Imagine a world where the values and paranoia of the 1950’s did not end with the passage of time, but with a flash and a mushroom cloud.
Imagine a world where the bombs devastated a technologically uplifted 50’s America. All that is left is ash and bombed out husks of a once great society. Imagine a world where this was not the end to human existence, but is only a new bloody chapter in human history where the rest of humanity lives amongst these broken walls and tries to build a new society. Throughout the series, the same tag words always end the opening cinematics:
“War, War Never Changes.”
For as little as we know about the upcoming Fallout 4, we have a great understanding about the world itself. It is a long, complicated setting spanning from coast to coast. Where those animals that aren’t feral are horribly mutated, like scorpions that grow to twice the size of a man, or a gecko that could literally breath fire. Society is made up of extremes, for would be democracies to the fascist remnants of the American government.
Fallout was and continues to be different from it’s contemporaries in the genre. Fallout’s story shares a world as if the sensibilities of the 1950’s never ended. The paranoia and jingoism so prevalent during those times lasted all the way up to 2070. The conservative nature of 1950s America pervades every inch of the games’ environment, from the old broken structures that surround the environment and advertisements for a new Handyman robot or Sugar Bombs Cereal, to the sensibilities of people and even the haircuts. Unlike other media in the post-apocalyptic genre, Fallout took an idea well beyond the modern end-of-days scenario. While the story it created was a satire of America and the American identity, it managed to create a fully fleshed out and believable post-apocalyptic world.
Choice was paramount in these games. Every action had a consequence, from a conversation soon turning bloody to a one-night stand leading to a shotgun wedding. Your actions had immediate effects on the people around you.
While video-game series of Fallout spans 18 years, the time from the first Fallout to the last game released spans over 120 years in game. It’s a lot of ground to cover, both figuratively and literally.
For this retrospective I will only talk about the major games in the series, so Fallout: Tactics is not represented. To avoid spoilers, this synopsis will only include the general beginning of the games and what they have done to become such an important video-game series.
Originally Developed and Published by Interplay Entertainment
What brilliance did the first Fallout enjoy. Set in 2161, 80 years after the nuclear wars, you play as “The Vault Dweller,” who for most of his/her life has lived in an underground vault, built to withstand the nuclear devastation. After the Vault’s water purification chip breaks, The Vault Dweller has 150 days to wander the wasteland of southern California searching for a replacement water chip in order to save the lives of the people still in the Vault. Later, the stakes of the game are raised to the survival of the rest of wasteland’s citizens.
What was so brilliant of this game was how it helped represent it’s harsh world. The RPG mechanics did not give you a sense of power, as many other RPG’s at the time did, but instead forced you to limit you character in certain ways in order to gain advantages you needed to survive. If you were strong and fast, it was necessary to take points out of something like intelligence or charisma. If you took too many points out of intelligence, for example, your character could only talk in grunts on wheezes. From the first part of the game, as soon as you exit the vault, you had the possibility of dying, like from attacks by mere radroaches.
The wasteland was vast, and travelling took days and was controlled over a world map. You could easily be picked off by a random bandit or radscorpion along the way. When you got to town, it was a sense of relief, only to quickly be brought up to a sense of anxiety, as most people did not necessarily like you.
Like the Vault Dweller, the player was just as naive about the world. You could go up to a stranger, ask them if they have ever heard of a water chip, and one poor dialogue choice later be gunned down in the street.
The writing was smart, the world engrossing, and it oozed with substance.
Fallout 2 (1998)
Originally Developed by Black Isle Studios and Published by Interplay Entertainment
The sequel, released little more than a year after the original, was an attempt to make the game much more expansive than the original. While they did achieve this, they also used many of the assets used in the first Fallout.
Taking place 80 years after the first game, you played as a direct descendant of the original Vault Dweller, now part of a tribal society called Arroyo. You are sent on a quest to recover the G.E.C.K, The Garden of Eden Creation Kit, said to be able to build life from the barren earth to help save your dying village.
There were major problems with the sequel that were majorly apparent even on the first playthrough. The opening tutorial level was almost too hard, and many players could not even get through it. While it was expected that Black Isle would use many resources from the original Fallout, everything in the environment felt a little too familiar. There were half the number of fully voiced NPC’s than the first game, and many parts just felt rushed.
