Game Design: A Tale of Two Fallouts
by Dave Astle

After spending most of the weekend immersed in Fallout 2, I could not help but reflect on WHY this game is so addictive. And, since this as-yet unwritten column of mine has been nagging at me since we launched the site, I thought I might as well share my musings here. Since we are a game development site, I will also look at what lessons we can learn in designing our own games.

An iguana-on-a-stick of a different color

Unless you have been living in a cave, then you know that the dominant computer game genre over the last several years has been first-person shooters, followed closely by real-time strategy games. In fact, it seems like EVERYONE is making one or the other, or even both. Given the overwhelming success of games like the Quake franchise, Starcraft, Total Annihilation, and others, it is understandable that developers want to get a piece of the pie. However, I, for one, think that both of these genres are starting to get stale. There a few exceptional games, but for the most part, games of these genres now bore me.

Which is why games like Fallout 1 and 2 are a breath of fresh air. For those of you who may not be familiar with the series, Fallout is an RPG set in post-apocalyptic Southwestern America, loosely based on the classic RPG Wastelands. They use 2D graphics, with an isometric perspective, and turn-based combat sequences.

None of these characteristics meet the formula that so many publishers are following for games today:

  • Until recently, there has been a dearth of good role-playing games, and even the good ones don't typically sell as well as FPS or RTS games. There are exceptions, of course, like Diablo, but in general, developers seem afraid to risk the resources needed to build an RPG.
  • Most games now use 3D graphics, even when 2D graphics would work as well, or even better, for gameplay purposes.
  • Real-time vs. turn-based combat does not even seem to be an issue anymore. Games using turn-based combat are hard to find, although they make for a distinguished list (Civilization and Heroes of Might and Magic, for example).
So, the Fallout games are definitely different from the standard fare today. If you want to make a game that stands out, making it different from everything else is a good start. But it is not enough to just be different.

Elves? We don't need no stinkin' elves

When people say role-playing game, the images that come to mind are of dungeons, magic, swords, and dragons. But a role-playing game is just that: a game in which you play a role, and there is no rule anywhere that says that that role has to be a warrior, wizard, or thief. I think there is a great untapped potential out there for non-fantasy RPGs, and Fallout certainly takes advantage of it.

In addition, Fallout 1 and 2 are much closer to a true RPG, than, say, Diablo. The use of skills, traits, perks, karma, and attributes makes it possible to develop a wide variety of characters, from a brawler, to a sniper, to a con-man, to a seducer, etc. And there is no reason that your seducer can't also be a bad-ass with a laser gatling, either, as long as you have the skill points to spend on it. Best of all, the folks at Black Isle Studios went to great pains creating multiple solutions to ensure that regardless of what type of character you choose to play, you will be able to complete most of the quests. Because of this flexibility, I played the first game all the way through five times, each time as a different character type, and enjoyed each as much as the first.

So, Fallout takes a dead genre and adds to it by avoiding linearity and by breaking free of the fantasy stereotype. But the hook is yet to come.

That's an impressive left-hook you have, ma'am

If I had to pick one word that defines why Fallout 1 and 2 belong among the elite ranks of great games, it would be atmosphere. From the opening strains of Fallout 1ís theme song "Maybe" and the black-and-white filmstrip in the introduction movie, Fallout pulls you in and won't let go. The sharp contrast between the Americana of the 50s and the barren post-apocalyptic wasteland creates a rich, dark atmosphere that is fascinating.

So how do you create atmosphere like this? Well, I don't think this is something that can be easily taught, but I think it requires a combination of vision and details. You have to have the vision of the world you want to create, and you have to know it well enough that you can include details in the game that convey that vision. These details will include things that do not contribute to the gameplay or storyline at all. Things such as the choice of theme music, the look of the world, and the types of items you can find are all important in the creation of atmosphere. The simple choice to make some of the movie sequences in Fallout black-and-white made a big difference in the feeling of the game. Another good example is the fact that even NPCs who do not enter full conversation mode with you usually have a half-dozen different phrases that pop up over their heads when you talk to them, and these can change depending on circumstances. In New Reno, you can become a prizefighter, and if you defeat all your opponents, people on the streets start talking about how much they bet on you, or how good your left-hook is. Very cool.

In focusing on details, there are a couple of things that you should keep in mind to make the game truly great: humor and Easter eggs.

Elvis has left the planet

Although humor may not appropriate for all games, it seldom goes unappreciated. Certainly, the dark world of Fallout - with ruined cities, organized crime, drug use, prostitution, and hired murder - would be very depressing if not for the generous helping of humor they serve along with it. Both Fallouts are abundant with Easter eggs. When wandering through the desert, you can encounter a downed spacecraft, and inside it is a velvet Elvis. You can also encounter Arthur's knights, searching for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The last boxer you face as a prizefighter is Masticator Mike, infamous for once biting his opponent's ear off. A lot of the Easter eggs are in random desert encounters, which gives another reason to replay the game, since you are very unlikely to encounter more than a few of them in any given game.

Back to the Vault

To sum up, Fallout 1 and 2 are great games because they break the trend by using a less-saturated genre, they refine that genre and do things with it that have never really been done before, and they create a rich, interesting, and compelling world that is both dark and humorous. The lessons to be learned? Try to be different. Try to do something that has never been done before, either by revisiting genres that have not been used well lately, or by creating genre-busting games. And then make sure you pay attention to the details, so that your game is full and robust. And, since these are GAMES, and people play them to have FUN, go ahead and throw in some humor.

And now, my super-mutant buddy and I have a score to settle with a certain drug lord...

Myopic Rhino

By the way, if you want to know more about Fallout, head on over to No Mutants Allowed.

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Date this article was posted to 11/23/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Dissection and Analysis

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