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Fallout Shack: Remembering…Fallout

Fallout

Various circumstances led to the inception of the classic post-nuclear RPG, Fallout, but the most important was the innovation of its spiritual predecessor, 1988’s Wasteland. Interplay founder Brian Fargo had brought together a team of notable RPG creators to produce a game that would reinvigorate the genre itself. Wasteland took place in the ravaged deserts of South western America after a heated argument between the U.S and Soviet Russia ended up turning all nuclear bomby. Players commanded a squad of Desert Rangers as they negotiated the resultant hostile environment. What set Wasteland apart from other RPGs was not only its non-fantasy setting, but also a multitude of innovative in-game mechanics. Problems encountered by the Rangers could be solved in a variety of ways, NPCs could be hired onto the team and leave of their own volition, detailed and darkly comical depictions of violence occurred and finally, the results of any altercation actually factored into the world itself. Thus, Wasteland was a principal example of one of the first persistent environments; a ground-breaking idea at the time.

“The resulting game took everything that was great about Wasteland, expanded and added to it then became one of the greatest and most beloved RPGs of all-time”Some years after Wasteland, Fargo set about creating a sequel, but Electronic Arts owned the game’s IP, so Vault 13: A GURPS Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Game was conceived. A highly-qualified, eight-man team run by Feargus Urquhart was put together and work began on the Wasteland follow-up in 1995. GURPS (genre lynchpin Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal Role-Playing System) was ultimately dropped after a conflict of tastes and Vault 13 was later changed to Armageddon before Fallout was finally settled on as a matter of ease (Interplay was also developing a title named Armageddon that would ultimately be cancelled). The resulting game took everything that was great about Wasteland, expanded and added to it, went on to become one of the greatest RPGs of all-time whilst simultaneously birthing what would become a gaming franchise behemoth.

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Gamers’ first experience of Fallout’s unique tone was found within its unforgettable intro. This bleak prologue showed events leading to an alternate history’s World War III, as the Ink Spot’s haunting song ‘Maybe’ played in the background. The camera steadily back-tracked to reveal the screen showing the events was within a crumbling cityscape – the events depicted onscreen having long since passed and left only lifeless desolation in their wake. Gravel-voiced actor Ron Perlman then proceeded to give a brief background to this alternate history, delivering the lines like he’d lived through the cataclysm himself.

Following this captivating introduction, players were then exposed to Fallout’s distinct aesthetic, which harked back to the insidious cheerfulness of 1950s Americana, with a sci-fi edge brought about by rapid technological advances. The chirpy-looking Vault Boy character adorned various menus and graphics, adding a cartoonish feel to proceedings that slightly offset the game’s harrowing subject matter. Once players began a new game, they were invited to perform that most cherished RPG task: creating their character. The customisation had so much scope that you could spend hours configuring and re-configuring until you’d created an accurate vision of what you thought would survive the upcoming adventure, then go back and start from scratch just because it was so enjoyable. You did have the option to select pre-made characters, but this was strictly for people with no personality. The ousted GURPS stats system was replaced by S.P.E.C.I.A.L (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck), you were bestowed with 18 different skill sets and were also given the option to take two traits. Everything selected at this stage would have an intrinsic effect on your experience of the game; these weren’t meaningless numbers, but factors which often meant the difference between life and death. Plus, you got to select all these things on a screen that was made up of the most post-apocalyptic colours known to man: brown, yellow and green.

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“You did have the option to select pre-made characters, but this was strictly for people with no personality.”As Perlman had explained, your character’s family had survived the nuclear holocaust by managing to take shelter in a subterranean vault. The game began proper with the vault’s overseer (voiced by the late Kenneth Mars) informing you that the vault’s water-chip had, somewhat catastrophically, packed in – so he was sending you out into the wasteland to locate another chip and quench your fellow vault-dwellers’ increasingly desperate thirst. This main quest had a time-limit of 150 game days which gave it a legitimate sense of urgency; no matter what you were doing it was always in the back of your mind. However, most of the game’s other quests were much more fun and immediately gratifying, and obtaining money (in the form of bottle caps) and experience relatively quickly was essential in progressing through the game’s many challenges. If you didn’t, you’d die…badly as Fallout was/is hard. It barely gave you anything for free and if you found yourself suddenly out of your depth in an unfortunate ‘random encounter’, the game would take pleasure in smashing you with a gargantuan fist of insurmountable odds. Without spoiling too much of the game’s plot, some of the mini-quests including rescuing a village elder’s daughter from raider-enslavement, uncovering the mysterious disappearance of travelling caravans, getting an obese gangster to confess to ordering a hit on tape and exterminating various hordes of mutated creatures.

