Boy, has Fallout changed! After playing the more recent entries in the series such as Fallout 3, 4 and New Vegas, one’s memory of how it all came to be can get a little fuzzy, so let’s take a trip back to 1997 and revisit one of the first great computer RPGs.
Fallout was a CRPG developed and released by Interplay Entertainment exactly 20 years ago today. Though at first it was supposed to be the direct sequel to 1988’s Wasteland, the licensing deal fell through and the creators had to settle on creating a spiritual successor instead. This turned out to be a boon for the dev team, however, as now they could get all kinds of creative with their own brand-new fictional post-apocalyptic universe, complete with its very own internal laws, settlements, factions, and political struggles. The people over at Interplay approached the whole world-building aspect of this new experience with all the love, care and attention it demanded and, as a result, they somehow managed to write a totally believable and consistent radiation-ridden version of Earth’s very own California.
Now, before we continue with why Fallout is so good, let’s all together partake in a quick Socratic exercise: “Suppose the USA was nuked in the year 2077, and you emerged 84 years later out of a vault designed to protect the American people from the resulting radiation, which can drastically warp any living creature’s body and even kill them. Few people remain of the past world, but they persevere and are hopeful. What state do you find the world in?”
Well, for starters, the people will undoubtedly be trying to rebuild civilization, however they might describe that term. There are probably going to be some people taking advantage of the chaos of the wasteland, some cult-like or religious formations, each with their valid views and flaws alike, and – most importantly – these formations would be in conflict with one another, looking to spread their philosophies to gain power, attract more followers and maybe even lead people to a path that they think is right — you know, like Jehova’s witnesses or something.
Fallout hits all of these nails right on the head, and adds so much depth to the general themes and concepts these suppositions open up. You’ve got the Brotherhood of Steel, who seek to hoard all works of technology to keep it from being mishandled again in humanity’s immature grasp, while hypocritically seeing themselves as above being kept from the gifts technology provides. The Children of the Cathedral are a religious cult set up by a grand post-war philosopher with a secret plan to advance humanity to what he believes is the next step in its evolution, without asking them how they would feel about such a transition. The Khans are blood-thirsty raiders looking to be the rulers of the wastes through use of sheer force and terrorism. The super mutants are “evolved” humans working under the big-bad of the game, the Master, looking to force humans into joining their cause for what they believe is the betterment of the species.
What’s more, Fallout’s world makes sense. The denizens of the scorched US soil live on corn and cabbage and acquire the water required to grow them either from nearby underground water sources or from the Water Merchants. The settlements are built in areas which used to house civilized life before the nuclear holocaust, where essential materials needed for sustaining a town are easily found. People and towns have wants and needs, the conditions for survival are believably tough, the air is think with nostalgia and melancholy but the people keep their head up anyway, knowing full well how lucky they are to still be alive — or perhaps secretly dreading their existence. If you’re still not sold in the coherence of this world, then let me quote a tiny snippet of text that shows up when the toilets in the public restroom in the town of Shady Sands is inspected: “A crude, but effective, toilet. There are some leaves dropped into the hole to manage the odor.” If that doesn’t scream ingenuity and believability, I don’t know what does.
We haven’t even touched upon the great degree of player freedom and expression presented by the game and the frankly mind-boggling number of endings which directly have to do with how you, the player, handle the tasks you’re given by the wasteland’s people of interest. You can spread your skill points in any fashion you wish into the iconic S.P.E.C.I.A.L stat system, and the game will always have something to say about it. You might want to play as a bumbling idiot, for example, and the game more than allows you to do so: If you put only 1 point into your Intelligence stat, your dialogue options will hilariously reflect that choice. Then there are the traits and perks which slightly change how you and the world around you function, such as the Bloody Mess trait which makes people and creatures die in the most horrifyingly gory ways conceivable.
Fallout also has a real-time aspect to it, so depending on how long you took in helping solve the world’s problems and completing your quests, certain settlements might end up being ravaged by the mutant threat in that time, or your vault might run out of water while you were messing around not accomplishing much. Certain missions can only be started or completed after a certain amount of time has passed between your actions. It takes a while to travel, and you can see how long you’re taking on the world map. The people will more often than not refuse to talk to you during the night, and certain creatures will only come out at certain times of the day. Not to mention the fact that the main quest of getting water flow back into your vault is set on a timer of 150 days. Not many other games have the balls to put a time strain on you the way Fallout does.
Fallout’s attention to detail in world-building, as well as the openness and reactivity of its setting, are what led the series to become such a longevous and profitable one. Though it was 2008’s Fallout 3 that introduced the series to mainstream audiences and breathed new life into it, if it weren’t for the incredibly strong blueprint provided by the first game, then the Fallout name would simply be another piece of ash, drifting in the sere, radiant winds of the grand wasteland.