Fallout 3 Retrospective
The games industry has difficulty with its creative side. Every medium has its crass, commercial projects, but the widespread respect afforded to songwriters, directors and authors is rarely found in games. Here the franchise is king, and we’ve grown accustomed to seeing our favourite series ripped from their creators and thrust inelegantly into the hands of another. Even the most respected names are only a step away from being bled for sequels like Friday The 13th.
Fallout’s devoted fans knew as much, and the moment Bethesda purchased the IP from Black Isle Studios they felt the same thing was happening to them. Fallout 3 would be just another bastard offspring of a once proud institution, sired by an industry with a pathological aversion to originality and a powerful lust for profit. However, impartial observers had reached a different conclusion: Fallout 3 was in the care of Bethesda Softworks, a master of the art of role-play, and failure was not an option.
“We felt obligated by the series, not by the fans in particular, as we’re big fans ourselves,” explains Todd Howard, the game’s producer. “We knew, going into it, that we had huge shoes to fill.” Bethesda is an immensely capable studio, but the Fallout series’ unique personality and rare maturity attracted a jealously protective audience. Very few games took you to the places that Black Isle dared, and it’s natural to be wary of even the most skilful and well-meaning alien influence. Howard could have screamed his sincerity from the highest mountain, but suspicion came with the territory.
To the fans, the series being taken from Black Isle was only exacerbated by the knowledge that Fallout 3 was already in production. The architect of the entire universe would have no say in the new game despite already having one planned, and the myth of Bethesda’s ill intentions grew from there. Some even suggested that the IP was purchased to capitalise on the looming dread engulfing the modern West, but Howard bristles at the idea.
“It really had nothing to do with current events, or what could happen to us,” he insists. “It was just that this world was great. The Fifties retro future that had been destroyed, that nuclear naivety mixed with a world gone wrong was too cool not to set another game in.” Veterans of the Capital Wasteland are unlikely to argue. The familiar icons and locations allowed gamers a sense of identification that most science-fiction epics set in a post-apocalyptic 2271 can’t command. Even the technology has an endearingly archaic feel to it – the Dalek-voiced security robots march rigidly into mind.
“In Fallout lore, the timeline split after World War II,” explains Emil Pagliarulo, Fallout 3’s lead designer. “Technology kept advancing at a pretty astonishing rate so there were fusion-powered cars, robotic servants, laser weapons, things like that. At the same time, the United States retained very Fifties sensibilities, so the fashions, the hairstyles, the home decor were all more in line with old American TV shows like Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.”
Pagliarulo echoes Howard’s sentiments and dismisses the idea that Bethesda’s interest was guided by anything more than love and respect for the series. However, he’s more willing to discuss Fallout 3’s numerous cultural reference points, including a certain Pulitzer Prizewinning novel that arrived just at the right time. “After we had started writing the story and had all those details nailed down, Cormac McCarthy released his great novel The Road,” he recalls. “We were blown away by the similarities in theme – a father doing everything to protect his son in a post-apocalyptic environment. It was a strange case of inspiration after the fact. We were already doing what we were doing, but I think it made us feel that much better about the story we had created.”
A film adaptation of The Road is due for release later this year, and promises to be every bit as uncompromising as its source material. Bethesda’s take on the apocalypse is obviously very different, but if director John Hillcoat can capture a fraction of the richness and coherence of Fallout 3’s landscape, it will surely be a triumph. The lush, pastoral fantasia of Oblivion was impressive, but it was also the evolution of a style and idea conceived years before, a setting where gamers felt comfortable. The wastelands had to be hostile, scorched and barren, qualities that sit uncomfortably beside the aggressively bright colours most gamers demand.
Fallout 3 was not allowed to be ‘beautiful’. “Of course, Fallout 3 is the sequel to the previous Fallout videogames,” acknowledges Pagliarulo. “But being made by Bethesda, it was also very much a sequel to Oblivion. We knew our fans would see it as such, and Oblivion, maybe more than anything, is a ‘beautiful’ game – you leave that underground prison and are thrust into this amazing forest environment. We knew that in Fallout 3 the player was going to leave Vault 101 and be thrust into a destroyed, postapocalyptic environment. That was the challenge: how do we make the wasteland look beautiful? How do we make the player feel amazed and depressed at the same time?”
The obvious solution would simply be to plump for size – if Oblivion was big, Fallout 3 could always be bigger – but Bethesda actually decided to head in the opposite direction. After all, the emptiness of the wasteland made it feel vast by default, and the instantly recognisable landmarks of Washington – unprecedented anywhere else in America – did an excellent job of eliciting the required levels of amazement. Feelings of depression seemed to follow naturally as the full resonance of the White House restyled as a bomb crater began to sink in. Fallout 3’s smaller play area makes its exploration a consistently surprising pleasure.
The game’s auto-travel function has become the subject of discouraging remarks, but its habitual users have no one to blame but themselves. The density of locations and distractions offer more than enough incentive to take the slow road, and the rewards for doing so are invaluable. Some of the game’s brightest jewels lie buried among the wastes, its most vivid characters make their lives in the humblest of homes. In the case of ‘Oasis’, one of the game’s most impressive quests would never be discovered by a player unwilling to poke around the map’s nooks and crevices.
“WE MAKE BIG games, but it’s never just space for space’s sake,” insists Pagliarulo. “The downtown DC section was, at one point, twice as big as what we shipped with. We’re talking polished gameplay spaces, with weeks, even months of work having been put into them. But we looked at all that space and had to be honest with ourselves: it was too much, it was hard for the player to navigate, it didn’t really add much to the game, and so we cut it.”
