Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thoughts on Fallout

It was announced this week that the next installment in the Fallout series will take place in Las Vegas. But that's not what has the gaming world jumping for joy. The stand alone (i.e. not a sequel to Bethesda-developed Fallout 3) is in development at Obsidian.

Most of the crew at Obsidian came from Black Isle. Black Isle developed the original Fallout and is renowned among us long-timers as one of the best houses ever. They stand alongside BioWare and LucasArts (in their golden age) as one of the development houses that could do no wrong, and Fallout was their crown jewel. Knowing that they get to take another crack at the universe they created fills me with joy.

I have never played Fallout 3 but I have very little interest in doing so. For starters, I don't even remotely have 100 hours of my life to sink into a game anymore. Just doesn't exist for me. Second, Bethesda developed it. I've tried both of their last role playing games (Morrowind and Oblivion) and found them both lacking narrative cohesion and soul.

What they DIDN'T lack was a robust engine that the mod community could go wild on, and in both cases it was six to eight months post release when that same community added a crucial element to both games: Fun. This is the reason why I think Bethesda and id Software both should lay off building games and focus on building engines. But if members of the original Black Isle team were let loose in the Fallout world again, then that might be something genuinely special.

My Fair Lady and I can't discuss games. I mean she'll put forth an effort to banter with me about the latest LEGO game, and she's grown accustomed to my late night gaming, but she doesn't have the history with it that I do. Nor do I have the history with marching band that she does. She played the bass clarinet, and when we were at a concert recently she was stunned that someone was switching in mid-piece between bass clarinet and contra-bass clarinet. A thousand years from now I still wouldn't have the slightest clue what the hell that means. But the Fallout universe means a lot to me, more so than I have ever let on to anyone and here's why.

I didn't go crazy for the original Fallout when I played it. I had a complete and revelatory emotional experience throughout it, and I only played it once. Just once. I put it down after that and never went back. I skipped the sequel a few years later because despite picking up 80 years later, I just couldn't bring myself to go back into that world. Why? Because the story was finished. More than that.

It was complete.

Your character starts out in an underground Vault built before the bombs dropped. At some point, nuclear holocaust struck the world and it did so during the 1950s. Technology advanced with that mindset and the results were simultaneously strange and hilarious. Fallout's now legendary opening cinematic established a tone that combined gallows humor, optimism, and a shocking level of sorrow and pathos all in a single shot.

Once you've established your character's stats, you leave in search of a replacement microchip for the Vault's water supply. This part of your quest is ultimately resolved sooner rather than later, but it opens your eyes to a post-apocalyptic world filled with as many possibilities as there are corpses.

During my playthrough, I first encountered a mangy dog aptly named Dogmeat near a decayed border town. Dogmeat joined me on my quest and the two of us set off across the desert. Eventually we entered another town where a firefight ensued. This resulted in another companion aiding us, though his name escapes me. He was a tall man in a black leather jacket. Those are the only details I can clearly see through the haze of memory. But the three of us journeyed across the land, eventually coming into contact with a race of super mutants.

These things were massive. You have to, for a moment, bring your mind back to the world of graphics in the late 1990s. When I say "massive" I mean in terms of the isometric viewpoint of the world. These things were twice as big as a man, and four times uglier. They were large, green, vicious creatures who routinely carried heavier artillery than would fit in my backpack.

We came upon a burned out settlement. The rusted and ramshackle buildings, the ones left standing, were missing entire sections of roof. You could see just enough hallway to get a feel for the building, but in my gamer youth I failed to understand that it wasn't what I could see - but what I couldn't see.

A couple of mutants exited the buildings and came right at us. The way combat was handled was via allocation of move and attack points. We could move X amount of spaces but that might deduct from the Y amount of attack points, thus affecting range and amount of damage. Fallout was my first genuinely tactical game, in more than one sense, and you really had to invent a new strategy for each encounter.

For this one, the three of us made short work of a mutant we caught outside the buildings. I sent the man in black ahead to check out another building while Dogmeat and I fended off a mutant on our right flank. We brought down the beast, but both of us were dangerously low on move points. It was then that the man in black reached a long hallway that was missing a section of roof, thus allowing me a perfect view.

It was then that I realized I couldn't see the end of the long hallway that the man in black stood in the middle of.

All of a sudden a large mutant wielding the biggest flame thrower I'd ever seen stepped around the shadowed corner. He locked on to the man in black and squeezed the trigger. In my dreams that night I honestly heard the man scream as the flames engulfed the hallway. Dogmeat and I only had enough move points to retreat. My last save was an hour or so previous. The man in black stayed where he fell.

Eventually Dogmeat and I encountered a long-buried outpost in the desert that was a previous nuclear research facility. From what I recall (keeping in mind it's been over 10 years since I played) it was where one of the missiles launched from. It was filled with cutting edge technology - powered suits of armor, heavy artillery, laser doors, and a heavy amount of radiation. We dared not linger. It was close to the finale (play enough games and you can always sense when the final battle draws near) and I was anxious for my adventures to come to a close. Too anxious as it turned out.

I moved through the facility trying to exit in a hurry and that's when we came to a laser door, the last one on the way out. I moved when it was open and could see the light of the exit. Dogmeat's move points, however, were just enough to land him in the doorway as the laser closed cutting him in half. Again, my previous saves were useless. We'd braved an evil and deadly wilderness together and in my haste I'd managed to kill my most loyal companion inside a pit where no one would ever find him. I pressed on to the end. Alone. Openly grieving.

Only to encounter a relatively weak-ass ultimate boss that you can basically talk into self destructing. It's more complicated than that, but not by a whole lot. It didn't matter. Even with the world saved, my friends were dead and at least one I felt genuinely responsible for. Their deaths hurt, genuinely hurt, me. Then I returned to the Vault, my expedition a success in terms of goals accomplished.

It was then the Vault Leader turned me away. I was told my exposure to the world outside the Vault would doom its inhabitants, or some such nonsense. I could barely contain my rage. All of it was for the Vault. Everything I'd done, all the lives I'd saved or ended, all of it was so my character could return home and this bureaucrat stood there and had the audacity to tell me no. I was livid.

Then an in-game cinematic kicked in. The Vault Leader turned his back to me to re-enter the Vault. My character calmly drew out my shotgun and fired, blowing the pin-head in half. My jaw hit the ground in utter disbelieving shock. The game faded into a minor epilogue selling me that my character went west and established another settlement, but my mind could only focus on the bloody remains of the Vault Leader who denied me at the exact wrong time to do so. I've come to find out that this ending is not exactly rare but pretty darn close.

I've never played it sense and all others are pale imitations. But if Obsidian can deliver even half of the absorbing drama of a world without rules, a world filled to the brim with ghoulish humor, unexpected scenarios, and one emotional wallop after another, then I'm in.

Even if it takes 100 hours. I'll find a way, because an experience like this comes along once every so often. People have questioned why I'm as hard nosed a critic as I am, and I explain it is because I've played everything and nothing surprises me. This is only half right. The other half I can't explain because I would go through a story like I just told for Fallout and Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate II and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and have to patiently explain why each and every one rocked me to my core for different reasons.

But I may just do that in future posts devoted to those games individually that genuinely captured me. Stay tuned...

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