But what Fallout 2 did was greatly expand the concepts of this post-apocalyptic world. In some ways it could be seen as a post-post apocalyptic game. Where the first game had burgeoning settlements and gangs of barely established pockets of people. This game had true cities like New-Reno, a hive of scum and villainy that truly deserves the title. There was Vault-City, a reclusive society of Vault dwellers who used their G.E.C.K to create a city that would not permit anybody inside except those they deemed “pure.”
And then the concepts were expanded. Not only did you have the fight between civilization and barbarity in a very Mad Max-vibe, now you had competing ideals. The New California Republic (NCR) was a blossoming democracy, while New Reno bathed in its depravity and anarchy.
Instead of keeping the setting the same, Fallout 2 showed that time will actually see progress, for better and for worse.
Fallout 3 (2008)
Developed by Bethesda Game Studio, Published by Bethesda Softworks
In the early 2000’s, Black Isle tried to create a new game in the franchise, a project they internally called “Project Van Buren.” When Interplay collapsed in 2003, the developers at Black Isle were let go, and the project was scrapped. It would be another year before Bethesda, the creators of the Elder Scrolls Series, would buy the IP and begin development on a new game.
Fallout 3 was a huge departure from the isometric top down perspective of the previous titles. Instead, the view transported to first person, and instead of an overworld map, the entire game world is navigable, like their previous Elder Scrolls games, with load times only occurring when entering certain areas or indoor environments.
Set instead on the east coast, in the Maryland and DC area, Fallout 3 is a much different creation compared to previous games. The story has less to do with the concept of humanity and human nature, and more to do with a humanity struggling to survive. The people in the DC wasteland have not seen nearly any of the developments that the west coast saw.
The main plot was hamfisted, and many story beats were scripted, which was a strange development for a series that prided itself on its system of choice and consequence. On the other hand, Fallout 3 enjoyed the most fantastic and well realized traversable wasteland. Every explorable nook and cranny held a small story, from the skeleton in a bathtub lying down with a toaster, or the mad man holding a pre-war village all to himself with the use of a sniper rifle and landmines. Exploring this games world made up for any other problems whether plot-wise or technical. Playing it today is still a singular massive experience.
The layout and design of the world is epic, and there are not many games that can make a player truly feel like one has entered another world.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Developed by Obsidian Entertainment, Published by Bethesda Softworks
Taking it back to the west coast, and helped by previous Black Isle developers like writer Chris Avellone, New Vegas takes place in the Mojave Desert, where the NCR, returning from Fallout 2, is at war with a new player, Caesar’s Legion.
Many of the ideas that were originally going to be used by Van Buren were present here, but instead of focusing on old southern California, the focus was on the titular “New Vegas” run by the overseeing Mr. House.
The tone of the game was pitch perfect, taking the 50’s sensibilities of old cowboy identity and pervading it in a land whose main landmark is home to general debauchery. The war between the NCR and Caesar’s Legion was full of interesting dilemmas and the conflict of competing philosophies. The NCR may be a haven from the dangers of the wasteland, but its totalitarian emphasis on control and its internal corruption shows a great ship with plenty of leaks. Meanwhile, Caesar’s Legion is a bloody dictatorship cutting a swathe across the wasteland, killing many in its wake, but instead of a democracy or a society based on consumerism, the legion wants to unite humanity under a society where people of the best ability rise to the top.
The story was interesting, and the tone was consistent throughout. The plot offered much more freedom than Fallout 3, and was much more coherent.
The main problem here was the worldmap. Essentially divided between east and west by a huge untraversable mountain range, the map just was not as much fun to explore. There wasn’t a story hidden around every corner, instead the most one could hope for was a mutated ghoul lurking around a corner. Because the area was so much more developed, any sense of lurking fear and wonder was diminished. Even inside New Vegas technical limitations meant there could only be a few NPCs walking around in what is supposed to be a bustling metropolis.
Now we are finally catching a glimpse and hints of Fallout 4. We know it is set in Boston, we know it has hints of a new faction, “The Commonwealth” and the mysterious “Institute.” In terms of actual story, we still have little idea what we are in store for.
For this new Fallout to truly improve on its predecessors, it would have to take into account what makes the Fallout series so interesting. It has always been a combination of freedom in a world destroyed by mankind. It’s story has to share a tone consistent with the rest of the series, and its plot should be more in tune with New Vegas and the first two Fallouts’. The stakes are high, so lets see if Bethesda can win out in the approaching apocalypse when the real details get released.