The creation of a game of Fallout 3’s ambition seems to demand that fearless, brutal honesty. Bethesda allowed itself no quarter, and shunned any received ideas and tried-and-true solutions. The entire team played the game every day, attempting to refine its disparate elements so the bigger picture would make sense. “Our unofficial company motto is ‘Great games are played, not made’,” says Pagliarulo.
“What that means for us is constant playtesting and revision. We can make all the content in the world, but we also need to know that it’s going to be fun.”
Not that designing the Capital Wasteland was a gruelling ordeal in the name of fun. Washington held lifelong familiarity for many members of the team, and the rest could draw inspiration from the opportunity to unmake their shared national history. Standing before the Washington Monument – its form pocked and exploded by years of perpetual warfare – is a potent reality check, but the idea manifests itself in more subtle and ingenious ways. In a single day of playing Fallout 3, we sold the Declaration of Independence for less than the price of a decrepit missile launcher, then used it to destroy a robot programmed to act like George Washington. Bethesda’s brainstorming sessions must have been a riot.
“It was, actually,” says Howard. “We had to spend a good deal of time figuring out what the government in the world of Fallout would have been like, and how Washington DC would look if the events after WWII were different.” The area around the Mall, which contains almost every famous structure in downtown Washington, was an immediate concern. But strangely enough, when it came to deciding the fate of such symbolic buildings, the conclusion was invariably the same. “We went in with a pretty good plan,” Pagliarulo explains sheepishly, “and, you know, as we kept building the world, we kept destroying other recognisable landmarks.”
Among the ruins of this destroyed civilisation, a new one is beginning to flower; your character is at the heart of its future. The entire series picks apart the history of America, but nowhere more effectively than in Fallout 3. Bethesda’s frequent use of Wild West imagery is very deliberate. The Capital Wasteland is the frontier of the war to rebuild the country, but that can only be earned through blood and toil, and the outcome is far from certain. “Sacrifice and survival were our themes,” adds Howard, and few landscapes have highlighted the contrast between those values with such clarity: anyone who chatted to the mysterious stranger in the Megaton bar will know exactly what we mean.
“The choice to save or destroy Megaton was definitely a deliberate attempt to show the world we were serious about taking on the Fallout franchise,” says Pagliarulo, “because a big part of that is giving the player some really tough choices to make. Megaton is definitely one of the first big decisions you have to make. It’s one of the biggest in the entire game, really. The Fallout world is not pretty, and that’s something we fully embraced. It’s epitomised in the Megaton quest.”
A particularly lazy criticism of Fallout 3 is that it’s just ‘Oblivion with guns’. But beyond the jarring way the camera fixes every speaking character lifelessly in the centre of the screen, genuine similarities are difficult to spot. The fact is, Oblivion may be great, but it’s inferior to Fallout 3 in all matters but for those of personal taste. The progress is obvious in the dialogue, the voice-acting, the characters, the environmental design and – most importantly – the quests. The absence of guilds released the design team from having to honour restrictive categories, and allowed the shift in emphasis towards more choice, rather than more missions. This is the root of Fallout 3’s side quests being as compelling and considered as its main story. They provide all the incentive a player could need to stray from the path and remake the future, and Bethesda sweated and strained to make it work.
“By allowing the player multiple ways of completing quests,” explains Pagliarulo, “which, in many cases, included killing the quest giver in the middle of the task, we were creating more permutations than players were really even aware of. At times it would be a logistical nightmare, with quests breaking in unexpected ways, or the player not receiving an award. It was a huge learning experience, but it was definitely the right approach to take. It’s Fallout, after all. It deserved it.”
During an interview about Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side Of The Moon album, the band’s guitarist Dave Gilmour lamented that he forfeited his right to one of the most important cultural experiences of that generation: lights off, headphones on, Dark Side on the turntable, and the volume turned right up. The album may have been made in the same kind of studio as myriad others, but the combined effect of its tricks was quite unlike anything that went before it. It could blow you away, and by being so integral to its production, by building it up layer by layer, Gilmour could never understand the power of his own creation.
The comparison is far from precise, but stumbling around the Wasteland, with no fixed direction and no idea as to what horrors or surprises await, seems to transcend traditional gaming in the same way. Does Bethesda suffer from Gilmour’s same feelings of regret? “I do, actually,” Howard replies. “We always wanted to make another Fallout game, so we jumped at the chance. But while I do still enjoy playing the game – the basic mechanics are really fun – the key ingredient, to explore and be surprised, is lost on me at this point.”
The pride in a job well done still shines through, however, and Pagliarulo enthusiastically dispels the misconception that an artist can’t be objective about their own labour. “I realise the humble answer is ‘No, we had no idea it would be that well received’, but that wouldn’t be completely honest,” he admits. “It was pretty late in production, when all the combat was balanced and VATS was working well, and my thoughts began to move from ‘This is pretty cool' to ‘Wow, this is, um, awesome’. I’m a huge gamer, and there came a point where, for the span of a few months, I was having more fun at work than I was playing other games at home. That’s never happened to me before. For nearly four years I watched my colleagues pour their souls into this game, but I really started to feel we had created something special, something that hadn’t quite been done before. It’s been a really, really great ride.”
Like all happy customers, though, gamers simply want to know when they can expect to buy their next ticket. Fallout 3 was an incomparable experience, not just the high-octane roller coaster we’re used to, but the concept is only as infinite as Bethesda’s desire to pursue it further. Our minds often drift into a reverie of new, far-flung wastelands – London, New York, Tokyo, you name it – but we’re too familiar with the game industry’s poker face to even bother with questions about a sequel. We content ourselves with the knowledge that, as long as the potential for improvement remains, a studio of Bethesda’s calibre would always be interested.
“Honestly,” Howard concludes, unaware of our hopeful internal dialogue. “I can see how to improve all of it now.” We choose to read between the lines.