership of Autumn Leaves as a mod, hence the ownership of whatever I will try to do with it afterwards.”

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