Despite its dated graphics engine, the level of detail the game presented in other areas is still impressive to this day. Fallout adopted Wasteland’s persistent environment mechanic so that the way in which you completed quests had a lasting effect in the game’s world. You could often choose to complete quests in a good/evil manner, which then offered countless replays to uncover their different outcomes. In many quests, being evil was often easier than choosing the path of righteousness, for instance, when negotiating with the Khan Raiders, you could either prove your sinister mettle to their leader by executing two female slaves, or do the right thing and execute the entire camp, or thirdly – be ambivalent and get the hell out of there. Then there were countless, easy-to-miss, brilliant touches like the text descriptions as you moved the cursor over the environment. Short descriptions of what you were looking at such as ‘You see rocks, but no matter how hard you stare, you fail to move them,’ acted as self-referential in-jokes that were delivered to your eyes via the knowing wit of the talented scriptwriters. Then there was the detail of the game’s memorable locations, placed throughout a map of what was once Southern California. There were only 12, which by today’s standards isn’t much, but where it may have been lacking in quantity, Fallout had bona fide quality in abundance.

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“The evocative and layered compositions always added further depth and the finishing touches of character to whichever location they accompanied.”Ranging from simple villages such as Shady Sands, broken-down vaults, raider camps, pre-war military bases and a few towns (of note was the wreckage-walled Junktown, where you could recruit a loyal canine, Dogmeat, provided you fed him an Iguana on a stick or were wearing a Mad Max style one-armed leather jacket!), all the locations had their own character and atmosphere. This was achieved through their overall aesthetic, inhabitants and NPCs, the attitude of their townsfolk, their local history and their accompanying soundtrack. Mark Morgan’s soundtrack is an audio masterwork that perfectly complimented the game’s dark world and gave life to its locations. Sometimes it was overbearing and sometimes it was subtle, you’d barely notice but it was absorbed into your subconscious whether you realised it or not. And if you were to be clumsy enough as to accidently render the music inaudible (of course I have!) then you’d realise that Fallout’s soundtrack was indisputably integral to the experience. Without it, the pleasure of playing the game is reduced significantly. The evocative and layered compositions always added further depth and the finishing touches of character to whichever location they accompanied. Without ‘City Of The Dead’ playing out in the background as you explored it, The Necropolis wouldn’t have been as dangerously eerie, whilst the hustle and bustle of The Hub’s ‘A Trader’s Life’ greeted your presence like an old audio-friend.

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The game was innovative in all of the above ways but one of its biggest appeals was its fundamental concept: you were a lone-wolf badass who roamed the desert taking down bad-guys like the hero (or vice-versa if you were a villain) in a classic Western. You shot at hideous monsters with a range of nifty weaponry, and if this in itself wasn’t appealing enough then you could also shoot them specifically in their eyes and genitals. Indeed, the turn-based combat sequences allowed you to target individual parts of the opponent’s entire structure and aiming for the eyes, head or groin often caused a critical hit, hopefully blowing entire chunks out of your enemy in the process.This mechanic was of course very violent, but it also boasted a dark sense of humour which took it beyond simple gore-worship. Where else, for instance, would you ever see a description that read ‘Greater Mole Rat was critically hit in the head for 41 hit points, squashing the rodent’s skull like a wet paper bag’ or ‘Raider was hit in the groin for 34 hit points, her childbearing days are in trouble as she collapses in a heap’? The optical and genital targeting has been noticeably omitted from the new generation of Fallout games and it’s a crying shame. A punctured eyeball and ruptured scrotum of a shame. Another, broadly darker and humourless aspect that’s been removed from the series is the possibility of murdering children; a divisive subject that’s spawned entire articles in its own right.

“if this in itself wasn’t appealing enough then you could also shoot them specifically in their eyes and genitals.”

Despite its overt awesomeness, the patriarch of the Fallout series unfortunately suffered from the same digital affliction as its subsequent offspring has: bugs. It was massively disheartening to successfully complete a mini-quest, often at great cost, arrive back at the quest-giving character’s door expecting to be given a slap on the back and a hefty reward, only for them to have absolutely no idea who you were or what you were doing there. It wasn’t very difficult to inadvertently invert the game’s continuity and end up having to reload it, thinking you’d somehow messed up when it was simply down to a dastardly bug, or six.

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In spite of this minor flaw, Fallout is an true classic that’s still highly playable in this post-modern world of next-gen graphics and quick-fix obsessed diminished attention spans. It was the masterful realisation of an innovative vision, bringing together a set of genre-advancing ideas, rewarding exploration, hilarious dialogue, violent action, well-paced character progression, fearsome enemies and a decent story all within an original and compelling world. There will never be another RPG as special as Fallout, its era has been and gone but its legacy lives on through those who adore it and the subsequent series it spawned, leaving a trail back to itself, rewarding those curious enough to track it down with one of the most supreme gaming experiences ever conceived.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2009. Get in touch on Twitter @p_etew.

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